Monday, June 18, 2012

Crazy Words IV

Scott Bradley

The madman Jieyu concludes his song addressed to Confucius:
Confronting the world with your Virtuosity — let it rest, give it up!
Drawing a straight line upon this earth and then trying to walk along it — danger, peril!
The brambles and thorns, which so bewilder the sunlight, they don't impede my steps.
My zigzag stride amid them keeps my feet unharmed.
(Zhuangzi, 4:20; Ziporyn)
This provides a wonderful metaphor for the differences between the rigidity of truth-knowing and the flexibility of not-knowing. Confucius is a man of high moral principles and understands it as his responsibility to instruct the world in these principles. Jieyu, by contrast, adapts himself to circumstances — he "follows along with the rightness of the present 'this'".

The consequences of these two approaches also differ significantly. Confucius is required to assert himself, to 'commit yang' as I like to say, and this puts him at jeopardy in the volatile political environment of his time. As a man of principle, his line is straight and makes no concession to the contingencies of reality. Jieyu, on the other hand, wends his way around the various dangers of his time, and thereby avoids trouble. He follows the example of water and yields to the contours of reality. He flows like yin.

One interesting feature of this contrast between Confucianism and Daoism is the relative affirmability of both. However, I would venture to guess that judging between the two, most people would see Confucius as the most commendable. He is a man of principles and stands by them whatever the cost. This almost epitomizes our idea of the heroic figure. Jieyu's virtuosity (de), that of a madman, is, by contrast, immediately suspect of moral weakness. If there is moral rectitude here it is much more difficult to find. This should not surprise us since, as things stand, the natural human inclination is to assertiveness, that is, to 'making one's mark', being someone. Laozi tells us in the Daodejing that it seems like he alone is not part of this party. "The world is full of people that shine; I alone am dark," (XX; Waley)

The way of yin is basically counter-intuitive in the context of humanity as it is presently manifest. Who would choose to be 'dark' when she could 'shine'? Someone who is already 'dark' and could not 'shine' in any case, we might say — someone like a madman, a physical freak, or a disgraced ex-con. And Zhuangzi would not disagree, which is why he considers such impediments auspicious, for he has discovered the freedom of being empty.

But though this is the way recommended by Zhuangzi, we can also step back, just as he would do, and see how we need not judge between them. We need not condemn the one in order to affirm the other. But if we can manage this, we have already discovered the way of yin.

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

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