Was Zhuangzi a great sage? To my thinking, this is a question of great significance, not for the answer we might choose to give, but for the fact that we would ask it at all. Why would we believe that there have ever been any sages? Why would we need to believe that there have ever been any sages?
On my reading, it is just such a default assumption that there is some final remedy to the “existential dangle” of the human condition as evinced in the hypothetical sage that Zhuangzi wished to overturn. If Zhuangzi was a sage, then it was only because he eschewed the belief that sagacity was some kind of final cure-all, or that it was fully realizable at all. The Zhuangzian sage dwells in “drift and doubt” and wanders free because she has abandoned pursuit of every fixed and sure mooring. As such, sagacity itself could only be an unfixed, never-arriving, but ever-approximating experience.
Yes, but did he not make continual reference to sages? He did. One subsists on only wind and dew, flies on the backs of dragons, and never ages. Another survives world conflagration unscathed. How do these fantastic stories differ from incredibly huge fish that become vast birds, trees that talk, and shadows who converse with their own shadows? Literalism has no place in the understanding of Zhuangzi. Only the religious mind would have it otherwise.
We assume that because ancient teachers speak of sagacity they must have realized it. I, too, speak of sagacity; does that make me a sage? Laozi wrote that those who speak do not know while those who know do not speak. For this, some have mocked him—for he then went on to speak. They foolishly believed that Laozi thought he knew. Needing someone to believe in, they were disappointed that he did not. Needing “the answer”, they missed his message.
Zhuangzi tells us that we would be far better off forgetting about sages and getting on with “evolving along our own daos”. And evolution, as we know, is a messy affair. Like life itself.


I lift this phrase “transformative recontextualization” from Brook Ziporyn’s Being and Ambiguity. I say “lifted” because, though it may indeed apply as I will use it here, he uses it in a much broader and more complicated sense—one that I will not attempt to elucidate here. To my thinking, the phrase perfectly describes Zhuangzi’s suggested method for personal transformation. Consider looking at things in a different way, and see if that doesn’t enable you to more happily interface with the world. It’s that simple.
Much is made of Zhuangzi’s perspectival relativism. Eels like it cold and clammy; humans like it warm and cozy. Every preference or theory about how best to live (or be) derives from a perspective, and since everything (Zhuangzi seems to see things as “having” a perspective) must have a perspective we would do best to allow them the space to express it (where they don’t seriously negatively impact the ability of others to do so). This is his relativism. Scholars debate the species of this relativism, whether it is strong or weak, but this largely misses the point. The point is the transformation of one’s interface with oneself and the world. Zhuangzi is not so much interested in questions of epistemology as he is in realizing freedom from dogmatism. This is the point of eels versus humans analogy.
Throughout the Inner Chapters we are presented with similar suggestions that we recontextualize vis-à-vis ourselves and the world. Perhaps the broadest possible recontextualization can be found in his suggestion that we “hide the world in the world”. Rather than seeing ourselves as discreet monads—something that can be lost—why not instead identify with the Totality. Where in Everything can anything be lost? This is intended to address the fear of death without recourse to belief in the perpetuation of one’s present identity, one’s “temporary lodging”.
Viewing “life and death as a single string” is another way of addressing the fear of death. Recontextualization in this case requires taking life and death as a single unit; one does not come without the other. This is the nature of things. Unlike belief in the immortality of a soul, this perspective “adds nothing to the process of life”. It is how life is experienced.
These perspectival recontextualizations, and many others, all have transformative freedom as their goal. They do not advocate for the “truth” about the world. Instead, they merely suggest what might lead to a happier and more flourishing life. To Zhuangzi’s thinking, most of us live cramped and stiff lives—we have chosen to sleep where it’s cold and clammy. He suggests we might want to try someplace warm and cozy. In the end, nothing can be lost in any case.
How is a change in perspective transformative? At the extreme, isn’t this what so-called enlightenment is all about? Nirvana is a “turning”. However, at my reading, Zhuangzi suggests a much more prosaic outcome, an approximation of what might be beyond complete realization through a kind of imaginative meditation. Why, in any case, would we want to burden ourselves with yet another absolutist goal?

My Spin on Zhuangzi


You are invited to read the ruminations on the philosophy of Zhuangzi posted here and to offer your own observations on them and that philosophy generally.

I have published a second book (THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS: Daily Reflections on the Philosophy of Zhuangzi) which is a compilation of posts which have appeared here. It can be found at:


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My adaptation of Zhuangzi can be found at Booklocker.com by tapping the image to the left or at Amazon: