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The Tao Te Ching – also known as Daode Jing – is an ancient Chinese text purportedly written by Laozi, aka Lao Tzu, a mystical 6th century philosopher and sage.
Even though rather brief – merely 81 chapters – and, at times, almost impenetrable – who knows how many books have been written to interpret it – the Tao Te Ching is widely considered one of the most important Chinese philosophical works ever written.
In addition, it is also one of the most translated works in world literature.
After summarizing it a few days ago, inspired by the interest for that article, we decided to provide you with a selection of the 100 most enlightening and thought-provoking quotes from this magnificient book.
We used the translations, selection and categorization by noted sinologist Herbert Allan Giles (from the book Gems of Chinese Literature) as a foundation for our choice.
Hopefully, you’ll like it.
Tao Te Ching Quotes on Tao, Humility, Government and Himself
#1. The Spiritual and the Material Aspect of Tao (20 Quotes)
The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao; the name which can be uttered is not its eternal name. Without a name, it is the Beginning of Heaven and Earth; with a name, it is the Mother of all things.
Only one who is eternally free from earthly passions can apprehend its spiritual essence; he who is ever clogged by passions can see no more than its outer form.
These two things, the spiritual and the material, though we call them by different names, in their origin are one and the same. This sameness is a mystery—the mystery of mysteries. It is the gate of all spirituality.
How unfathomable is Tao! It seems to be the ancestral progenitor of all things. How pure and clear is Tao! It would seem to be everlasting. I know not of whom it is the offspring. It appears to have been anterior to any Sovereign Power.
Tao eludes the sense of sight, and is therefore called colorless. It eludes the sense of hearing, and is therefore called soundless. It eludes the sense of touch, and is therefore called incorporeal. These three qualities cannot be apprehended, and hence they may be blended into unity.
The mightiest manifestations of active force flow solely from Tao.
From of old until now, its name has never passed away. It watches over the beginning of all things. How do I know this about the beginning of things? Through Tao.
As soon as Tao creates order, it becomes nameable. When it once has a name, men will know how to rest in it. Knowing how to rest in it, they will run no risk of harm.
Tao as it exists in the world is like the great rivers and seas which receive the streams from the valleys.
The whole world will flock to him who holds the mighty form of Tao. They will come and receive no hurt, but find rest, peace, and tranquility.
Not visible to the sight, not audible to the ear, in its use it is inexhaustible.
Retrogression is the movement of Tao. Weakness is the character of Tao.
All things under Heaven derive their being from Tao in the form of Existence; Tao in the form of Existence sprang from Tao in the form of Non-Existence.
Tao is a great square with no angles, a great vessel which takes long to complete, a great sound which cannot be heard, a great image with no form.
Tao lies hid and cannot be named, yet it has the power of transmuting and perfecting all things.
Tao produces all things; its Virtue nourishes them; its Nature gives them form; its Force perfects them.
Hence there is not a single thing but pays homage to Tao and extols its Virtue. This homage paid to Tao, this extolling of its Virtue, is due to no command, but is always spontaneous.
Thus it is that Tao, engendering all things, nourishes them, develops them, and fosters them; perfects them, ripens them, tends them, and protects them.
It is the Way of Heaven not to strive, and yet it knows how to overcome; not to speak, and yet it knows how to obtain a response; it calls not, and things come of themselves; it is slow to move, but excellent in its designs.
Heaven’s net is vast; though its meshes are wide, it lets nothing slip through.
The Tao of Heaven has no favorites. It gives to all good men without distinction.
Things wax strong and then decay. This is the contrary of Tao. What is contrary to Tao soon perishes.
#2. Tao as a Moral Principle (20 Quotes)
The highest goodness is like water, for water is excellent in benefiting all things, and it does not strive. It occupies the lowest place, which men abhor. And therefore, it is near akin to Tao.
When your work is done and fame has been achieved, then retire into the background; for this is the Way of Heaven.
Those who follow the Way desire not excess; and thus, without excess they are forever exempt from change.
He who acts in accordance with Tao, becomes one with Tao. He who treads the path of Virtue becomes one with Virtue. He who pursues a course of Vice becomes one with Vice. The man who is one with Tao, Tao is also glad to receive. The man who is one with Virtue, Virtue is also glad to receive. The man who is one with Vice, Vice is also glad to receive.
He who is self-approving does not shine. He who boasts has no merit. He who exalts himself does not rise high. Judged according to Tao, he is like remnants of food or a tumor on the body–an object of universal disgust. Therefore, one who has Tao will not consort with such.
Ceremonies are the outward expression of inward feelings.
If Tao perishes, then Virtue will perish; if Virtue perishes, then Charity will perish; if Charity perishes, then Duty to one’s neighbor will perish; if Duty to one’s neighbor perishes, then Ceremonies will perish.
Ceremonies are but the veneer of loyalty and good faith, while oft-times the source of disorder. Knowledge of externals is but a showy ornament of Tao, while oft-times the beginning of imbecility.
Therefore, the truly great man takes his stand upon what is solid, and not upon what is superficial; upon what is real, and not upon what is ornamental. He rejects the latter in favor of the former.
He who is enlightened by Tao seems wrapped in darkness. He who is advanced in Tao seems to be going back. He who walks smoothly in Tao seems to be on a rugged path.
If Tao prevails on earth, horses will be used for purposes of agriculture. If Tao does not prevail, war-horses will be bred on the common.
If we had sufficient knowledge to walk in the Great Way, what we should most fear would be boastful display.
The Great Way is very smooth, but the people love the by-paths.
Where the palaces are very splendid, there the fields will be very waste, and the granaries very empty.
The wearing of gay embroidered robes, the carrying of sharp swords, fastidiousness in food and drink, superabundance of property and wealth: this I call flaunting robbery; most assuredly it is not Tao.
Tao is the sanctuary where all things find refuge, the good man’s priceless treasure, the guardian and savior of him who is not good.
Hence at the enthronement of an Emperor and the appointment of his three ducal ministers, though there be some who bear presents of costly jade and drive chariots with teams of four horses, that is not so good as sitting still and offering the gift of this Tao.
Why was it that the men of old esteemed this Tao so highly? Is it not because it may be daily sought and found, and can remit the sins of the guilty? Hence it is the most precious thing under Heaven.
All the world says that my Tao is great, but unlike other teaching. It is just because it is great that it appears unlike other teaching. If it had this likeness, long ago would its smallness have been known.
The skillful philosophers of the olden time were subtle, spiritual, profound, and penetrating. They were so deep as to be incomprehensible. Because they are hard to comprehend, I will endeavor to describe them.
#3. The Doctrine of Inaction (15 Quotes)
The Sage occupies himself with inaction, and conveys instruction without words. Is it not by neglecting self-interest that one will be able to achieve it?
Purge yourself of your profound intelligence, and you can still be free from blemish. Cherish the people and order the kingdom, and you can still do without meddlesome action.
Who is there that can make muddy water clear? But if allowed to remain still, it will gradually become clear of itself. Who is there that can secure a state of absolute repose? But let time go on, and the state of repose will gradually arise.
Be sparing of speech, and things will come right of themselves.
A violent wind does not outlast the morning; a squall of rain does not outlast the day. Such is the course of Nature. And if Nature herself cannot sustain her efforts long, how much less can man!
Attain complete vacuity, and sedulously preserve a state of repose.
The softest things in the world override the hardest. That which has no substance enters where there is no crevice. Hence, I know the advantage of inaction.
Conveying lessons without words, reaping profit without action, there are few in the world who can attain to this!
Activity conquers cold, but stillness conquers heat. Purity and stillness are the correct principles for mankind.
The pursuit of book-learning brings about daily increase. The practice of Tao brings about daily loss. Repeat this loss again and again, and you arrive at inaction. Practice inaction, and there is nothing which cannot be done.
The Empire has ever been won by letting things take their course. He who must always be doing is unfit to obtain the Empire.
Keep the mouth shut, close the gateways of sense, and as long as you live you will have no trouble. Open your lips and push your affairs, and you will not be safe to the end of your days.
Practice inaction, occupy yourself with doing nothing.
Desire not to desire, and you will not value things difficult to obtain. Learn not to learn, and you will revert to a condition which mankind in general has lost.
Leave all things to take their natural course, and do not interfere.
#4. Modesty and Humility (15 Quotes)
All things in Nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfill their functions and make no claim.
When merit has been achieved, do not take it to yourself; for if you do not take it to yourself, it shall never be taken from you.
Follow diligently the Way in your own heart, but make no display of it to the world.
Keep behind, and you shall be put in front; keep out, and you shall be kept in.
He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire. He that bends shall be made straight. He that is empty shall be filled. He that is worn out shall be renewed. He who has little shall succeed. He who has much shall go astray.
He who, conscious of being strong, is content to be weak, he shall be the paragon of mankind. Being the paragon of mankind, Virtue will never desert him. He returns to the state of a little child.
He who, conscious of his own light, is content to be obscure, he shall be the whole world’s model. Being the whole world’s model, his Virtue will never fail. He reverts to the Absolute.
He who, conscious of desert, is content to suffer disgrace, he shall be the cynosure of mankind. Being the cynosure of mankind, his Virtue then is full. He returns to perfect simplicity.
He who is great must make humility his base. He who is high must make lowliness his foundation. Thus, princes and kings in speaking of themselves use the terms “lonely,” “friendless,” “of small account.” Is not this making humility their base?
Thus, it is that ‘Some things are increased by being diminished, others are diminished by being increased.’ What others have taught, I also teach; verily, I will make it the root of my teaching.
The reason why rivers and seas are able to be lords over a hundred mountain streams, is that they know how to keep below them. That is why they are able to reign over all the mountain streams.
The Sage expects no recognition for what he does; he achieves merit but does not take it to himself; he does not wish to display his worth.
I have three precious things, which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle, and you can be bold; be frugal, and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others, and you can become a leader among men.
But in the present day men cast off gentleness, and are all for being bold; they spurn frugality, and retain only extravagance; they discard humility, and aim only at being first. Therefore, they shall surely perish.
Gentleness brings victory to him who attacks, and safety to him who defends. Those whom Heaven would save, it fences round with gentleness.
#5. Government and War (10 Quotes)
He who respects the State as his own person is fit to govern it. He who loves the State as his own body is fit to be entrusted with it.
In the highest antiquity, the people did not know that they had rulers. In the next age they loved and praised them. In the next, they feared them. In the next, they despised them.
How cautious is the Sage, how sparing of his words! When his task is accomplished and affairs are prosperous, the people all say: ‘We have come to be as we are, naturally and of ourselves.’
Fishes must not be taken from the water: the methods of government must not be exhibited to the people.
Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish.
If the people do not fear the majesty of government, a reign of terror will ensue.
He who can take upon himself the nation’s shame is fit to be lord of the land. He who can take upon himself the nation’s calamities is fit to be ruler over the Empire.
Weapons, however beautiful, are instruments of ill omen, hateful to all creatures. Therefore, he who has Tao will have nothing to do with them.
There is no greater calamity than lightly engaging in war. Lightly to engage in war is to risk the loss of our treasure.
When opposing warriors join in battle, he who has pity conquers.
#6. Paradoxes (15 Quotes)
Thus, while the existence of things may be good, it is the non-existent in them which makes them serviceable.
A variety of colors makes man’s eye blind; a diversity of sounds makes man’s ear deaf; a mixture of flavors makes man’s palate dull.
He who is most perfect seems to be lacking; yet his resources are never outworn. He who is most full seems vacant; yet his uses are inexhaustible.
Extreme straightness is as bad as crookedness. Extreme cleverness is as bad as folly. Extreme fluency is as bad as stammering.
Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.
Abandon learning, and you will be free from trouble and distress.
Failure is the foundation of success, and the means by which it is achieved. Success is the lurking-place of failure; but who can tell when the turning-point will come?
He who acts, destroys; he who grasps, loses. Therefore, the Sage does not act, and so does not destroy; he does not grasp, and so he does not lose.
Only he who does nothing for his life’s sake can truly be said to value his life.
Hence the warrior that is strong does not conquer; the tree that is strong is cut down. Therefore, the strong and the big take the lower place; the soft and the weak take the higher place.
There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, yet for attacking things that are hard and strong there is nothing that surpasses it, nothing that can take its place.
The soft overcomes the hard; the weak overcomes the strong. There is no one in the world but knows this truth, and no one who can put it into practice.
Those who are wise have no wide range of learning; those who range most widely are not wise.
The Sage does not care to hoard. The more he uses for the benefit of others, the more he possesses himself. The more he gives to his fellow-men, the more he has of his own.
The truest sayings are paradoxical.
#7. Lao Tzu on Himself (5 Quotes)
Other men have plenty, while I alone seem to have lost all. I am a man foolish in heart, dull and confused. Other men are full of light; I alone seem to be in darkness. Other men are alert; I alone am listless. I am unsettled as the ocean, drifting as though I had no stopping-place. All men have their usefulness; I alone am stupid and clownish. Lonely though I am and unlike other men, yet I revere the Foster-Mother, Tao.
My words are very easy to understand, very easy to put into practice; yet the world can neither understand nor practice them.
My words have a clue, my actions have an underlying principle. It is because men do not know the clue that they understand me not.
Those who know me are but few, and on that account my honor is the greater.
Thus, the Sage wears coarse garments, but carries a jewel in his bosom.