The Tao Theme of War

Zhan, war.

The Themes of the Tao Te Ching

To the Taoist, war is utter failure to follow Tao, the Way. Tao Te Ching, the great Taoist classic, speaks about it with both sadness and bitterness, giving concrete advice on how to diminish its destructive consequences, and what measures may keep it from re-emerging.

       Below are those chapters, out of the 81 in Tao Te Ching, which deal mainly with the gruesome topic of war and how it can be avoided.

30 Peaceful Solutions

Those who advice the ruler on the Way,

Do not want the world subdued with weapons.

Such deeds bring on retaliation.

Thorn bushes grow where armies have camped.

Battles are followed by years of famine.

Therefore, good leaders reach solutions,

And then stop.

They do not dare to rely on force.

Solutions without arrogance,

Solutions without scorn,

Solutions without pride,

Solutions without benefit,

Solutions without domination.

Things exalted then decay.

This is going against the Way.

What goes against the Way meets an early end.

31 Victory Is Cause for Grief

Weapons are ominous tools.

They are abhorred by all creatures.

Anyone who follows the Way shuns them.

In peaceful times, the noble ruler honors the left side.

At war, he honors the right side.

Weapons are ominous tools.

They are not the noble ruler's tools.

He only uses them when he can't avoid it.

Peace and quiet are preferred.

Victory should not be praised.

Those who praise victory relish manslaughter.

Those who relish manslaughter

Cannot reach their goals in the world.

At times of joy, the left side is honored.

At times of grief, the right side is honored.

At battle, the second in command stands to the left,

And the commander in chief to the right.

This means they stand as in funerals.

When many people are killed

They should be mourned and lamented.

Those who are victorious in war

Should follow the rites of funerals.

The terracotta army.

61 Conquer by Yielding

A great country is like the lower outlet of a river.

It is the world's meeting ground, the world's female.

The female always surpasses the male with stillness.

In her stillness she is yielding.


If a great country yields to a small country,

It will conquer the small country.

If a small country yields to a great country,

It will be conquered by the great country.

So, some who yield become conquerors,

And some who yield get conquered.

A great country needs more people to serve it.

A small country needs more people to serve.

So, if both shall get what they need,

The great country ought to yield.

67 Battle with Compassion

The whole world says that my Way is great like nothing else.

It is great because it is like nothing else.

If it were like everything else,

It would long ago have become insignificant.

I have three treasures that I cherish.

The first is compassion.

The second is moderation.

The third is not claiming to be first in the world.

By compassion one can be brave.

By moderation one can be generous.

By not claiming to be first in the world one can rule.

But to be brave without compassion,

Generous without moderation,

And rule without refraining from being first in the world

Are certain deaths.

So, those who have compassion when they do battle

Will be victorious.

Those who likewise defend themselves

Will be safe.

Heaven will rescue and protect them with compassion.

68 Peaceful Warriors

Excellent warriors are not violent.

Excellent soldiers are not furious.

Excellent conquerors do not engage.

Excellent leaders of people lower themselves.

This is called the virtue of no strife.

This is called the use of people's capacity.

This is called the union with Heaven.

It is the perfection of the ancients.

69 Like a Guest

Warriors say:

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.

79 Honor the Settlement

When bitter enemies make peace,

Surely some bitterness remains.

How can this be solved?


The sage honors his part of the settlement,

But does not exact his due from others.

The virtuous carry out the settlement,

But those without virtue pursue their claims.

Heaven's Way gives no favors.

It always remains with good people.

Tao Themes

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