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On Stephen Walker’s recommendation, I’ve been turning to the articles of Chris Fraser in order to understand the difficult Daoist thinker Zhuangzi. (Happily, Fraser makes most of his articles available free online.) The Zhuangzi is an intimidating text to attempt to understand for a number of reasons, and it’s helpful to have the guidance of someone like Fraser who has spent a lot more time with it than I have.

The term Zhuangzi names both thinker and text, as is common among the works of early Chinese philosophy. Fraser notes that, as is also common to most if not all Chinese texts, modern historical scholarship has identified different historical composers within the text. As I noted before, that means that it is better to use the term “Zhuangzi” to refer to the text and the shadowy redactor who put it together, rather than an original composer. It doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t refer to “what Zhuangzi thinks”.

I have especially been savouring Fraser’s “Emotion and agency in Zhuāngzǐ“, which tackles Zhuangzi through a question dear to my heart and central to my dissertation: what Martha Nussbaum, roughly following Aristotle, would call the question of external goods.

If Fraser is to be believed, then Zhuangzi articulates a view much like Nussbaum’s Stoic foes: a good and virtuous person will not let herself feel strong emotional effects from those “situations and pressures” about which she “cannot do anything”. The text’s specific term for these situations and pressures is bu de yi 不得已, which Fraser renders as “the inevitable”. Bu de yi is in turn closely related to ming 命 “fate” or “destiny”, a concept used widely in other classical Chinese sources like Mencius; Fraser explains that ming “refers to facts regarded as ‘mandated’ and beyond our control, such as hereditary traits or socio-historical facts.” More strikingly, Zhuangzi refers to the situations which cause strong emotions such as joy and sorrow with the very Greek term “external things”. (Fraser doesn’t give us a transliteration of this term; the characters are 外物).

Zhuangzi, it turns out on Fraser’s account, is closer to the Stoics than he is to several other thinkers who reject external goods. One of Nussbaum’s key criticisms of the Stoics was that their emotional detachment makes it impossible to be involved in an active political and social life. In my dissertation I pointed out that Śāntideva can respond to this criticism quite easily by “biting the bullet”: he rejects the ties of politics and family in favour of monkhood, and there’s an end on’t. (In Western terms this makes him – like most Buddhists – much closer to the Epicureans than the Stoics.) But this is not where Zhuangzi goes. For Zhuangzi, our ming includes our duties (yi 義), which are themselves considered inevitable: we are born into a family and must care for that family, and our duties extend to political roles as well. He is not the radically anti-Confucian “crazy wisdom” radical that he is sometimes characterized as. Indeed, his most characteristic advice on this score he puts in the mouth of Confucius, Zhong Ni, whom he regards as dispensing wise advice:

As to serving your own heart, without sorrow or joy alternating before you, to know what you can’t do anything about and be at ease with it as with fate, this is the pinnacle of de 德 (excellence). As a minister or son, there are bound to be matters that are inevitable. Act on the facts of the matter and forget yourself. What leisure will you have for delighting in life and hating death? (4/41–44)

What Zhuangzi would seem to be advocating, then, is emotional detachment within worldly life. This is a time-honoured middle ground, found across a wide variety of traditions. A while ago I noted Mark Berkson’s point that it is found in sources as diverse as the Bhagavad Gītā, the Zen oxherding pictures and perhaps even some Sufi masters. It may be that we can add Zhuangzi to this list.

But when I spoke of Berkson’s point in the earlier post, I spoke of it as a problem. It was my example of a compromise and a middle ground that is not necessarily a synthesis. And while compromise without synthesis plays a crucial role in politics, it has no place in philosophy, which aims not at negotiated terms but at truth.

Specifically, it is not good enough simply to take a middle position on emotion and external goods because both Nussbaum and Śāntideva would have criticisms of this position, offered from opposite directions. For Nussbaum, passionate engagement with the people and goals one loves is part of what makes them a constitutive good in human life. If one is disengaged from them, one loses something about what makes them worthwhile – in addition to being potentially less effective at serving them. Śāntideva, meanwhile, warns that the external goods of worldly life may themselves be harmful; that’s why he thinks it’s important to be a monk. If you answer neither of these criticisms, your middle ground is the worst of both worlds, not the best.

The question then is whether someone who stands with Zhuangzi, or his fellows in the middle ground, can answer those criticisms in a satisfactory way. A middle ground can be a synthesis, but one must do the work to make it so; one must transcend and include the views of the opposing positions to do that. Can a Zhuangzian do this? I’m tempted to think the answer is yes. (Fraser’s article includes some Zhuangzian responses to a critique like Nussbaum’s, and to some extent one like Śāntideva’s.) But so far for me that is only a hypothesis, a start.