Chapter 51 – M is For . . .
The Tao gives birth to all of creation.
The virtue of Tao in nature nurtures them,
and their families give them their form.
Their environment then shapes them into completion.
That is why every creature honors the Tao and its virtue.
No one tells them to honor the Tao and its virtue,
it happens all by itself.
So the Tao gives them birth,
and its virtue cultivates them,
cares for them,
gives them a place of refuge and peace,
helps them to grow and shelters them.
It gives them life without wanting to possess them,
and cares for them expecting nothing in return.
It is their master, but it does not seek to dominate them.
This is called the dark and mysterious virtue.
Translated by J. H. McDonald (1996)
This chapter has happened to come up for consideration during the week before Mother’s Day, and that couldn’t be more fitting. From earlier chapters we know that the “Divine Feminine” is an aspect of the Tao and that the Tao is the force which gives birth to the One – which creates the Two, which creates the Three, which gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things. The Tao is the Mother of all creation.
Here, the concept is expanded to give a glimpse of the Te (the Virtue) of that creative force. I am going to use the term “Virtue” here because it is easier for us to understand in English than is “Te.” However, it should be recognized that this concept of “Virtue” differs from the more common definition which says that is virtuous which conducts itself according to high standards of morality. The Virtue Lao Tzu is presenting in this chapter is instilled within and pervades all things, whether they be seen as morally good or bad or even as a plant or animal or protozoan that would not be thought of as capable of making moral decisions or taking moral actions.
Aristotle spoke of “virtue” as a “golden mean” in which a trait is exhibited without excess or deficiency. In a sense, that concept is something like the Virtue of the Tao, but it does not go far enough. Aristotle was looking primarily at personal traits and personal virtues.
It would be perhaps convenient to say that the Virtue of the Tao is the “spark” that imbues all creation and each aspect of it with the appropriate essence* because the first lines tell us that it is this Virtue that “nurtures” things before they are given form by their “families” and the “environment.” However, this Virtue must be more than that. Lao Tzu says it is a “dark and mysterious Virtue.” As I pointed out above, it is a concept beyond the standard definition of “virtue.” It is something which gives things life without any desire to possess them; which cares for its creation without seeking anything in return; and which is the master of all, but wishes to dominate nothing. Thus, it is a personal and trans-personal force.
A famous poem written by a gentleman named Howard Johnson in 1915** tells us:
“M” is for the many things she gave me,
“O” means only that she’s growing old,
“T” is for the tears she shed to save me,
“H” is for her heart of purest gold,
“E” is for her eyes, with love-light shining,
“R” means right, and right she’ll always be,
Them all together they spell
A word that means the world to me.
That word is sort of like the dark and mysterious Virtue mentioned in this chapter. Maybe one day we can write our own poem for “Tao” or “Te”: “T” is for …. For now, this one will do.
My mother passed from this world back in 2010, but I would still like to wish her and any other mother who may read this a very Happy Mother’s Day!
* I am not going to discuss the idea of the form and essence of things here. It is an interesting intellectual exercise, but is beyond the scope of this essay.
** At least that is the information returned from a quick internet search.