Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Political Zhuangzi?

Scott Bradley

"I will drag my tail in the mud." Hansen ("Guru or Skeptic?) closes his essay in Hiding the World in the World with this famous retort from Zhuangzi when asked to become a minister. Better to be a turtle in the mud than a revered, but dead, one in the vaults of a king. This, Hansen implies, speaks to the consequences of Zhuangzi's skeptical relativism — anarchy — the true message of Zhuangzi.

By "true" message is meant the one that his philosopher contemporaries would have derived from his writings. Having recently tried my damnedest to come up with a workable political theory in Zhuangzi, I find such an assertion quite remarkable. But in the absence of the mystical vision which Hansen rejects, I suppose some other main aim needs to be found.

It is not that Hansen agrees with this presumed appeal to anarchy; in fact, he quotes Wong to the effect that it merely demonstrates Daoism's failure to actually formulate a reasonable political theory to combat Confucian (and Mohist) authoritarianism. Anarchy arises by default. But if this is the case, then Zhuangzi did a very poor job of making his! Considering the craftsmanship evinced in the writings themselves, this is hard to imagine. It seems rather the case that he had other things in mind.

All this being said, Hansen does show how Zhuangzian relativism suggests what today we would call "political liberalism", all of which might be summed up as 'live and let live'. "When we reflect correctly on relativistic skepticism, we should risk no undermining of commitment other than agreeing to abandon prejudice, intolerance, and repression." In other words, Zhuangzi's "mild" skepticism does not demand we give up our own view of what entails the good life, only that we should not decide for others.

The contemporary gist of political theory was that a "sage-king" should rule and determine what the good life is for all. But, "There are no sages in the Confucian sense." Thus, "Skepticism about ways of life in the context of ancient Chinese political theory is skepticism of government — an argument for anarchy." (Hansen's italics.) But is there a contradiction here? "An argument for anarchy" is an argument against 'other' forms of government. But does not Zhuangzi's personal ethic of live and let live also apply in the political sphere?

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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are unmoderated, so you can write whatever you want.