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.

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