(Originally published March 2009)
There is a saying that the height of De (德) is when it equals Heaven, or both Heaven and Earth. What does “De matches Heaven and Earth” (德配天地) mean? There are several possibilities, but it’s likely that a sense of ‘efficacy’ is involved. The heavens above and the earth below allow and provide for all things to happen, from the movement of the stars to the growth of living things. Whatever De is, it clearly has potential or power. In a human being it is likely that this potential or power will express itself as influence. One whose De matches that of Heaven and Earth has the power to influence other things, more often living things and most often other humans. From a religious perspective, tradition held that Heaven had a preference for righteous and benevolent rulership on Earth, which benefited (Li 利) all people (and the spirits as well). In this case Heaven (Tian 天) should be understood as either a celestial deity, similar to the Lord on High (Shangdi 上帝), or an amorphous congregation of former worthy men and women – most often former kings (Xiangwang 先王) – existing up above (Shang 上).
This deity (or these spirits) had the power to favour one clan over others and showed approval – sometimes recorded as being spoken by Tian or the Lord on High (Shijing, Shangshu) – by sanctioning their ascendance as rulers with its Mandate (Ming 命). It is repeatedly stated in many sources that Heaven’s criteria for receiving the Mandate is the quality of one’s De, one’s personal character and conduct (Shangshu: 皇天無親，惟德是輔。, Zuozhuan, Huainanzi). One’s fate is determined by one’s character (Cf. Heraclitus). If those who held authority had flawed De-characters (爽德) or were incorrigibly bad (滔) they should expect to be “replaced.” This was the Will of Heaven (Tian Zhi 天志). Of course, once one believes that they are chosen by God it is much easier to hide behind this to justify absolutely anything one wants to do. Abuse of this power had been witnessed over the centuries as leading to inevitable defeat, and rulers who had treated their subjects well enjoyed more lasting peace and prosperity. So, “incorrigibly bad” (or “good”) should be understood in this (common sense) way.
In this sense, for one’s De to match that of Heaven means the quality of one’s De-character is exactly what Heaven wants and approves of. With regards to “efficacy,” this suggests that one has what it takes to influence people – or “get” or “co-opt” (De 得) them – mostly notably by having goodwill towards them and to benefit (利) or nurture (畜/育/養) them, but also included a sense of awe or gravitas (Wei 威).
Numerous early texts explain that Heaven can reward and punish people, if it so chooses. This belief goes back at least to the Shang Dynasty, as seen on oracle bone inscriptions. Early on, the words used were Shang 賞 reward and Fa 罰 punish, but De 德 reward and Xing 刑 punish, and Fu 福 good fortune and Huo 禍 misfortune are also found. As we can see, De occupies the same semantic field as reward (Shang) and good fortune (Fu).
[In fact, in the Laozi, chapter 65 says “Not using so-called wisdom to order the state is a Fu-benefit to the state” (不以智治國，國之福), but the ancient Mawangdui texts of the Laozi (and the Wenzi) say “Not using so-called wisdom to order the state is a De-benefit to the state” (不以智治國，國之德也). This variation is also explained by the fact the two words once rhymed: De 德 *tək and Fu 福 *pək. Whether De or Fu, the idea being conveyed is the same. See also Shijing ode #260, “De is light as a hair ” (德輶如毛) and Zhuangzi 4, “Fu is light as a feather” (福輕乎羽).]
Mozi, an ancient philosopher, spoke often of the Will of Heaven (天志/天之意) and the rewards (賞) and punishments (罰) it can, and will send down accordingly. But other thinkers, tending towards naturalism, regard the rewards (德) and punishments (刑) of Heaven as natural seasonal “forces.” In spring and summer, when life is flourishing, this is the time of De 德 benefic power. In autumn and winter, when living things lose their life (or hibernate), this is the time of Xing 刑 malefic power (Guanzi, Huangdi Sijing). These “naturalists” then applied this “logic” to the political realm and decided that the ruler should give out “rewards” (德) in the spring and punishments (刑) (and “righteous” foreign attacks) in the autumn and winter. And, at approximately the same time (or later), these natural seasonal forces were, in a sense deified and were treated by calendrical specialists as spirits (Kalinowski).
Tian De (天德), which we sometimes find, means, I think, either 1) the potency or character(istics) of Nature, 2) Supernal De (character, moral excellence, power), or “a De which was considered to meet Heaven’s approval.”