Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in direst necessity;
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory,
and delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 31, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we were talking about the art of governing. And, how relying on the Tao in governing means not trying to force issues or resorting to violence. Yesterday, the reasons given for not resorting to violence involved a simple law of physics. For every force there is a counter force. And violence, no matter how well intentioned it might be, always rebounds upon itself.
If reason isn’t enough to stay the hands of would be leaders, today, Lao Tzu appeals to our basic human decency as he targets the tools of violence and of fear, weapons.
He tells us that all, not most, or some, but all, decent men detest them. What can we make of this litmus test of human decency. I know plenty of people that have what I would call an almost love affair with the weapons in their arsenal. Is Lao Tzu saying this is indecent? That these cannot possibly be decent human beings?
Perhaps it would be helpful to narrow it down to one decent person. That is what Lao Tzu does. If we can get a good understanding of what makes one decent person, decent, then we can understand what it means to be indecent. Saying all decent men detest them isn’t enough. So, let’s take a look at one decent man. That one decent man understands that weapons are tools to be used to produce violence and fear.
Yesterday, we talked about the dangers of violence. And chapters ago, we talked about fear being a phantom, an illusion, that we create by thinking of ourselves as separate. Violence and fear being what they are, how does our one decent man go about dealing with these tools?
He avoids them. At least he tries to avoid them. He only employs them in the direst necessity. And then, only with the utmost restraint. In other words, while weapons are tools of violence and fear, they do serve a useful purpose that transcends the violence and fear. There is a necessary use for them. But, only as a last resort. And, that would be self-defense.
Lao Tzu certainly is not a pacifist here. He doesn’t once tell us that no decent person ever uses weapons. That a decent person would never be compelled to use them. Or, that a decent person would avoid them, no matter what. No, a decent person understands the costs. They understand exactly what wielding weapons means. That is why they avoid them, if they can. That is why they only use them with the utmost restraint. That is why they hate that it has come to this. A decent person understands that for every force there is a counter force. And, they know that their intentions for using them, no matter how good they may be, don’t change the reality that violence always rebounds on itself. That is the cost that necessity has compelled upon them.
So, for those of you that want to turn this into something denying the right of self-defense, I think you were missing Lao Tzu’s point entirely. But, why would an individual so love his arsenal of weapons? In order to become a master at using them, one necessarily must get quite intimate in knowledge of them. No, we hope to never have to use them for what they are designed to be used for. But, if direst necessity calls, we best be prepared. You can’t pick up a weapon for the first time and expect things to go well for you. You need to acquire skills, in the hopes that your skills will never be put to the test.
But, Lao Tzu wasn’t talking about individuals defending themselves when he talked about decent men detesting weapons. He was continuing what he began yesterday; and still talking about our rulers. Those who are governing us. He is wondering if there are any decent men to be found among them.
Well, are there? The agents of the State seem to have a mindset which is to kill first, and ask questions only later. I have grown weary of reports of police officers fearing for their lives and shooting unarmed civilians. Come on, if there is a decent person among you. If your job is truly so stressful and dangerous. If you fear for your life, and you fear you won’t see your children grow up, then quit your job. Do the decent thing. Put down your weapons and walk away. There has to be a better line of work for you. One where you aren’t a constant danger to civilians.
And what of our elected officials? Our rulers? If there was a decent person among them, then peace would be their highest value. But, the peace has been shattered. And, it is our rulers that have done the shattering. Talk about indecency. They couldn’t be content with peace. They can only find contentment in war. Because it costs them nothing. They even manage to make a huge profit from it. That is why they manufacture enemies out of thin air. That is why they portray our enemies as demons instead of human beings, just like us.
Decent people could not wish personal harm on a fellow human being. There it really is in a nutshell. That is the whole point. That is what indecency is. Wishing personal harm on another human being. It is one thing to have an arsenal of weapons and to know how to use them in direst necessity. And, it is quite another to wish another human being personal harm.
Where is our human decency? How can we rejoice in victory? How can we delight in the slaughter of men? The decent among us can’t, and don’t.
We used to understand that battlefields were graveyards. We weren’t insulated from the reality of war like we are today with all of our high tech gadgetry. We used to understand that battles were places of great sorrow. And, it was because of that, that they were also places where the greatest acts of compassion were demonstrated. Now, we mock and laugh while we attend the funerals. That is our shame. The shame of our indecency.