The Tao Teh King: A Short Study in Comparative Religion, by C. Spurgeon Medhurst, , at sacred-texts.com
Military commanders have a saying 1—
I dare not act as host but only as a guest; 2 rather than advance an inch I would retire a foot. 3
This is marching without moving; bearing the invisible arm; regarding the enemy as if he were not; grasping the sword that is not. 4
There is no calamity greater than making light of the enemy; 5 to make light of the enemy is to endanger my retention of the treasures. 6 Hence once the opposing forces have met it is the pitiful who conquer. 7
Missionaries, and all who disturb the natural development of national moral culture, tearing down and destroying where they should only build and conserve, are acting as hosts in lands where they are uninvited guests. The chapter is a warning that it is only those who feel the pity of physical and moral FORCE; who understand the DANGER that is inseparable from all attempts to present truth to the hostile, who ultimately win in the contest.
116:1 The text does not say, as nearly every translator has made it say, "A certain commander said so and so," but "The general policy of all great generals is thus and thus."
116:2 i.e. I do not dare to act on my own initiative; before committing myself I wait to discover the intentions of the enemy. The "enemy" is in the text spoken of as the "host."
116:3 The idea is that the holder of the Tao should always be more ready to yield than to give battle.
116:4 Although inert he is ever on the alert, and ready for every emergency. Cf. I Pet. v. 8.
116:5 A warning against allowing active passivity becoming careless indifference. Cf. Eph. vi. 13-18.
116:6 vid. chap. 67. A determination to destroy the enemy regardless of the necessity for the act is contrary to compassion; it reveals an absence of self-restraint.
116:7 Angry passions and impatient desires to join the battle are naturally aroused when the opposing forces are lying face to face, but here, as always, it is those who feel the pity of it all, but who are yet prepared for every eventuality, who win the day; their very sorrow that a battle is unavoidable, prevents them being hurried by the impetuosity of passion into some foolish and fatal move.
There is a story told of Admiral Dewey which aptly illustrates the military spirit which Lao-tzu is commending. The American ships were making magnificent target practice in Manilla Bay, and the Spanish fleet was sinking. The Americans began to cheer. "Don't shout, boys," said Dewey. "The poor devils are dying."