King Wen was sightseeing when he discovered an old man fishing with a line without a hook. "His was an eternal fishing." (Mair; 21:8) What a powerful image this is — an old man fishing without a hook. If there is de here, what is it? As usual, I will contaminate your mind with my own ideas, just as the author of this story does with his words, but still the image remains for your own consideration.
Fishing without a hook speaks of a life free of purpose beyond that it is happening. Because it seeks no end, has no necessary goals, it is not a path to somewhere, but simply a path that is an end in itself. It lives itself. It lets things happen. It does what happens. It is wuwei. It is "eternal" because, having no end, it is open-ended.
Typically, we live purpose-driven lives. We have to achieve things. Things achieved give us value. Things not yet achieved give us value because our virtue is seen in our seeking them. A great deal of 'spiritual' endeavor is purpose-driven. We have to become something. We have to be a certain way. Unfortunately, this impacts upon how we treat others. Being purpose-driven ourselves, we drive others. Because we need to achieve things, so do they. Because we need to be a certain way, so do others. This is an excess of Yang, an oppressive assertiveness that imposes itself on others.
Still more unfortunate is the fact that this does not drive others toward the intended goal, but away from it. Like the loving ministrations of another king to a sea bird, when he had music played for it and had it fed from his own table, it only led to suffering and death. King Wen, in his wisdom, immediately saw this and contrived a way for the old man to be approved as his prime minister. Immediately, his kingdom began to undergo a transformation. Bickering and corruption among his feudal lords ceased and the people began to prosper in their contentment.
The king was most pleased and asked the old man how his, King Wen's, government could be extended over all the world. The old man made ambiguous murmurings and then disappeared in the night, never to be seen or heard from again.
The story now takes a curious turn; someone ventures to ask Confucius whether King Wen did not transgress when he used subterfuge to bring the old man into his government. (He had concocted a dream in which his departed father told him to appoint the old man, and this was used to persuade his ministers to do so.) Confucius answers that King Wen had reached perfection and the subterfuge was simply making use of the expedient. I call this ‘curious’ because it seems to me to miss the whole point of King Wen’s failure and the departure of the eternal fisherman. The king became ambitious, he wanted to extend his realm; he wanted to tie a hook on the old man’s line, and so he left.
Perhaps the author of this story finally found his inner Zhuangzi, for this is precisely the kind of ambiguous twist we would expect from the master. The answer given is not the answer.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.