Xunzi:  There seems to be little reason to continue this discussion; we must simply agree to disagree, as Scott has said. So I think I’ll excuse myself and leave you two to your mutual agreement. Thank you, Scott, for your hospitality. I will now bid you both goodbye.

Scott:  Goodbye! Now I feel bad; I didn’t even offer him something to drink. At least that might have made the roast a bit more jovial.

Zhuangzi:  No need to feel bad; he’s a teetotaler in any case. But it always ends this way with Xun and those like him who know the truth. I, on the other hand, am no teetotaler!

Scott:  Coming right up! But I’m also feeling bad because it feels a bit like we also acted as though we knew the truth.

Zz:  I understand what you mean—we know the truth that there is no truth. And there’s no way around that except by way of the self-effacement of that truth. We don’t know. That’s how we can affirm Xun in his opinions even while holding to own contrary opinions—we must hold them lightly, open-handedly.

Scott:  That’s not easy to do.

Zz:  It’s not something we can do—it’s something we can only be.

Scott:  And how do we become that? But I don’t want to go there now! What a can of worms all this thinking creates! What I do want to address is what this conversation with Xunzi was intended to accomplish—a better understanding of how we get from self-centrism to collective-centrism without appealing to some heavenly principle. We haven’t made much progress in that direction, have we?

Zz:  No. But we have laid some groundwork. First, having taken human nature as morally neutral, we understand that moving from self-centrism to collective-centrism is not a moral issue. It’s not the “right” thing to do. That robs it of it’s being a moral imperative—something that has to be justified—and then imposed on humanity. Secondly, we observe that this is something than humans naturally do—part of the tangle of good and evil. We coalesce into ever more inclusive groupings. Why?

Scott:  Because it’s our nature to do so. And we also discover that that collective-centrism nourishes our self-centrism. They are not in opposition but are mutually supporting. But since this is the case, why are we discussing this movement as if it needed to be made into a project?

Zz:  Because they are also taken as in opposition. Self-centrism expands into a collective-centrism, but it also always stops at some exclusionary level. The I-other simply becomes a we-them. We unite as a family, clan, tribe, nation, race, species, animate beings—but there always remains some other. Something to exclude, something that threatens, something to disvalue and exploit.

Scott:  And the Daoist vision is to not stop, but to become pan-inclusive. And that ultimately opens into an openness where there is no longer any other at all.

Zz:  And that brings a great panoply of positive benefits, psychological and practical.

Scott:  Less fear. More pleasure and awe—“participating everywhere in the springtime of each being”. What fun! More tolerance. And a care and respect for all things, including the environment, which, in our species-centrism, we have threatened to the extent that our own flourishing is now at risk.


Zhuangzi: I’m glad I mentioned Mencius; he might help us out of this argument—or at least shift it to a less contentious level. Xun says that human nature is evil; Mencius says it’s inherently good; and Scott, I think, is going to disagree with you both, even though you have said he agrees with Mencius. Scott?

Scott:  I am. Human nature is neither good nor evil, but simply what Nature has wrought. As such, it is Nature; and Nature is beyond good and evil. Once again, we do not call the lion evil because it kills and eats the gazelle. We might be tempted to do so, because we empathize with the gazelle, but we suspend our normal moral discrimination in this regard.

Zz:  There is good and evil in humanity—lots of both, but that judgment is a purely human judgment, and all “Daoism” wishes to do is to let that be informed by the view from Dao—or Nature, if you prefer. It’s simply letting everything “bask in the broad daylight of Heaven”.

Xunzi:  As I have said, you know a great deal about Heaven, but very little about humanity. What good is all this “basking in Heaven” when it comes to actually governing humanity in its waywardness?

Zz:  Well, for one thing, it might make you less eager to apply the five punishments and to . . .

Scott:  Remind me what the five punishments are?

Zz:  Tattooing, cutting off noses, feet and balls, and death. If we understand that our opinions on what is good and what is evil are not cast in stone, and that good and evil are always all tangled up with each other, so that every act, whether good or evil, has a myriad of causes and reasons that we cannot fathom, then we will be less inclined to punish others as if we had some kind of divine wisdom. And, as I was about to say, we would be less inclined to punish and suppress those who disagree with our dao, but rather, would see value in a diversity of daos.

Xunzi:  A diversity of daos just leads to chaos. There is only one road, one true Dao of the ancients, and only a fool tries to walk two roads at once.

Scott: We have once again reached an impasse—but Zhuangzi and I are obliged to “foolishly” walk both the road of allowing the “rightness” of your opinion and the road of our own opinions. But I would like to also make the point that all that Daoism “knows” of Heaven is that it knows nothing of Heaven. And it is that that informs our dealings with others. You, on the other hand, know the one true Dao, and that, being an absolute, is equivalent to saying you know Heaven.

Zz: Knowing beyond all doubt what is good and what is evil is one of the greatest sources of evil to be found in the world.


Zhuangzi:  We’re ganging up on Xun, which hardly seems fair. Why don’t we rather consider how we are the same and leave our differences behind us?

Xunzi:  Given the radical differences between our positions, that may not be easy, but I’m willing to give it a try.

Zz:  Apart from the practical education of Scott—opening him up into “greater openness and unfixedness”—I invited you along because your take on human nature might help us to answer the problem we encountered in trying to move naturally from our self-centrism to collective- and cosmo-centrism.

Xunzi:  It is because I take our self-centeredness as an intrinsic part of human nature that I say it is evil. Humans are by nature self-seeking and avaricious.

Scott:  If we assume that human nature is natural, then there is no disjunction between that nature and Nature. Do you agree?

Xunzi:  No, I do not. Human beings are evil precisely because they have turned against Nature. Only by the guidance of the enlightened gentleman are they able to once again be brought into harmony with Nature.

Scott:  By what power are humans able to act outside of Nature? And by what power is the gentleman able to transcend the evil of his own nature?

Xunzi:  By the power of choice.

Scott:  And did not Nature endow us with that power?

Zz:  From the human point of view, the power of moral choice is humanity as transcendent of Nature. But from the point of view of Dao—let’s call it Nature to avoid debate on what is Dao—from the point of view of Nature, absolutely nothing escapes its power. When we say Nature, we mean absolutely everything conceivable. We are required, then, to hold these two apparently contradictory points of view simultaneously.

Scott:  Agreed. Xunzi?

Xunzi:  Disagreed. Nature is good; humanity has taken the straight and true and warped it, and is thus evil and outside of Nature.

Scott:  Okay. I think we need to agree to disagree on this point. But can you tell me more about the enlightened gentleman—presumably an intrinsically warped human being like you and I—by what power then does he transcend his evil?

Xunzi:  By the power of his instruction in the Dao of the Sage-Kings.

Scott:  But why did he pursue it if naturally warped? And how did the sage-kings acquire their goodness if that Dao had yet to be formulated? Were they not mere mortals like you and I?

Xunzi:  We cannot understand every mystery until we too are enlightened gentlemen.

Scott: You are not an enlightened gentleman? Then you too are presumably warped. How can a warped individual know what is good and what is evil and know which Dao can rectify our evil condition?

Zz:  To think I also considered bringing Mencius along! If words are like wind on water, we’d be swamped and sinking by now!

Xunzi:  What need for Mencius!?  Scott has thoroughly adopted his position! “Human nature is good.”


Xunzi:  By “our pitiful moral addiction” I assume you mean my own desire to see human society well-ordered and harmonious?

Zhuangzi:  Not at all. As I said, the desire for self- and collective-flourishing is entirely natural. It’s not your desire for that, but your equation of chaos and disharmony with evil that’s problematical. That leads you to extremes of exclusion and excessively coercive solutions to human failings.

Scott:  And what is the “good” that opposes your designated evil, and where does it come from?

Xunzi:  The perfected sage-kings of old created the paths of ritual, music and righteousness, and the empire was in complete harmony. That’s the good that we must teach the people if we want that harmony to rule once again. And those who do not follow it, but bring disharmony and chaos to the empire, must be dealt with severely and without mercy.

Zz:  I rest my case.

Scott:  Forgive me, but as someone completely foreign to your culture and time, this appeal to mythological sage-kings and their golden age strikes me as pure fantasy. You have no historical proof of their existence or of the nature of their rule. It’s a castle built of sand—below the tideline. It’s really no different than the various fundamentalist moralities that seek to dominate us all in my own times.

Xunzi:  It is not fantasy; it has been faithfully recorded in the Odes, Documents and the Spring and Autumn Annuls. By them we can learn the ways of the sage-kings.

Scott:  Just as in my own times the Torah, New Testament, and Quran are each one taken as the embodiments of unquestionable truth, though each one contradicts the others, and are themselves interpreted in numerous mutually contradictory ways.

Xunzi:  I cannot speak for your culture and times, but only for my own; and this Dao of the Sage-Kings was the right and proper one for the Chinese people of my time.

Zz:  Then your good and evil are not universal, but culturally relative. That’s a great improvement! But unless we understand that, even as we apply it, it still leads to narrow-mindedness and totalitarianism.

Xunzi:  It is harmony and order that is the good, and disharmony and chaos that is evil—that is the universal good. Different times and cultures call for different means for the realization of the good.

Scott:  There is both harmony and disharmony and order and chaos in absolutely everything. Without the one there cannot be the other. Understanding this breaks the fetters of our addiction to a fixed morality and enables us to open into openness and unfixedness. We can then embrace and affirm all things as they are even as we work to further the self-flourishing of them all.


Xunzi:  So you agree with me that human nature is naturally warped. But you think our moral sense is part of that warpedness!? I’d say that our failure to follow our moral sense is our warpedness. Isn’t or moral sense what sets us apart from the beasts?

Scott:  It is—in part. But I’d say our greatest warpedness is our self-awareness.

Xunzi:  Zhuang! Look what you’ve created! Here’s a man who thinks the essence of what it is to be human—to be a self!—is to be warped!

Zhuangzi:  Yes! I have had some success with Scott—at least in the theoretical realm. But how could you disagree that the source of all our problems is that we are self-aware beings? We are a complete anomaly in the world. Only we find life problematical. Only we struggle with good and evil. Only we fear death. Only we hunger for a truth and meaning that we cannot find. Only we speak of life as a “veil of tears”. Only we suffer the compounded suffering of suffering our suffering. Only we kill and inflict pain for pleasure. Only we have the power to destroy or own necessary environmental context. Warped indeed!

Scott:  But warped doesn’t mean evil. It’s simply the way things have evolved. If we affirm Nature, we are obliged to affirm everything it has wrought, including warpedness. If we affirm life, we must also affirm death. If we affirm health then we must also affirm disease.

Zz:  But affirming doesn’t mean acquiescence. Life wants to live, so we work to stay alive. Life wants to enjoy itself, so we work to realize the greatest enjoyment. The self wants to self-flourish, so we work toward its flourishing.

Xunzi:  But by your reasoning, if Nature has created just one thing warped, then Nature is itself warped.

Zz:  To the human mind Nature is warped. Absent that mind, and Nature is no such thing.

Scott:  To the human mind it is a Great Mess. It might have started with a Bang. It’s wall-to-wall Chaos. Ever-expanding—dissipating. Stars collide with stars. Galaxies collide with galaxies. Worlds are born and die. Our world will die. Before humanity was the age of dinosaurs—all gone. But before they were, they naturally evolved to greater size, bigger teeth, claws and horns with which to rip the flesh from one another. What a mess! How are humans any different? We evolved a self-conscious mind so now we can build bigger and better devices with which to destroy each other. What a mess!

Xunzi:  And they call me a pessimist!

Zz:  If you affirm the lot there’s no pessimism in it. Pessimism arises only when we pit our pitiful moral addiction against reality.


Scott:  Hello Zhuangzi! And a new friend!

Zhuangzi:  I’d like to introduce my friend Xunzi.

Scott:  Eh, glad to meet you.

Zz:  I told you he’d be at a loss at meeting you!

Xunzi:  You did. Glad to meet you too, Scott. And glad to be of service.

Scott:  Service?

Xunzi:  Of course, service! Your distaste for my dao is your opportunity to discover what it is to wander among all daos—something you clearly aren’t doing! Ha, ha.

Scott:  True. And coincidentally I just finished reading selections from your work, and so I’ve been refreshed in my distaste.

Zz:  Coincidentally, indeed! Another coincidence is how Xunzi’s take on human nature so clearly meshes with the problem we discussed at our last meeting—how we can move from self-centeredness to cosmo-centeredness without appeal to some positive transcendent value.

Scott:  Yes, I see that. Xunzi answered that; starting with: “Human nature is evil” and “Human nature is by Nature warped.” I love this last one especially! Love to hate it!

Xunzi:  Well, if you love to hate it, maybe you’re doing some wandering after all. But I seem to recall having read that you agree with my assessment of human nature.

Scott:  You’ve read my blabber!?

Xunzi:  Only the few lines Zhuang has shown me—sorry to disappoint. So, do you agree with me?

Scott:  Yes and no. I agree with you that human nature is naturally warped. But I don’t agree that being warped and being “evil” are the same thing. I don’t believe that Nature is evil or that anything it has created is evil. It might be an incredibly messy business from the human point of view—a morally informed point of view—disturbingly “red in tooth and claw” and all that—but that doesn’t make it evil. I prefer to let Nature help me transcend my so-called “morality” rather than to judge Nature on the basis of it.

Xunzi:  So you would have humanity behaving like the beasts?

Scott:  Not at all. Transcending right and wrong is not abolishing it. It’s simply putting it in perspective—the view from Dao which both affirms it and relativizes it. Our moral sense is, to my thinking, part of our natural warpedness. It’s out of sync with everything else in the universe. And we won’t find it anywhere in the universe except in humanity. Nevertheless, it has been one of the keys to the incredible success of the human species. It enabled us to stop killing each other off enough that we could cooperate and become the lords of the earth.

Zz:  But from the point of view of the earth, it would have been better if we had behaved like the beasts!

Scott:  Exactly. That’s part of the warpedness.


Huizi:  Okay. Time for my nap beside my stink tree in our homeland of not even anything. Ha, ha.

Scott:  Thanks for coming. I hope you’ll come back.

Zhuangzi:  He will, if you wish. Ha, ha.

Scott:  Then he shall. And we will discuss the value of the valueless.

Huizi:  More of Zhuang’s blabber—but I guess I’m outnumbered. Still, I’d like to discuss my paradoxes sometime.

Scott:  Maybe you can throw them in somewhere. Fact is we’re already convinced by your arguments. You helped created this monster, remember.

Huizi:  Yeah. And I do get some satisfaction is seeing what monsters Zhuang has himself created. Ha, ha. There’s no end to the powers of human creation.

Zz:  You got that right. Nothing remains static. Nothing stays as it was. Even were some great sage to reveal the greatest Truth to the world, it would change at its first hearing. And that hearer’s revealing would be changed ye again.

Scott:  So let’s have fun in the revealing and changing!

Huizi:  We shall! Bye for now.


Scott:  Well, that’s about all I can dig out this story. And you?

Huizi:  I think that pretty well covers it. Zhuang?

Zhuangzi:  Well, I’d like to consider the whole thing from the point of view of its ambiguity, quite apart from whatever meanings we might think it conveys. We don’t know who wrote it. We don’t know for sure what his intended purpose or meanings were. Since two of us are the principals of the story and thanks to Huizi it’s known that we never had this conversation; thus it’s clearly fictitious. We’re a couple of dead guys conversing with Scott who is as good as dead when it comes down to it. So, everything we’ve said about this story is unfixed—none of it can be taken as “true”.

Scott:  So, whatever we “know” from reading it is a bit like your knowing the happiness of fish. It’s intuitive and completely unprovable.

Huizi:  And that was “my” point in debating with Zhuang. I was right—he can’t know the happiness of fish—logically speaking.

Scott:  But do you accept that he could know it intuitively?

Huizi:  Of course! Everything we think we know is ultimately only intuitively so. We intuitively believe in the validity of reason. The difference between Zhuang and me is that he goes off into aery-fairy mysticism, while I stick strictly to my skepticism.

Zz:  But you’ve admitted that you gave the mysticism a try.

Scott:  And you did have a good buzz that led you to exclaim, “Love all things without exception!”

Huizi:  Yeah. But it didn’t work for me in the end. I mean, I can see how it suggests itself, and I get how you too remain firmly skeptical, but the project still strikes me as religious in that there’s some experience I’m meant to have and have to work to realize.

Scott:  Hmm. That bugs me too.

Zz:  It certainly can become a religious project—but does it have to be? Let’s face it; life itself is unavoidably a project. We are a becoming and, being human, we make that a directed becoming. Life is growth and thus we wish to grow. Life is a flourishing, so we work toward its greatest flourishing. Even our call for spontaneity is itself directing the project of our becoming. The difference between a religious project and a non-religious one consists in whether we take it overly seriously, or whether we take it as simply the particular game we have chosen to play.

Huizi:  So, I have chosen to play the game of living in the absurdity of life. Is that as valid a game as yours?

Zz:  It is. If it is indeed chosen. Only that doesn’t mean that I can’t try to convince you that there’s more fun to be had in my game.

Huizi:  And we have had a lot of fun trying to convince and to remain unconvinced!

Scott:  A good time was had by all.


Zhuangzi:  Anything else?

Scott:  Well, there seems to be a play on words when Huizi literally asks, “From whence do you know the happiness of fish.” And you make use of that and say, “From here on the bridge over the Hao River.” I have to admit, however, that I’m wary of making too much of the possibly incidental use of grammar—I mean for all I know this was simply how someone asked “how”. I guess you would know?

Zz:  Let’s forget ancient Chinese grammar. Let’s forget what the author was trying to say. Let’s forget context.

Huizi:  Let’s forget being scholarly! Ha, ha.

Zz:  Let’s just make it say what we want it to say! It isn’t scripture. Let’s create anew!

Scott:  Okay. In any case, your answer seems to play on the fact that all our knowing is situational. It depends on our perspective, and that depends on “where” we are. Different perspectives lead to “knowing” different things or things in different ways. But I’m not sure what this means here.

Huizi:  It means that he doesn’t really, really know the happiness of fish! He only knows what he thinks he knows—someone else might call it the unhappiness of fish.

Zz:  True. So where does that leave us? Empty. As always.

Scott:  Still, emptiness isn’t nothingness; you enjoy watching the minnows enjoying themselves and so your saying isn’t just “blowing air”—it says something even if it is ultimately empty.

Zz:  And I’ve every right to express my experience however relative it might be. Don’t you think, Huizi?

Huizi: Indubitably. And if I have to agree with you to enjoy myself watching the fish enjoy themselves, well then, I agree with you.


Zhuangzi:  So what else can you tell us about this story?

Scott:  Well, I’d say another reason you know the happiness of fish is because you know happiness. You and Huizi are enjoying yourselves doing what philosophers enjoy doing—debating. That’s a kind of happiness. And that is precisely what the minnows are doing—doing what minnows do.

Huizi:  So happiness is simply doing what we are? If I am prone to misery, then being miserable is my happiness?

Zz:  It is, if we want to so define happiness. I agree with Scott; only I think we need to understand that there are different kinds and levels of happiness. The happiness of minnows is living—however they live. The happiness of a rock is existing—however it exists. The happiness of philosophers is debating and trying to make sense of things. But being human they also are aware—whether consciously or unconsciously—of the emptiness of their reasoning and the emptiness of their core experience. And that, given our desire to be “full and real”, is a kind of core unhappiness.

Scott:  So the happiest happiness is had in transcending our core unhappiness.

Zz:  Yes. And “transcending” means stepping off the treadmill of pursuing a conditional kind of happiness. A happiness that depends on circumstances is a happiness that always has unhappiness at its core and unhappiness lurking in its near future. The greatest happiness depends on no circumstances.

Scott:  The pursuit of conditional happiness is an attempt to fill our core emptiness—something that can’t be done. This is our most fundamental circumstance. So an unconditional happiness does not depend on our being “full and real”—on having a fixed-identity—on being someone.

Zz:  Exactly. The project of becoming a someone can never succeed since there seems to be no one there to become it. Transcendent happiness becomes possible when we release our grip on a fixed-self and release ourselves into vastness—depending on no circumstance because we are identified with the Great Transforming that embraces every circumstance. That’s the happiness that is as happy in unhappiness as it is in happiness.

Huizi:  Yeah, yeah. In the Tianxia I’m criticized for only pursuing my self-becoming project—“How sad!”— as if the guy who wrote it wasn’t doing just the same. And isn’t that what you two are doing right now—blabbing about “transcendent happiness” and no-fixed-self as part of your own self-becoming projects?

Zz:  I’m not—being dead, as you might recall. But Scott is only honorarily dead, so he probably is.

Scott:  Yeah, I guess I am. And I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that that was probably what Zhuangzi was also doing when he was writing this stuff.

Zz:  Now you’re talking! But whether that’s the sum of it or not you will never know. The more important question is whether I was aware of what I was doing and was wandering in—transcending—that.

Huizi:  Well, I admit that I wasn’t. But fortunately, it didn’t matter all that much in the end. A bit of happiness here, a bit of unhappiness there—just another life like all the others.

Scott:  No one lives longer than a dead child, and no one is happier than a man in misery.

Huizi:  Ha, ha. That works! But I have to agree with Zhuang that understanding that “heavenly” dimension is only useful when we allow it to inform our human dimension. There is more happiness or less to be had in life, and life prefers more over less.