Daodejing Chapter 74 breakdown: when the people do not fear death

Richard Brown
2 min readOct 30, 2023

Chapter 74 of the Daodejing laments that the rulers of Laozi’s time do not seek to transform their subjects with the Dao, but instead rely on the use of excessive fear and harsh punishments to assert control over the common people.

Section 1
When the people do not fear death,
Why frighten them with death?

The chapter begins by questioning the necessity of tyrannical laws and punishments to maintain social order. When a ruler has become so harsh and repressive that the common people are no longer afraid of death, threats of execution are counterproductive.

Section 2
Who would dare to arrest those
Who step out of line,
And put them to death,
Just to make sure that the people,
Live in constant fear of death?

Making an example of individuals who have run afoul of the law is equally fruitless. When conditions for the common people become so desperate that they feel they have nothing left to lose, draconian threats will no longer deter them from rebelling against their ruler.

Section 3
There is already an official executioner,
Charged with killing.
To take the place of the executioner,
ls like chopping wood
In place of a master woodcutter.
Of those who chop wood
In place of a master woodcutter,
Very few avoid injuring their hands.

When the text points out that an official executioner already exists, it is most likely referring to the Dao, under which the lifespan of all beings is predestined. If a ruler presumptuously kills someone before their allotted time, he is likely to harm himself like a novice chopping wood instead of a master woodcutter by creating antagonism and opposition among the family and friends of the victim. Those who live by the executioner’s axe are doomed to die from it.

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Daodejing Chapter 74: laying down the law

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.