How to be a philosopher, according to Zhuangzi

The past year has given me a lot of time to think about the point of doing philosophy. There may be some value to the search for truth as an end in itself, but I’ve never really found that sufficient. Whenever I find myself enjoying some pointless philosophizing a little too much, a small bearded voice in the back of my head whispers: “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.” But it’s too easy to say we should change the world, the question is always: how?

Today I ran into an interesting passage in the Zhuangzi about this very question. It’s from one of the Outer Chapters, titled “刻意 \ Ingrained Ideas.” In it, the author distinguishes between four kinds of thinker. I think any reader will recognize these four kinds in people who are living and thinking today (perhaps, even, in themselves).

Zhuang Zhou, c. 369 BC – c. 286 BC (painting by Hua Zuli)

The first, we might call the moralists. He describes them as follows:

Ingrained ideas and a high estimate of their own conduct; leaving the world, and pursuing uncommon ways; talking loftily and in resentful disparagement of others—all this is simply symptomatic of arrogance. This is what scholars who betake themselves to the hills and valleys, who are always blaming the world, and who stand aloof like withered trees, or throw themselves into deep pools, are fond of.

They have ideas that are fixed, that they hold in high regard, and that they at least think they embody in their own lives. They show “resentful disparagement of others” and are always “blaming the world” because everyone and everything fails to conform to their own ideas of how they should be. So these scholars attempt to keep their purity by separating from the world; and yet for all their high-minded ideals, they “stand aloof like withered trees.” Withered because their ideas are dead, sterile; they serve only to criticize from afar, but are no guide to action. This is, perhaps, precisely because they are “ingrained” ideas: they do not respond to the environment of the thinker, but only to some ideal of their own, that they acquired from books or from who-knows-where. They’re “arrogant” because they puts their own ideas above everything else in the world. This type is perhaps the closest to your archetypal philosopher. Marx seems to have been speaking of the same kind of person when he said, in a letter to Ruge:

before, philosophers had the answer to all riddles lying in their desks and the stupid exterior world has only to open its mouth for the roasted pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it

If the moralist has any theory of how to change the world, it is just that: to write and to give lectures, and hope that these will convince enough people to implement their ideas that the world will be changed, all without them even having to go through the trouble of leaving their desk.

The second type, we might call the courtiers. He describes them as follows:

Discoursing of benevolence, righteousness, loyalty, and good faith; being humble and frugal, self-forgetful and courteous—all this is simply symptomatic of (self-)cultivation. This is what scholars who wish to tranquillise the world, teachers and instructors, men who pursue their studies at home and abroad, are fond of. Discoursing of their great merit and making a great name for themselves; insisting on the ceremonies between ruler and minister; and rectifying the relations between high and low—all this shows their one object to be the promotion of government. This is what officers of the court, men who honour their lord and would strengthen the state and who would do their utmost to incorporate other states with their own, are fond of.

These scholars don’t separate themselves from the world like the moralists, they pursue their studies right in the thick of it, so they have that in their favor. But unlike the moralists, the courtier doesn’t seek to criticize the world, but to “tranquilize” it. That is, in their studies, they merely hold a mirror to the world and tell it that things are basically fine as they are, we only need to respect the law, do as our parents say, and everything will be great. This is a great strategy for career advancement in Zhuangzi’s time as in ours, for every ruler loves to hear that things are going well and that their government is just. The most obvious analogue to this type in Western philosophy is the character Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide, whose job as court philosopher is precisely to teach that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” (a parody of the philosophy of Leibniz). The courtier’s theory of change, if we can call it that, is simply to keep doing as we’re already doing, but perhaps more so.

Pangloss trying to explain how the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 fits in the best of all possible worlds (from Paul Klee’s illustrations of Candide)

The third type, we might call the ascetics. Zhuangzi describes them as follows:

Resorting to marshes and lakes; dwelling in solitary places; occupying themselves with angling and living at ease—all this shows their one object to be to do nothing. This is what gentlemen of the rivers and seas, men who avoid the society of the world and desire to live at leisure, are fond of. Blowing and breathing with open mouth; inhaling and exhaling the breath; expelling the old breath and taking in new; passing their time like the (dormant) bear, and stretching and twisting (the neck) like a bird—all this simply shows the desire for longevity. This is what the scholars who manipulate their breath, and the men who nourish the body and wish to live as long as Peng Zu are fond of.

This type of person neither reflects the world nor criticizes it, but instead simply attempts to live happily outside of it. In many ways, this type is an improvement on the previous two; for although they don’t engage with the world in any way, they’re at least not hypocritical about it. They don’t tell the world that it’s bad, and then proceed to do nothing about it, and neither do they tell the world, falsely, that it’s good. In many ways, one might think this type is the Taoist ideal, since their object is “to do nothing” (無為, wúwéi). They aim to neither interpret anything nor change anything, and thereby they can live long and happy lives.

But Zhuangzi goes further to describe a fourth type, whom he calls the “sages,” and this is the type I find most interesting. He describes them as follows:

As to those who have a lofty character without any ingrained ideas; who pursue the path of self-cultivation without benevolence and righteousness; who succeed in government without great services or fame; who enjoy their ease without resorting to the rivers and seas; who attain to longevity without the management (of the breath); who forget all things and yet possess all things; whose placidity is unlimited, while all things to be valued attend them: such men pursue the way of heaven and earth, and display the characteristics of the sages.

In typical Taoist fashion, the passage seems full of contradictions that nevertheless seem to hide something profound. The sages merge the positive aspects of the three previous types with none of their drawbacks. They are like the moralists, for they are “lofty” (which in this context I take to mean something like morally good, admirable); like the courtiers, for they “pursue the path of self-cultivation” and “succeed in government”; and like the ascetics, for they “enjoy their ease” and “attain longevity”; and somehow they do this all without succumbing to their failures. In some way they manage to merge the ideal and the worldly, the self and others, without leaning too far in any direction. But exactly how do they do this? How does one purse the way of both heaven and earth?

Gratefully, Zhuangzi follows the description with a bunch of clarifying advice on how to be like the sage. On the question of when and how to act, he says of the sage:

He does not take the initiative in producing either happiness or calamity. He responds to the influence acting on him, and moves as he feels the pressure. He rises to act only when he is obliged to do so.

I take this to mean that, unlike the moralist, the sage does not take his pre-formed ideas and seek to simply apply them to the world as it is; and unlike the courtier, he does not simply act as the world dictates. The problem with the first is that the ideas will find no purchase in the world, since they are not informed by how the world actually is and what kind of action it might call for. The problem with the second is that, in doing just what the world says to do, you end up losing both yourself and your ideas, and end up once again doing nothing in a roundabout way. The sage, instead, “responds to the influence acting on him, and moves as he feels the pressure,” meaning that, in his acting and thinking, he responds to the ideas and thoughts of his environment, and in a way that is suited to their “pressure.” He cultivates a special attunement to the way the world itself calls to be acted upon. His studies, then, one might suppose, must be focused on just how the world calls upon us to act in order to change it—for this is not an easy question, not now and probably not in Zhuangzi’s time either.

He says further:

If the body be toiled, and does not rest, it becomes worn out; if the spirit be used without cessation, it becomes toiled; and when toiled, it becomes exhausted. It is the nature of water, when free from admixture, to be clear, and, when not agitated, to be level; while if obstructed and not allowed to flow, it cannot preserve its clearness—being an image of the virtue of Heaven.’

This is, in part, advising us to rest our bodies and mind, and not to be ceaselessly acting and thinking. That’s good enough advice on its own, especially at this time when it seems we’re constantly bombarded with attacks on our attention and calls to action. But I think the water analogy, so common to Taoism, is meant to further guide us in how to think and act. If one seeks to “block the water,” to send the world or ourselves in an entirely different direction, one can only fail, and in the process lose “clearness” and become exhausted. In acting and thinking, in order to be most effective, one must be sensitive to the flow of the water, not in order to merely follow along with it as the courtier does, but instead to respond to its pressure and act like the water in order to change it. There’s a passage from the Daodejing, 78, that helps with this water metaphor:

There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing that can take precedence of it;—for there is nothing (so effectual) for which it can be changed. Every one in the world knows that the soft overcomes the hard, and the weak the strong, but no one is able to carry it out in practice.

So the advice, I take it, is to seek to understand the flow of water and to use it in our action, not oppose it from above without bothering to understand its eddies and currents.

There’s a final bit of advice form Zhuangzi on how to be like the sage that pertains to this question. The sage, he says, “does not indulge any anxious doubts; he does not lay plans beforehand.” This once again advises us not to approach the world with ready-made plans and then get sad when they don’t come to fruition. The sage responds to the flow of things. I’m once again reminded of a passage from Marx’s letter to Ruge I quoted above:

We do not then set ourselves opposite the world with a doctrinaire principle, saying: “here is the truth, kneel down here!” It is out of the world’s own principles that we develop for it new principles. We do not say to her, “Stop your battles, they are stupid stuff. We want to preach the true slogans of battle at you.” We merely show it what it is actually fighting about, and this realization is a thing that it must make its own even though it may not wish to.

This is, once again, to say that philosophy should be sensitive to the historical circumstances we find ourselves in, and neither to seek to change the world in the image of philosophy, like the moralist; nor merely to reflect the world flatteringly within our philosophy, like the courtier; but to model the world in all its complicated details, to try to see just how it is flowing, and thereby find what actions might be fruitful in steering it somewhere better.