The generals have a saying:
‘Rather than make the first move
it is better to wait and see.
Rather than advance an inch
it is better to retreat a yard.’
This is called going forward without advancing,
pushing back without using weapons.
There is no greater misfortune
than underestimating your enemy.
Underestimating your enemy
means thinking that he is evil.
Thus you destroy your three treasures
and become an enemy yourself.
When two great forces oppose each other,
the victory will go
to the one that knows how to yield.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 69, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
A couple of chapters ago, Lao Tzu distilled down all of his teachings into what he said should be our three greatest treasures: Be simple in your actions and your thoughts. Be patient with both your friends and your enemies. And, be compassionate toward yourself. Yesterday, when he was talking about the virtue of non-competition, he was teaching us how to put these three treasures into practice in our lives. The Master competes with no one and no one can compete with her. We should be like children at play when we compete. This is how to be in harmony with the Tao. It is the way to guard our three greatest treasures.
Yesterday, Lao Tzu offered us four examples of people who embody the virtue of non-competition, what I call not-competing competing. One of these examples was of the best general, who enters the mind of his enemy. I promised, then, that today we would further explore what Lao Tzu calls the best military strategy, and how that relates to our three greatest treasures.
Now, I don’t claim to be any kind of military strategist. I never “served” in the armed forces. And, I don’t purport to know anything of military strategy. But, when I read Lao Tzu’s words here, I presume that he knew something of what he was saying. If he says the generals have a saying, then they must have had a saying. The rank of general, as far as I know, has always been the highest rank, reserved only for those who are the best at military strategy. Given my own admitted ignorance of military strategy, I have no problem deferring to those who do know what they are talking about.
The generals have a saying, and those are words to live by for all of us. It is better to wait and see what your enemy is going to do, let them make the first move, than to be the one to initiate force. Libertarians refer to this as the non-aggression principle. Lao Tzu would call it being patient. Remember, one of our three greatest treasures is being patient with both our friends and our enemies. But just how patient does he expect us to be? Well, just look at the last half of the generals’ saying. It is better to retreat a yard than advance an inch. That is taking patience to a whole new level. It may be comparatively easy to wait for my enemy to make the first move; but, am I willing to retreat a yard, when every fiber of my being wants to stand my ground?
We have a saying, “Patience is a virtue.” We like to say that when we don’t think someone is being patient enough with us. Or, we may be admitting to ourselves that it is something that we don’t always put into practice. But, generals, having attained the highest rank of their vocation know something about military strategy. They know how to live to fight another day. Don’t be so eager to make the first move. Wait and see what your enemy is planning to do. Get in their mind. Think what they are thinking. Think how they are thinking. When you act in haste, when you rush into action, you will fail. Be patient. Wait and see. And as far as the ludicrous notion that we should be willing to retreat a yard, Lao Tzu asks you to consider this: What if you could go forward without advancing? What if you could push back without using weapons?
Some people don’t like the term, non-aggression principle, because it sounds like something a pacifist would say. They, on the other hand, are very much in favor of aggression, or the use of force, in self-defense. So, they are quick to point out that they only mean by the term “non-aggression” that they would never be the one to initiate it. All bets are off once they have been aggressed against, however. I don’t think Lao Tzu qualifies as a pacifist, though a lot of what he says certainly could be taken that way. We covered a lot of this in earlier chapters of the Tao Te Ching. That was when he said a “decent” person would only use weapons as a last resort, and that with the utmost restraint.
We are still talking about how to be decent people, here, today. What if you didn’t have to resort to the use of force? Must you, really? I understand that sometimes you have only seconds to react in a situation. But it always seems that when we only have seconds to react that we make some horrible choices. Why is that? It is all a matter of how we have been conditioned to react.
What Lao Tzu is really concerned with in today’s chapter is guarding our three greatest treasures. These questions we have been asking are important, because the consequences of taking them lightly is that we may end up destroying our three greatest treasures. It is a real shame that we have any enemies, at all. But what is worse, what is our greatest misfortune, is that we underestimate our enemies. Understanding what Lao Tzu is meaning by this, helps us to understand exactly why we need to be patient with our enemies. It is when we think our enemy is evil, that we underestimate them. While I have not experienced this first hand, I know of too many stories of soldiers who were forced into dehumanizing places and came out of there, less than human themselves. They became the enemy. They suffer horribly as a result. Suicide rates for veterans, not really surprisingly, are terribly high.
The State does an exceptional job, with their propaganda, of getting us to underestimate our enemy. Their goal is always for us to see them as something less than human, evil. They dehumanize them for us, so that we will volunteer to go to war against them. Our three greatest treasures get destroyed in the process. We have become the enemy.
There is a better way. The generals were on to something. When two great forces oppose each other, it is the one who knows how to yield who will prevail.