“If people no longer fear death
what good is threatening to kill them
if people truly fear death
and some act perverse
and we catch and kill them
who else would dare
as long as people fear death
the executioner will exist
to kill in the executioner’s place
is to cut in the carpenter’s place
those who cut in the carpenter’s place
seldom escape with hands intact”
(Taoteching, verse 74, translation by Red Pine)
YIN WEN says, “Lao-tzu asks, if people are not afraid to die what good is threatening to kill them? If people are not afraid to die, it is because punishments are excessive. When punishments are excessive, people don’t care about life. When they don’t care about life, the ruler’s might means nothing to them. When punishments are moderate, people are afraid to die. They are afraid to die because they enjoy life. When you know they enjoy life, then you can threaten them with death” (Yinwen: 2).
LI HSI-CHAI says, “This implies that punishments cannot be relied upon for governing. If people are not afraid of death, what use is threatening them with execution? And if they are afraid of death, and we catch someone who breaks the law, and we execute them, by killing one person we should be able to govern the rest. But the more people we kill, the more people break the law. Thus, punishment is not the answer.”
MING T’AI-TSU says, “When I first ascended the throne, the people were unruly and officials corrupt. If ten people were executed in the morning, a hundred were breaking the same law by evening. Being ignorant of the Way of the ancient sage kings, I turned to the Taoteching. When I read, ‘If people no longer fear death / what good is threatening to kill them,’ I decided to do away with capital punishment and put criminals to work instead. In the year since then, the burdens of my heart have been lightened. Truly, this book is the greatest teacher of kings.”
WU CH’ENG says, “‘Perverse’ means ‘unlawful.’ If those who act perverse and break the law do not meet with misfortune at the hands of Humankind, they will certainly be punished by Heaven.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “If rulers teach according to the Tao and people respond with perversion instead, rulers are within their rights to arrest them and kill them. Lao-tzu, however, was concerned that rulers should use the Tao first before turning to punishment.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The meaning of ‘the executioner will exist’ is the same as ‘the Net of Heaven is all-embracing / its mesh is wide but nothing escapes’ (verse 73). The executioner is Heaven.”
SU CH’E says, “Heaven is the executioner. If the world is at peace and people engage in perversity and rebellion, then surely they have been abandoned by Heaven. If we kill the, it is Heaven who kills them and not us. But if we kill those whom Heaven has not abandoned, we take the executioner’s place. And anyone who takes the executioner’s place puts themselves within reach of his ax.”
THE LUSHIH CHUNCHIU says, “A great carpenter does not cut” (1.4).
MENCIUS says, “The wise are not alone in desiring something greater than life and hating something greater than death. This is true of everyone. But the wise don’t forget it” (Mencius: 6A.10).
Yesterday, Lao-tzu said it was a matter of life and death. Today he wonders whether or not the people even fear death. For if people no longer fear death, what good is it to threaten them with punishment? If we honestly expect people to dare not to act, they are going to have to believe in, and fear the consequences.
The executioner, in this verse, is the Net of Heaven of the previous one, as Lu Hui-ch’ing points out in his commentary, today. What Lao-tzu is teaching here concerns those who rule over the people.
Let’s say, for just a moment, that those who rule over us actually have our best interests in mind (I know this is a stretch, but work with me, here). The temptation, if this were so, would be for our rulers to try to force us to do right; first threatening, and then carrying out punishments. It just plays into their need to try to control.
But Lao-tzu makes it clear that that kind of reactionary policy is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. They shouldn’t dare act in this way. All they accomplish is making people fear death even less.
Leave it to Heaven’s net to sort it all out. Don’t oppress people. Leave them alone. Left to their own devices, they will regain their love of life, and fear death once again. If your policies result in them hating life, they won’t fear death, and your punishments won’t matter anyway. They will only compound the problem.
And anyway, by killing in the executioner’s place, you are only setting your own selves up for failure. It is like cutting in the master carpenter’s place. Those who cut in the master carpenter’s place seldom escape with their hands intact.
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
YIN WEN (350-284 B.C.). Eclectic philosopher of the state of Ch’i and authro of a book of discourse that bears his name.
MING T’AI-TSU (1328-1398). Grew up in a family of destitute farmers, became a Buddhist monk, joined the rebellion against the Mongols (who had occupied the throne since 1278), and founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). His commentary, which he wrote without the help of tutors, was completed in 1374. Tao-te-chen-ching yu-chu.
LUSHIH CHUNCHIU (THE SPRING AND AUTUMN ANNALS OF MR. LU). Commissioned by Lu Pei-wei (d. 235 B.C.), this was probably the first Chinese text written with a unified plan. It purported to contain all that anyone needed to know of the world and was Taoist in conception. Not to be confused with The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Yen or with The Spring and Autumn Annals written in the state of Lu and attributed to Confucius.