Sunday, May 20, 2012

This and That

Scott Bradley


Chapter Two ("Equalizing Assessments of Things") of the Zhuangzi is at the very heart of Zhuangzi's philosophy; it is where he makes the case for the relative nature of all theories and judgments which, in turn, becomes an appeal for the acceptance of them all as equally expressions of humanity, an expression of Nature, the expression of Dao. It is also the chapter I find the most difficult to understand. Thus, I spend a lot of time with it.

Before considering something more of this chapter, it might be worth noting that, though it is pivotal to Zhuangzi's argument, no argument is required. This post will examine Zhuangzi's explanation of his concept of the Illumination of the Obvious. To the open mind, he asserts, the relativity of all points of view is self-evident. If this is the case, we need not understand his argument to arrive at the same conclusions.

"This" is the subjective point of view. "That" is the point of view of another "this". Every "this" has its "that"; but then every "this" is also a "that", and this in turn demonstrates that there is really no "this" or "that". "This", Zhuangzi tells us, "is the theory of the simultaneous generation of 'this' and 'that'." All opposites generate their counterpart; without the one, there is no other.
What is circumstantially right is also circumstantially wrong, and vice versa. Thus, the Sage does not proceed from any one of them alone but instead lets them all bask in the broad daylight of Heaven. And that too is only a case of going by the rightness of the present "this". (Zhuangzi, 2:16; Ziporyn)
Perhaps this image of seeing every human expression as "basking in the broad daylight of Heaven" can help us understand, and just maybe, appreciate this point of view. One is reminded of Jesus' observation that "the Lord causes the sun to shine on both the just and the unjust". Unlike Zhuangzi, however, Jesus was not a perspectival relativist; his "Lord" makes distinctions; Zhuangzi's Dao does not. This is not to say that from the human perspective there are no such distinctions — there are the just and the unjust — but that these distinctions are seen in a broader context in which no such distinctions matter. Such a point of view empowers one to both appreciate moral distinctions and yet to not be ruled by them.

It would be wrong for someone to murder me; but my murder does not matter in the context of Dao; nothing is lost or gained. Jesus' point is that we may defer our desire for payback because the Lord will do it for us. Zhuangzi's point is that no ultimate payback is required because, in Nature, all is well. (You, however, might want to imprison my murderer, lest he harm another; for Nature requires that all things spontaneously preserve their existence.)

The negation of absolutes does not lead to the rejection of all relatives; quite to the contrary; understanding that every point of view has its rights and wrongs, we are able to affirm the rightness of each.

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

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