Zhuangzi’s philosophy


The Way (dao) of nature and the life of non-activity. The chapters Qiwulun 齐物论, Xiaoyaoyou 逍遥游 and Dazongshi 大宗师 can be seen as the core parts of the book that reflect the most important philosophical thoughts of Zhuang Zhou. The Daoist says that the difference between right and wrong (shi fei 是非), this and that (bi ci 彼此), other objects and the self (wu wo 物我), or old and young (shou yao 寿夭), is irrelevant in an absolute sense. This is because the natural Way, the Dao 道, is equally included in all objects and conditions. Furthermore, situation and status change permanently, which makes it all the more difficult to establish comparisons or clear boundaries. The smallness of a sparrow and the monstrous dimension of the leviathan are only perceivable in comparison to each other, but not in an objective sense. Distinctions arise from the existance of expectations (you dai 有待) in a man’s mind, and from a conciousness of a self (you ji 有己). The philosopher who is able to make himself free of such scales and relative comparisons, will be happy to wander around in a “free and easy” manner. For him, even the difference between life and death or its alleged happiness and tristesse, respectively, is of no importance. Such a man is an “arrived person” (zhiren 至人) who has himself made free of worldly problems and questions. The Dao, as Zhuang Zhou explains, has affections (qing 情) and trustworthiness (xin 信), but does not act (wu wei 无为) and has no shape (wu xing 无形). It can be transmitted but is not touchable, it can be obtained but not be seen. It has root and branches, but is not implanted in Heaven and Earth, and it exists since countless ages. If the Dao can be seen or heard of touched, this is not the true Dao. The “true” or “perfect man” (zhenren 真人) who has obtain the Dao, is unified (yi 一 “one”) with the whole nature and the cosm, he sits and forgets (zuowang 坐忘) about the Confucian social values of kindheartedness (ren 仁) and social responsiblity (yi 义), he forgets all his knowledge, even his own fate and life, and therefore wholly corresponds to Heaven’s will (tianming 天命). The one Dao, as the origin of all things, is simultaneously covering everything. In the beginnings, it had no dimension (wuji 无机), but as an element encompassing all objects, it is also the boundless dimension (taiji 太极).

Relativism and constant change. Of the Outer Chapters, the Qiushui 秋水 “Autumn floods” is that part which represents Zhuang Zhou’s thoughts best. It is designed in the shape of a conversion between the Earl of the River 河伯 and the Master of the Sea 海若. Both come to the conclusion that size, value, life and death, and right and wrong are relative characteristics, but seen from the absolute side of the Dao, there is nothing like small and great (“the largest thing is an autumn hair, and Mt. Taishan 泰山 is but a hill”), old and young (“a baby is a methusalem, and Peng Zu 彭祖 a young child”), cheap and dear, and so on. The consequence of this observation is that man will be able to find the Dao by becoming part of nature (ziran 自然 “to be like it is”), where such relative judgments are not existing. Living – or, as a ruler, reigning – in a natural way means to give reins to all events without actively changing anything. From the economic side, “non-acting” (wuwei) is liberalism, and it was also interpreted in this sense during the early Han period, before the state monopolies on salt and iron were introduced. The most famous parable demonstrating the vanishing of any level of reality behind a flux of identities is Zhuang Zhou’s dream of being a butterfly who dreams that he is Zhuangzi.

The most important parts of the “Miscellaneous Chapters” are Yuyan 寓言 and Tianxia 天下. The first explains that it is not possible to grasp the Dao with commonly used terms and words, but only with the help of metaphers or so-called “jug words” (zhiyan 卮言) that are poured out in a different way each day. The chapter “Under Heaven” can be called the first history of Chinese philosophy. The author of this chapters holds that Daoism was the most ancient philosophy, from which the various interpretations of the Dao resulted in the emergence of various schools, like the Confucians, the legalists, sophists, etc. Yet he also stressed that all these schools function like the organs of one body, with their specific strengths and functions.
Zhuangzi compared the worldview of one individual person with the perspective of a frog in a well. He is only able to see a tiny part of Heaven and will therefore at all events give a very distorted statement about the world. All people will therefore highly esteem their own view and despise that of others. This kind of relativism is not unique to Zhuangzi. Many other contemporary philosophers also stress the importance to refrain from the view of absolute terms, like the dialecticians, or Mozi 墨子 who advocated practical experiments instead of theoretical buildings, or even the Confucian philosopher Mengzi 孟子 who stressed to see society and political decisions in a rational way.
Scepticism, “nihilism”, “anarchism”. In the field of politics, the philosopher Zhuangzi was very skeptical. He was of the opinion that the quest for fame and status was vain and useless. Even in the traditional social order, he saw only restrictions and rules of no eternal, or natural value, like the Confucian core concepts of humankindness and social responsibility, which were wholly irrelevant for an individual searching for the Dao, because this search required to make oneself free of any “artificial” and non-natural restrictions. Zhuangzi even called these two responsibilities “brands of punishment” (jingxing 黥刑). The ancient rulers of the past were able to live in natural conditions, which enabled them to sleep well and to rest without any thoughts and sorrows in their brains. Consequently seen, the Daoists were even hostile towards civilization and progress. Natural conditions were seen as positive, while all man-made or artificial things were interpreted as an obstruction of the Dao. Zhuangzi was in some points very critical to his contemporaries. He often ridicules Confucius and brandishes the rulers of his days in the words that the theft of a braclet is punished by execution, while a man stealing a country is rewarded by the position of a lord. The Confucian view on the importance of learning was also despised by Zhuangzi. He thought that the investigation of daily matters, even rituals and etiquette, led to a mere “small knowledge” (xiaozhi 小知), while the search for the Dao would lead to “true knowledge” (zhenzhi 真知). Yet because the true nature of both, vernacular matters as well as the eternal Way, cannot be penetrated by humans, learning is of not use at all. Instead of active learning, Zhuangzi preferred giving up all search for details and reasons, and following one’s own intuition like a small child. In the political sphere, he similarly advocated the destruction of wealth, the discarding of jewels, the abolishion of official seals and of weights and measures. Only then the people would find peace, in a kind of anarchic state.

Man’s search for the Dao. The philosophy of Zhuangzi touches many aspects, but basically his theories are derived from the words of the book Daodejing. While this book of Laozi can be seen as a more theoretical framework, the brilliant parables of Zhuangzi help to understand Laozi’s theories in a human context. Yet Zhuangzi must be called a philosopher of his own, because he goes far beyond the framework that the Daodejing had constructed. The basic concept of both philosophers is the Way of nature that is characterized by an unswayed flow of things. To behave in conformity with the Dao therefore means, to be like nature and to avoid activism. Zhuangzi was of the opinion that the shape of objects is a result of their shapeless “spirit” (jingshen 精神), which it itself in concordance with nature and the Dao. Bright things, he says, are born out of the dark, and formed objects out of the shapeless. The influence of the Dao on all objects under Heaven is a kind of energy (qi 气) permeating all things. Because all things and objects are penetrated by this natural energy, they are practically infected by the character of the Dao. The Dao is not a creative power outside of the universe, but with the individuation of things it becomes part of them, even as a productive factor. All objects therefore are in possession of the Dao, even things as small as an ant and as humble as excretas. The Dao can be compared with a large musical instrument that consists of the many objects in the universe. The permanent change of each individual object creates a kind of music. This ceaseless change is a basic status all objects are bound to. The change of life and death are caused by the Dao’s own nature to exist without beginning and end, to take shape without creation, to be void and to be replenished, and to transform into a multitude of shapes. None of all these different shapes and statuses can be grasped, and it is consequently of no effect to cling to one single idea or ideology, or to strive for the construction of a detailed code of rules, or even to work hard for one project that might tomorrow be useless because every underlying condition had changed. The change of one object into another can be interpreted in a modern, scientific sense, stating that matter never goes lost but only transforms into something else.

The same consequence of the permanent change is that there are no absolute standards of judgment that might be used. As a shapeless phenomenon the Dao cannot be measured physically. It can likewise not be expressed in words, as already Laozi has said. The short life of a single man will by all means not be long enough to make any correct statement about an eternal thing as the Dao. Consequently, those attempting to search the Dao have to cease pondering about it, in other words, to “fast in the heart” (xinzhai 心斋), where the energy of the Dao concentrates, but also to live a life in austerity and simplicity.

The status of the perfect man is described in a mystical way in which he is unified with Heaven and Earth and is identical to all the ten thousand things in the universe (“the ten thousand things and me are one”). He willingly follows the patterns set by Heaven. What he obtains, has been granted by occasion, and what he loses, goes away in the course of changes. He therefore displays no joy nor regret. The perfect man will be able to comprehend the situation of all things, even the joy of the fishes swimming in a river, as Zhuangzi explained to his friend Hui Shi.

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