Dependence on the esteem of others and dependence on one’s self-esteem are expressions of the same desire to be someone, though moving from the former to the latter would be a commendable accomplishment. It’s likely, however, that where there is the one, there is the other. For the purposes of his argument, Zhuangzi assumes that, because Song Xing advocated for a self-esteem freed from a dependence on the esteem of others, he had actually realized it. We think it unlikely, just as we think it unlikely that any of these so-called masters actually realized the visions to which they aspired. This is more than just consistent with Zhuangzi’s philosophy; it is pivotal to it. Nothing is complete and final; nothing is fixed and sure. When something is taken as complete, something is left out; and that something necessarily becomes the most important thing of all. A belief in fully-realized sages and “masters” is the provenance of the religious-mind, a mind that requires (depends on) the fixed and sure.
When I say I want to be a sage it is largely a matter of wanting to see myself as such. I want to be a sage so I can feel good about myself. Though this also entails wishing to be seen as a sage by others, the chief motivation is self-esteem. Real self-esteem is likely more easily achieved by some than by others. Who of the two would more likely wish to depend on no esteem at all? Remedial projects are motivated by perceived need; though probably universally applicable, they need not be universally prescribed.
Zhuangzi makes his case for the virtues of realizing freedom from dependence on absolutely everything, and he does so through a phenomenological investigation of his own experience. Free of dependence, we would be free to wander in every circumstance. “Just release the mind to play . . .” He believes that this investigation of his own experience also illuminates the human condition generally. In this sense it is prescriptive. Yet, since he understands his dao to be just another dao, and because his dao sees Dao as the confluence of all daos, he is not dogmatically prescriptive. The contented self-esteemer (should there be such a one), or anyone else, for that matter, is fully affirmed as they are, and left to choose any dao they wish. People typically choose a measure of misery given the cost of freedom (no-self—being a nobody), and, frankly, the difficulties of actually realizing it. Who are we to fault them?