The power of no rules

Reading chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching

Dennis Hambeukers
Published in
5 min readJan 6, 2024

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“A man of the highest virtue does not keep 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 and leaves nothing undone. The latter acts but there are things left undone.
A man of the highest benevolence acts, but from no ulterior motive. A man of the highest rectitude acts, but from ulterior motive.
A man most conversant in the rites acts, but when no one responds, rolls up his sleeves and resorts to persuasion by force.
Hence when the way was lost there was virtue, when virtue was lost there was benevolence, when benevolence was lost there was rectitude, when rectitude was lost there were the rites.
The rites are the wearing thin of loyalty and good faith and the beginning of disorder; foreknowledge is the flowery embellishment of the way and the beginning of folly.
Hence the man of large mind abides in the thick not in the thin, in the fruit not in the flower. Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.”

I have already read the chapters on no action (43), humility (61) and no speaking (56). (I read the Tao Te Ching in random order.) This chapter goes one step further. No action, humility and silence are all humble, personal. No virtue is a direct revolt against the system. It feels like the most radical chapter so far. In the last essay of reading the Tao Te Ching, I already got the feeling this book was a manifesto against the rules and structures of something like Confucianism. Where the previous chapters I read seem mild, this one feels like a more direct attack on rules and structures.

Virtues are about doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. How can it be that not keeping to virtues is higher, better, than never straying from virtue? How can it be that someone who never strays from virtue is a person of lower virtue? What I think Lao is saying is that doing good is not always good. The difference is where you are coming from, why you are doing what you are doing, what your motives are.

Lao writes down a hierarchy:

  • The way
  • Virtue (“when the way was lost there was virtue”)
  • Benevolence (“when virtue was lost there was benevolence”)
  • Rectitude (“when benevolence was lost there was rectitude”)
  • Rites (“when rectitude was lost there were the rites”)

When one is doing what is right, there is a difference between benevolence and rectitude. Benevolence is the disposition to do good and rectitude is being morally correct. Both do good but they both come from a different place. When one does good from benevolence, there is no ulterior motive, it’s just about doing good. Rectitude on the other hand has an ulterior motive. Rectitude, righteousness, takes pleasure in putting people in their place, takes a moral high ground. Rectitude uses the rules to create superiority, to judge others. Rectitude is here to defend the rules, to uphold the system, to suppress.

The lowest form of doing good is rites. With a rite, one might not even know why a rite is performed, why a rule exists. This is how we do things here. These are the rules. These are the mental concepts of the system. It is upheld with force if necessary (“A man most conversant in the rites acts, but when no one responds, rolls up his sleeves and resorts to persuasion by force.”). When one follows the rites and rules, one does good without thinking. If you break the rules, you do bad.

The Tao, the way, proposes a way of living, a way of being, that is beyond rules. Even if one doesn’t enforce the rules with force, even if one doesn’t puts others down by taking the moral high ground, even if one is just naturally disposed to do good, one is still following the rules. Good and bad are artificial constructs. Rules are artificial constructs. They have their purpose. Things run much smoother in a group of people if we all agree on the rules. Less surprises. Less need to think for yourself. Rules are a tool. Rules take over the need to think. The Tao wants to return to thinking for yourself, at least being aware that your thinking is governed by rules made up by other people. The Tao wants to free you from those rules. The Tao seems to be about freedom. The Tao puts the natural state of freedom next to the artificial state of a society based on rules. The Tao states that a life outside the rules is possible, preferable.

The benefit of the Tao, next to freedom, is that things get done by doing less (“The former never acts and leaves nothing undone. The latter acts but there are things left undone.”). Being virtuous, following the rules, creates a lot of waste, a lot of busywork that is following the rules but isn’t producing any results. One can get the impression that one is very productive by performing all the rites but more often than not the opposite it true. Rules can help us but they also limit us. Rules are also the source of stress (“Exterminate learning and there will no longer be worries.” — Chapter 20).

“If you give employees more freedom instead of developing processes to prevent them from exercising their own judgment, they will make better decisions and it’s easier to hold them accountable.” — No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings

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Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner, Chaos Pilot, Humble Warrior