Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nature Vs Nurture III

Scott Bradley


Xunzi's criticism of Zhuangzi ("Zhuangzi was obsessed by nature (tian=heaven), but did not know the human.") is found in his chapter "Dispelling Obsessions" which begins: "The thing all men should fear is that they become obsessed by a small corner and lose sight of the larger pattern." (Xunzi 21/1) This sentiment is so reminiscent of the opening theme of the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi where all the philosophies discussed, with the notable exception of Confucianism which by default is assumed to see the “larger pattern”, are declared to be the work of “nook and cranny scholars”, that it’s hard not to imagine some very real connection between them. In any case, this seems to have been a major thrust of the Confucian polemic.

What is ironic about this statement is that it is one that Zhuangzi would have whole-heartedly endorsed. Only he would have added that anyone who thought he clearly saw the “larger pattern” would also be someone “obsessed by a small corner”. Xunzi falls into exactly the folly of thinking his perspective takes in the whole picture. The Confucians and Mohists, Zhuangzi tells us, each deny what the other affirms, believing they see the “larger pattern”, and in this they are obsessed with their “small corner”. In view of this, wouldn’t it be better, he asks, to understand that we do not understand and begin from there?

Zhuangzi actually makes a similar statement when he says: “A large consciousness is idle and spacey; a small consciousness is cramped and circumspect.” (Chapter 2; Ziporyn) The difference between his statement and Xunzi’s is that for Zhuangzi the only way to avoid dwelling in a “small corner” is to be free of dogmatism altogether.

To truly be free of dogmatism one must allow dogmatism to flourish. Thus, Zhuangzi goes on to say that the sage just follows along with whatever dogmatism she encounters. Like the monkey trainer, who understood that it really made no difference whether his monkeys got two or three nuts in the morning or two or three in the afternoon, the sage lets human culture unfold.

Xunzi’s real complaint with Zhuangzi is precisely this — his failure to be dogmatic. He who clings to a “right view” is more comfortable with someone who clings to his own “right view”, even though “wrong”, than with someone who subscribes to no “right view” at all. “Heaven” (Nature) for Zhuangzi is a great unfolding, and whatever unfolds is ultimately acceptable. If what happens is Dao, then all that happens is ultimately affirmable.

But the monkey trainer had responsibilities; he had monkeys to take care of; and thus, though he himself saw no difference between two now and three later and three now and two later, he went along with the monkeys in their preferences and thereby brought them some degree of peace. This is “walking two roads”. Xunzi would have insisted on one formula, his own.

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

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