"Praise and disgrace cause fear."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 13
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Praise and disgrace cause fear.
Honor and great distress are like the body.
What does it mean that praise and disgrace cause fear?
Praise leads to weakness.
Getting it causes fear, losing it causes fear.
This is why praise and disgrace cause fear.
What does it mean that honor and great distress are like
The reason for great distress is the body.
Without it, what distress could there be?
He who treasures his body as much as the world
Can care for the world.
He who loves his body as much as the world
Can be entrusted with the world.
Is there any driving force in man surpassing that of fear?
We struggle all our lives to master it, and to avoid anything
that brings it about. Fear rules our existence to the extent
that there are few things we do without it being one of our
reasons, more often than not the most important one.
We worry about not getting what we want, and
dread losing what we have. We lock our doors, we arm
ourselves, we choose our friends carefully and scrutinize them
constantly, we keep strangers off, we fill our everyday
lives with numerous precautions, and still we worry about
what the future might bring.
Safety first, we say, making our controlled
environment a rigidly enclosed area that may keep danger out, but
definitely also locks ourselves in. Fleeing from our fear,
we make our lives more and more of an imprisonment.
The Fear of Death
What we guard with such mania are our own lives,
although death is the inevitable end and it doesn't wait for
an invitation. The ultimate fear is that of death. It lies
inside every other fear.
The death we fear is that of the body. We know
nothing else for certain. Our bodies will cease to function and
then decay. What happens next is a mystery to us. So, maybe
the fear that clings to us through all our lives is not that
of death, but of what it will lead to. We want to keep it off,
as long as we can, because we don't want to replace
something known with what's totally unknown. At the moment
of death, what replaces our bodily existence, if anything?
This is expressed by Hamlet in William
Shakespeare's drama, when the prince speaks about being or not
being. What makes him hesitate to commit suicide is not
the thought of complete annihilation, but the possibility
of somehow having his consciousness live on – forever:
"To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub. For in
that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we
have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause."
So we guard this mortal coil with desperation. We
are obsessed with our bodies. Their demands make us
dependent, and their fragility makes us fearful. If our bodies
were not so precious to us, we would have nothing to
protect. There would be few things we would fear losing,
because only things of the body can be stripped off of it.
Neither praise nor disgrace will stick to us if we don't value
the body, the physical entity to which they are connected.
The same is true for honor as well as distress.
The body is vulnerable. The more important it is to
us, the more vulnerable we will be.
Rule by Caution
Still, Lao Tzu doesn't condemn our dependence on our
bodies. We need to know that it is so, but then it can be a
fortunate circumstance – especially in the case of rulers. The
one who rules his realm with the same care he shows his
own body, will not hasten to take risks with it.
He will be hesitant in his rule and consider
everything very carefully before taking action. He will tend to inflict
on his realm as little as possible. This is exactly how Lao
Tzu prefers a ruler to be.
Because he worries about the world around him
as much as he worries about his own body, such a ruler will
be cautious. Then he will do little harm.
Not only rulers should live by this code, but every
one of whatever means. If we treat our surroundings with
the same care and love as we have for our own bodies, then
we are unlikely to cause trouble or damage.
So, Lao Tzu regards the fear we have as an asset, as
long as we are aware of its cause and act accordingly. We
should aim to preserve the world as we do our bodies. In that
way, fear is a good thing. It keeps us alert and cautious, and
it helps us set things in their right perspective.
By one simple question, we can stop ourselves
from numerous follies that we might otherwise indulge in
unwittingly: Is this worth dying for?
© Stefan Stenudd.
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