Dao de Jing: The Book of the Way

By Laozi; Moss Roberts | Go to book overview
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STANZA 74
1. If the people fear not even death itself,
2. How can execution frighten them?
3. If they are in constant fear of death,
4. And we seize and put to death
5. Committers of crimes, then who would dare?
6. But to keep the folk in constant fear, 1
7. Keep the master executioner near.
8. Let none kill in his stead, for that would be
9. To wield the knife in the master's stead—
10. And no one who would for the master stand
11. Escapes with an uninjured hand.

COMMENT These grim and cynical injunctions are set off but also necessitated by its gentler neighbors, stanzas 73 and 75. The placement of Laozi's biography together with that of the legalist Han Feizi in Sima Qian's Shiji may reflect the influence of this stanza. But many commentators, unwilling to see Laozi as a harsh proto-Legalist, have understood “executioner” to mean heaven's judgment on wrongdoers. Modern scholar Jiang Xichang follows this interpretation. If that indeed is the sense, then it follows that the ruler who employs capital punishment is usurping heaven's role and will injure himself.

If, however, Laozi is confronting the essential questions of statecraft in stanzas 73–76, in this stanza he may only be warning the ruler (the “we” of line 4) not to drive the people to desperation but to protect their livelihoods so that they will value their lives and thus accept his rule. Laozi may also want the ruler to distance himself personally from the necessary cruelties of suppressing crime, because ultimately the ruler bears that responsibility. 2 In the words

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