Thursday, November 7, 2013

Shenzi XI

Scott Bradley

In the previous post we considered how Shenzi's (reported) understanding of how all things are both acceptable and unacceptable seems to echo (or be echoed in) Zhuangzi, and yet is actually radically different. For him, these qualities appear to exist in the things themselves; for Zhuangzi, they are simply a reflection of various perspectival discriminations. Shenzi's equalization of all things is thus an ontological conclusion: all things really are One, and this One we call Dao. Zhuangzi's equalization is merely psychological; Dao is a way of viewing the world.

This seems an appropriate time to return to one of the original questions inspiring this study, namely, is Hansen correct in having labeled Shenzi an "absolutist", the sponsor of a metaphysical Dao, and thus a suitable contrast to Zhuangzi? I admit to having thought otherwise, but now have come over to his position.

A second question this study seeks to answer is: Does it matter? The answer to this question depends on what one thinks matters. For me, what matters are behavioral outcomes or, at least, paradigms conducive to positive outcomes. A positive outcome can be measured in terms of happiness realized. (I won't attempt a philosophical or 'spiritual' justification of this norm here beyond the comment that should you prefer unhappiness, then by all means pursue it.) Did Shenzi's absolutism better enable him or anyone else to live more happily?

This is not a question that we can answer with any degree of certainty, but I suspect the answer might be: not radically so. One curious aspect of the author of the Tianxia chapter's consideration of these various philosophers is the way in which he assumes they lived what they said. For instance, Shenzi we are told, "abandoned cleverness, rid himself of any personal position, and instead followed along with whatever was unavoidable". By Zhuangzian standards, this makes him a sage. However, this seems highly unlikely. (Indeed, this author does not believe there has ever been such a sage, including Zhuangzi.) I think, therefore, we must dismiss this equation of words with reality as either a matter of style or of simple delusion.

That a philosophy of life cannot be fully realized does not necessarily mean that it cannot be valid. (For we are not dealing with 'truth' here.) The real question is whether we can approximate it to good effect. Thus, if Shenzi could in fact approximate his ideal, then, from the point of view of happiness as the norm, his absolutism does not matter. However, I suspect that he could not, if for no other reason than that his position is extreme in its attempts to realize Oneness at the expense of the many. His position, in the end, is life-negating, since life is experienced as an existential individuation necessitating choices, learning and actions. Thus, the assessment of his peers that his philosophy is “a perfect guideline for the dead” has validity.

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

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