Monday, March 11, 2013

Shen Dao Revisited I

Scott Bradley


I've been reading Victor Mair's translation of the Zhuangzi, Wandering on the Way, and have finally come to the 33rd and final chapter, "All Under Heaven". For those not familiar with the Zhuangzi, this chapter is a remarkable summary of the competing philosophies of the time, probably the 2nd century BCE. Apart from Zhuangzi himself, the philosopher whose thought I find the most compelling here is that of Shen Dao. Little is known of his teaching beyond what is given here, and that, though sometimes praised, is clearly presented in the context of an unfavorable bias. We are told in summary that he "did not know the Way".

To better understand what Shen Dao thought we need to understand the author's bias against him and that is largely revealed in the introductory portion of the chapter. And to understand this we need to understand why the most predominant philosophy of the time, Confucianism, is completely omitted from the discussion. I was amazed to read Mair's introductory comment to the effect that "Confucius is beyond the pale — hardly worth mentioning after being devastated in the rest of the book." To my thinking, this widely misses the mark. In the first place it assumes a "book" to which the chapter is a collaboration, something highly unlikely, the compilation of the Zhuangzi probably having yet to take place. He knew Zhuangzi and his writings, but Zhuangzi is never anything but respectful of Confucius, even when he uses him as a mouth-piece for his own thought. Moreover, like most proponents of a way, this author relishes the opportunity to dis-opposing philosophies. He is merciless in his presentation of Hui Shih, the logician and Zhuangzi's principle friend and sparring partner. Confucius is not omitted from the critique because he is "not worth mentioning", but because he is considered above criticism.

In his introductory comments the author tells us that the "Great Way of the ancients" has largely been lost or scattered, though it is still partially represented in the philosophies of the time (with the exception of Hui Shih's). His analyses of these philosophies thus begin by telling us what aspect of the Great Way they reflect and then, in conclusion, in what way they are deficient. There are, however, certain unnamed philosophers in Zhu and Lu (the home of Confucius and Mencius) who still retain an understanding of the Great Way. This is an obvious reference to Confucians, and the Great Way, of which all other philosophies are only a partial reflection, is Confucianism.

There are numerous other clues to this bias, but perhaps the most telling is that the sage of the Great Way is "inwardly a sage, outwardly a king." This is the shibboleth of Confucianism, perhaps in response to proto-Daoism which it saw as shirking social responsibility. And this is a principle criticism the author levels against Shen Dao.

To my thinking, therefore, the author of this chapter is a Confucian of syncretistic bent who does not consider that philosophy as on a par with the other philosophies of the time, but rather as that by which all the others should be judged.

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

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