Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Beyond Power, Beyond Qi V

Scott Bradley

Somewhat incidental to his main thesis, Puett makes a case for the normative aspect of Zhuangzi's call to non-dependence on things through so fully affirming them that they cease to have power over us. By "normative" is meant that he tells us how best to live, though it must be remembered that this also entails allowing others to live as they see best.

He first notes that Zhuangzi's freedom is not the freedom to do whatever one pleases, if what one pleases to do is other than how (heavenly) circumstances open up before one. Ding the Cook spontaneously dances his way through the butchering of an ox, but all this is made possible by his following "Heaven's unwrought perforations" (tianli) and going by "how they already are". (3:5) This then is another example of how this freedom is the freedom to flow with things, not to overcome or change them.

A corollary to this is that she who has this freedom has it because she behaves in this way. From the outside this freedom might appear as license to do anything one pleases, but from inside one pleases to do a particular thing.

Puett then shows how this disallows understanding Zhuangzi as an absolute relativist. He takes special exception to Eno's suggestion ("Cook Ding's Dao . . ."; Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi) that "Dao-practices can be applied to any end", whether butchering oxen or people. He then concludes that Zhuangzi was "a cosmologist with a strong commitment to a certain definition of the proper place of humanity in the universe." This seems to me to go a bit too far if by cosmology we mean an understanding of 'how things really are', but Zhuangzi does advocate acceptance of how things appear to be. Most importantly, we need to be careful to avoid prescribing particular behaviors as examples of our "proper place in the universe"; this would be to apply rules where none exist, and would completely negate the entire exercise of spontaneously engaging with life's circumstances as they ever-transform.

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

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