Sunday, October 6, 2013

Building on Zhuangzi VIII

Scott Bradley

We are considering the profound implications of simultaneously embracing three apparently incompatible points of view:
From the point of view of the Course [Dao], no thing is more valuable than any other. But from the point of view of itself, each thing is worth more and all the others are worth less. And from the point of view of convention, the value of things is not determined by themselves.
(Zhuangzi, 17; Ziporyn)
The Dao-perspective sees the equality of all things. The self-perspective looks after its own interests. Typically, it does this by denigrating others so as to create the illusion of its own comparative self-worth. The view from Dao enables us to walk the road of our own unique and intrinsic self-worth while affirming every other thing in its own self-worth. No comparisons are required. The totality is affirmed in the affirmation of the particular. Thus is the self-perspective transformed and embraced.

The third perspective, the view from convention, adds several very interesting wrinkles. Convention is the societal discrimination between things, what is 'right' and what is 'wrong', what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Is it not curious how that we are able to in some way walk these two roads, self-view and conventional-view, simultaneously without the view from Dao? Clearly, they reinforce each other. My self-worth is projected onto society's worth. (My country — it is better than others, my people — we are special, 'chosen', my team — here the absurdity becomes most obvious.) My values are reflected in my culture's values. When that does not hold true, then my values are reflected in a counter-culture culture. Similarly, my self-values are a reflection of societal values. We can walk these two roads simultaneously because we unite them into one self/other, us/them comparison exercise.

Ziporyn's translation of the final line opens up to two ways in which conventional valuation negates self-so self-valuation. "And from the point of view of convention, the value of things is not determined by themselves." If our value is not self-intrinsic, then by what is it determined? Firstly, it is determined by what society tells us about ourselves — are we acceptable or unacceptable, successful or unsuccessful, givers or takers, sexually correct or sexually deviant, good or bad? You have no right to declare your own intrinsic value — society, others, will determine that for you. Here we see again the liberating aspect of Zhuangzi's appeal to non-dependence on the opinion of others and of society. Yet, nor should we ultimately depend on our own intrinsic value; as participants in the Dao-perspective, we realize that value is universal and we can 'hide' ourselves there.

Secondly, conventional valuation is not ultimately determined by itself but by an appeal to transcendent meta-values. Society tells us that there are universal norms of right and wrong established in . . . religion or "the way things are". We thus have no right to establish our own.

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

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