“Last” Thoughts on the Chuang-Tzu (& Regular Journal Entry on Chapters 30-33)

Chapter 30
This chapter, “On Swords,” features a clever Master Chuang who persuades the king to cease sponsoring tournaments of swordsmen–tournaments often leading to injuries and deaths. The story is brilliantly written, and quite humourous–if a little shocking that the swordsmen all commit suicide in the end! I take the story to be not only concerned with local wars and unrest in the “Warring States” period to which the book dates, but also as a kind of triumphalistic Taoism. All the other schools, the chapter might be suggesting, are just like the inferior swordsmen of the book–far, far beneath the wisdom of Master Chuang.

Chapter 31
There is an interesting little line that shows “from the inside” of a culture its view that concubinage is normal. The thing that was so odd about it was that it was entirely unrehearsed–it was in fact entirely beside the author’s point.

Confucius once again comes up short in this chapter. In dialogue with a stranger, he hears the following:

For this reason we honor the truth. As for its application to human relations, in serving parents, it elicits kindness and filialness; in serving one’s lord, it elicits loyalty and honesty; in winedrinking, it elicits pleasure and joy; in situations of mourning, it elicits sadness and sorrow.

In other words, a Way that properly regards Truth does naturally everything that Confucius tried to do with his system–and now I remember that he was often accused within the Miscellaneous chapters as saying one thing to a ruler, but something much less respectful of the ruler later in private.

Chapter 32
Interesting anecdote involving Master Lieh–the head of another philosophical school contemporaneous with the text. Master Lieh is being followed by the masses, and like Monty Python’s Brian, he doesn’t want crowds following him hanging on to his every word–or sandal. Master Lieh is exhorted to not be “different” and avoid the masses–because doing so will merely increase their desire to see him. This category seems to indicated that the Taoist authors really did have a small weak spot for the desire for popularity after all!

Funny phrase: one who “licks the hemorrhoids” of the king will be valued and rewarded! ;-)

The closing anecdote of chapter 32 has Master Chuang dying–very much like the end of the Analects of Confucius. I actually felt melancholic on reading of Master Chuang’s demise–despite his good-natured approach to it. Lesser mortals, like his disciples, wish for his presence. The death of Master Chuang sets the stage for the next chapter–

Chapter 33: “All under Heaven”
This chapter is a charitably-written, wise, and highly intelligent survey of the various contemporary philosophical schools of thought. As has often happened to me when reading ancient Greek and other ancient Chinese texts, I felt astounded at the level of intelligence and intellectual sophistication in the text. The text argues like a modern philosopher–without the technical jargon. Whoever wrote this text was a gifted teacher as well as a perceptive thinker. He was, of course, biased in favour of the Taoist approach. For him, all the other schools had their strong points and their moments of usefulness, but nevertheless, they all suffer from being “partial” rather than comprehensive.

As an example, let’s look at the discussion of Master Mo, universally-acknowledged at the time as being a “good” man who “loved” his fellow humans, though his philosophy was often considered wooden and too strict.

Master Mo is acknowledged by the writer to be good, but he was “too overwrought” in his doings. For example:

People will sing, yet he rejected singing; people will make music, yet he rejected music. Does this really seem human?

Further and quite devastating critiques of Master Mo both follow and precede this. It is argued that because of the severity of the practical application of his philosophy, Master Mo was not able to properly love either the people or himself. Despite all this, he is still considered a worthy man and an eminent scholar.

By the way, I wish that radical Islamists, who routinely ban music, would read this chapter. I wish that those who give them power and accommodate them would read this, too.

The review of Master Chuang is playful. He has “extravagant” words, and his phrasing is “bizarre”; his language is filled with “absurd expressions”–and yet his energy, his te, and his teachings are the best. I particularly appreciate his teaching that one should:

Know masculinity,
Maintain femininity,
And be a ravine for all under heaven.

Again, all those radical Islamists who afflict the world today should be reading this. But they deplore femininity and consider those who disagree with them to be insulting not just their ridiculous beliefs, but their manhoods, too. They need to be more receptive to the ideas of others.

Nicely put:

As soon as the sun is at noon it declines. As soon as a thing is born it dies.

The following is one of many that are attributed by the writer to Master Hui Shih, a man whose teachings may have greatly guided the editor(s) of the final version of the Chuang-tze that has come down to us. Master Hui’s position is last, which is significant, but the final writer goes on record as saying that it is a great pity that despite his formidable debating skills, he never understood as much of the Way as he could have.

The final words of the book are words we’ve seen before: “How sad!” Yes, it is sad–it’s always a bit sad to part ways with a book when one has read it. It’s like losing a friend, in a way. On the other hand, “the ones who love us never really leave us,” as the Harry Potter movies remind us, and if that is true for friends, it is much more true for books; after all, we put them down, rather than vice versa, and we can always pick them up again, to say nothing of ruminating on them after putting them back on the shelf.

I will certainly return to the Chuang-Tze again in the future. This is a book of books with depth, humour, a touch of melancholy, and an exhilarating ability to move us both spiritually and intellectually. It’s rare and refreshing to find this level of mysticism, if I may say so, in a text that says absolutely nothing about any kind of “God.” For my part, I wish that the Bible and the Qur’an had both been thrown into the whirlwind in our distant past, with the Chuang-tze replacing them as our secular foundational document of value.

The teachings of Master Chuang and those he inspired are surprisingly very “modern”; we don’t expect to find this level of even-handedness, intellectual dexterity, and contemplation in a text that is so very old. But the more I read these ancient classic texts–whether they be Plato or Euripides or Chuang-tzu–the more I feel that so much of humanity is missing out on its intellectual and spiritual heritage. We have so much to gain by entering into conversation with them.


Next up: notwithstanding my view that much harm has befallen Western civilization as a result of the influence of the biblical canon, I have decided to read “I and Thou,” a famous classic by Martin Buber. Having read both Nietzsche and Christopher Hitchens over the last year, I think a short journey into the monotheistic tradition is excusable. I wouldn’t do it for any other book right now, though. After “I and Thou,” I’ll be going back to classical Greek history with Thucydides, and then probably to Xenophon. At some point, I’ll give Mencius a shot, too. Well, that’ll be enough for now.

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