Tao Te Ching – Chapter 81

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Blunt truths about the world may not be pleasing to hear. People prefer beautiful, soothing words — even if they distort reality. Unscrupulous people will take advantage of this, and use such words in debates to be victorious. Knowing this, the good and wise avoid getting into debates in the first place — particularly the kind where participants put on scholarly airs, and pretend to know more than they actually do.

In addition to debates, Tao sages also avoid the accumulation of clutter. Their focus is not on personal gain, but on helping and giving to others. The more they do this, the more they enrich themselves spiritually.

The sages recognize the heavenly Tao as a positive force of nature. Human beings who know how to work with it will benefit from it while avoiding harm. The Tao of the sages, following the same pattern, provides beneficial assistance to everyone it touches while avoiding contention. Refraining from debates and letting go of clutter both contribute to this path.


Sincere words, spoken honestly, may be quite blunt. People who wish to avoid the truth may not find them pleasant.

Soothing, flowery words that appeal to vanity are not truthful. Such words distort reality in order to deceive or manipulate.

Those who are good in the art of living recognize the futility of arguments, and therefore wisely refrain from engaging in debates. Sages who possess Te let actions reveal their virtues; they have no need to explain themselves with words.

Conversely, someone who is overly argumentative — and thus constantly in debates against others — is a person lacking the skill to live a life free of tension and stress. We should also beware of those who constantly explain themselves with glib words, for they do not possess real virtue.

Those who possess true mastery of knowledge have no wish to acquire shallow learning in a broad spectrum of subjects. Someone who really knows, understands that the great Tao lives in the heart. There is no need to search for the Tao all over the place.

Conversely, if someone claims to know something about everything, then chances are excellent that this person has little mastery of any one subject. Being obsessed with a wide variety of book knowledge is a sign of someone who has not yet found the Tao within.

Sages have no need to accumulate worldly knowledge or goods, because they find contentment and abundance in helping and giving. The more they render assistance, the more fulfillment they possess; the more they give to people, the more blessings and wisdom they acquire.

Sages recognize that the positive, uplifting Tao of heaven benefits all living things and does not harm them. In emulating this, sages also seek to benefit others by helping them, and refrain from harming them with contention.

Thoughts & Reflections

The first two lines, True words are not beautiful / Beautiful words are not true, can be misused. Sometimes, people who want to criticize others out of malice may use them as justification.

The difference between such people and sages is in terms of intention. When sages speak plainly and truthfully, they do so out of the intention to assist or benefit others. They have no wish to harm people with words, or initiate an argument with them.

Oftentimes we think we are helping friends by arguing with them (to “make them see”), but because this brings contention into the relationship, it is usually more harmful than helpful. People are hardly at their best when a debate causes them to become defensive and unyielding.

Another important point related to the first two lines is that sages do not give insincere praise. Saying what people want to hear (beautiful words) may make them feel comfortable in the short term, but if such words distort or conceal reality, they can only lead to harm in the long run.

Translation Notes

美 means beauty, beautiful, or pretty. 美言 should be translated as “beautiful words” — words that may seem appealing at first, but are actually deceptive. This is an accurate rendition that reflects our experience with surface-level beauty that covers up not-so-beautiful reality.

美言 has been translated as “eloquent words” by less knowledgeable authors. This is incorrect. To speak eloquently is to speak expressively, meaningfully and effectively. The word “eloquent” does not carry the context of being deceptively appealing, so using it here would hardly be the best choice.

Derek Lin
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