1. (Those who) possessed in highest degree the attributes (of the Dao) did not (seek) to show them, and therefore they possessed them (in fullest measure). (Those who) possessed in a lower degree those attributes (sought how) not to lose them, and therefore they did not possess them (in fullest measure).
2. (Those who) possessed in the highest degree those attributes did nothing (with a purpose), and had no need to do anything. (Those who) possessed them in a lower degree were (always) doing, and had need to be so doing.
3. (Those who) possessed the highest benevolence were (always seeking) to carry it out, and had no need to be doing so. (Those who) possessed the highest righteousness were (always seeking) to carry it out, and had need to be so doing.
4. (Those who) possessed the highest (sense of) propriety were (always seeking) to show it, and when men did not respond to it, they bared the arm and marched up to them.
5. Thus it was that when the Dao was lost, its attributes appeared; when its attributes were lost, benevolence appeared; when benevolence was lost, righteousness appeared; and when righteousness was lost, the proprieties appeared.
6. Now propriety is the attenuated form of leal-heartedness and good faith, and is also the commencement of disorder; swift apprehension is (only) a flower of the Dao, and is the beginning of stupidity.
7. Thus it is that the Great man abides by what is solid, and eschews what is flimsy; dwells with the fruit and not with the flower. It is thus that he puts away the one and makes choice of the other.
論德, 'About the Attributes;' of Dao, that is. It is not easy to render de here by any other English term than 'virtue,' and yet there would be a danger of its thus misleading us in the interpretation of the chapter.
The 'virtue' is the activity or operation of the Dao, which is supposed to have come out of its absoluteness. Even Han Fei so defines it here,—'De is the meritorious work of the Dao.'
In par. 5 we evidently have a résumé of the preceding paragraphs, and, as it is historical, I translate them in the past tense; though what took place on the early stage of the world may also be said to go on taking place in the experience of every individual. With some considerable hesitation I have given the subjects in those paragraphs in the concrete, in deference to the authority of Heshang Gong and most other commentators. The former says, 'By "the highest de" is to be understood the rulers of the greatest antiquity, without name or designation, whose virtue was great, and could not be surpassed.' Most ingenious, and in accordance with the Daoistic system, is the manner in which Wu Cheng construes the passage, and I am surprised that it has not been generally accepted. By 'the higher de' he understands 'the Dao,' that which is prior to and above the De (上德者，在德之上，道也); by 'the lower de,' benevolence, that which is after and below the De; by 'the higher benevolence,' the De which is above benevolence; by 'the higher righteousness,' the benevolence which is above righteousness; and by 'the higher propriety,' the righteousness which is above propriety. Certainly in the summation of these four paragraphs which we have in the fifth, the subjects of them would appear to have been in the mind of Laozi as thus defined by Wu.
In the remainder of the chapter he goes on to speak depreciatingly of ceremonies and knowledge, so that the whole chapter must be understood as descriptive of the process of decay and deterioration from the early time in which the Dao and its attributes swayed the societies of men.