Saturday, April 27, 2013

Skillful Living

Scott Bradley


After discussing the skillful daos of Lord Wenhui's cook who butchers an ox without dulling his knife, the wheelwright who has an unteachable knack, and the monkey trainer who is able to please all parties, Kjellberg (in Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi) makes this observation: "The implication of all this is that, while Sextus and Zhuangzi administer skeptical arguments to induce uncertainty, they do so for different reasons: Sextus for the psychological good of ataraxia [peace] and Zhuangzi for the practical good of what we shall call 'skillful living'." I would suggest that Zhuangzi aims at both and that both are, from his perspective, inseparable.

Neither the Greek Skeptics nor Zhuangzi see any need to justify the normative values of their respective goals, though again for different reasons. If for the sake of argument we assert that they both hold that all values are relative, then the question arises what business either has telling us how best to live. The Skeptics might answer that it is self-evident, that peace is preferable to anxiety, but that no moral value is implied in either case. Zhuangzi, I think, would agree, only he would add that, as Kjellberg states, "nature . . . has a normative component".

Ultimately, Zhuangzi chooses to affirm the givens of this apparent world and our existence in it. He chooses to say, "Yes". Why? He offers no reasons. To do so would be to depend on reasons (and reasons are most undependable). What he seems to say is that nature, when allowed to do so, affirms itself. We would not argue that monkeys should justify their life in the trees, or that an eel should seek out warmer and drier climes, he tells us; why then should we need to justify a life similarly in harmony with nature, the way things manifest?

This brings us back to the principle of spontaneous living, letting life live us. All that's required is abdication of a kind of self-centered empire building that 'knows better' and 'wants other'. The consequence of doing so, according to Zhuangzi, is both a peaceful and skillful life.

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

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