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)


business man shrugTo me, this is one of those chapters that leaves a reader with more questions than answers.  If we consider some of those questions, perhaps a bit of understanding will emerge.

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.”

Q.  Who is writing this chapter?

That is a reasonable question.  The next lines Lau translates: “Were the people always afraid of death and I were able to arrest and put to death those who innovate”; and Chan:  “Suppose the people were always afraid of death and we can seize those who are vicious and kill them.”  It makes a person wonder who is speaking.  Is Lao Tzu now the fastest gun west of the Yangtze and ready to form a posse to bring scofflaws to justice?  That doesn’t sound like anything the Old Master has said up to this point.

However, it does sound to me like something the later legalists would say.  I mentioned the legalist philosophy and Han Fei Tzu back in the discussion of Chapter 50.  Han Fei Tzu was a student of a neo-Confucianist known as Hsun Tzu.  Another of Hsun Tzu’s students, who became an important minister and strong proponent of legalism was Li Ssu, who is said to have written:  “Only an intelligent ruler is capable of applying heavy punishments to light offenses.  If light offenses carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offense.  Thus the people will not dare to break the laws.”

The ideas taught by Hsun Tzu and implemented by the legalists were based on the belief that the nature of man is evil, so man’s actions must be controlled by effective and severe punishment.  Such was not the traditional Confucian belief (which traditional belief was more nearly espoused by Mencius at about the same time as Hsun Tzu was teaching).  Since Lao Tzu had probably been deceased for a couple of centuries before the legalism of Han Fei Tzu and Li Ssu, it again seems possible that at least the first part of this chapter was written by someone other than Lao Tzu.

I have tried to find a true Taoist scholar whose research might support this conjecture on my part, but so far I have found none.  For now, it’s my story and I am kind of sticking to it for this essay.

Q. This chapter also talks about daring. Whose daring is being considered?

 The two translations set out above are very similar in almost all aspects except, perhaps, one.  I say “perhaps” because there is again a question of interpretation.  Lau says:  “. . . if I were able to arrest and put to death those who innovate, then who would dare?”  This sounds like the legalist approach mentioned above.  Harsh penalties serve to restrain any thought of illegal or rebellious action.

Chan, though, says:  “Suppose . . . we can seize those who are vicious and kill them, who would dare to do so?”  That translation sounds like the consideration is not of who would dare to break the law, but of who would dare to seize and kill the criminal.

Q.  How do the remaining lines of this chapter fit into what was said at the beginning?

 The remainder of the chapter seems more like the sage we have been following for the past 73 chapters.  We are told that there is a “master executioner,” which is not a human being, but is that aspect of Tao that is called “Heaven” or “Nature.”  Everything that has life in this world eventually experiences death to the world.  That is the natural flow.

We are also told about the “master carpenter.”  Again, that seems to be Tao.  The image of Tao as an “uncarved block” has been used many times.  It is the Natural way for Tao to hew that block to bring the 10,000 things into their existence.  For a human being to start slashing away at the block by causing an unnatural death of another is contrary to the Natural way – and we should all know what happens when someone starts messing with Mother Nature.

Recall that “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” and “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”  Think, too, of global warming and genetically modified Frankenfood and acid rain.  All of that is jumping centuries ahead.  Suffice it to say here that this chapter ultimately counsels, as have others, that we humans should try to avoid violence and follow the course of Nature.

Q.  Is any of this relevant to the modern world?

As a matter of fact, yes it is.  One can see the first part of the chapter as a consideration of political approaches to the efficacy of capital punishment, while the latter part might be considered more an ethical or religious approach.  The difference between those two was illustrated very recently in a debate between the two major candidates in the 2014 election for Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper and Bob Beauprez.

In 1993, Nathan Dunlap, a man who had been fired from his job at a Denver restaurant, hid in a restroom until after closing and then shot and killed four of his former co-workers and injured another.  It took 20 years for the case to work its way through the complete maze of the judicial system, but Dunlap, who had been sentenced to death, was finally supposed to be executed in 2013.  Governor Hickenlooper intervened, and ordered an indefinite temporary stay.  Hickenlooper said that he had learned that it had not come out at trial that Dunlap suffered from a mental disability, a kind of bipolar disorder,

In a debate during the gubernatorial campaign, Beauprez – who is a staunch pro-life, anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia Roman Catholic Republican (who, by the way, does not think that global warming is caused by humans) – challenged Hickenlooper on that decision and stated that if he is elected Governor, he will order Dunlap’s execution.

Hickenlooper responded that many groups, including the Catholic Church, oppose the death penalty.  That led Beauprez to indignantly say, “I hope you didn’t question my Catholicity, because I am quite Catholic.”

Hickenlooper explained, “ I’m not a Catholic, and I certainly would never challenge your Catholicism, but [former Denver] Archbishop Chaput and I became very close friends over a variety of issues, and he was the one who first pointed out to me and walked me through the entire New Testament.  There’s no place for ‘an eye for an eye’; the entire New Testament is about forgiveness.”

Beauprez said he had reconciled his position with the archbishop.  His position seems to be that Colorado law includes the death penalty, so it should be enforced.

Again, it is the politics versus the ethics.

Q.  While you are getting carried away here, are there any other current election issues you believe need to be discussed?

Don’t even get me started.

Q.  Is it necessary to consider this chapter only in terms of capital punishment?

No.  Look at Wayne Dyer’s modern interpretation.  He renders (not translates) this chapter as follows:

“If you realize that all things change,
There is nothing you will try to hold onto.
If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.
Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
Chances are you will cut yourself.”


  1. Hi Louis,

    Heartfelt resonances from your commentary, in no particular order:

    “For now, it’s my story and I am kind of sticking to it for this essay.”

    “Again, it is the politics versus the ethics.”

    “ The legalist approach (is)… Harsh penalties serve to restrain any thought of illegal or rebellious action.”

    And my personal favorite:

    Q. While you are getting carried away here, are there any other current election issues you believe need to be discussed?
    “Don’t even get me started.”

    For my own purposes here I’ll go back to Lin Yutang’s translation, which groups chapters 72-75 under the topic heading of “Punishment.” I’ve cherry-picked the following portions of 72-74 to initialize my perspective.

    72. On Punishment (1)
    When people have no fear of force,
    Then (as is the common practice) great force descends upon them.
    …Therefore [the Sage] rejects the one (force) and
    accepts the other (gentility).

    73. On Punishment (2)
    Who is brave in daring (you) kill,
    Who is brave in not daring (you) let live.
    … [Yet] Heaven’s Way (Tao) is good at conquest without strife…

    74. On Punishment (3)
    The people are not afraid of death;
    Why threaten them with death?
    …He who handles the hatchet for the master carpenter
    seldom escapes injury to his hands.

    — Lin Yutang

    These chapters address the ways and means the individual or the Emperor uses to control and manage and “rule” the people they encounter in their respective external kingdoms. Specifically, the sage addresses the inadvisability of using self-sourced force and using fear to coerce results from others.

    The sage advises us to be calm and wait, allowing the self will and freedom of others to exist as it will – and without interference – until such time that the way for the “ruler” to proceed has made itself manifestly clear and the best course of action has been revealed naturally by the conditions which the people of their respective realms have created.

    The focal points of the sage’s perspective in these chapters are death, fear of death, and freedom – freedom from the fear of death and, more inclusively, the freedom of every human being to choose what they will do and not do, and fear and not fear, through the agency of self will.

    There are so many ways to go with this topic! Once again the oracular nature of the TTC is apparent as the observations of the sage, while direct and plain, inspire personal insights in the recipient as we wonder, “What does this mean, really?”

    Oracles operate in the same way, presenting a sort of “specific generality” which moves us a bit aside from our normal perspective and brings us to a new way of viewing things outside the box of our normal, usual, reflexive viewpoint and understanding. Tarot works the same way, inspiring insight by moving the perspective into further consideration of options and combinations not seen in our typical process of navigation through the world and the people and events we encounter there.

    So. Death, fear of death, and the freedom of fear from death. To not fear death is a powerful personal manifestation of freedom. Whether enlightened, misguided or deluded, the person who is free of the fear of death is able to think and be and act in extraordinary ways.

    If they are zealots for a cause they can act in ways which are destructive to life and not virtuous in any way we can equate with the Te spoken of in the TTC. The zealot’s loss of fear regarding death, and their freedom to choose their actions – no matter how evil or selfish or misinformed or misguided they are – makes them a force to be reckoned with in the ruler’s realm.

    If, on the other hand, the person who has no fear of death has come to that freedom with a knowledge of goodness, selflessness, and true virtue – knowledge which is available in the honored holy texts of nearly every religion to the discerning, honest beholder – then they too manifest extraordinary power in the realm where the subjects of the ruler dwell.

    In the case of ego, the internal “ruler” of the persons and conditions of the external realm it sees and seeks to manage and control, the sage advises that imposing self will on others is inadvisable. And ditto for the Emperor. So it seems we have a principle present, a truth applicable across the board regardless of perspective.

    Be calm, and wait, and allow freedom and self will to be in the world (because they are facts), and let conditions there evolve until the course of action to meet the resultant creations appears naturally and is made clear in terms of true virtue, and not the egocentric desires or fears of either the Emperor or the self-willed ego.

    That course of action may prove to be anything from a preemptive military action to a well-placed response in a debate (ala Hickenlooper v. Beauprez), but the salient point is that the action is one which has come from calm, patient, honest regard of conditions as they have developed and a clear course of response has been arrived at naturally – that is, with regard for Te rather than selfish ego-sourced desires or fears.

    The exchange you describe in the Colorado gubernatorial debate is a good example. There you have a fundamentalist jihadist appealing to a constituency who believes it’s “us versus them” going up against a viewpoint which figures we’re all in this together.

    The jihadist wants support because he’ll kill a guy in order to assert and prove the strength of his beliefs, and that level of devotion will prove the righteousness of his position.

    The other fellow says, well, there’s mitigating circumstances here. And besides, killing the guy you want to kill isn’t such a good idea. It sort of disproves the tenets and teachings of right action, stuff that even your own religion recognizes as not being very virtuous or correct.

    So then the jihadist, employing strategy based on his own misguided and misinformed belief that only his constituency’s local desires are important, attempts to drive a polarizing wedge between his camp and “them others” by claiming his religious understanding is better than theirs. How dare you defy me/us? We know what you don’t, so there.

    And the other guy just naturally responds to the set-up created by the self-convicted jihadist (who has managed to corner himself as well as reveal his ignorance and patently self-serving rhetoric) and responds in the only way left: with the truth.

    The attempt to divide is defeated, the disorder of the jihadist’s perspective is revealed, and clarity is posed in the presence of confusion.

    Now the only thing left is to see how many of the people choose to see the truth present, and how many choose to continue on their own benighted little jihad. And then you have a governor! Who, regardless of which person it is, we must regard with calmness and patience, and allow them their choices and exercise of their freedom – whether it be based on selfishness or selflessness – and wait until our own next action response is revealed to us.

    Then we nuke’em.

    Unless, of course, they’ve insisted on taking up the Homer Handyman School of Homeland Carpentry and have cut off both their hands. Then we just feed’em small spoonfuls of the truth along with their cereal and provide them with prostheses – otherwise known as coping skills and a perspective of clarity rather than local confusion – and sew their ears back on so they can listen better and hear more the next time out, and send’em back out there.

    • Bob, you raise so many interesting points here that I do not think I will ever have time to respond to all of them. The most important, I think, are the remarks that you and Lin Yutang made about punishment, death and fear of death and freedom. I wouldn’t argue with any of them. I don’t know that I would state everything exactly as you have, but I would not argue against what you have said.

      I find your analogy of certain political candidates to jihadists interesting. However, from my perspective the politicians are not actually jihadists because jihadists seem to have a greater belief and conviction in their views. In discussing the gubernatorial election, you say “the only thing left is to see how many people choose to see the truth present . . ” I was trying to avoid it, but that leads me to another small rant about politics.

      This has been a terrible year in Colorado because the Republicans believe they can pick up a Senate seat here that will help them to gain a majority in that chamber. Consequently, probably hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in over-saturation advertising. The choices we have are not all that good. The Democrat’s candidate is Mark Udall, a career politician from a family of career politicians. His father was a Congressman, his uncle was a Congressman and Secretary of the Interior, and the family’s political involvement goes back much further, as you can see by clicking here. The Republican candidate, Cory Gardner, is a career liar – though he seems to come from a good family.

      Rather than emphasize Sen. Udall’s accomplishments, his campaign has chosen to attack Congressman Gardner’s support of pro-life, anti-abortion, personhood issues, claiming Gardner is “too radical for Colorado.” It is obvious to everyone that the real purpose of that approach is to pander to women voters because some high-ranking Democrat had pollsters tell him that this is the way to get women to vote for Democratic candidates. Gardner could be attacked for his anti-environmental voting record, his participation with the Republican leadership in the House to “shut down” the federal government and many other legislative sins. Those things have basically not been mentioned.

      Congressman Gardner’s approach to this line of campaigning has been to repeatedly lie – or tell what might be called “Republican truths” – about his position on the pro-life issues. He, too, is pandering to the women voters. There was an interesting moment in a recent debate when the moderators spent two full minutes calling Gardner a liar, and he did not even contradict them – nor did he answer their question. It was actually amusing, and anyone who cares to see that two minutes can see it by clicking here.

      The latest polls show that the voters slightly favor the career liar over the career politician. So much for the people choosing to “see the truth present.”

      I hate to go on, but I will for a moment. I don’t know about other states, but here in Colorado we don’t always have to choose between career political families and career liars. Sometimes they are found in a single person. I am thinking now about our State Treasurer, Walker Stapleton. His great-grandfather was Mayor of Denver for several terms, being elected with the open support of the Ku Klux Klan, of which he was a proud member. No one has mentioned that during the present election, which is only fair since it reflects on someone else from another generation. His mother is a first cousin to the first President Bush. His father was appointed as Ambassador to France and the Czech Republic by the second President Bush – though I am sure that was based upon his personal qualifications and was not any sort of nepotism. Those things have not been mentioned in this campaign, which again is only fair. Turning to Walker Stapleton, himself, there was an incident a few years ago when he was arrested for DUI and hit and run in California. He may have struck some pedestrians, in addition to damaging other vehicles, but somehow he was able to walk away with just a plea to DUI. Of course, he has probably reformed, so that has not been mentioned during the campaign.

      What has been mentioned is that Walker, the present Treasurer, has only shown up at his office about 10 days a month for the past several years – and sometimes only for a couple of hours in the afternoon. He has also missed a number of Public Employee Retirement Association meetings he should have attended, so he wasn’t at those meetings rather than being in his office. His campaign staff explains those facts by saying that Stapleton often forgets his key card, so he has to go into the building through the public entrance and the records do not reflect the times he was really there. I have a hard time believing that, but will the voters “see the truth present”? The polls show Stapleton to be slightly ahead of his opponent.

      None of this discussion will mean anything to people outside of Colorado – or probably to anyone at all when the election is over. I am probably being uncharitable and this discussion certainly doesn’t further an understanding of the Tao Te Ching. However, it does give some basis for my statement that many politicians do not have the personal beliefs and convictions that would be necessary for a jihadist.

      • Yes, yes, and yes. I suppose we could say that a true jihadist is not a moral coward, regardless of how benighted or twisted the root of that morality is. Or is “immoral coward” as personified by some politicians merely a subset of same?

        “Jihadist” equates in my mind with any inflexible, religiously self-righteous ego seeking power at the cost of harm to others. Ignorance of the harm they cause is perhaps a mitigating factor, but in no way a defense. Their actions, and the results of their actions, identify and convict them.

        “Career liar” and “career politician” in my experience is a redundancy except in those extremely rare cases where there is a demonstration of true virtue present in the politician.

        Colorado’s political nepotism has a fine history. It has been around long enough that some of the more alarming results of generational inbreeding have produced alarmingly effective, if twisted, progeny. My first exposure was to the Chenoweth family at the age of 13, a formative experience for sure, although the Chenoweths were only a relatively minor part of a larger cast of local Republican elitists. A story best told later.

        Suffice it to say that the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado – and particularly Denver and Colorado Springs – has been characterized by one historian as the great dam against which a vast flood of fortune-seeking scum from the East arrived, plundered and left, but the worst stayed and established social and political dynasties.

        So. Politics… The devolution of American politics has produced a creature who believes that in order to gain a majority of the vote it is necessary to wear two faces, pander to special interest groups, substitute substance with repetitive, loud assertions – especially if they are lies – and so slither their way through the voting process to the apple tree of office. The fruit of which they then offer to us, worms and all, in the form of “rule,” which proves to be more often an imposition of their own will and desires rather than a reflection of the wisdom offered by the sage, who counsels tolerance rather than a boot upon the neck of the people.

        But then again, one step back and a neck-wrenching turn from this transfixing scene, which carries all the hypnotic fascination of a fatal train wreck, we can sigh and hold with the sage. Politicians are people too. Let them live and do as they will, and wait for the moment when our own response to their ways and means is made clear.

        Then we nuke’em.

        But that’s a circular route. In 2001, the events of 9/11 produced a unity in America which awakened a hope in me for a citizenry which could be united in a common cause, the results of which would produce an America which was more interested in the welfare of all than the welfare of a few. It lasted about three weeks. In that moment we met one another in the street and market and workplace and asked each other how we were doing in the wake of our sudden, shocking bereavement. We ministered to one another. What an opportunity for American leadership to consolidate the people under a flag of compassion and a consciousness of our universal connection to one another!

        When the Bush administration squandered the moment and used it for their own benefit I re-engaged after a long removal from any interest in the political process. I fired salvo after salvo of missiles from the editorial page, speaking my truth and shining light in dark places with the candle I carried. The Bush administration provided a target-rich environment and I did pretty good so far as the world is concerned, a couple of writing awards and a guest editorial, but in the end the people did as they will, and the circular nature of the route I had taken revealed itself. I stepped off – and re-engaged with the sage’s path, which led me to the mountains here.

        It ain’t necessary to correct anything. All in all, it’s a self-correcting universe. These days I figure it’s best to just live my life quietly. And shine my light here and now, as the opportunity presents itself, and let it leak into others as it will.

        Sometimes though, I must admit, I still do use a missile to make a hole through which the light might leak in. Whether that works or not, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the universe for that answer. All I know is it’s what I do. And other stuff, too, of course.

        • I warned myself not to get started on these subjects Now I think I need to discuss two issues and hopefully move on to something more uplifting.

          ONE: I got to thinking about the overwhelming power of the written word on the internet. What if some earnest and unsuspecting voter, trying to find information to help him or her decide between candidates, is somehow directed here by a search engine. If that should happen, I would want that person to find more than the sarcastic comments I made earlier about Walker Stapleton. I said that it seems difficult to believe that Mr. Stapleton appears to be away from his office merely because he forgets his key card. I researched further to find a direct quote from him about the allegation of not working at his office full-time. It seems that what he actually said in a telephone interview with 9News, a local TV station, was reported as follows:

          “‘I don’t bring my key card into work every day,’ said Stapleton. ‘And when I don’t, the public entrance is closer to my car than the other entrances and sometimes people open the doors for me. The main point is every single day that I’m in Denver on my schedule I’m in the office. And to suggest otherwise is a complete bold-faced lie.'”

          So there you have it: If Mr. Stapleton is (a) in Denver and (b) on his schedule, he is at the office, fulfilling the duties of his elected office. The only remaining question is why wouldn’t he be in Denver and on his schedule. The answer seems to be that the State Treasurer’s salary is only $68,500/year. However, while Mr. Stapleton holds that office, he is also serving as a paid consultant to the real estate investment company in California, of which he was formerly CEO, permitting him to make up to an additional $150,000/year (see article here. The article is three years old, and the financial disclosure information I have seen generated since then is not sufficient to determine whether that arrangement has changed in any way).

          TWO: When you think of dynasties like the Chenoweth$ or the Bu$h family or the Kennedy$ or $tapletons, it is obvious that they have done well in business and commerce, even while engaging is significant public service. That realization leads me to end with a quotation from what has been my go-to book of late, Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido. In discussing the structure of traditional Japanese society, he says:

          “Of all the great occupations of life, none was farther removed from the profession of arms than commerce. The merchant was placed lowest in the category of vocations,–the knight, the tiller of the soil, the mechanic, the merchant. The samurai derived his income from the land and could even indulge, if he had a mind to, in amateur farming; but the counter and abacus were abhorred. We knew the wisdom of this social arrangement. Montesquieu has made it clear that the debarring of the nobility from mercantile pursuits was an admirable social policy, in that it prevented wealth from accumulating in the hands of the powerful. The separation of power and riches kept the distribution of the latter more equable. Professor Dill, the author of ‘Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire,’ has brought afresh to our mind that one cause of the decadence of the Roman Empire, was the permission given to the nobility to engage in trade, and the consequent monopoly of wealth and power by a minority of the senatorial families”

          That, of course, is not our system now – but Nitobe makes a valid point.

          • As far as Mr. Stapleton goes, what you say is relevant and observant and accurate. The evidence offers not absolute certainty so much as a very high probability that his explanation is a fabrication designed to deflect folks from the truth of his activity.

            It’s a common technique of the dissembler to throw out a possible explanation with the aim of producing a hesitation in the minds of folks who prefer certainty to probability and to whom assertions carry more weight than accuracy or truthfulness – attributes which are part and parcel of a significant percentage of the populace, particularly those who do not engage in independent critical thinking and rely on others to form their opinions.

            His claim also forms a basis for “reasonable doubt” even though there is more evidence available to assert there is a “reasonable certainty” that this guy is treating his office as a sinecure – an office or position requiring little or no work and yielding profitable returns.

            So basically it’s back down to who can see it, and who can’t. Keep shining a light on it and it will be more visible, at least to some.

            Also – the idea of separation of Wealth and State is a fascinating idea, and to some extent has been part of the American ideal of government just like the separation of church and state. If government is based on service to all people then it is blind to distinctions of religion and wealth. Yet it seems that in “reality” the ideal state of government is in constant battle with religion and wealth, which have formed their own separate states and wish to seize the power of the government, which presides over all with the powers of law.

            So basically religion and wealth seek to co-opt the law, seize the government, use it for their own purposes, and so corrupt the ideals of democratic government and law. The result is theocracy or oligarchy or an even uglier and more exclusive hybrid of the two, and the result is a trajectory toward an Absolute Boss who is dictator, god and tycoon.

            But as I observed earlier, it’s a self-correcting universe. When the balance of power in law, wealth and religion goes catawampus, eventually a self-righting adjustment occurs and either the culture or the individual finds themselves hanging from a lamp post in Italy or toasted in a bunker in Berlin, or in similar circumstances as documented by all of human history. It’s not an observation which gives us much security in the short, insignificant span of our own single lifetimes considering the profound and profane waste of life which occurs over the course of the cycle, but there it is. Yet so long as we are outside the arc of the scythe we live, and so long as we live we can live with virtue and meet the world accordingly.

            It seems inevitable in a dualistic experience that both perfidy and virtue would be resurrected from the ashes of any fallen state of government, and so the bottom line will always be what the individual chooses to hold faith in, and not what the state requires.

            Bushido as an ideal is admirable and has much to offer, as do all ideals because they embrace virtue rather than vice, selflessness rather than selfishness. In practice, however, the same sort of conflict and resultant corruption arises as is present in the battle between the state and church and wealth.

            When the noble warrior is viewed as chattel by the feudal lord, soon only a few ronin remain true to the ideals of Bushido – and so, not swayed by wealth, power, religion, or the state, they live with no master save virtue and so die with true virtue. The virtue of their essence.

            Time for a cuppa Te.

  2. Inevitable PS:
    The story of the 47 Ronin has been co-opted by wealth to be a tale about the virtue of loyalty to a master, whereas it is really about loyalty to virtue, and ideals. There’s a difference there which guys like Stapleton tend to miss. It’s a blindness created by devotion to wealth and power.

    • With respect to the 47 Ronin, I would like to refer again to Nitobe’s book, which was written less than half a century after Commodore Perry’s visit to open trade between Japan and the West. He says:

      Those who are well acquainted with our history will remember that only a few years after our treaty ports were opened to foreign trade, feudalism was abolished, and when with it the samurai’s fiefs were taken and bonds issued to them in compensation, they were given liberty to invest them in mercantile transactions. Now you may ask, “Why could they not bring their much boasted veracity into their new business relations and so reform the old abuses?” Those who had eyes to see could not weep enough, those who had hearts to feel could not sympathize enough, with the fate of many a noble and honest samurai who signally and irrevocably failed in his new and unfamiliar field of trade and industry, through sheer lack of shrewdness in coping with his artful plebeian rival. When we know that eighty per cent. of the business houses fail in so industrial a country as America, is it any wonder that scarcely one among a hundred samurai who went into trade could succeed in his new vocation? It will be long before it will be recognized how many fortunes were wrecked in the attempt to apply Bushido ethics to business methods; but it was soon patent to every observing mind that the ways of wealth were not the ways of honor. In what respects, then, were they different?

      “Of the three incentives to Veracity that Lecky enumerates, viz: the industrial, the political, and the philosophical, the first was altogether lacking in Bushido. As to the second, it could develop little in a political community under a feudal system. It is in its philosophical, and as Lecky says, in its highest aspect, that Honesty attained elevated rank in our catalogue of virtues. With all my sincere regard for the high commercial integrity of the Anglo-Saxon race, when I ask for the ultimate ground, I am told that “Honesty is the best policy,” that it pays to be honest. Is not this virtue, then, its own reward? If it is followed because it brings in more cash than falsehood, I am afraid Bushido would rather indulge in lies!

      “If Bushido rejects a doctrine of quid pro quo rewards, the shrewder tradesman will readily accept it. Lecky has very truly remarked that Veracity owes its growth largely to commerce and manufacture; as Nietzsche puts it, “Honesty is the youngest of virtues”—in other words, it is the foster-child of industry, of modern industry. Without this mother, Veracity was like a blue-blood orphan whom only the most cultivated mind could adopt and nourish. Such minds were general among the samurai, but, for want of a more democratic and utilitarian foster-mother, the tender child failed to thrive. Industries advancing, Veracity will prove an easy, nay, a profitable, virtue to practice. Just think, as late as November 1880, Bismarck sent a circular to the professional consuls of the German Empire, warning them of “a lamentable lack of reliability with regard to German shipments inter alia, apparent both as to quality and quantity;” now-a-days we hear comparatively little of German carelessness and dishonesty in trade. In twenty years her merchants learned that in the end honesty pays. Already our merchants are finding that out. For the rest I recommend the reader to two recent writers for well-weighed judgment on this point.[15] It is interesting to remark in this connection that integrity and honor were the surest guaranties which even a merchant debtor could present in the form of promissory notes. It was quite a usual thing to insert such clauses as these: “In default of the repayment of the sum lent to me, I shall say nothing against being ridiculed in public;” or, “In case I fail to pay you back, you may call me a fool,” and the like.”

      And with respect to Mr. Stapleton, I have already sent in my mail-in ballot, and I did not vote for him. Perhaps I will “Like” him on Facebook to make up for that.

      Do you have to have a Facebook account to “Like” someone? If that is necessary, I’m afraid I can’t even do that for him.

      • That’s a good observation by Nitobe. It sounds to me as though the quid pro quo “honesty” of the merchant has more to do with the small locality of personal agreements about merchandise – its quality, quantity, timeliness of delivery, cost, etc. – than it does with true honesty, which is present everywhere in the Tao and compromised only by the free will of individuals who may choose to twist its nature for selfish purposes.

        The merchant embraces only so much honesty as is necessary to effect the self-serving aim of the transaction, and embraces it only as a tool of mutual assurance required by conditions of the moment. It is a tool easily picked up and then put down again. As Nitobe observed, this sort of casual and intermittent form of honesty was alien to the samurai, who held honesty to be an intrinsic manifestation of virtue and sought to incorporate it wholly into thought and speech and action. As Nitobe observes:

        “…many a noble and honest samurai… signally and irrevocably failed in his new and unfamiliar field of trade and industry, through sheer lack of shrewdness in coping with his artful plebeian rival.”

        As we know too well, artfulness and shrewdness at managing to appear honest is not the same as being honest. Lack of honesty is a root and creator of self-centered illusion. When lack of honesty is honestly confronted and owned and recognized – bit of a catch-22 there, which is only circumvented when the individual chooses to choose again and be open to a different viewpoint – the curtain of illusion fades and behind it we behold the truth of honesty.

        It’s the high season for political fashion now, and everywhere the media runways are jam-packed with candidates wearing their shrewd and artful costumes. The quid pro quo there is despairingly superficial: “I will wear this, and you will vote for me.”

        It amazes me that the people, voting for a momentary appearance, often never realize that it is the appearance of a moment, and will continue to carry in their minds the illusion foisted upon them even after the future actions of their partner in political business reveal that it was just a single transaction, with no agreement or guarantee of future performance.

        The sage counsels us to let the people live and do as they will, and to be calm and wait until our way is revealed to us naturally. Then we act, then we speak.

        If the Emperor has no clothes we naturally offer that perspective up just as the child in the parable did. And perhaps, as Terry Pratchett observed, depending on how much one knows, or is willing to know, or is willing to not know and instead think of in terms of fear;

        “…it would be The Story of The Boy Who Got A Well-Deserved Thrashing From His Dad For Being Rude To Royalty, And Was Locked Up. Or the Story Of The Whole Crowed That Was Rounded Up By The Guards And Told “This Didn’t Happen, Okay? Does Anyone Want To Argue?”

        These days I vote hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. And if a candidate is patently and obviously naked beyond the thin idea of the raiment they have created out of whipped air for the moment, then I will say so.

        And if I am thrashed and sent into the exile of my own room or the dungeon I will still be the same child, growling defiantly that “…the danged idiot DIDN’T have any clothes on, and I COULD see his business, and that big old lifted 4×4 truck with the hemi engine he was riding in and waving from didn’t make it look any bigger at all!”

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