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 the 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)
For the last few days we have been talking about how our relationship with the Earth determines whether we are one with the Tao. Yesterday, we expanded our definition of the Earth to include not just the physical planet, but everything and every one contained within it. The whole world accepts you once you have learned to accept yourself.
Lao Tzu opened that chapter with a simple physics lesson, for every force there is a counter force. Violence, however well-intentioned it may be, always rebounds upon the one who is violent. That is a universal law. Which means it is one we ignore at our own peril. Still, Lao Tzu mentioned that universal law in a particular context. That of governing. He was instructing those who govern in the art of governing. You need to rely on the Tao, instead of relying on the use of force and violence.
Today, Lao Tzu expands on that theme of violence perpetrated by those who govern us. That is where weapons come in. Those are the tools of violence. And, to the extent they are used as tools of violence, all, not some or a few, decent people detest them. Here we have a litmus test for decency. Decency requires that you detest violence. Therefore, decency requires that you detest tools intended to inflict violence.
Now, before anyone starts getting any wrong ideas, let’s be clear that weapons may have other purposes than to inflict violence. It is only with respect to their use as tools of violence that they are to be detested.
Weapons are also the tools of fear. Fear is something that Lao Tzu has earlier identified as a phantom. It isn’t based in reality. This is why another litmus test of decency is found in one’s willingness to avoid fear-based use of weapons.
So, why have any weapons? That would seem the obvious question. After all, if weapons are going to be used as tools of violence and fear, and all decent people detest and avoid using them, why have them at all?
I, personally, would be more than happy to live in a world where there was no need for weapons, at all. But sadly, as ideal as that would be, that isn’t anymore based in reality than is fear. I could hope for it. And, who doesn’t hope for it? But, in the same chapter where Lao Tzu identified fear as a phantom, he said the same thing about hope. It isn’t based in reality either.
Here is the reality. While all decent people detest and avoid using weapons as tools of violence and fear, not everyone is decent. You can’t make all people decent. Sorry to drop that bombshell on you. But it is the truth. And, given that truth, it is for the best that decent people have weapons. That really wasn’t fair of me. I just offered the hope that we could limit the use of weapons to decent people. But, do I really need to tell you that hope isn’t based in reality either? Wouldn’t it be great if only decent people had access to weapons? Of course it would. But we are trying to be realistic here.
As much as I would like to live in a fantasy world, I live in this world. And in this world weapons can and should be used by decent people, not as tools of violence and fear, but in self-defense. Because, yes, there are plenty of not too decent people out there who are only too willing to use weapons as tools of violence and fear.
So let’s take a look at what Lao Tzu has to say about using weapons as tools of self-defense. What does self-defense mean? Still talking about decent people here, it means that weapons are going to be avoided except in the direst necessity. And, only with the utmost restraint.
I think it would be a mistake to classify Lao Tzu as a pacifist. If by pacifist, you mean someone that wouldn’t use a weapon even in the direst necessity. Then again, if by pacifist you mean someone for whom peace is his highest value, you have Lao Tzu, and me, pegged. Decent people can’t be content when the peace has been shattered. And that is something that goes both ways. We refuse to be the ones that shatter the peace. But, we also understand that others, who are not so decent, may wish to shatter the peace. That is what we are guarding against. The peace being shattered. Peace being our highest value, direst necessity does call decent people to arms.
But let’s not forget who it is that Lao Tzu has been addressing the last couple of days. It is those who are governing. And their definition of direst necessity has me thinking there isn’t a decent person among them. Utmost restraint is another one of those things that those who govern us seem to have in short supply.
We talked earlier about hope and fear being phantoms. But let’s be clear here. Our enemies are not demons, but human beings like ourselves. Our rulers like to whip up a whole lot of patriotic fury to get us to support our troops as they engage all over the world in making global capitalism profitable. But these enemies that are being manufactured out of thin air are not demons. They are our fellow humans. Each of them have their own hopes and fears, just like we do. We all have plenty of phantoms to deal with, we don’t need to be manufacturing demons.
Decent people do not wish their enemies personal harm. Decent people do not rejoice in victory over them. How could they? In what test of human decency is delighting in the slaughter of men, women, and children acceptable?
You know, we used to understand that battlefields were graveyards. We weren’t so 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 our previous understanding that the greatest acts of compassion were demonstrated on those battlefields. Now, we have replaced compassion and sorrow with mocking and laughter. That is our shame. And, it is indecent.