Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Warfare

By Lao Tzu


The one who uses the Tao to advise the ruler
Does not dominate the world with soldiers
Such methods tend to be returned (30.1-3)

What are some examples of this truism playing out in modern times? When has a ruler tried to dominate the world with armies only to have more armies come and take them out? Hm, how about WWI? WWII? Can we see this dire prediction from the TTC playing out in America's current War on Terror?

The place where the troops camp
Thistles and thorns grow
Following the great army
There must be an inauspicious year (30-4.7)

Here, the TTC hits us up with the metaphor of thistles and thorns to get across just how much harm armies can do. Using military force causes so much pain that it even makes plants grow that cause pain. Obviously, the TTC doesn't mean this literally, unless the ancient Chinese had some kind of plant-warfare that we don't know about.

A good commander achieves result, then stops
And does not dare to reach for domination
Achieves result but does not brag
Achieves result but does not flaunt
Achieves result but is not arrogant
Achieves result but only out of necessity
Achieves result but does not dominate (30.8-14)

Two things... 1) Notice how the theme of humility ties in here. If a military commander wants to be any good at his job, he'd better be humble about it. 2) Notice that the TTC admits that there is such a thing as a good military commander. So don't go saying that the TTC doesn't support our troops.

A strong military, a tool of misfortune
All things detest it (31.1-2)

Whoa, what would happen if a presidential candidate said something like this? Our guess: it'd take about an hour for them to no longer be a presidential candidate. Do you think this is totally true? Is a strong military always a bad idea?

Those who have been killed
Should be mourned with sadness
Victory in war should be treated as a funeral (31.20-22)

To the TTC, no victory in war should ever be celebrated since so many people inevitably suffered and died on the way there. What's your opinion? Is there ever reason to celebrate a victory in war?

Those who overcome others have strength
Those who overcome themselves are powerful (33.3-4)

So in a way, it might take a drug addict a lot more strength to overcome his addiction than it would to win a kickboxing match. How can this idea be exploded outward? If this is true for all the little people out there, how can it be true for big whoppin' countries?

The violent one cannot have a natural death (42.15)

We can't help but notice how similar this is to the Christian saying "For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew: 26:52). These parallels between Christianity and Taoism just keep happening.

Govern a country with upright integrity
Deploy the military with surprise tactics (57.1-2)

For one, this quote is definitely evidence that the TTC admits that war is sometimes necessary. If it's giving advice on how to fight, that has to be true, right? Secondly, does anybody think there might be a contradiction in the idea that a ruler should rule honestly, but fight sneakily?

When people have many sharp weapons
The country becomes more chaotic (57.8-9)

So this quote argues that when the people of a country have a lot of weapons, then the whole country ends up being more violent and chaotic. Tell this to somebody in the NRA, and you'll hear a whole other argument about how guns make everything more peaceful. Which side do you think is right?

Therefore, an inflexible army will not win
A strong tree will be cut down
The big and forceful occupy a lowly position
While the soft and pliant occupy a higher place (76.10-13)

Here's more evidence that the TTC isn't totally and completely against warfare. If it's giving advice on how to win a battle, it has to be recognizing that sometimes we just have to go there. The key advice here is that being flexible and adapting to changes will win a battle more quickly than brute force. Do think this is always true?

Small country, few people
Let them have many weapons but not use them (80.1-2)

Okay wait... How about that quote earlier that said arming the people would make a country chaotic? Does that not apply to small counties? It seems like this quote is totally recognizing that sometimes countries and people have to use violence to defend themselves from bullies. Ultimately, it seems like while Taoism seriously advises against war and violence of all kinds, it's not an all-pacifism-all-the-time kind of religion.