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"There is one appointed supreme executioner."

Tao Te Ching - Chapter 74

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.

The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained


74

If people are not afraid of dying,

Why threaten them with death?

If people live in constant fear of death,

And if breaking the law is punished by death,

Then who would dare?


There is one appointed supreme executioner.

Truly, trying to take the place of the supreme executioner

Is like trying to carve wood like a master carpenter.

Of those who try to carve wood like a master carpenter,

There are few who do not injure their hands.



The Supreme Executioner

This chapter is unclear in several ways, in its Chinese original, and has been translated in quite different manners. The first part deals with the fear of death, the second with the executioner. The subjects connect, since Lao Tzu first discusses how fear of the death penalty makes people abide by the law, and then moves on to the one executing the punishment.

       The complication lies in precisely what he has to say about these things.

       In the first part, it's possible to read the second question as who dares to be an executioner, instead of who dares to break the law. That doesn't make much sense, if the fear of death is not supposed to be the fear of inducing it, as well as being struck by it.

       A fear of being the executioner is probably not what Lao Tzu implies, since it has nothing to do with the fear of breaking the law. The executioner acts to uphold the law, not to break it. So, I translate this part to deal with the fear of dying. Lao Tzu has commented this also in other chapters.

       That makes the message of the first part of the chapter quite obvious: people obey the laws if they fear the punishment. They obey them completely if they risk capital punishment.

       This can be discussed. The death penalty exists in many countries, but crimes are still committed there. Lao Tzu would conclude that some people in those countries don't fear death, at least not enough to refrain from criminality.

       It's hard to argue with such a statement, since it's very difficult to falsify. How to prove that people don't fear death enough? Actually, if they risk getting killed, they are obviously not overcome by the fear of it.

       As Lao Tzu says, they would need to be in constant fear of death. Otherwise they might at times be forgetful of it, and at such times they would be tempted to commit the crimes that the death penalty was supposed to prevent. This fear would only work if it were an obsession.

       The chapter has been interpreted as Lao Tzu's support for the death penalty. I doubt it. Here, he really says that it demands total obsession with this fear, which would be a terrible life. In the following chapter he will continue his reasoning by explaining why people are not that fearful of death.

       Instead of advocating the death penalty, he may be pointing out its shortcomings and hinting at solutions elsewhere.


Nature Kills

That would explain the next part of this chapter, where he moves on to say that there is one supreme executioner, who cannot be imitated without risk. That master executioner is nature. Death from natural causes is the unavoidable executioner who never fails. Why should we try to compete with it?

       Nature behaves according to Tao, so this must be true for natural causes as well. The supreme executioner is appointed by none other than Tao, that is to say it's in accordance with the Way, and part of its structure. If we try to take it upon ourselves to decide when people should live and when they should die, then we surely deviate from the Way. That is bound to fail.

       An alternative interpretation of this part of the chapter makes the supreme executioner the human being appointed by the government. That would make some vague sense if the first part of the chapter asks who dares to execute others, but the train of thought would still be odd.

       If we are afraid of killing, then we hardly aim to take the role of the executioner. So, in this case the second part of the chapter is meaninglessly just stating what we already know and support. That's not very likely.

       We can't apply our present questioning of the capital punishment on something written more than two thousand years ago. In the society where Lao Tzu lived, there was little ethical opposition to the death penalty.

       But Lao Tzu's Tao is one where any action should be considered carefully, and avoided if at all possible. Putting people to death would be drastic also in the eyes of the people at his time, so it would be strange if he didn't feel uncomfortable with it.

       Also, he states repeatedly that violent solutions are the worst.

       It's not unthinkable that Lao Tzu wished to argue against the death penalty, as well as other forceful actions common in his time – as in ours. If so, the first part of this chapter presents a common argument for the death penalty. It's supposed to work as a deterrent. But then the second part starts to explain why this is not a valid excuse.

       In the next chapter he continues by stating that people aren't that afraid of death, because of society's imperfection. So, the deterrent doesn't work. Then there is no good reason for the killing.

       Society should be protective of its people, like a mother, and not brutal like a vindictive warrior. Lao Tzu might not insist on an end to the death penalty, but he is not likely to believe that it benefits society.

© Stefan Stenudd.

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Tao Te Ching Explained


Preface


Introduction


Literature


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translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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Tao Te Ching Explained


James Legge's Tao Te Ching


Aleister Crowley's Tao Te Ching


The 1st Chapter of Tao Te Ching in 76 Versions


Lao Tzu - Legendary Author of Tao Te Ching





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