Chapter 74 – Questioning Capital Punishment
|When the people are not afraid of death,
wherefore frighten them with death?
Were the people always afraid of death, and were I able to arrest and put to death those who innovate, then who would dare?
There is a regular executioner whose charge it is to kill.
To kill on behalf of the executioner is what is described as chopping wood on behalf of the master carpenter.
In chopping wood on behalf of the master carpenter,
there are few who escape hurting their own hands instead. Translated by D. C. Lau (1963)
|The people are not afraid of death.
Why, then, threaten them with death?
Suppose the people are always afraid of death and we can seize those who are vicious and kill them, Who would dare to do so?
There is always the master executioner (Heaven) who kills.
To undertake executions for the master executioner is like hewing wood for the master carpenter. Whoever undertakes hewing wood for the master carpenter
rarely escapes injuring his own hands. Translated by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
Q. Who are these people mentioned in the first two lines who are not afraid of death?
In the previous chapter, the sage considered the daring brave who often end up dead. This could be a continuation of that discussion, but I think not. Those who are sufficiently oblivious to death to be considered brave, swashbuckling heroes usually make up a small minority of any social group.
The people who are mentioned could be those who believe in reincarnation or in an everlasting Paradise following their time in this world. However, those concepts have not been discussed up to this point in the Tao Te Ching.
I believe that to make sense of the first two lines, it is necessary to look ahead to Chapter 75. I had thought it might be good to discuss that chapter with this one, but have decided to look at each separately. For now, let us simply consider that one reading of Chapter 75 says that a government that is overly zealous in taxing and controlling the people can push them to the point where they do not care if they live or they die.
In Witter Bynner’s translation, he reverses what are normally Chapters 74 and 75, so the chapter we are here considering as Chapter 74, is Chapter 75 for Bynner; and this Chapter 74 comes after he states that “men who have to fight for their living . . . are not afraid to die for it.” Continue reading