“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 them, 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).
Our verses this week have been on fear and authority. On Monday, in verse 72, Lao-tzu said, “When people no longer fear authority, a greater authority will appear.” On Tuesday, verse 73, Lao-tzu said it was a matter of life and death. And in today’s verse, he ponders the question “If people no longer fear death, what good is threatening to kill them?” These verses have all been addressed to those who govern us.
If they are governing in such a way, that people no longer fear them, they no longer fear their punishments (death), then threatening them further won’t work. If those who govern us want to be able to succeed in governing us, they want us to truly fear death, and that means they need to be careful in how they govern us. In other words, they should fear us.
If you want people to act in a certain way, trying to compel them to act in that way isn’t the way to accomplish your end. The end never justifies the means. Your means always determines the end.
If you were to govern according to the Tao, the Way of Heaven, you would govern with moderation; and people; because they would then love their lives, would fear death. And fearing death, if some acted perversely, you could catch them and kill them; and no one else would dare to act that way.
But you are not governing according to the Tao, with moderation. So the people no longer fear you, or the death you mete out as punishment for their supposed wrong-doing. I say supposed, here, because you have heaped on so many rules and laws and ordinances (too many to count, and many that, quite frankly, run counter to all common sense), that your killing actually amounts to taking the place of the executioner (Heaven). In other words, you are killing those who Heaven hasn’t already abandoned. And Heaven will ultimately exact its retribution against you.
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
YIN WEN (350-284 B.C.). Eclectic philosopher of the state of Ch’i and author 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.