Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Marsh Pheasant -- Nourishment in Suffering II

Scott Bradley

In yesterday's post we were considering the implications of Zhuangzi’s opening statement in Chapter Three of the Zhuangzi to the effect that, since knowledge is “limitless” and human capacities “limited”, it is a dangerous and potentially hurtful thing to pursue the former as a means to nourishing the latter. I suggested religious belief as an example of following this road of knowledge — ‘knowing’ something understood as nourishing life. Space did not allow for the usual qualifications.

Religious answers are essentially arbitrary, final stops on the road of unlimited knowledge; they are like the indivisible atom of Lucretian physics; they work as long as we don’t discover how simplistic this point of view is. Curiously, Zhuangzi seems to have lived in a time and place when no easy "answers" were at hand; people (the 'educated classes', at least) were on that road of unlimited knowledge in their pursuit. Thus was his response germane to his times. But arbitrary stops along that road become problematical only when one realizes, even if subconsciously, that they are, in fact, arbitrary. There have been times, and there are always individuals, in which and for whom these answers are understood as final and sufficient; why would we wish to disabuse them of their belief and the solace it provides? Zhuangzi speaks to and is for those who share his existential suffering, not those who do not. It addresses those who are already ‘unfixed’ from the ready-made answers which our cultures have provided to ease our existential suffering; there is no evangelistic need to unfix those already ‘happily’ fixed.

Zhuangzi's philosophy is, I think, remarkable in that it so relevantly addresses our age where the human experience, post-Enlightenment and post-belief (even in the ability of reason to provide us with a final and sufficient stop), realizes that no easy ‘answers’ are at hand.

Since the Zhuangzian goal is sometimes described as to dwell in the “limitless”, the description of the limitlessness of knowledge as problematical can be confusing. This is resolved when we understand that it is knowledge as a provider of meaning that is limitless precisely because it cannot provide that meaning; it is the limitlessness of a vain pursuit. The Daoist understanding of limitlessness is something else altogether. This limitlessness is that which has let go the pursuit of meaning-in-an-answer altogether and has chosen instead to embrace not-knowing on the one hand, while “handing it all over to the inevitable”, on the other. This is the limitlessness that ensues from a complete surrender of oneself in trust, an act which, though seemingly reckless, is (perhaps) the only alternative for the ‘unfixed’ to one of life-denial and alienation.

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

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