The scholars and experts were having a hearty discussion on Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching in Tao Speaks a fortnight ago, but one could not jump into the deep end since I was unsure why Laozi differentiated higher from lower virtue and mentioned that foreknowledge was the beginning of stupidity. Although one would like to think that Laozi was talking about sincerity in the chapter, without rendering a translation of TTC 38, one could not know what he actually meant.
Translating the chapter was not difficult but trying to tie up the words with various available translations on the web took a while longer. TTC 38 contains 129 Chinese words is quite lengthy and discusses virtues therefore few translators actually captured its essence and true meaning. Certain translations had omitted original words and/or made meanings obscure. Perhaps this helps explain why earnest Daoist students who have read numerous TTC translations do not comprehend what is required for cultivation to return to Tao?
However if readers find my translation of TTC 38 differs much from what they understand or from what their teachers taught them; please take the translation with a pinch of salt, as always. Without further ado, this may be what Laozi wanted to say with TTC 38:
Higher virtue not virtuous therefore possesses virtue
Lower virtue does not lose virtue therefore has no virtue.
Higher virtue (requires) no action [Wu Wei] or motives for action
Lower virtue (requires) action [Wei] and motives for action.
Higher benevolence [Ren] acts with no motives for action
Higher righteousness/justice [Yi] acts with motives for action
Higher propriety [Li] acts and upon finding no response, he seizes the other’s arm to throw it (at the person).
When Dao was lost, the ancients left behind virtue
When virtue was lost they left behind benevolence
When benevolence was lost they left behind righteousness
Losing righteousness they left behind propriety.
Those who manage propriety for face hold loyalty and trust in disdain
With foreknowledge clear, the Dao flowers, yet foolish was its beginning.
Therefore the great man [Da Ren] correctly dwells in substance and not resides in the thin.
Dwells in the fruit and not reside with the flower.
Thus the ancients remove that and choose this.
Apparently in this chapter, Laozi introduced a ‘new’ virtue in the first two paragraphs and expanded on the cardinal virtues of Ren Yi Li Zhi described in TTC 18. Those familiar with the Shujing (Book of History) may recognize what Laozi wanted to say about the ‘additional’ virtue. No one can cling to Sincerity (Zheng) as it comes from the heart. Does sincerity require any action or motive for action?
When people act out of genuine kindness (Ren), there is no need for a motive for action. Real justice (Yi) has to be dealt with for a reason; either to help the weak and/or to punish the wicked. Ancient customs (Li) can be adapted to suit different circumstances and modern times, is there ever a need to insist upon following the same old rituals every time? (Not unlike commentaries in the Zhouyi.)
With the fall from Tao, sincerity arose, and then benevolence followed by righteousness and propriety. (The ancients left behind clues to those with wisdom (Zhi) to return to Tao if they can see the unwinding and winding for the far journey.)
There are many (during ancient and modern times) who display propriety for face value and not out of loyalty and trust. For example, a bow to a master had become customary and may not be because of respect or loyalty. Clear foreknowledge is required for the flowering of the Tao, yet at the beginning there was foolishness. Starting out with stupidity, the earnest neidan student can one day become an adept who will see the flowering of Tao eventually.
The Da Ren correctly dwells in substance and chooses the fruit (instead of the flower) which eventually leads to the attainment of Tao. To conclude TTC 38, Laozi provided this verse to show the correct way to cultivation.