Saturday, May 4, 2013

More on Xunzi I

Scott Bradley

Xunzi (312-? B.C.E.), it might be remembered, has come to our attention because of his criticism of his older contemporary Zhuangzi (ca. 369-286 B.C.E.), namely that he was "obsessed with Nature, but did not know the human." As one similarly obsessed, it seems like it might be worth exploring why he came to this conclusion.

This criticism comes as a mere dismissive swipe at just another philosopher who has "become obsessed by a small corner of truth and fail[ed] to comprehend its overall principles." (Xunzi, 21; Watson) I have previously mentioned the irony that Zhuangzi would have most certainly agreed with the dangers of adhering to what one thinks is the truth, but would have added that this is precisely what believing that one can "comprehend the overall principles" entails. This counter-criticism is apparently a consequence of being "obsessed with Nature" and why I, for one, gladly confess to this vice. I am reminded of religionists who decry religion and thus decree the religion that ends all religion.

Though obscure in his time, Xunzi's philosophy became the philosophy of the notoriously brutal Han Dynasty (though in his defense Watson tells us that much of his moral teaching was disregarded). This leads one to ask what difference it would have made if Zhuangzi's way had 'triumphed' instead. The answer, I think, is that the question is moot; his way could not have become the state philosophy. I am reminded of the Sermon on the Mount; were Christians to have really taken these teachings to heart, there actually never would have been any such thing as Christianity as we know it today. The actual ways of Jesus and of Zhuangzi don't 'work' in the environment of dynastic empire building, which is to say they most certainly would not work today. Nothing much has changed in this regard. For Confucianism, this is a fatal flaw. When it comes to feeding lions, it is considered preferable to be the person feeding than the person fed.

What then does Jesus or Zhuangzi have to offer? Personal liberation. And it was this that made Zhuangzi so revolutionary as to be called an anarchist. Confucius wanted to transform society; Zhuangzi suggested we begin with ourselves. This is not to say that Confucius did not advocate self-cultivation — he did — but that his ultimate goal was, in the end, political power ('but only to do good', of course). Does personal liberation lead to societal liberation? Perhaps; but I think we can be fairly sure that the latter cannot happen without the former in any case.

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

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