BASHO AND THE DAO X

Something rarely addressed when discussing classical Chinese philosophy (and that of the Neo-Daoists) is the question of class. Who read this stuff? What was its applicability to vast unread and “unwashed”? If Zhuangzi, Mencius and Song Xiang, and the Neo-Daoists were not part of the 1%, they were likely members of a class significantly smaller than the 99%. They were educated men who had leisure enough to think about more than how to feed and shelter themselves and their families. They had servants. And if they did not choose to have concubines, their peers frequently did. And yes, they were men.

I’m currently reading Yin Yutang’s “The Importance of Living” in which we are told (among many other more helpful things) of the importance of having cheerful and non-quarrelsome servants. How does this apply to the servants? Are they excluded from a similarly happy life?

I’m not well-versed in class-theory and can’t really apply its principles here, which may be just as well. It does not suffice to simply dismiss these philosophies as elitist and therefore counter-productive. I do, however, question the validity of any philosophy that lacks some degree of universal applicability.

I really have no definitive statements to make here; I do, however, have a few general observations. First, we can expand our point of view so as to return the philosophy of Zhuangzi (for example) to its broader context—a feudal society populated by a vast number of uneducated and impoverished peasants. Was his philosophy germane to their experience and needs? I think it was; their vicissitudes presented the same opportunity for soaring. But it is also the case that they were unlikely to have heard it. And that, it seems to me, is simply a raw fact of life. Fortunately, no one needs to be saved.

Secondly, we see that there is a leading edge to our cultural evolution. There are those who lead the way, for good or ill. Our cultural operating systems, our shared world-views, are to no small degree the product of the cumulative ponderings of an intellectual and “spiritual” elite.

Thirdly, this having been said, it is equally important to consider how these world-views are also very much the product of our shared human experience. The ponderings of the philosophers, to be truly applicable to us all, must therefore have that shared experience as their primary focus. And this, I believe, is precisely what Zhuangzi is all about.

Fourthly, though Zhuangzi’s philosophizing was facilitated by the advantages of class, it is such that it embraces and honors the experience of those who live a more immediate and uncomplicated existence. If taking one’s mind as one’s teacher is a problem, those who have never done so are already in some sense where we want to go.

Finally, whatever the class dynamics and rights and wrongs of the human hive, this is how humanity presently is—and it is affirmable as such—even as we help it to evolve.

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