In “Paradox of Virtue” Hektor K.T. Yan endeavors to analyze the Daodejing’s perspective on virtue and the perception of virtue in relation to its actual acquisition. In so doing, Yan deconstructs the essence of virtue as presented by the text, and determines a position that virtue is achieved when one acts without considering the perception of virtue and with only the goal to attend a need. I agree with his position: there is a real “paradox of virtue” in the text. Furthermore, I propose that the use of paradox is key to understanding “The Way” in the Daodejing.

Yan’s paradox is found primarily in the matter of intention and self-perspective. 

“Different states of de and other ideals of moral virtues are contrasted with each other, and their differences do not lie in the actions themselves… moral degradation occurs when virtue is practiced as a means to some end outside virtue itself. The opening remark, by contrast, examines the reflexive aspect of the virtuous agent - how the people who practice virtues look at themselves as moral agents, and this exposes a danger that appears paradoxical” (176).

That is to say, virtue is truly virtuous only when it is practiced without other intentions. However, those that act with virtue tend to see themselves as practitioners of virtue, and thus their intention becomes muddled: are their virtuous actions done because it is right, or because it is seemingly the virtuous thing to do? The former would be correct, the latter impure. This is the conceptual paradox in the first lines of the Daodejing’s 28th passage, a paradox which is thoroughly supported by its language. The virtue paradox is among the more explicit self-contradictions in the text where wording is concerned, but it is not the only place where this occurs. Indeed, self-contradictions, paradoxes, and binaries are used often throughout the text.

The paradox Yan meditates on in his paper is among the most important paradoxes in the text, and his analysis will inform my reading of other key passages, however it is not the first paradox present, and the language in passage 28 is comparatively less befuddling than other passages. That said, the language serves to support the paradox. The first few lines of the 28th passage read as follows:

“A man of the highest virtue does not keep to virtue and that is why he has virtue. A man of the lowest virtue never strays from virtue and that is why he is without virtue. The former never acts yet leaves nothing undone. The latter acts but there are things left undone.”

Here, Yan’s paradox of virtue is in the limelight. While the presence of the paradox in the quote is largely conceptual, it is supported by its wording. Here, the use of the word “virtue” is key. Virtue is used in two ways in the first sentence. In its first use, virtue is used as a quality of character; the same applies for the third occurence of the word in the first sentence. The second occurrence is not descriptive, rather it is used as a noun. To “keep to virtue” implies that virtue is an external element – a sort of path or way of behavior. Thus it is reasonable to question the use of “virtue” in lieu of another word like honor. The choice must be a conscious one. But to what ends? This sort of indirectness is employed a variety of times throughout the text. Though this passage utilizes paradox and word repetition to create this effect, these are not the only ways language is employed in the text.

The tactic employed in passage one of the text is similar, in that there is a certain manipulation of particular words, in this case “way” and “name”. Passage one reads: “the way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; The name that can be named is not the constant name.” Here, way and named are both repeated in such a manner that a contrast is established. There is a constant way, where constant is a word which is given an implicitly positive assignment, and this way cannot be spoken of lest it be another, untrue way. Like in the 28th passage, “way” is given two meanings that directly contrast one another. If one is followed, the other is negated. This is the logical beginnings of the virtue paradox. If (the path of) virtue is followed, then (true) virtue cannot be achieved. This occurs likewise with the word “named.” It is significant that “way” and “name” are used in such a way as a pair. This is a critical element of the language of the Daodejing, and the second passage is a strong example of the propensity for binary words or concepts as a tool. 

“Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;
The difficult and the easy complement each other;
The long and the short off-set each other;
The high and the low incline towards each other;
Note and sound harmonize with each other;
Before and after follow each other.”

In as many lines, 6 binaries are established, with each being the direct opposite of the other – not only in concept, but also in positive and negative implications. In this passage the technique is at its most obvious, though not at its most complex nor even most impactful. The juxtaposition between positive and negative is prevalent and integral to the text. It manifests in a few ways, but notably in the motif of action and inaction, and in the motif of somethingness and nothingness. In passage three, inaction is lauded. “Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail.” Inaction, then, has a positive impression. This is atypical granted that inaction, as a word, negates action and is thus inherently negative. A similar situation occurs in passage eleven, where nothingness is not a negative state. “Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand… Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.” This pattern holds up with passage twenty one’s logic. Not pursuing virtue is the only sure way to achieve virtue. Inaction is a nothingness of action, and is portrayed as positive. These sorts of conceptual and literary complications are pervasive in the text, and serve primarily to implicate meaning. This begs the question, then, of why? Why is indirectness and juxtaposition the tool of choice for the text?

The answer to this question can be found in the first lines of the text, and are substantiated by Yan’s claims: 

“When a virtuous person is asked why she helps another person, she may simply reply that the other person is in need (as in the case of the infant about to fall into the well). In this sense, her acting is a particular practical response to a particular object. To insist on further explanations and justification for this practice may lead to confusion and distortion, since it is to demand some extra reasons or motives, which are not necessary when the person is simply responding to the needs of others” (184).

Virtue should not be given a definite set of parameters, lest agents do virtuous thing for the sake of following the parameters. Virtue exists fully when an action is a response to a specific scenario, without the burden of “acting virtuously” looming over the agent. Why is this important? Because it is in defining virtue that virtue is corrupted, and that is precisely what the Daodejing warns against in its first few lines: “The way that can be named is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name.” Defining the way would compromise it, in the same way that defining virtue might compromise virtue according to the paradox. Thus, it is only reasonable that a text dedicated to defining “The Way” would go to great lengths in order to avoid explicitly giving it parameters. After all, according to passage eight “high good” is flexible like water. High good is different depending where it is happening.

“In a home it is the site that matters;
In quality of mind it is depth that matters;

In action it is timeliness that matters.”

There is a focus on nothingness in the content of the text that is relevant to its composition. Just as a gate or a cup is granted utility by what is not inside of it, so too is the Daodejing. By not explaining what “The Way” is explicitly, it rends itself capable of imparting the lesson. So, what is The Way? I believe it would be against the spirit of the text to say, for in following The Way, one strays from it.

Works Cited

Laozi. “The Norton Anthology of World Literature.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, edited by Martin Puchner, translated by D.C. Lau, 3rd ed., vol. 1, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 782–790.

Yan, Hektor K. T. “A Paradox of Virtue: The Daodejing on Virtue and Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, vol. 59, no. 2, Apr. 2009, pp. 173–187., doi:10.1353/pew.0.0054.