Chapter 21 on Te and the multitude


Looks like I won’t be able to attend the gathering this Sunday. I have to go to a memorial for a friend of the family. But just so you know I’ve done my homework and I feel like this is such an important chapter, I wanted to share this:

Chapter 21 starts out with “opening” of 德 Te: moral character, integrity, virtue or other possible translations.

I think it is no coincidence that this follows chapter 20 which has a very subjective point of view and ends with “feeding the mother”. I can see how the one thought flows into the other.

Te and Tao are clearly the two main concepts the TTC is trying to convey. This is the second time Te has been mentioned in the TTC, once before in Chapter 10. I think Te is a more difficult concept to grasp then Tao. I also think it is more subjective.

I don’t like any of the words generally used to translate Te (moral character, integrity, or virtue) because our general usage denotes a value judgment for all these words. And I don’t think the TTC really ever tries to lay down value judgments.

I’ve read one analysis of 德 or Te which struck a cord, (I’d like to use the hyperlink but the link is about 4 lines and it doesn’t seem to shorten it) it describes 德 as having three components; 1. a group of people walking slowly 2. the symbol for eye 3. the symbol for heart.

So I’m left more with a sense that Te has something to do with our subjective empathy within a larger group of people. So this helps make “feeding the mother” rather than “feeding from the mother” fit a lot better. It also speaks to our natural tendency to want to control the circumstances that we can observe with our own eyes. Where Tao tries to help us remember to let it be.

It is also interesting to note how similar the second part of this chapter is when you compare it to the second part of chapter 20, where the “I” talks about not being able to see clearly or distinctly.

The last part, is my favorite, and I think it refers back to the indistinct nature of Tao just previously described. For my own help I have written as: “We have taken its shape. How can we tell its shape? We are the shape of it”.

From word for word: “Its reputation never left because of the experience of the multitude.
Why do I know the multitude are of just this condition?
Because of this.”



Te is a more difficult concept to grasp then Tao. I also think it is more subjective.

Yes. One person’s Te is another person’s deficiency. Reminds me of chapter 2’s All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already. I see this and other passages throughout is how the Tao Te Ching attempts to neutralize the inherent bias in words.

I’d like to use the hyperlink but the link is about 4 lines and it doesn’t seem to shorten it.

You can insert the link in a few words, as I did above with the link to chapter 2. I certainly agree that empathy lies at the heart of virtue. Of course, maybe some Jains take it a little too far, at least in action.

That is an excellent interpretation of the last lines. That tells me our feeble and bio-hoodwinked mind can be capable of seeing beyond itself. Kind of like the end of chapter 16:

Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.

(Note how these lines are linked to 16. The 4th button from the left is the one that links URL’s.)


Thanks Carl, just a little confused on the hyperlinks because it doesn’t show a preview until after you have finalized your comment.


Sorry you’re not going to be there to discuss this chapter with us on Sunday, Kirk. For me, the word that comes closest to the character de (or te) is kindness. As you said, “our subjective empathy within a larger group of people.”