"When equal armies battle, the grieving one will be victorious."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 69
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
I dare not be like the host,
But would rather be like the guest.
I dare not advance an inch,
But would rather retreat a foot.
This is called marching without marching,
Grabbing without arms,
Charging without enemy,
Seizing without weapons.
No misfortune is worse
Than underestimating the enemy.
Underestimating the enemy,
I risk losing my treasure.
When equal armies battle,
The grieving one will be victorious.
Like a Guest
The wise warrior would not invite to battle and presume
to control the circumstances. Instead, he considers his
actions carefully and expects the unexpected.
He acts like the guest, and not like the host. It's not
his party. He is even hesitant about visiting it, and would
make other plans if possible.
Therefore he is reluctant to advance even the
slightest. He would rather retreat, if that's at all possible. Moving
forward is stepping into the unknown, but backwards you
return to familiar territory.
Also, the warrior who is eager to advance is the one
who nurtures the illusion that war brings good things to the
winner. There are no winners in war. Those who know this
neither invite to it, nor hurry to advance in it.
The hesitant warrior marches without marching,
which is to say that he tries as much as he can to win the war
without doing battle. If prepared properly, a war can be
won before the battle begins.
To charge without enemy is to arm the country so
well in times of peace that war is avoided, or swiftly won.
It's arming to avoid war, not to wage it. The same can be
said for seizing without weapons.
War Is Failure
Neither the start nor the end of war is decided by what
happens in between, but what happens before. War is not
the means to an outcome, but an outcome. There was failure
to avoid it. Previous conditions and preparations are the
That's why the superior warrior grieves when forced
to do battle. To him, it means that something failed, and
tragedy for all ensues, no matter who wins and who loses.
His grief proves his superiority. Therefore, it's the sign of
the winner. Since he regrets going to war he is well prepared
to avoid it. That's also the preparation to win it.
Grabbing without arms is an expression that can
be compared to using one's arms without rolling up
the sleeves. That's how the line is usually translated.
When force is used, it should not be announced or displayed.
There is no mistake greater than underestimating
the enemy. That is sure to lead to losing the war. Those
who underestimate their enemies are unprepared for them.
How could they win? Not only will they lose the war and
what they might have sought to gain by it, but their failure is
also evidence that they lack essential insight into how the
The greatest of treasures, Tao, is not in their grasp.
The line about the treasure is ambiguous. It could
refer only to whatever treasures the warring parties try to
defend or seize, but Lao Tzu shifts to First Person. Since Tao is
the only thing he really treasures, he indicates that it's lost to
a warrior who acts so foolishly.
Indeed, those who hurry to war, thinking that they
are sure to win it, have moved very far from the Way. Even
if they should be so lucky as to win the war, they have
lost something more precious than any land they seize.
Soon, also what they conquered will be lost to them, since
they lack the wisdom to hold on to it.
War is won by those who know that nothing is won
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
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