The Four Cardinal Virtues, According to Lao-Tzu

Lao-Tzu stated that there exist four cardinal virtues and they represent the path to inner peace. For this great philosopher, and for Taoism in general, such virtues are the way to achieve a full and meaningful life.
The Four Cardinal Virtues, According to Lao-Tzu
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Lao-Tzu was the author of the famous Tao Te Ching, the masterpiece of Taoism. In fact, he was considered to be the founder of this current of Eastern thought. This great philosopher wanted to synthesize a good part of his teaching in what he called the four cardinal virtues. They correspond to the axes of what, in his opinion, was a harmonious and meaningful life.

Lao-Tzu, whose name means ‘old teacher’, propagated a doctrine in which the ultimate goal was to achieve harmony, both within yourself and in relation to everything that exists in the universe. The four cardinal virtues are the way to achieve this state of peace and to reach the ‘three treasures’ of Taoism. These are compassion or love, humility or modesty, and frugality or humility.

“The sage acts by doing nothing.”

-Lao Tzu-

For Lao-tzu and his followers, the four cardinal virtues weren’t a dogma, but a path. In other words, it isn’t a ‘duty’ to achieve these virtues, but rather they’re the premise to be able to live in peace. This means that they’re not goals to be achieved, but a way to be. The four cardinal virtues for this philosophy are the following:

Woman hands together expressing gratitude

1. Reverence for all life

The first of the cardinal virtues, according to Lao-Tzu, was reverence for all life. Note that he didn’t speak of respect for life, but of reverence.

Reverence includes respect, consideration, and admiration. It isn’t just a matter of not ending any form of life, but valuing it in all its dimensions.

Lao-Tzu pointed out that the first form of life to be revered is your own. This feeling of respect and admiration is borne of love. Nevertheless, it’s not enough to simply not interfere with all the different forms of life, but you must also show an essential feeling of affection for them.

2. Natural sincerity

Lao-Tzu saw natural sincerity as the ability to be honest and authentic, above all, with yourself. You need to know and understand who you really are, as that’s a necessity in order to be able to be honest with others. Openness is first built within you and then you’ll express it naturally with others.

When you find your own truth, you stay true to who you are and what you believe in. That’s what authenticity is about. It means simply being yourself. When you accept yourself, authenticity also arises spontaneously. That’s why Lao-tzu spoke of ‘natural’ sincerity and not just sincerity.

3. Gentleness

Gentleness is often confused with weakness or servility. However, it has nothing to do with these states and can even mean the exact opposite.

Gentleness is a consequence of harmony and inner peace. It’s expressed as kindness and consideration in dealing with others. It only appears when someone is full of love.

Gentleness implies the renunciation of the desire to control, manipulate, or impose on others. These desires lead to developing a belligerent attitude towards others.

Whoever doesn’t have the need to turn others into objects of anger or means to achieve their goals, also manages to be docile and kind.

Person holding another's hands

4. Supportiveness

For Lao-tzu, supportiveness was the highest of the four cardinal virtues. This virtue is only reached when there’s respect, sincerity, and kindness. It basically means standing in solidarity with other people, without intending to benefit from it in any way. Furthermore, without expecting that, in exchange for this support, others will grant you similar. The essence of this attitude is selflessness.

Whoever possesses an attitude of supportiveness lives in peace with themselves and has a happier existence. This is the virtue that leads you to feel fulfilled and that gives a meaning of transcendence to your life. It represents the highest level of human evolution.

Lao-tzu believed that the four cardinal virtues were the natural way of being for all people. He claimed that, when you get closer to those virtues, you feel closer to your true nature.

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  • Wolpin, S. (2003). Lao Tsé y su” Tratado sobre la Virtud del Tao”. Tao Te Ching. Editorial Kier.


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