I WANT TO BE A SAGE IV

The desire to be seen as a sage is the desire to be esteemed by others. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves back on the track of Zhuangzi’s brief but potent examination of forms of dependence from the coarsest to the most subtle. He concludes by telling us that the sage has no-self, which we take to mean that she has experientially understood the emptiness of the self-experience and is thus free from the need to “be someone”. This uncovering of levels of motivational dependence (of which he provides three) invites us to discover them in ourselves so as to realize some degree of freedom from them.


He begins with a critique of someone who takes political (social) status as somehow capable of bringing fulfillment to one’s life. This is likely an allusion to his sparring buddy Huizi who did in fact manage to become a political someone in one of the warring states. This political person is also likened to the tiny dove who scoffs at the incredible flight of the vast bird Peng, which is again likely an allusion to Huizi who criticized Zhuangzi’s philosophy as big, but useless. All this is about Zhuangzi, lest we forget. I take him to be an existentialist very much like Kierkegaard—take away the personal, and nothing much remains; not when “truth is subjectivity”.


Have we then sufficiently uncovered this form of motivational dependence? Not quite. The desire to be a rock star guru is easily dismissed as ridiculously egoic. There are, however, more subtle and insidious expressions of this desire for the esteem of others. A recent experience of one of these gave birth to this series. I have a friend who calls me “my Master”—entirely ironically it needs to be said. He had occasion to chide me for my anger and impatience at difficulties encountered while doing a boat project. I became angry at his criticism. This ruined my day. And I wanted to know why.


The reason pertinent to this topic of dependence on the esteem of others is simply that, though I knew he knew I was a mess, I did not want that he should have more evidence of the fact. I was unhappy because I felt diminished in the eyes of another. This amply demonstrates the value of not depending on the esteem of others. If one’s happiness depends on anything, then one will never be happy. Zhuangzian wandering is just this: being happy in every circumstance, even unhappy ones.


Even though impatience is itself an expression of dependence on something, it needs to be said that growing in patience, though a worthy project, has no first order to relevance to growing in non-dependence. If we require ourselves to become “better”, we are dependent on that and the same bondage obtains. This is a moral stumbling-block for many who see it as a shirking of responsibility, but it need be no such thing where one walks two roads at once.

6 thoughts on “I WANT TO BE A SAGE IV”

  1. “Zhuangzian wandering is just this: being happy in every circumstance, even unhappy ones.”
    Isn’t this concept of being happy in every circumstance that you hold over your head just another “project” of dependence?
    Is there something “wrong” with being 100% unhappy in a particular circumstance?

    1. Hi. Thanks for engaging.
      In answer to your first question: It certainly can be yet another project of dependence–if we needed to be happy. It probably is or will be. I see the movement toward non-dependence as a ceaseless activity–one is ever-transcending, never arriving. This means that anytime we make a statement like the one of mine which you quote above in which a certain standard is set, we set ourselves up for dependence. Zz’s wandering is never arriving anywhere in particular nor needing to do so. It’s ever-soaring on our constant “failings”, in this case our unhappiness.
      The second question is more difficult in part because I’m not sure I understand it. I take 100% unhappy as being in despair, and that doesn’t strike me as “right” though it certainly is not “wrong” in a moral or cosmic sense. Perhaps if we say that we need not depend on being happy to be happy we are approaching what’s involved here? This is a happiness that is neither happiness nor unhappiness. This is the standard Daoist solution–our happiness does not depend on being happy, so yes, we can be 100% unhappy and still be happy. Nonsense? In a way, but then it’s all nonsense from a purely logical point of view.

  2. For the purpose of furthering this discussion I would offer this:
    You said, “Perhaps if we say that we need not depend on being happy to be happy we are approaching what’s involved here?”
    It seems that even with this approach, the project or purpose of being happy has raised its head again (not depend on being happy “to be happy”).
    Why is “being happy” even a part of the philosophical equation? Wouldn’t it be better to not have being happy as a hope of a potential end result? Isn’t this type of approach closer to what you mean by, “This is a happiness that is neither happiness nor unhappiness”? A getting beyond the encapsulating words of “being happy” and released into unfettered wanderings?
    Your thoughts?

  3. You’re stretching my brain. Let me repeat the formula and then try and answer your question. There is a happiness that is neither happiness nor unhappiness; it is a happiness that depends on nothing.

    You suggest, I think, that any mention of happiness as a value is a dependence on happiness. Two responses come to mind.

    First, by happiness I mean individual flourishing, the enjoyment of one’s life. I do not see this value as in need of justification since it is identical with life itself. Life is self-flourishing. I take it as a given, and argument for or against as taking one’s mind as one’s teacher–that is, adding to the process of life. We might dismiss it on whatever grounds we wish, but it just rears its head (as you say) again.

    I won’t address here how this is not hedonism or extreme individualism, but rather is conducive to our collective flourishing.

    Secondly, and perhaps more germane to your argument, this appeal to non-dependence necessarily entails an infinite regress. As I wrote above, one does not become a buddha by trying to be a buddha–but one is obliged to try until one is a buddha (in theory). Depend on nothing; do not depend on depending on nothing; do not depend on not depending on depending on nothing; . . . Suddenly there is non-dependence. (To rework Zz.)
    I like to say, Can’t wander? No sweat, wander in that. The infinite regress works here as well. What is the word or words that describe this? I don’t know. Dynamic, ceaseless dialectic? Ceaseless transcending? Ceaselessly soaring on ceaseless failing? In any case, it does not reduce to logic like most everything else having to do with life . . . and everything else that isn’t logic most likely.

    Anything said can be dis-said. Every word is fixed and therefore subject to de-fixing, though the de-fixed is but the new fixed and eligible for de-fixing. Words are fixed, even though everything is “peculiarly unfixed”. Nothing makes sense.

    Perhaps you can further explain your point, because I think I’m missing something important in it. The part about being 100% unhappy as a virtue (?) intrigues me.

  4. Unhappiness as a virtue: It appears (but I am not sure) that you have an issue and a problem with being just completely unhappy about something as if that overwhelming moment represents being unspiritual unless accompanied with a philosophical “other view” that brings relief to the situation. This, to me, seems like a form of resistance of embracing and honoring a moment of unhappiness. You have put an unwarranted label of judgement on being unhappy by using the word “despair”, which definition is the complete loss or absence of hope. Is that what being 100% unhappy about something means to you (the complete loss or absence of hope)? Maybe you are adding fuel to the fire in doing so? How about complete acceptance of this feeling of unhappiness without labeling it as being so bad? How about letting unhappiness have a life of its own? Just let it breathe and be what it is and honor and accept it? Commune with your unhappiness just as it is, without any mind-manipulations or goals of relief? Accept it, just the same as if it is you seeking acceptance of yourself, because it is you.

  5. I think we are basically in agreement here though there is confusion about the topic. If one is utterly unhappy (which I do not see as any less judgmental than saying in despair, and yes, that’s how I see 100% unhappy) then yes, one can, and it is recommended that one do, all those things you mentioned–embracing it, letting it breathe, etc. But can one? (“A moment of unhappiness” or “being unhappy about something” is something altogether different than being utterly unhappy, in utter despair, which I would take to be “100% unhappy”, however. A moment of unhappiness has a larger context. So, we seem to be talking about two very different kinds of unhappiness. Of course we embrace and affirm our unhappiness, but to be able to do so is to not be utterly unhappy.) Do I have an “issue” with being “completely unhappy”? Well, if I were, I would want to seek a remedy. I would suggest that embracing it and letting it be and breathe, as you say, is just such a remedy. Being self-aware enough to embrace one’s unhappiness is a means of coping with it. My point is that I don’t disagree with you except in that you seem to be suggesting that your response to being unhappy is not an attempted remedy–an “other view”. A remedy need not be a realization of happiness, but simply what keeps one from jumping off a bridge.

    There are, no doubt, times when no remedy is possible. Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. So, I guess that’s part of the human experience, and so we affirm it. We would, however, want to avoid it if possible, because, unlike Jesus, we don’t get to wake up getting hugged by God in heaven.

    Since I have answered “on my feet”, as it were, I’ll summarize. I agree with you completely that unhappiness is perfectly okay and something that we can embrace, live and let breathe. To do this, however, is to in some way mediate that unhappiness, that is, to have an “other view”. It is a self-aware and tactical means of coping. If I have the ability to embrace my unhappiness, then I am more than just unhappy. This is “a moment of unhappiness” or when “something makes me unhappy”. Total, unmediated unhappiness (despair) is another thing altogether. We can affirm it from the outside (as one without it) but the the one in it cannot. The one in despair cannot embrace his despair–that’s why he’s in despair.

    Perhaps the stumbling bock here has to do with my insertion of the idea of a happiness that is not dependent on happiness or unhappiness. However, that’s what your suggested coping strategy also amounts to, to my thinking. But it’s only an ideal and, in any case, does not negate the actual experience of unhappiness (or happiness) which we embrace. Transcendence, in philosophical Daoism, is never the negation of what is transcended, but rather fully embracing it. We’re on the same page here, I think.

    I wish I could recommend Kierkegaard’s “The Sickness unto Death” (“despair is the sickness unto death”), but alas I can’t recommend what I barely understand. I only say this because so much of this discussion is reminiscent of his treatment of despair.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *