If men are not afraid to die,
It is no avail to threaten them with death.
If men live in constant fear of dying,
And if breaking the law means that a man will be killed,
Who will dare to break the law?
There is always an official executioner.
If you try to take his place,
It is like trying to be a master carpenter and cutting wood.
If you try to cut wood like a master carpenter, you will only hurt your hand.
(Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)
For each of us, life is meaningful, but in the era of Lao Tzu, the society was in turmoil, the rulers were fatuous, they not only imposed harsh policies on the people but also regarded the people’s lives as nothing but straw. In the eyes of the people, life is painful, death is the relief, and so they do not fear death. What’s the point of threatening death if you’re not afraid to die? So he tells the rulers not to use death to intimidate the people.
Lao Tzu followed up the above “the men are not afraid to die,” and proposed the opposite hypothesis: if the people are afraid of death, then the ruler can punish those who commit crimes according to law, who will dare to act recklessly in the future? Lao Tzu has always advocated benevolence, opposing the war, not to mention killing people. But here he advocates killing. This seems paradoxical. Only by punishing the wicked can we make the country stable and the people’s lives happy.
Therefore, the ruler must put the interests of the people first, so that the people will have plenty of food, clothing, and shelter, and then the people will naturally cherish their own lives. The world will be at peace, and the position of the ruler will be secure.
At the end of this chapter, Lao Tzu advises the ruler on the chaotic situation of the state that a master executioner is always present, impartial and never fails to dispense the appropriate punishment, including death. The master executioner is the law of nature. If human beings replace the role of this master executioner and enact what they perceive to be justice, then it seems that we act as a master carpenter to cut wood but without his skill. In his view, we cross the line, and it will result in endangering the country and hurting ourselves.