CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPPORTUNITY XIII

We began this series by agreeing with Steve Coutinho (An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies) that the philosophically important word ming is better translated as “circumstance” than as “fate” or “destiny”. This is because the latter two can easily be taken as connoting fatalism, determinism, or even purposiveness. Any of these would, for Zhuangzi, be saying far too much. For him, ming is simply the circumstances in which we find ourselves and with which we must interact whatever their source or “reason”.


We have thus far been skirting the thorny issues of fatalism (the belief that what has happened had to happen) and determinism (the belief that we cannot change the course of events). Though the logical mind might want to insist that these come into play when Zhuangzi says “hand it all over to the unavoidable”, we think otherwise. Ziporyn, in his defense of Guo Xiang’s interpretation of Zhuangzi as not fatalistic, makes the point that a certain degree of self-contradiction is itself unavoidable. That’s the way of it.


Here’s the point: Total acceptance of what cannot be avoided (and I have stretched this to include absolutely every current circumstance however contingently determined) does not entail not trying to change their consequences. Not having our peace destroyed by them does not mean that we cannot work to change them. Their unavoidability is in the moment, and not (necessarily) in the future.


We will most certainly die; we can, nonetheless, work toward longevity even as we appreciate that long life and short life are equally “good”. (“No one lives longer than a dead child”.) (The sages “delight in early death; they delight in old age; they delight in the beginning; they delight in the end”.)


We can live carefree beneath the sword of tyranny (having nothing to lose), and still join the underground.


We can be free of self-condemnation, and still take responsibility for our actions when they negatively impact others and ourselves.


We can realize how that all is ultimately well and perfect, and still work to make things better here “beneath Heaven”, that is, within the human context.

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