Tao Te Ching – Chapter 74


Rulers who do not understand the Tao rule by fear. They threaten the people with death as the ultimate punishment for criminal acts. There is only one problem with this: what if people lose their fear of death? What then?

The ruling elite value their own lives and fear death, so they assume the same must be true for everyone. In a simplistic way, they imagine that if you capture and kill all criminals, then no one will dare to commit crimes. This fails to take the complexity of real life into account.

Reality regulates itself, like a master executioner killing those who should be killed. If we engage in the killing ourselves, then we are presuming to take the place of that executioner. It’s like an inexperienced apprentice trying to use the tools of a great carpenter — you fumble around and cut your hand instead of the wood. Thus, when play the role of executioner — when we give in to bloodthirst, and endorse killing in the name of justice, we actually hurt ourselves as a society.

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Translation Notes

Perhaps in an attempt to modernize the Tao Te Ching, one translation uses “industrial buzzsaw” instead of “great carpenter.” This is of course anachronistic, since there were no buzzsaws in ancient China, industrial or otherwise.

The basic question, for any modernization of the Tao Te Ching, is whether such attempts are necessary and beneficial. If a metaphor made sense in ancient times, but is difficult for modern readers to comprehend, then one has reasons for updating the language.

That’s not the case for this particular chapter. We certainly have carpenters in modern times, and it’s entirely possible for the inexperienced to hurt themselves when they misuse the tools of carpentry. Thus, the metaphor is not at all difficult for us. Changing “great carpenter” to “industrial buzzsaw” serves no useful purpose. It is not necessary, not beneficial — and in the final analysis, not much more than a gimmick.

Derek Lin
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