"There is one appointed supreme executioner."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 74
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
If people are not afraid of dying,
Why threaten them with death?
If people live in constant fear of death,
And if breaking the law is punished by death,
Then who would dare?
There is one appointed supreme executioner.
Truly, trying to take the place of the supreme executioner
Is like trying to carve wood like a master carpenter.
Of those who try to carve wood like a master carpenter,
There are few who do not injure their hands.
The Supreme Executioner
This chapter is unclear in several ways, in its Chinese
original, and has been translated in quite different manners.
The first part deals with the fear of death, the second with
the executioner. The subjects connect, since Lao Tzu first
discusses how fear of the death penalty makes people abide
by the law, and then moves on to the one executing the
The complication lies in precisely what he has to
say about these things.
In the first part, it's possible to read the second
question as who dares to be an executioner, instead of who dares
to break the law. That doesn't make much sense, if the fear
of death is not supposed to be the fear of inducing it, as
well as being struck by it.
A fear of being the executioner is probably not what
Lao Tzu implies, since it has nothing to do with the fear
of breaking the law. The executioner acts to uphold the
law, not to break it. So, I translate this part to deal with the
fear of dying. Lao Tzu has commented this also in other
That makes the message of the first part of the
chapter quite obvious: people obey the laws if they fear the
punishment. They obey them completely if they risk capital
This can be discussed. The death penalty exists in
many countries, but crimes are still committed there. Lao
Tzu would conclude that some people in those countries
don't fear death, at least not enough to refrain from criminality.
It's hard to argue with such a statement, since it's
very difficult to falsify. How to prove that people don't fear
death enough? Actually, if they risk getting killed, they are
obviously not overcome by the fear of it.
As Lao Tzu says, they would need to be in constant
fear of death. Otherwise they might at times be forgetful of
it, and at such times they would be tempted to commit
the crimes that the death penalty was supposed to prevent.
This fear would only work if it were an obsession.
The chapter has been interpreted as Lao Tzu's
support for the death penalty. I doubt it. Here, he really says that
it demands total obsession with this fear, which would be
a terrible life. In the following chapter he will continue
his reasoning by explaining why people are not that fearful
Instead of advocating the death penalty, he may
be pointing out its shortcomings and hinting at solutions
That would explain the next part of this chapter, where
he moves on to say that there is one supreme executioner,
who cannot be imitated without risk. That master executioner
is nature. Death from natural causes is the unavoidable
executioner who never fails. Why should we try to compete
Nature behaves according to Tao, so this must be true
for natural causes as well. The supreme executioner is
appointed by none other than Tao, that is to say it's in
accordance with the Way, and part of its structure. If we try
to take it upon ourselves to decide when people should
live and when they should die, then we surely deviate from
the Way. That is bound to fail.
An alternative interpretation of this part of the
chapter makes the supreme executioner the human being
appointed by the government. That would make some vague sense
if the first part of the chapter asks who dares to execute
others, but the train of thought would still be odd.
If we are afraid of killing, then we hardly aim to take
the role of the executioner. So, in this case the second part of
the chapter is meaninglessly just stating what we already
know and support. That's not very likely.
We can't apply our present questioning of the
capital punishment on something written more than two
thousand years ago. In the society where Lao Tzu lived, there
was little ethical opposition to the death penalty.
But Lao Tzu's Tao is one where any action should
be considered carefully, and avoided if at all possible.
Putting people to death would be drastic also in the eyes of
the people at his time, so it would be strange if he didn't feel
uncomfortable with it.
Also, he states repeatedly that violent solutions are
It's not unthinkable that Lao Tzu wished to
argue against the death penalty, as well as other forceful
actions common in his time – as in ours. If so, the first part of
this chapter presents a common argument for the death
penalty. It's supposed to work as a deterrent. But then the
second part starts to explain why this is not a valid excuse.
In the next chapter he continues by stating that
people aren't that afraid of death, because of society's
imperfection. So, the deterrent doesn't work. Then there is no good
reason for the killing.
Society should be protective of its people, like a
mother, and not brutal like a vindictive warrior. Lao Tzu might
not insist on an end to the death penalty, but he is not likely
to believe that it benefits society.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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