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The Wisdom of Chuang Tzu: how ancient Chinese philosophy can change your life

In the great sea of technology and innovation, does ancient Chinese philosophy have anything left to teach us? Or, like ornate calligraphy and old sheets of rice paper, has it become more of a beautiful relic than a useful tool?

Purportedly written by Lao Tzu (a name meaning “Old Master”), the Tao Te Ching expresses the harmonious life, a flowing of the Universe that is above our knowledge, the nature of reality that exist before language and even before thought.

The book (originally, probably a scroll) is brief and written in deceptively plain language. But behind the words, there is a reflection of the “Way,” the cosmic flow which can’t be named or described. Rather, Lao Tzu writes with an enigmatic simplicity, allowing the reader to reflect on the Tao without relying on a reductive definition.

As one might expect, interpreting the text can be a puzzling process:

“Great tone has no sound.”

Though simply put, the statement’s irony inspires questions that do not have simple answers.

The Tao Te Ching is one of the foundational text for Taoist philosophy. The other is the Book of Chuang Tzu. While much of the Tao Te Ching is written in short declarative sentences, Chuang Tzu strings together odd stories and parables, some funny, some interesting, and few that are inscrutable. How Chuang Tzu writes, as much as what he writes, reflects something about the nameless harmony in Taoism:

“When horses live on the plain, they eat grass and drink from the streams…This is all horses know how to do. But if you pile poles and yokes on them … they will learn to snap the crossbars, break the yoke, rip the carriage top, champ the bit, and chew the reins”

Many people will take this for granted; indeed, something about this observation seems to reflect an instinctual sort of awareness. A child can observe what state of nature a horse prefers without reading about it in a book or being told.

But I believe that is part of its significance. What Chuang Tzu observes is immediately recognizable to anyone. He’s not attempting to illustrate something unique to horses, but to show how our ability to recognize the innate nature of a horse is itself a kind of innate knowledge.

For a Taoist, the relationship is reciprocal; that is, the faculty that allows us to observe the Tao is actually the Tao itself, a fact which has profound spiritual, ethical, and philosophical implications.

Exploring the nature of this Taoist ability, a sort of mutual recognition, Chuang Tzu compares the sort of physical implements that corrupt the Tao of a horse with the conceptual implements that corrupt the Tao of a person:

“Knowledge enables men to fashion pitfalls, snares, cages, traps … but when this happens the beasts flee in confusion to the swamps. And the flood of rhetoric that enables men to bewilder the understanding of common men. So the world is dulled and darkened by great confusion.”

Chuang Tzu is not disparaging the concept of knowledge (which would be pretty hypocritical for a philosopher). Rather, he’s thinking about the forms of “knowledge” that tend to surround our lives. For example, our alarm clocks offer us a knowledge about the time (and our obligation to go to work); social networks give us knowledge about our friends (and our obligation to facilitate their interest), and so on.

Do such forms of “knowledge” truly improve our lives. Or, by accepting successive obligations, do we use technology to place “poles and yokes” onto ourselves as further burdens, corrupting our Tao, removing us further from what we truly desire.

Chuang Tzu ask us to reflect on what we desire before we consciously think about what we desire. If the technologies we adopt make our life better, then great. But reading Chuang Tzu will help us not be deceived, so that we can tell the difference between efficiency and distraction.

Perhaps by observing the Tao of the unencumbered horse, Chuang Tzu provides insight into what we might truly want, if relieved from the pressures entailed by modern conveniences.

Zeno, the contrarian: antagonist to Plato, founder of Radical Stoicism

 

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr [CeCILL (http://www.cecill.info/licences/Licence_CeCILL_V2-en.html) or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Zeno of Citium is credited as the founder of Stoicism, a philosophy that exhorts fortitude, reason, and self-discipline.

When it began in Athens, sometime in the 4th century BCE, it intended to help an individual live a virtuous and meaningful life. But from these humble origins, it evolved into a near ascetic practice, cultivated by the Roman state and manipulated for the service of its imperialist doctrines. A philosophy that began with self-reliance and logic had turned into a political ideology encoded for obedience and loyalty.

But at its outset, Stoicism contested the authoritative hand the Plato appeared to wield over all of ancient intellectual thought. Rather, scoffing at Plato’s abstractions, Zeno established a system where both ethics and logic are rooted in a materialist universe and can be explained with physical principles. This is an extreme departure from the Platonic notion of “Forms,” where a higher plane of Truth can be conceptualized without embodiment. For Zeno, the nature of Truth must be physical, something that can be touched, felt, and heard.

It is not too difficult to understand how Plato, who relaxed in private gardens discoursing with aristocrats, would come to such different conclusions than Zeno, who held his school at the Agora, a public marketplace. It’s unfortunate how little credit Zeno is given for revolutionizing the forum of the philosophical tradition.

Zeno’s Republic was written, in part, as a critique to Plato’s work (of the same name). Whereas Plato believed the majority of people needed to be guided by a lone ‘Philosopher King’ (a person who looks suspiciously similar to its author), Zeno’s Republic envisioned a city of more egalitarian relationships.

For example, he makes the radical claim that citizenship should be a closer bond than paternity (not even Engels would go this far in The Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State). He envisions a city without temples, without courtrooms, and without the use of currency. Zeno believes men and woman should wear the same plain clothing, and given the association between dress and status in the ancient world, Zeno’s position is meant to emphatically undercut the hierarchies that intersect at class and gender.

But how can a Stoic, indeed the original Stoic, have had such a radical political philosophy? Unfortunately, we have very little of his work. It’s not a coincidence that Plato’s Republic has been carefully preserved by those who find it useful in government libraries, while there is a clear record (especially in the Middle Ages) to expunge Zeno’s political writings, in spite of its undeniable significance to ancient philosophy.

In one sense, it’s easy to understand why a philosopher who envisioned a city without law and other authoritative institutions would find it necessary to develop a philosophical system that privileges self-reliance, endurance, and — to a great extent — personal responsibility. However, Zeno and the Stoics are not idealist, and their philosophy does not attempt to arbitrarily place ascetic demands onto the ego. Rather, they see the ideology of Stoicism to be a fundamental part of human nature; that is, we embody these virtues naturally, and we forego them only because there are authoritarian structures that pervert our inherent motives. In this respect, it’s not a surprise that Zeno would suggest that the State is not the cure, but the cause of chaos and violence.