Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Punishment can represent a useful educational method but more often devolves into a powerful tool of repression. Attempts to define a justifiable purpose of punishment have created some of history’s most controversial and dubious debates. Running through the themes of justice, law, politics, and education; the ability to punish is perhaps the most easily corrupted powers humans and society receive. Too easily subject to conceptual bias, political conflict of interest, and religious dogmatism; punishments too-often fall off into fits of revenge, repression, and manipulation.

Lucretius describes how civilization evolved codes of punishment because we became “sick of the life of brute force.” While Kant and Hegel thought that all punishments are only based on retribution and revenge, Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Dostoevsky stressed the validity of punishments only when based on the reformation and deterrence of criminals. Montesquieu emphasizes the utility of punishments in terms of their ability to prevent crime and points out the discrepancy between what may best help reform and more severe punishments more effective as deterrents. Socrates submitted to an unjust application of a law because he believed in law itself while Gandhi and Thoreau thought unjust laws should not be obeyed. Wang Zhen highlighted the importance of intention and stressed being lenient with unintentional crimes, severe with intentional ones.

Philosophers like Lao Tzu, Diogenes, Mencius, Dostoevsky, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Jeremy Bentham and many others emphasized most punishments as a way of protecting strong, rich, and powerful elites from the rebellions of poor, weak, and oppressed majorities. As Mencius wrote, “hypocritical, greedy, and criminal leaders create the causes of crime and then punish the people for it.”

While punishment as revenge most often only creates more crime, more rebellion and lawlessness; viewing criminals as mental or social health victims opens the doors of rehabilitation. Instead of prisons mainly becoming universities for teaching people how to be more ferocious and successful criminals, they could foster more healthy environments and teach useful skills that could help create productive and meaningful careers.

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Quotes (76)

“All you teeming multitudes, listen to my words! It is not that I, the little child, would dare to act in a disorderly way. But this ruler of the Miao, with his unyielding ways, deserves Heaven's punishment.”

Yu the Great 大禹 c. 2200–2100 BCE via Mozi
Leader of the Five Water Immortals

Themes: Punishment

“Only pursue an offender to show him the way.”

Lao Tzu 老子 604 BCE - via Witter Bynner, #62
from Way of Life According to Lao Tzu

Themes: Punishment

“Educate the children and it won't be necessary to punish the men.”

Pythagorus 570 – 495 BCE
(of Samos)
"The most influential philosopher of all time"
from Golden Verses of Pythagoras Χρύσεα

38. Fruit Over Flowers

“You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”

Buddha गौतम बुद्ध 563 – 483 BCE
(Siddhartha Shakyamuni Gautama)
Awakened Truth

68. Joining Heaven & Earth

“Good government is that which resorts least to laws and punishments.”

Confucius 孔丘 551 – 479 BCE
(Kongzi, Kǒng Zǐ)
History's most influential "failure"

60. Less is More

“Generals who advance with no thought of fame, who retreat with no fear of punishment, who think only of protecting their country and helping their king are the treasures of the realm.”

Sun Tzu 孙武 544 – 496 BCE via Denma Translation Group
(Sun Zi)
HIstory's supreme strategist
from Art of War 孙子兵法

69. No Enemy

“When some one reminded him that the people of Sinope had sentenced him to exile, he said, 'And I sentenced them to stay at home.'”

Diogenes 412 – 323 BCE via Will Durant
(of Sinope)
from Life of Greece

Themes: Punishment

47. Effortless Success

“When he saw temple officials arresting someone who had stolen a bowl from them, Diogenes said, "The great thieves are leading away the little thief."”

Diogenes 412 – 323 BCE
(of Sinope)

Themes: Crime Punishment

53. Shameless Thieves

“Punishment is a kind of medicine.”

Aristotle Ἀριστοτέλης 382 – 322 BCE
from Nicomachean Ethics

“'Politicians and generals who always want to extend their territories and fill their treasuries are called, 'Robbers of the People and should suffer the highest punishments.”

Mencius 孟子 372 – 289 BCE via Wing-Tsit Chan, Shan Dao
from Book of Mencius 孟子

30. No War

“When you see the jailer you abjectly touch the ground with your forehead. At the mere sight of his underlings you are seized with terror... Such ignominy can never be wiped away.”

Sima Qian 司馬遷 145 – 86 BCE via Burton Watson
(Ssu-ma Ch'ien)
Father of Chinese historians
from Shiji, Records of the Grand Historian, 太史公書

Themes: Punishment

“Mankind, tired out with a life of brute force, lay exhausted from its feuds; and therefore the more readily submitted its own free will to laws and stringent codes.”

Lucretius 99 – 55 BCE
(Titus Carus)

“To what extremes won't you compel our hearts, you accursed lust for gold?”

Virgil 70 – 19 BCE via Robert Fagles
(Publius Vergilius Maro)
from Aeneid

“Avenge not yourselves, for it is written, 'Vengence is mine, I will repay,' saith the Lord.”

Jesus 3 BCE – 30 CE
from Saint Paul

“if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Jesus 3 BCE – 30 CE via Saint Mark
from New Testament Διαθήκη

Themes: Forget Punishment

“He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

Jesus 3 BCE – 30 CE via Saint John
from New Testament Διαθήκη

“Every disorder in the soul is its own punishment.”

Augustine ɔːɡəstiːn 354 – 430 CE
(Saint Augustine, Saint Austin, Augustine of Hippo)

“If I decrease expenses and lower taxes, permit only honest officials, the people will have enough food and clothing. This will do more to abolish robbery than the most severe punishments.”

Taizong of Tang 唐太宗 唐太宗 598 – 649 CE via Will Durant, Shan Dao
(Li Shimin)

“No unintentional transgression is too great for his leniency… No intentional crime is too small for his punishment.”

Wang Zhen 809 – 859 CE via Ralph D. Sawyer
from Daodejing Lunbing Yaoyishu, The Tao of War

73. Heaven’s Net

“When ordinary officials and the common people have no fear, punishment occurs. When ministers and high officials have no fear, banishment occurs. When princes and kings have no fear, warfare occurs.”

Wang Zhen 809 – 859 CE
from Daodejing Lunbing Yaoyishu, The Tao of War

72. Helpful Fear

“Your Majesty relies too heavily on punishments. It would be appropriate to employ scholars.”

Sima Guang 司马光 1019 – 1086 CE
"Greatest of all Chinese historians”
from Book of History

Themes: Punishment

“How shall one take vengeance on an enemy? By increasing one's good qualities.”

Solomon ibn Gabirol שלמה בן יהודה אבן גבירול 1021 – 1070 CE via Marcus

“One is punished by the very things by which he sins.”

Solomon ibn Gabirol שלמה בן יהודה אבן גבירול 1021 – 1070 CE via Ascher
from Choice of Pearls

Themes: Punishment

“There is nothing that is not the Tao. When good people seek it, they are able to find it. When bad people seek it, they are able to avoid punishment.”

Wang Anshi 王安石 1021 – 1086 CE

Themes: Punishment

62. Basic Goodness

“Like a man struck by a stone he throws in the air, the leader who lacks a gentle mind will be punished by karma as he punishes others.”

Gesar of Ling གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ། 11th century CE via Robin Kornman, Shan Dao
from Gesar of Ling Epic

“It is necessary to accept hard and inconvenient advice, to punish bad people with merciless law, to protect the numerous subjects with kindness, to strive after a good name that is honored everywhere.”

Genghis Khan 1162 – 1227 CE via Paul Kahn
from Secret History of the Mongols, Монголын нууц товчоо, 元朝秘史

Themes: Punishment

“punishments cannot be relied upon for governing… the more people we kill, the more people break the law. Thus, punishment is not the answer.”

Li Xizhai 12th century CE via Red Pine
(Li Hsi-Chai)
from Tao-te-chen-ching yi-chieh

74. The Great Executioner

“So long as people, being ill-governed, suffer from hunger, criminals will never disappear. It is extremely unkind to punish those who, being sufferers from hunger, are compelled to violate laws.”

Yoshida Kenkō 兼好 1284 – 1350 CE
Inspiration of self-reinvention
from Harvest of Leisure

“When I first ascended the throne, the people were unruly and officials corrupt. If ten people were executed in the morning, a hundred were breaking the same law by evening… I turned to the Taoteching… decided to do away with capital punishment and put criminals to work instead. In the year since then, the burdens of my heart have been lightened. Truly, this book is the greatest teacher of kings.”

Ming Taizu 明太祖 1328 – 1398 CE
(The Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhan)
One of the most influential emperors in all of Chinese history

74. The Great Executioner

“Making the people afraid to transgress by intimidating them with capital punishment is a superficial policy.”

Ming Taizu 明太祖 1328 – 1398 CE
(The Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhan)
One of the most influential emperors in all of Chinese history

Themes: Punishment

“It is better to cure a sick man than to kill him.”

Erasmus 1466 – 1536 CE
(Desiderius Roterodamus)
"Greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance"

Themes: Punishment

“Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody's under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.”

Thomas More 1478 – 1535 CE
from Utopia

Themes: Punishment

“Intemperance is naturally punished with disease, injustice with the violence of enemies, cowardice with oppression”

Thomas Hobbes 1588 – 1679 CE

“Virtue is its own reward, vice its own punishment.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Joseph Jacobs, #90
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

69. No Enemy

“In a natural state, there is nothing which can be called just or unjust, only in a civil state”

Baruch Spinoza 1632 – 1677 CE

“I never doubted… that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion.”

Benjamin Franklin 1706 – 1790 CE
from Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

54. Planting Well

“You believe I have offended heaven, and must suffer eternal fire: Will not that be sufficient?... If mine is a religious offense, leave it to religious punishments.”

Benjamin Franklin 1706 – 1790 CE
from The Speech of Polly Baker (1794)

Themes: Punishment

“frequent punishments are a sign of weakness or slackness in the government. There is no man so bad that he cannot be made good for something.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712 – 1778 CE

74. The Great Executioner

“In a perfect state, no punishments at all would be necessary.”

Immanuel Kant 1724 – 1804 CE via J. M. D. Meiklejohn
from Critique Of Pure Reason

Themes: Punishment

“When feeling returns to essence, punishment turns into merit. Reverting to the original, going back to the fundamental, there is a return to correctness.”

Liu Yiming 刘一明 1734 – 1821 CE via Thomas Cleary, Shan Dao, #54 Making a Young Girl Marry
(Liu I-ming)
from Taoist I Ching, , Zhouyi chanzhen 周易闡真

Themes: Punishment

“Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.”

Thomas Paine 1737 – 1809 CE
from The Rights of Man, 1792

Themes: Punishment

“all punishment in itself is evil”

Jeremy Bentham 1748 – 1832 CE
from Principles of Morals and Legislation

Themes: Punishment

74. The Great Executioner

“If he who employs coercion against me could mold me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.”

William Godwin 1756 – 1836 CE
Provocative and influential social, political, and literary critic
from Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

Themes: Punishment

“Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.”

William Blake 1757 – 1827 CE
from Proverbs of Hell​

“God will take care of the poor trampled slave, but where will the slaveholder be when eternity begins?”

Sojourner Truth 1797 – 1883 CE
(Isabella (“Bell”) Baumfree)

Themes: Punishment

“You insist on the example [of the death penalty]. Why? For what it teaches. What do you want to teach with your example? That thou shalt not kill. And how do you teach thou shalt not kill? By killing.”

Victor Hugo 1802 – 1885 CE
Literary pioneer, poet, and social justice provocateur

Themes: Punishment

“I hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

Charles Darwin 1809 – 1882 CE

“Every human action is determined by hereditary constitution, [the environment], the example and the teaching of others… This view should teach one profound humility—one deserves no credit for anything. Nor should one blame others… It’s right to punish criminals but solely to deter others.”

Charles Darwin 1809 – 1882 CE

“I, who rule by means of contracts, am now slave to my contracts.”

Wilhelm Richard Wagner 1813 – 1883 CE
from Die Walküre​​

“Then in this country a man is to be punished or not, according to his ability to fee a lawyer!”

Anthony Trollope 1815 – 1882 CE
Novelist as teacher

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Henry David Thoreau 1817 – 1862 CE
Father of environmentalism and America's first yogi
from On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

Themes: Punishment Crime

“I am past scorching; not easily can you scorch a scar.”

Herman Melville 1819 – 1891 CE
from Moby Dick or The Whale

“Better acquit ten guilty men than punish one innocent man!”

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский 1821 – 1881 CE via Constance Garnett
from Brothers Karamatzov

Themes: Punishment

“all these punishments reform no one, and what's more, deter hardly a single criminal, and the number of crimes does not diminish but is continually on the increase.”

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский 1821 – 1881 CE via Constance Garnett
from Brothers Karamatzov

Themes: Crime Punishment

“Without hypocrisy, lying, punishments, prisons, fortresses and murders, no new power can arise and no existing one hold its own... thus efforts to get it are not likely to be coupled with goodness, but with the opposite qualities of pride, craft and cruelty.”

Leo Tolstoy 1828 – 1910 CE
from The Kingdom of God is Within You (1893)

Themes: Power Punishment

“there is no unfairness in punishing people for their misfortunes or rewarding them for their sheer good luck; it is the normal condition of human life that this should be done, and no right-minded person will complain of being subjected to the common treatment.”

Samuel Butler 1835 – 1902 CE
Iconoclastic philosopher, artist, composer, author, and evolutionary theorist
from Erewhon

“My object all sublime I shall achieve in time— To let the punishment fit the crime.”

W. S. Gilbert 1836 – 1911 CE
Innovative, influential, inspiring dramatist

Themes: Punishment

“[Dostoevsky’s wife] had noticed that the one thing which offered any real hope of salvation—his literary production—never went better than when they had lost everything.... When his sense of guilt was satisfied by the punishments he had inflicted on himself, the inhibition on his work became less severe.”

Sigmund Freud 1856 – 1939 CE

Themes: Punishment

“Punishment should fit the criminal, not the crime.”

Elbert Hubbard 1856 – 1915 CE
from A Thosand and One Epigrams, 1911

Themes: Punishment

“The unconscious need for punishment plays a part in every neurotic disease.”

Sigmund Freud 1856 – 1939 CE

Themes: Punishment

“Crime is only the retail department of what in wholesale, we call penal law.”

George Bernard Shaw 1856 – 1950 CE
UK playwright second only to Shakespeare
from Maxims for Revolutionists

“There are no rewards or punishments - only consequences.”

Dean Inge 1860 – 1954 CE
Christian mystic and philosopher

“The reformative effect of punishment is a belief that dies hard, chiefly I think, because it is so satisfying to our sadistic impulses.”

Bertrand Russell 1872 – 1970 CE
“20th century Voltaire”
from Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind, 1946

Themes: Punishment

“Fate had punished her enough! It seemed to me more meaningful that she should return to life in order to atone in life for her crime... She had to bear this burden.”

Carl Jung 1875 – 1961 CE
Insightful shamanistic scientist
from Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Themes: Punishment

“How shall you punish those whose remorse is already grater than their misdeeds?”

Kahlil Gibran 1883 – 1931 CE
from The Prophet

Themes: Punishment

“Prisons should be replaced by well-enclosed state farms, each designed for a separate grade of offender, and all designed for an orderly and open-air life to teach useful occupations and to restore the inmate to the behavior of a responsible citizen.”

Will Durant 1885 – 1981 CE
Philosophy apostle and popularizer of history's lessons
from Fallen Leaves

Themes: Punishment

“Freedom is pure observation without direction, without fear of punishment and reward.”

Krishnamurti 1895 – 1986 CE
(Jiddu Krishnamurti)
from Core of the Teaching

13. Honor and Disgrace

“The punishment always does more harm than the crime and the people can be trusted to behave decently if you will only let them alone.”

George Orwell 1903 – 1950 CE
English, poet, humanist, apostle of doubt, and powerful political influence

Themes: Crime Punishment

“The death penalty is no more effective a deterrent than life imprisonment… It is also evident that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the – underprivileged members of society.”

Thurgood Marshall 1908 – 1993 CE

74. The Great Executioner

“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

Albert Camus 1913 – 1960 CE

“The death penalty can be tolerated only by extreme statist reactionaries who demand a state that is so powerful that it has the right to kill.”

Noam Chomsky 1928 CE –

Themes: Punishment

74. The Great Executioner

“If it's punishment, it's something outside. Someone is doing it to us. But if we think of it in terms of suffering, then it's with us and with others. That's a very different way of looking at it, being punished or just suffering.”

Jakusho Kwong 1935 CE –
from Mind Following Breath

“As long as you have capital punishment there is no guarantee that innocent people won't be put to death.”

Paul Simon 1941 CE –
Prolific planter of musical, cultural wisdom seeds

Themes: Punishment

“I believe [...] that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.”

Neil Gaiman 1960 CE –
Myth-transmitting creative maelstrom
from American Gods

“the self-imposed punishment that anger inflicts — When we act out of anger, we punish others and ourselves. Our equanimity evaporates. Our hearts shut down. The capacity to give and receive love freezes on the spot.”

Mingyur Rinpoche 1975 CE –
Modern-day Mahasiddha

from In Love with the World

“Half the world regulates sex work by criminalizing everyone involved. But if you’re forced to choose between obeying the law and feeding yourself or your family, you’re going to do the work anyway, and take the risk... The law forces you to keep selling sex, which is the exact opposite of its intended effect... prohibiting the sex industry actually exacerbates every harm that sex workers are vulnerable to.”

Juno Mac 1990 CE –
Compelling Prostitution Advocate

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