Being An Ox
by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
Comparing the governing styles of two emperor clans, Youyu (Shun) and Tai (?), Zhuangzi says of the first: "A Youyu still harbors Humanity in his breast, with which he tries to constrain other human beings....He never gets beyond criticizing people, considering them wrong." Of a Tai he says: "Sometimes he thinks he's a horse, sometimes he thinks he's an ox. Such understanding is truly reliable, such Virtuosity deeply genuine. For they never involve him in criticizing other human beings, in considering them wrong." (Zhuangzi, 7:1; B. Ziporyn)
This incredible contrast between a truly benevolent ruler and an apparent madman, and then coming down on the side of the latter, is a typical Zhuangzian ploy meant to shake us out of our conventional points of view.
‘Humanity’ is ren, the most important of Confucian virtues, the essence of the truly human as expressed in humanitarian love. I do not doubt that Zhuangzi would praise such behavior were it spontaneously expressed. The problem, however, is that it is a known ‘good’, something that can be expressed in words, made into a principle, and applied to others. Knowing what is best for others (and ourselves) cannot help but lead to the judging and criticizing of others (and ourselves). In the end, the virtue negates itself. It is possible to ‘love’ things and people to death.
The ruler of the Tai clan, on the other hand, is ‘peculiarly unfixed’ from any one specific identity and thus has no ultimate principles to apply to anyone. We could say that he does not know what the human is, and thus cannot tell others how to be human. Knowing that others are human, he can leave them to express that humanity without his interference. What is ‘reliable’ about this understanding is that it never finds a contradiction in others.
Zhuangzi wrote the book on laissez faire — live and let live.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.