CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPPORTUNITY VI

There are many genera of circumstance, ranging from what seems necessarily unavoidable in every case to what was avoidable only moments ago, but is now unavoidable. Examples of this latter might be: the consequences of having just jumped off a bridge, having made a wrong turn, or being rear-ended by a drunk driver. Choice has played a role in each, but each is nonetheless now an immediately unavoidable circumstance. We will explore the opportunities presented by this genus anon; in this post we will begin to consider the more necessarily unavoidable.


“Life and death are both very serious matters” Zhuangzi has Confucius say, “but they do not bother [the sage]” (3). These are the two great unavoidables of the human experience. It might be argued that they too were at some point avoidable—one’s life is a consequence of the decisions of one’s parents, and death would be avoidable were it not for one’s life—but in being alive one now faces death (and aging) as the profoundest unavoidable circumstance.


Life and death are what concern Zhuangzi most. The idea that it could be otherwise makes us smile. Nevertheless, many philosophers immerse themselves in all manner of arcane studies, or even very important ones (political theory, language theory, etc.), that do not in fact address these fundamentals of our existence. Some fault Zhuangzi for his lack of political theory (and consequently assign him one by default), but a moment’s reflection illuminates how, if one begins with the most immediate experience of our existence, everything else becomes derivative.


The consideration of life and death necessarily involves a movement from the objective and social to the subjective and individual. Zhuangzi has been identified as a pioneer in making this shift. Once we have followed him there, we wonder that we would have wanted to begin anywhere else. Doing so seems more like an act of avoidance than one of “getting on with life”.


Taking one’s actual individual subjective experience as one’s point of departure need not end in individualism. Neither the extreme of collectivism, where the individual is a mere cog in the machine—a cipher, nor individualism, where one is oblivious of others and one’s connectedness to others, genuinely represents the human experience. The most authentic inquiry into the human experience, however, must begin with that most immediate experience itself, and that is unavoidably a personal individual experience.

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