Chapter 75 – Life Should Be for Living
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)
I 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.