Daodejing Chapter 74: laying down the law

Richard Brown
2 min readOct 28, 2023

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

「民不畏死,奈何以死懼之。若使民常畏死,而為奇者。吾得執而殺之,孰敢!常有司殺者殺。夫代司殺者殺,是謂代大匠斲。夫代大匠斲者,希有不傷其手矣!」

Even though it can be very tempting at times to lay down the law to make sure everyone follows the rules, threats of severe penalties for infractions are more likely to generate resistance than compliance.

Instead of resorting to fear and intimidation, it is better to nurture an environment where the best in people can flourish. By treating everyone with respect and compassion, you can inspire cooperation, trust, and a shared commitment to the greater good.

Notes
1.) Oppressive laws and harsh punishments were the norm across state governments during the Spring and Autumn period when Laozi lived. This authoritarian approach to government was championed by what became known as the Legalist (法家) school of thought, which was developed by a number of officials and thinkers including Guan Zhong (720–645 BCE), Shang Yang (390–338 BCE), and Han Feizi (c 240 BCE). Legalism reached its apogee with the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE. Even after the collapse of the Qin following the death of its first emperor, Legalism has continued to have a huge influence on Chinese governance until the present day.

2.) The “official executioner” is most likely the Dao, under which the lifespan of all beings is predestined.

3.) I took this image at the Baoan Temple in Taipei.

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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.