Thursday, April 21, 2011

Me First

Me First
by Scott Bradley

Yang Chu (c.479-c.381) is considered by many scholars to be a proto-Taoist. The first task in discussing him is to explain that the so-called hedonist chapter in the Liehzi is falsely ascribed to him and does not represent his philosophy. That philosophy is itself somewhat obscure, however.

What we know of it is largely secondhand and often from his critics. Mencius, and others, declared that if by giving one hair from off his shank he could save (or gain) the world, he would not do it. Mencius also says that his basic principle was "each one for himself." The Huai-nanzi (2nd Cent. BCE) says: "Preserving life and maintaining what is genuine in it, not allowing things to entangle one's person: this is what Yang Chu established."

All this in the context of our 'me-generation' might sound self-centered and petty. Taken in the context of Fourth Century BCE China, on the other hand, it might be seen as revolutionarily refreshing. Mencius didn't like it because it challenged the superiority of the ruling sovereign. It might also be remembered that among the principles of the Enlightenment was "think for yourself", and of the Reformation "the priesthood of all believers" (ie., figure it out for yourself).

Yang's basic teaching was that one's first responsibility was to nurture oneself, and that, by way of staying free of material and self-promoting pursuits. True, he might have been a recluse and worthy of approbation by those who find fault with that way.

Fang makes the point that there is a lot of Yang Chu in both the Laozi and the Zhuangzi. In the case of the former he quotes from Chapter 13: "He who in his conduct loves himself more than the world, may be entrusted with the world." And again from Chapter 44: "Name or person, which is more dear?" There are likewise numerous occasions when Zhuangzi speaks of the virtue of keeping one's life intact through apparent uselessness.

The most telling example in the Zhuangzi, however, might be the story in which Zhuangzi has a traumatic experience of failing to apply the Yangian principle. Graham even cites this as evidence that Zhuangzi might have at one time been a Yangian (as well as a Huizian).

The story goes like this: Passing through a private forest, Zhuangzi espies a bird, and because the bird is distracted by a praying mantis which is distracted by a bug, decides he can bag it with his slingshot. But then, distracted by the bird, he fails to see the game warden who almost bags him! In pursuit of gain, he almost lost himself.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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