Chapter 69 – To Make Light of the Enemy
The strategists say: “I dare not take the offensive but I take the defensive;
I dare not advance an inch but I retreat a foot.”
This means: To march without formation,
To stretch one’s arm without showing it,
To confront enemies without seeming to meet them,
To hold weapons without seeming to have them.
There is no greater disaster than to make light the enemy.
Making light of the enemy will destroy my treasures.
Therefore when armies are mobilized and issues joined,
The man who is sorry over the fact will win.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
Pride goeth before destruction; and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Proverbs 16:18 (King James Bible)
This is another chapter in which Lao Tzu writes about war. Most of what is said here is not new. The Old Master counsels – by quoting “strategists” – that if war is necessary, there should be sufficient preparation, strength comes from yielding, and the side that enters the battle with compassion will be victorious.
Each of those points is discussed elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, so I would like to keep my focus here very limited. I want to look at the line that says, “Making light of the enemy will destroy my treasures.”
After the discussion of the strategists’ approach, the emphasis changes in the quoted line. Lao Tzu does not speak of losing a kingdom or the lives of the combatants or the property of the conquered. Instead, he says that making light of the enemy will destroy my (that is, the narrator’s, presumably Lao Tzu’s) treasures. From the placement of that
wording after the discussion in Chapter 67 and then the look at warfare in Chapters 68 and 69, it seems Lao Tzu is referring back to the three treasures of Chapter 67 – compassion, frugality and humility.
In the comments following the post discussing Chapter 67, Bob G argued that the first in importance of those treasures is humility. The other two can be seen as arising from the practice of humility. Bob is not the only one who has felt that way. Another is the late British author, C. S. Lewis; and I would like to present a rather lengthy quote from Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, which is available as a free ebook. The presentations in that book were originally a series of radio broadcasts delivered during the bombing of London in World War II. He says:
The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. . . . According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.
Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?” The point it that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride.
It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree. Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.
We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If every one else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not. The sexual impulse may drive two men into competition if they both want the same girl. But that is only by accident; they might just as likely have wanted two different girls. But a proud man will take your girl from you, not because he wants her, but just to prove to himself that he is a better man than you.
Greed may drive men into competition if there is not enough to go round; but the proud man, even when he has got more than he can possibly want, will try to get still more just to assert his power.
Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.
Take it with money. Greed will certainly make a man want money, for the sake of a better house,better holidays, better things to eat and drink. But only up to a point What is it dial makes a man with £10,000 a year anxious to get £20,000 a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. £10,000 will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. It is Pride—the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power.
For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers.
What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid. It is Pride. What is it that makes a political leader or a whole nation go on and on, demanding more and more? Pride again.
Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy.
The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity—it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.
In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison— you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.
The quoted language is found at Pages 121-124 of the HarperSanFrancisco paperback edition.
I have very little to add to what C. S. Lewis has said. When a ruler or general makes light of his enemy – or anyone, for that matter – he sets himself up for a fall, a defeat. Even if he is initially victorious, the pride continues to manifest rivals and enemies. History has shown us many proud men who have started out as haughty victors but found their end in abject defeat – Napoleon, Hitler, Custer and the list goes on.
Lao Tzu’s treasures – and the treasures of the Tao and of God and of human compassion – cannot actually be “destroyed” by the pride of some or most humans (we have a little hyperbole from the Old Master). They can certainly be deferred, though.