Chapter 75 – Life Should Be for Living

 People starve
If taxes eat their grain,
And the faults of starving people
Are the fault of their rulers.
That is why people rebel.
Men who have to fight for their living
And are not afraid to die for it
Are higher men than those who, stationed high,
Are too fat to dare to die.

Translation by Witter Bynner (1944)
(This is Chapter 74 in Bynner’s translation)


 Come you Masters of War
. . . . .
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

 Bob Dylan, “Masters of War,” (1963)


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have chosen Witter Bynner’s translation for this chapter primarily because I wanted some symmetry with the commentary on Chapter 53 that started with Bynner’s version and then a quote from Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

It does not require much analysis to see that the Tao Te Ching’s “men who have to fight for their living” can be compared to the bleeding “young people” in Dylan’s song, or that those who “are too fat to die” are like the “Masters of War” who hide in their mansions.

I am tempted to end this discussion with that observation.  I hate to break it to you, though, that I feel I must resist that temptation.  Instead, I am going to set our many more words because I would like to consider several other translations:


 Lin Yutang’s 1948 translation renders this chapter:

 When people are hungry,
It is because their rulers eat too much tax-grain.
   Therefore the unruliness of hungry people
   Is due to the interference of their rulers.
   That is why they are unruly.
The people are not afraid of death,
Because they are anxious to make a living.
That is why they are not afraid of death.
   It is those who interfere not with their living
   That are wise in exalting life.

Wing-Tsit Chan translated it as follows in 1963:

 The people starve because the ruler eats too much tax-grain.
Therefore they starve.
They are difficult to rule because their ruler does too many things.
Therefore they are difficult to rule.
The people take death lightly because their ruler strives for life too vigorously.
Therefore they take death lightly.
 It is only those who do not seek after life that excel in making life valuable.

Here is Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English’s 1972 translation:

 Why are the people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.
Why do the people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take death lightly.
Having little to live on, one knows better than to value life too much.

James Legge’s 1891 translation is:

The people suffer from famine because of the multitude of taxes
consumed by their superiors. It is through this that they suffer

The people are difficult to govern because of the (excessive)
agency of their superiors (in governing them). It is through this
that they are difficult to govern.

The people make light of dying because of the greatness of their
labours in seeking for the means of living. It is this which makes
them think light of dying. Thus it is that to leave the subject of
living altogether out of view is better than to set a high value on

Those are probably enough to illustrate one of the difficulties with this chapter – that being the last few lines.  In each translation, the first part of the chapter tells us that if a ruler seeks exorbitant taxes, the subjects will go hungry; and if the government interferes too much in the lives of the people, they will become recalcitrant, or even rebellious.  However, after that introduction, the subject turns to why people think so little of dying.  It is in that part of the chapter that the translations contain important differences.

It is possible to read some as saying that the great burden imposed by the greedy rulers can make life hardly worth living.  Others seem to say that because the ruler tries to live so “high on the hog” (that is a quaint saying, not a quote from Lao Tzu), the people would just as soon die because they do not want to be like their prince.  Still others could be interpreted as saying that  the oppressed people want to make the most out of their miserable lives, so they “go for the gusto” (again, not a quote from Lao Tzu)  without regard for the consequences.

Arguments could be made for or against those various approaches, but I would like to consider a different point of view.  The approaches I have mentioned so far are observations.  You can see the sage sitting in solitude, next to his water buffalo, reflecting on the world and government he is trying to leave behind.

What if the words are not meant as simple observations, though?  What if the sage is intending to give advice to rulers (as he has done in other chapters)?  If that is the case, he is essentially saying, “Prince, if you get greedy; if you emphasize the material; if you impose your will on your subjects, then these are the outcomes you can expect.  They are not good outcomes.  However, if your rule was based on non-action and following Tao, then all life – yours, the people’s, future generations’ – would be more valuable and worth living.”

Life, at it is discussed through most of this chapter is just another material possession.  It doesn’t have to be like that.  Lao Tzu, I think, recognized that an enlightened prince would be able to uplift the people as well as himself.

It wouldn’t even have to be the prince.  It could be the Ruler Formerly Known as Prince.


  1. Yeah, it is problematic trying to figure out whether the sage is talking about political rulers who tax their subjects to death – or close enough to it that they don’t care if they live or die – or if he’s talking about oligarchs. Or the internal ruler of our own kingdom.

    Is it oligarchs, who keep so much for themselves that the people lose the will to live because there’s just not enough to go around? Is it about income disparity and hoarding, self-indulgent ways devoted to having, holding, keeping and guarding, regardless of the cost to others? Yeah, it is. It’s about politicians, too.

    And it’s also closer to home. It’s about what rules our own time and attention and what creates our personal experience. It’s about how we can tax ourselves into a condition that has drained the life out of us, levying the self-imposed tolls and sacrifices and compromises required by “workin’ for the man” rather than working for the wages of what we know to be truly worthy – the returns we gain when we work to be safe, free, connected and at peace by embracing the virtues everywhere present and visible to us, if we look, in the Tao, on the Tao, or however we want to characterize that onboard, internal wisdom and its ways and means.

    We can tax the love of life right out of ourselves if we submit ourselves to coercions and corruptions of selfishness which have reinterpreted the truth of who we are really and imbued us with a sense that we are unsafe, doomed to slavery, separated, and in contention with others. Some eventually just nip out behind the barn and put a bullet through their head, but most are simply reduced to a zombie walk through a living, breathing universe which keeps an open invitation for them to wake up, join in, and live.

    It’s the political season, so I suppose governmental taxes are a good frame of reference. In the sage’s day the government was the sole taxing authority, but these days there is another which is not held by law to a certain percentage of blood when it dips its beak. Instead, it takes all it can get and is too ignorant to know that if it sucks all the blood out of its victims then there will be no victims to victimize, and its ways and means of living will prove to be the reason for its own death.

    Can you guess its name by the nature of its game? Here’s a hint. The USA is a “consumer economy.” In order to consume, people must earn money and spend it. So what happens when the hundred dollars earned and spent over and over again ten years ago is now less, because a significant chunk of that “green energy” is spending its time locked in an offshore account? The result is more desperate people squeezed into more desperate contention between themselves, fewer winners and more losers, and generally a world created by fear of lack which occupies, oppresses, depresses, and convinces some people that life is worthless.

    That’s when it’s time to remember that those perspectives are the creations of corruption and there is a wealth of living to be had outside the fence of the small killing floor predators maintain.

    In these momentary days of the election cycle, when bullshit buys votes with dollars and decibels and the people sow the seeds of what they will earn and deserve for succumbing to the ways and means of fear-mongers, I do my best to avoid anything which might come to try to convince me that life is not worth living because I am unsafe, doomed to slavery, separated, and/or in contention with others.

    The sage observes that people do what they do. I’m a people. I do what I do. I live. I love and am loved; I have a place to go, and a thing to do. None of it pays me a nickel. And the returns are immense, and immeasureable.

    Your title for this chapter is perfect, Louis. Life should be for living. Not dying.

    • Yeah, when the way a person lives his or her life becomes a thing to be bought and sold, Tao is not a part of that bargain.

      You mentioned the political season again, and the parts of life that revolve around truths are really being bought and sold here. I heard today that Denver and Colorado Springs are in the 10 media markets in which the most money is being spent on political ads. I would like to “truth-check” some of those. For example, I received something in the mail today claiming that Mark Udall voted with President Obama 99% of the time. I would say, “False,” because President Obama does not vote. The House and Senate do that.

      The same ad also said that Sen. Udall cast the deciding vote to pass Obamacare. Again, I would say, “False.” There is technically nothing called “Obamacare.” Assuming the ad refers to the Affordable Care Act, that legislation passed the Senate by a vote of 60-39 and the House by a vote of 219-212, so Udall could have stayed home or played golf and the outcome would have been the same.

      If I was the Republican ad agency, I would say why not vote for now-Rep. Gardner because if you replace any Senator with the worst member of the House, it would improve both chambers. That would be a good ad, but my truth checking would again say, “False.” There is no way to prove by even a preponderance of the evidence that Cory Gardner is really the worst member of the House. That title is one that is hotly contested.

      I would also like to be the ad agency for the folks that want to turn a horse racetrack in Aurora into a casino that is given a constitutional monopoly in the Denver Metro area. I would say, if you are stupid enough to vote for something like this, at least “Careless” Cliff will stay off the mountain highways since there is a casino nearer to his home. Truth checking would not mean much here because I have not yet written my story about “Careless” Cliff. I need to do that soon.

      There are so many things that are inappropriately bought and sold – like truth – that I would like to try to keep life out of the bartering.

      • Your idea to bring back truth in advertising – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one – is great! Once again I was lucky coffee didn’t laugh-snort out my nose. Perhaps that’s the subconscious desire of voters, to make the rest of the representation they have better by sending the very worst back to the body politic. I always wondered why, given the choice of two evils in a popular vote, the greater of the two is the one selected.
        I did a bit of perfunctory research on Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders,” written in the 1950’s about the techniques of advertising and the questionable morality of manipulating people by appealing to what he characterizes as the deep, subconscious, human characteristics and desires which motivate choice and action:

        The search for comfort, happiness, security and safety.
        The desire for reassurance, recognition, and validation of self worth.
        The basic urge to build and create.
        The desire to love and be loved through people, places or things.
        The desire for a sense of power and control.
        The urge to form a social identity allying the individual with a group.
        The fear of death.

        That last one is, of course, the sage’s focus in the past 4 chapters. I think we need to be thankful that in the sage’s day advertising was not as hyper-articulated as it is now. If it had been, his exposure to it might have obliterated whatever hope he held in future generations and he might have been inclined to forget about recording his hard-earned wisdoms and instead said “Ah, screw it, I’m goin’ fishing…” Or maybe that was where he was headed when detained at the border.

        While I was cruising some of the later responses to Packard’s work I got the sense that most of the folks who wanted to regard advertising as good rather than bad, and a practical necessity rather than a moral compromise, were people in advertising. There was also support for media manipulation of the hearts and minds of the people from the scions of the monetarily privileged by way of Ivy League publications.

        So it goes. We’ve voted already, having done our due diligence and, ever contrary to the norm, done our best without benefit of advertising to select the lesser of the evils presented to us. It will be nice to turn the phone back on once this folly storm has passed.

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