Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Horse's True Nature II

Scott Bradley


Chapter Nine, "Horses Hooves", of the Zhuangzi is an excellent example of taking one side of an extremely complex and nuanced philosophy to a simplistic extreme. That extreme has been described as "primitivist", the belief that there was an ideal utopian time when all things were left entirely to their own devices and thus all was well and ordered. "Then came the sages . . . " who thought people needed to know the right way to live, and in proclaiming this way, cast "all the world into doubt". What had been natural, became something external, a teaching, and thus people became separated from their true natures by virtue of questioning what had been spontaneous.

This primitivist philosophy has much more in common with the Daodejing, where similar ideas are espoused, than it does with Zhuangzi. In fact, I would guess that its author was little informed by Zhuangzi's philosophy, if at all.

Horses have hooves perfectly suited to their needs; they romp and play in the wilds. This is their "true nature". But along come horse trainers who destroy what is natural in horses and thus destroy their true nature. Similarly, those who seek to govern people, not realizing that they do best when left alone, impose morality upon them and destroy their true nature.

What is remarkable about this short chapter is its radical libertarianism. It is essentially a treatise on how to govern and its sole message is don't govern. When left alone, people will embody "common integrity" (Mair) ("shared Virtuosity"; Ziporyn) and "natural freedom" without factionalism. Yet is this really the case? I suspect not.

As for horses, I have only three already "destroyed" examples to observe, and as much as I appreciate each one, I also see how 'mean' they are to each other, biting and kicking to confirm the pecking order. Are they really that different from wild horses? I think not. Nor do I believe that human beings were all that much different even before the advent of government and sages. We are animals after all and the reptilian brain is ever at the ready to guide us.

Thus, societally we require balance, restraints and freedom. But here's the secret: Though society requires these restraints, Zhuangzi tells us that we as individuals do not — if we can open ourselves to the openness of Dao. And how do we know when we are doing so? When we have no problem "following along with" all these restraints.

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

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