HUMAN NATURE V

Zhuangzi’s rebuttal to Xunzi’s assertion that the former knew much about Heaven but little about humanity would likely be something like: Yea rather my brother, what I know from Heaven is that I do not know, and knowing that we do not know is the most important thing we can know about being human. (Some sticklers on the nature of Zhuangzi’s skepticism would add that he does not know whether he knows or not.) This leads to an altogether different approach to the improvement of our admittedly dysfunctional individual and societal circumstances.

For Zhuangzi, as for most Chinese philosophers of his time, Heaven is essentially equivalent to Nature; it is not an active agent at work in the world, but simply represents the seemingly necessary larger context for apparent reality. Nature does not only refer to what “is”, but to what lies behind its isness. The Laozi’s assertion that “Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone” puts this succinctly, albeit somewhat paradoxically.

In the previous post I declared that “Nature is not moral” and was subsequently asked if this was not itself a moral judgement. There is no lack of Daoist “authority” on this issue (Laozi 5: “Heaven and earth are not humane; they treat the things of the world as straw dogs. The sage is not humane; he treats the people as straw dogs.”), but I do not wish to rely on authority. My reply was that the vulnerability of this statement resides more in the epistemological realm than the ethical. Declaring Nature to be amoral is quite different than declaring it to be moral or immoral. But still, how do I know this?

I do not. The best I can do is to say that it seems so. Nature does not appear to have any concern with moral issues and thus cannot be taken as lending any moral guidance to humanity. It is this last that was the real issue for Zhuangzi—our moral judgements, whatever their value to humanity, do not objectively derive from Heaven and thus no appeal can be made to Divine authority or to any fixed and sure standard. Our moral judgements are species, culturally, and individually relative. (So let’s loosen up on things upon which we do not have near universal agreement.) This is important to Zhuangzi primarily in that it can help release us into non-dependence and free and carefree wandering. The world could go to hell in a handbasket and the sage along with it, but still her joy would not be diminished even as she works to avoid such an end.

In the end, declaring Heaven to be moral or immoral would be “adding to the process of life” and fleeing “the illumination of the obvious”. Understanding Heaven to be amoral is equivalent to admitting that one does not know anything beyond the seemingly obvious, which is a purely practical kind of knowledge.

One thought on “HUMAN NATURE V”

  1. Well spoken when saying “, “declaring Heaven to be moral or immoral would be “adding to the process of life”. Any declaration or conclusion would be mere human similar to an ant attempting to talk about American politics.

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