Chuang Tzu’s universe (pdf) is inscrutable, and mercilessly obtuse. You would (rightly) get the impression that the spirit of an alien universe is being expressed in an alien language and the only suitable reactions are astonishment, and silence.
You just have to persist though and not relinquish the initial exploratory excursions. Is it not Proust who reminds us that all fine books have to be written in a foreign language?
The section which I am excerpting in full, to me, is as delicious as Xenophon’s Hiero, and perhaps even more compelling on account of its brevity. I especially find it relevant to our all-too-familiar contemporary context.
There is simplicity in Chuang Tzu and an appealing sanity to his universe. Note that the Taoist’s heaven exhibits no interest in the conduct of the people. Consequently, people spent less time second guessing the intentions of their heaven; this attitude culminates in liberating moments of lucidity.
The absence of any ontological hierarchy also results in a curiously charming transparency of being, thus depriving us of the metaphysical basis that often serves to justify our flirtations with butchers of different hues and colors, as well as our prevarication and deceit.
More importantly, he forces a reevaluation of some of our fundamental assumptions; especially apropos today when even a Fukuyama, for instance, grounds much of his approach (via Kojeve) on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and the striving for recognition.
Chuang Tzu, I think, offers a fascinating solution. Judge for yourselves if Hegel’s claim about having encountered in China the “dull-half conscious brooding of Spirit,” stands the test of time!
Last, but not least, much of our approach today assumes a clear cut distinction between civil and political society with quite an unsettling outcome.
Once an obsession with the potential subsumption of the civil to the political society comes to form our main pre-occupation, we either emphasis the question of the best regime reductively with the political, as a consequent, having become identified in too narrow a sense with the activities of various murderous military machines which are driven by the vision of the sort of creatures whose odium imbrues less of a stink only in so far as it might be more distant.
Or we manage to reduce our selves, in our obsession with various questions of “identity” to a sum total of the accident of our physical constitution in a particular locality plus all the real or perceive wounds and bruises. An irresolvable clash of the self absorbed victims follows.
Fundamentally, however, we are still at the mercy of various noxious political regimes and habituated into flirting with tyrants and butchers or other unpalatable characters out of concern for achieving the best possible condition for the civil society, and also still fundamentally blind to the pain of others.
Perhaps it is best to search for some possibility of having a notion of the Political that accentuates moments of reflective doubt, momentary hesitations, and mutual transformations based on a horizon of possibilities as opposed to a static understanding of limitations based on a notion of primeval and unchanging human nature.
Perhaps there is still room for mutual healing.
To me, such possibilities are fecund in Chuang Tzu. But don’t just take my word for it. Give the following a read carefully, and may be even find some other translations and compare.
This Human World
Yen Huei went to take leave of Confucius. "Whither are you bound?" asked the Master.
"I am going to the State of Wei," was the reply.
"And what do you propose to do there?" continued Confucius.
"I hear," answered Yen Huei, "that the Prince of Wei is of mature age but of an unmanageable disposition. He behaves as if the people were of no account and will not see his own faults. He disregards human lives and the people perish; and their corpses lie about like so much undergrowth in a marsh. The people do not know where to turn for help, and I have heard you say that if a state be well governed, it may be passed over; but that if it be badly governed, then we should visit it. At the door of physicians there are many sick people. I would test my knowledge in this sense, that perchance I may do some good at that state."
"Alas!" cried Confucius, "you will be only going to your doom. For Tao must not bustle about. If it does it will have divergent aims. From divergent aims come restlessness; from restlessness comes worry, and from worry one reaches the stage of being beyond hope. The Sages of old first strengthened their own character before they tried to strengthen that of others. Before you have strengthened your own character, what leisure have you to attend to the doings of wicked men?
Besides, do you know into what virtue evaporates by motion and where knowledge ends? Virtue evaporates by motion into desire for fame and knowledge ends in contentions. In the struggle for fame men crush each other, while their wisdom but provokes rivalry. Both are instruments of evil, and are not proper principles of living.
"Besides, if before one's own solid character and integrity become an influence among men and before one's own disregard for fame reaches the hearts of men, one should go and force the preaching of charity and duty and the rules of conduct on wicked men, he would only make these men hate him for his very goodness. Such a person may be called a messenger of evil. A messenger of evil will be the victim of evil from others. That, alas! will be your end.
"On the other hand, if the Prince loves the good and hates evil, what object will you have in inviting him to change his ways? Before you have opened your mouth, the Prince himself will have seized the opportunity to wrest the victory from you. Your eyes will be dazzled, your expression fade, your words will hedge about, your face will show confusion, and your
heart will yield within you. It will be as though you took fire to quell fire, water to quell water, which is known as aggravation.
And if you begin with concessions, there will be no end to them. If you neglect this sound advice and talk too much, you will die at the hands of that violent man . . . .
"Have you not heard that even Sages cannot overcome this love of fame and this desire for material objects (in rulers)? Are you then likely to succeed? But of course you have a plan. Tell it to me."
"Gravity of demeanor and humility; persistence and singleness of purpose — will this do?" replied Yen Huei. "Alas, no," said Confucius, "how can it? The Prince is a haughty person, filled with pride, and his moods are fickle. No one opposes him, and so he has come to take actual pleasure in trampling upon the feelings of others. And if he has thus failed in the
practice of routine virtues, do you expect that he will take readily to higher ones? He will persist in his ways, and though outwardly he may agree with you, inwardly he will not repent. How then will you make him mend his ways?"
"Why, then," (replied Yen Huei) "I can be inwardly straight, and outwardly yielding, and I shall substantiate what I say by appeals to antiquity. He who is inwardly straight is a servant of God. And he who is a servant of God knows that the Son of Heaven and himself are equally the children of God. Shall then such a one trouble whether his words are approved or
disapproved by man? Such a person is commonly regarded as an (innocent) child. This is to be a servant of God. He who is outwardly yielding is a servant of man. He bows, he kneels, he folds his hands — such is the ceremonial of a minister. What all men do, shall I not do also? What all men do, none will blame me for doing. This is to be a servant of man. He who substantiates his words by appeals to antiquity is a servant of the Sages of old. Although I utter the words of warning and take him to task, it is the Sages of old who speak, and not I. Thus I shall not receive the blame for my uprightness. This is to be the servant of the Sages of old. Will this do?"
"No! How can it?" replied Confucius. "Your plans are too many. You are firm, but lacking in prudence. However . . . , you will not get into trouble; but that is all. You will still be far from influencing him because your own opinions are still too rigid."
"Then," said Yen Huei, "I can go no further. I venture to ask for a method."
Confucius said . . . , "Concentrate your will. Hear not with your ears, but with your mind; not with your mind, but with your spirit. Let your hearing stop with the ears, and let your mind stop with its images. Let your spirit, however, be like a blank, passively responsive to externals. In such open receptivity only can Tao abide. And that open receptivity is the fasting of the heart."
"Then," said Yen Huei, "the reason I could not use this method was because of consciousness of a self. If I could apply this method, the assumption of a self would have gone. Is this what you mean by the receptive state?"
"Exactly so," replied the Master. "Let me tell you. Enter this man's service, but without idea of working for fame. Talk when he is in a mood to listen, and stop when he is not. Do without any sort of labels or self-advertisements. Keep to the One and let things take their natural course. Then you may have some chance of success. It is easy to stop walking: the trouble is to walk without touching the ground . . . . You have heard of winged creatures flying. You have never heard of flying without wings. You have heard of men being wise with knowledge. You have never heard of men wise without knowledge. Look at that emptiness. There is brightness in an empty room. Good luck dwells in repose. If there is not (inner) repose, your mind will be galloping about though you are sitting still. Let your ears and eyes communicate within but shut out all knowledge from the mind. Then the spirits will come to dwell therein . . . . This is the method for the transformation . . . of all Creation . . .