The Tao of Zhuangzi

03 November 2023

Zhuangzi is a Taoist philosopher from 4th-century BCE China as well as the name given to the text containing his writings. It's a lovely—and highly quotable—book, in which he argues (among other things) that everything is relative. He writes, “From the point of view of the Way, no thing is more valuable than any other.” 

Now that may sound like a great idea, but it also seems like it could be a recipe for confusion and apathy, perhaps even for bad behavior—assuming we can even determine whether a behavior is good or bad. Zhuangzi doesn’t think that question even makes sense. He says, “When people sleep in a damp place, they wake up deathly ill. But what about eels? If people live in trees, they tremble with fear and worry. But how about monkeys? Of these three, which knows what is the ‘right’ place to live?”

It's a wonderful quote (especially for fans of eels and monkeys), but does it suggest that there is a good way for people to be? After all, I may not want to sleep in the river like an eel or up in a tree like a monkey, but presumably it is good for a human being to sleep in a bed, under a roof.

That's presumably what the Confucian philosophers from Zhuangzi’s time, who also thought there’s a single good way to be a human being, would say. They said it’s really important to respect your elders, uphold order, do all the proper rituals, be benevolent and responsible, and perfectly inhabit your social role.

Zhuangzi believed they were totally wrong. He gave the example of a useless tree, which is really bad at performing its social role—it’s so gnarly and twisted that no carpenter can use it for anything. So it survives while all the other trees get cut down and turned into lumber. Of course, for a tree it’s good not to get cut down, just as it’s good for human beings to have a roof over their head. So maybe some things are good and some things are bad after all.

But even if some things are good and some are bad, you’re not going to figure out which is which by listening to authority. Zhuangzi has this story about a guy who’s having a dip in the middle of a raging waterfall. Someone asks him how he got so good at swimming, and he says nobody taught him; he just followed his inborn nature. This shows that you shouldn’t listen to teachers.

So we have a sage tells us not to listen to sages. The advice is not to listen to advice. There’s a practice, but it doesn’t involve practice. And it’s good for us, except that nothing is good or bad. Does that all make sense?

Well, the whole point of Zhuangzi is to get beyond these pointless arguments that don’t give us any insight. As he puts it, “What man knows is far less than what he does not know. It is because he tries to exhaust this vastness with this meagerness that he bewilders and frustrates himself.”

So are we as philosophers seriously trying to say we should give up trying to know things? It's true that giving up on knowledge might help us stay calm—but it wouldn’t bring us any joy. Zhuangzi has a terrific saying about what he calls the Great Clump: it “burdens me with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, rests me with death.” It sure doesn’t sound like a very cheerful existence.

But that may be missing the point.  If everyone could just calm down and stop striving, the world would be so much better.  We wouldn’t have wars, or greed, or oppression. We might even that that would be the greatest thing ever—if anything were better than anything else, of course.

I'm sure our guest can help us get ourselves out of that one: Paul Kjellberg from Whittier College, editor of Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in The Zhuangzi.