Fifth Taoist Contemplation: Military Advice

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

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 30

I was surprised to find military advice in the TTC, a book that emphasizes non-aggression. But then I remembered that Taoism provides the philosophical underpinnings for many martial arts traditions.

Many warrior traditions take Taoism as their philosophical underpinning and starting point, teaching to use yielding and flow to one’s benefit when one is fighting, for instance, by dodging blows. In this manner, the opponent gets tired and his own force can be used against him. Martial arts are excellent arenas to explore the play between yielding and asserting, and how both qualities can be strong, wise and useful in a fight.

Things become strong and then get old
This is called contrary to the Tao
That which is contrary to the Tao soon ends

Because things are constantly in a state of flow and change, there is only a natural measure of military aggression that nature allows before the vitality of a military body diminishes. We are reminded of the exagerated size of the US military, which has earned us so many enemies and planted the seed for our harm and danger, and planted the seed for our economic and political downfall as a world power. This year China finally replaced the US as the dominant global power.

The size of its military is a great part of what brought the Roman Empire down. When we are too forceful, Taoism teaches that we are counter-productive. All things ebb and flow, no matter how great, even nations and military powers in the stage of history.

Chapter 78 in particular warns against excessive violence carried out by the state, arguing that when enemies of the state are victimized publicly they oftentimes become countercultural heroes. The execution of Jesus by the Roman empire and the destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70 is one example of this: within four centuries, the entire empire was worshiping a Jewish rabbi. The flogging of Raif Badawi by Saudi authorities is having a similar effects: it’s galvanizing global opposition against the excesses of Saudi Islamo-fascism and the liberal blogger is now being considered for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Soldiers in battle die like cattle. – Philodemus, On Death

In chapter 42, the Tao Te Ching says that “the violent one cannot have a natural death”. Like our own sages, Lao-Tse warns against military involvement and says a military career is not a wholesome profession. Taoism teaches that we must only engage in war out of necessity and that in war, even victory should be treated as a funeral.

When using it out of necessity
Calm detachment should be above all

Victory without glory.
Victory in war should be treated as a funeral

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 31

Taoism teaches the doctrine of non-violence, however I did not find any specific strategies for non-violent resistance through a boycott (as in Jainism and Hinduism), or through exposure or comedy (as in Epicureanism). Instead, the sage is told to simply lower himself.

The great generals are not warlike
The great warriors do not get angry
Those who are good at defeating enemies do not engage them
Those who are good at managing people lower themselves
It is called the virtue of non-contention
It is called the power of managing people

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 68

Finally, in chapter 79, Lao-Tse advises that after dispues are settled, the sage must still remember that hostilities may remain and be mindful. He should not request vengence or payment of debts.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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6 Responses to Fifth Taoist Contemplation: Military Advice

  1. Eric Reynolds says:

    Hiram, I am really enjoying your Tao series. Thanks so much for these posts. I’ve been studying and practicing Taoist philosophy (and some Buddhism) for a long time. I’m something of a newbie to Epicurean ideas and saw the relationship between these eastern and western approaches right away. So it is very gratifying to see your posts.

    I teach meditation and mindbody methods in a clinic to people suffering from chronic pain. If ever there were people who would instantly agree with Epicurus’ notion of the primacy of moving away from pain towards pleasurable enjoyment of life, it is these folks. So I am getting a great deal out of my current study of Epicurus and your posts in particular. Thanks again.


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