The Taoist Philosophy of Zhuangzi
Like Confucius and Mencius, Xunzi believes that nature emerges from the interplay of vital energy. It is within this circuit that life and death are framed.
Unlike Mencius, however, Xunzi does not think that people are naturally good. He argues that human nature is bad and needs reform, as a warped piece of wood would be.
Zhuangzi is a collection of anecdotes, parables and fables that are often humorous and irreverent. It promotes the idea of spontaneous action and of freedom from human conventions.
Like the Laozi, Zhuangzi is concerned with human nature and how this may be shaped by socialization. But his analysis is much more relativist and skeptical than that of the Confucians.
In particular, he emphasizes the importance of being unfettered by moral conventions and of finding one’s own path to truth through nature. For example, he tells a story of the butcher Ding, who finds happiness through mastering his skill at chopping up ox carcasses.
Another central theme is the concept of the “Great Way.” This refers to the underlying reality of the universe and transcends the laws of physics. It is a kind of indeterminism, although common sense indeterminism would also regard many different world histories as possible. This is sometimes referred to as the “tian dao” (
The Zhuangzi (
The omnipresence of the Spirit is central to the Zhuangzi. It is found in everything, including excrement and urine. It is the force that causes all things to change naturally, bringing balance to life.
Hinton translates this as “the essence that is innate in a being.” This could be understood in a pan(en)theistic sense, as an all-pervasive presence that manifests itself at any level of organic synergy, from the mind/soul of a single cell (with very primitive, elemental consciousness) to the complex/sophisticated conscious of galaxies.
The heart (
It is important to recognize that the heart is the center of the circulatory system and is responsible for directing desires and deciding on right and wrong. The heart is the place where one can see the heavenly (tian) and earthly (ming).
Some scholars have pointed out that Zhuangzi does not use the term human nature or xing in the Inner Chapters, even though he lived during the same time as Mencius and would have been aware of his work. The reason for this silence is unclear. Some suggest that xing was considered a harmful concept or that Zhuangzi deliberately avoided using the term as an oblique criticism of his contemporary and fellow Taoist philosophers.
The Zhuangzi is an anecdotal text that consists of stories, fables, parables, and wit. It can be viewed as one of the first philosophical works to explore the notion of a life of freedom and carefree wandering that is not necessarily self-centered. It is important to note that whereas the Confucians and other ancient philosophers focused on moral and ethical standards, the sage of Zhuangzi promoted wandering without concern for others.
He held that humans can be compared to the earth, wind and fire, and the sun. In other words, people are naturally good. However, he warned that left to their own devices, people would descend into chaos and disorder. He feared a world that would be poor, nasty, brutish and short.
If the ethical dimension of the Zhuangzi is not fittingly understood as conformity to commands, codes and abstract principles, as early Daoism interprets conventional and Confucian morality, we may be able to recover it as a phenomenology of nature that is similar to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh.