“To remain free from extravagance though born in a decadent age, not wasteful in the use of any of the ten thousand things, making no display in the observance of one’s delineated obligations, rigorously disciplining oneself as if with ropes and cords, and taking upon oneself all the troubles of the world: these were some aspects of the ancient Art of the Dao.” (33; p 119)

From the perspective of Zhuangzian “Daoism” can we agree that these attributes are expressions of Dao?

Before answering this, it is worth noting that the usage of “the Dao” here fits well with Ziporyn’s translation as “the Course”. This Dao, however exalted, is not at all metaphysical, but simply a philosophy of life. It tells us how best to live, and we learn that by study, ideally at the feet of someone who has already learned it. It is, in effect, a course of study.

With the possible exception of “disciplining oneself as if with ropes and cords”, all these could be taken as attributes of Zhuangzi’s sage. But underlying them all is a sense of volitional activity that belies an altogether different spirit than we find in Daoism. For Daoism, the attributes of sagacity, no matter how they manifest, naturally arise without intention.

“To be doing this without knowing it, and not because you have defined it as right, is called ‘the Course’”. (2:23)

Clearly, this is only an ideal; in the real world some dialectic between purposed and unmediated activity is required. The point then is to engage in that dialectic.

In Mozi no such dialectic was in play and in consequence his “universal love” became tyrannical. It was enforced. After reciting a list of human activities Mozi rejected because they didn’t contribute to the universal good—singing, crying, making-merry—the author asks, “does he really have any fellow-feeling for them?” (p 120)

Nor did his dao allow him to love himself: “And to put it into practice personally certainly shows no love for oneself!” And his successors, “They thought self-torture was the greatest achievement.”

All this puts us in mind of present day fundamentalist religiosity. It is the prioritization of law over grace, negation over affirmation, “morality” over openness, judgment over kindness, self-negation over self-acceptance. Nor, frankly, are practitioners of supposedly more enlightened disciplines immune from such attitudes.

As long as we adhere to a “right” way, this is pretty much unavoidable. Zhuangzi’s solution? “Just go by the ‘rightness’ of the present ‘this’”.

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