"When bitter enemies make peace, surely some bitterness remains."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 79
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
When bitter enemies make peace,
Surely some bitterness remains.
How can this be solved?
The sage honors his part of the settlement,
But does not exact his due from others.
The virtuous carry out the settlement,
But those without virtue pursue their claims.
Heaven's Way gives no favors.
It always remains with good people.
Honor the Settlement
William Shakespeare dedicated one of his greatest
dramas, Romeo and Juliet, to the tragic fact that conflict is so hard
to end. Two families remain in a feud that has lasted for
generations. It doesn't end until the highest price is paid for
it – the death of both Romeo and his Juliet.
It's a human tragedy, indeed, that animosity is so
easily started and so painstaking to stop. Once aggression
has been expressed and returned, bitterness lingers on,
whatever conclusion is reached. It can remain for hundreds
of years, through many generations, even when the
original cause for it is forgotten. New reasons will be invented on
the way. When bitterness remains, the animosity is
renewed and enforced even by the most ridiculous little mishap.
Making true and lasting peace between two enemies
of old is as delicate a process as walking on thin ice. The
same is true for a conflict that has escalated to severe violence.
So many human shortcomings are involved, such as our
pride, our temper, and our distrust in each other.
Fear might be the key ingredient here, as in so
many other human failures. We dare do nothing else but
prepare for the worst we suspect from our adversaries, and
that's usually by doing it first. Disaster is bound to follow.
Again, yielding is the only way out. If we have the
courage and the unselfishness to begin by sacrifices of our
own, then our enemy can begin to relax. Peace is not
accomplished with swords drawn, and only by sheathing our
own swords can we expect our enemies to do the same.
Peace is worth the risk.
Among historians, it's strongly believed that one of
the important reasons for the outbreak of World War II was
the treaty after World War I. The victorious states
demanded great sacrifices from Germany after the first war, so
bitterness remained and continued to grow, making it
much easier for Hitler to throw Germany into the second war.
The world community learned its lesson, as did
the families Montague and Capulet after the death of their
children. After World War II, the conquered nations
were treated with some care and concern. They were
completely disarmed, but that worked to their own economic
advantage. No punishments were issued, except for some
German leaders in the Nuremberg trials, which came very close
to complete failure.
Nothing good comes out of striking at those who
have already surrendered. Violent conflict is a tragedy. When
it's ended, we should all concentrate on comforting and
healing each other. Otherwise, it just has not ended.
Lao Tzu widens this to apply for any kind of settlement
or agreement. The sage will concentrate on living up to
his promise, whereas a lesser person is fixed on making
sure that he gets his share, but ignores what he had agreed
If both behave like the latter, then an escalating
conflict is hard to avoid. But if one begins by showing trust and
paying what he is due, then at length it will be very difficult
for the other not to do the same.
Even if the reluctant party doesn't contribute, it's
better to let it go than to insist on his fulfillment of the
settlement. There are not many things a settlement can contain,
which are worth an escalated conflict with little hope of a
peaceful solution. Certainly not if war might follow.
Usually, when one of the parties is very reluctant to
hold to his part, the settlement was unfair to begin with. A
contract of any kind should have two winners. Otherwise,
at least one of them is a loser. That party will become bitter
Even if the loser accepts and delivers, bitterness will
follow. And bitterness is such that it remains for very long,
if not dealt with properly.
A contract, as fair as the judgment of King Salomon,
creates problems if one of the parties still feels
disadvantaged. Whether this feeling is legitimate or not, bitterness is born.
In a good solution, both parties not only benefit
equally, but are convinced of it. The next best solution is if the
party that can live with it the easiest, volunteers to gain the
least from the settlement. An agreement is a delicate matter.
It should be built on giving, not on taking.
Heaven's Way, which must again be a synonym for
Tao, the Way, allows no favors. In each situation, it is
present where the virtuous one goes, and where the most
virtuous decision leads. It's not so that it favors the virtuous. It
is present where the virtuous go, because they follow the Way.
Tao makes no adjustment for anybody. It twists
and turns for nobody. It needs to be followed to be
present. Therefore, those who follow it will benefit.
The Taoist Good
The good that Lao Tzu refers to here, should not be
confused with the Christian idea of being good. There are
great similarities, but also differences.
For example, to be a good Christian means to act
with compassion towards fellow men, for their sake. The
good Taoist, on the other hand, treats other people with
compassion, but it's as a result of following the Way, the grand
plan of the universe. It's not for the sake of other people, but
because it's the best line of action for the whole world.
That sometimes means people can be sacrificed, as
mentioned in chapter 5, for the good of the whole. In some
situations it's necessary to treat people as mere offerings.
The Christian idea is practically the opposite. Everything
else should be sacrificed for the good of the people. Well,
everything but people's own willingness to make sacrifices for
the good of other people. An interesting paradox.
The good used by Lao Tzu, shan, refers to the
virtuous, righteous, charitable, and kind. It points to actions that
are beneficial and in accordance with Heaven's order.
Lao Tzu would probably say that the only
completely good is to follow Tao completely. Those who do are
good, and so are their actions, as a consequence of following
the Way. What they are and what they do lead to Tao.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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