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.”
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.”