Friday, November 23, 2012

The Positive Side of the Negative

Scott Bradley

In his various descriptions of the zhenren, the Authentic Person, Zhuangzi definitely tends to emphasize the negative — what he is not rather than what he is. Daniel Coyle ("On the Zhenren"; Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi) explains how this is for good reason:
Both Laozi and Zhuangzi employ negative language because the absence of prescriptivity leaves a topic open to interpretation and keeps it personal. One cannot be told what is consistent with one's own integrity; one can only be informed of possible elements of coercion that might impede one's own spontaneity.
We are told, for instance, that the zhenren of old "could transgress and yet not be regretful, or hit the mark and not be self-satisfied". If she was not regretful and not self-satisfied, what was she? The only way to find out is to experience it. These negatives are the negation of the coercion of conventional morality; to provide a positive alternative would be prescriptive and therefore simply more coercion.

There is always an implied evaluative judgment in even this approach; it is understood that there is a problem, there is pain and disharmony, and another happier way is suggested. But the suggestion that one rediscover spontaneity as a liberating experience in the expression of one's unique experience leaves things relatively open-ended. This is not what one should do, but what one can do.

Finally, Zhuangzi never actually tells us, in this passage at least, that we should be like the Authentic Persons "of old" (which I take as a means to offering a hypothetical possibility, not an appeal to an actual historic past reality); instead, he simply describes such ones and leaves it to us as to whether we might want to explore the possibility of becoming likewise.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter one way or the other what we choose to do or not do. There are no cosmic consequences at stake; this is not about redemption, but about living a happier life during our brief emergence in the ever-unfolding field of Dao.

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

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