Month: May 2022

Zhuangzi

There are a lot of famous Philosophers in the world. You’ve got Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Socrates, but everybody already knows about those guys. They’re old news. What you want is something new. Although I guess this guys “old news” too considering he was around during those guys time as well. But he’s from a little bit further east and his name is Zhuangzi.

Zhuangzi was a Chinese philosopher that lived anywhere between 369-286 B.C.E. But get this. Zhuangzi is actually also the title of the text that was credited to him. Nice and easy to remember.

The Zhuanzi was written somewhere between the fourth to second century B.C.E by Zhuangzi himself and his followers. Zhuangzi was a daoist philosopher and therefore cared a lot about living a good and peaceful in world full of chaos. And to stay away from politics. In one of his pieces of writing he says that he would rather wag his tale in the mud like a tortoise than get involved in someone else’s political affairs. Wiser words were never spoken!

The Zhuangzi has a lot of other wise sayings and stories as well. One that I find very interesting is Chapter 3, “The Secret of Caring For Life”, where he makes this statement right at the beginning,

Your life has a limit, but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger… If you do good, stay away from fame. If you do evil, stay away from punishments.”

The passage goes on and talks about Cook Ding and how he used to size up an ox by looking it over and deciding how best to cut it. He goes on to say that he gave up doing so and just decided to let the “spirit” guide him on the cutting and it normally works out. It also talks about how he uses is knife in a specific way when cutting up the ox. The blade is thin so he can slide it between the joints and easily slice it up that way, and it helps preserve is knife like knew because he not putting undo strain on it.

This chapter has some really good stuff in it and kind of speaks to the saying “work smarter, not harder”. And it really is a relevant philosophy for our time right now. We live in the days of “push” and “be better” and “do more”, but this idea contradicts that completely. You’ve only got one, relatively short life to live, and Zhuangzi is saying that you should cherish it with things that matter, not things that don’t. That doesn’t mean don’t do anything, but just don’t do anything that’s unnecessary.

However, not all things in the Zhuangzi are so light hearted, per se…. we’re about to get a little Shakespearean here folks, so hang in there.

Chapter 18 starts with Zhuangzi talking to a skull that he found on his way to Chu. He asks it question after question about how it came to be skull. How did it die? What did it do? Then after going to sleep on the skull it appears to him in a dream. The skull tells him that he chatters on only the way a living person can and says that a King facing south in hi throne could not be happier. Zhuangzi questions it and asks if it would want to return if given the chance. The skull the replies with a chilling line,

Why would I throw away more happiness than that of a king on a throne and take on the troubles of a human being again?

This one…. this one really got me because I for one am definitely afraid of dying. As are a lot of people. With no assurity of what comes after death, (unless you are religious, but even then…. you still don’t know for sure), death is quite a scary prospect for some people. But most of the time, that’s just the fear of the unknown. If we knew what would happen to us then it might not be so scary. And considering this skull sounds like it is at rest then I’m sure whatever it experienced could not have been bad. And it’s very profound, at least to me to think about it the skulls way. That death would be so peaceful and of course it wouldn’t want to return because well… life sucks sometimes. It’s full of problems that you don’t need to deal with when you’re dead.

Now I know that sounds a bit macabre and maybe not a great direction of thinking, but I think there could be a little bit of a different message this story is delivering as well. While the skull enjoys being dead and finds happiness in it, I think his whole diatribe is a little nudge-nudge at the reader. The skull says “You chatter like a rhetorician and all your words betray the entanglements of a living man.” and then follows it up by saying the dead have non of these entanglements and are so much happier. I think this could be a subtle hint at saying yes, you can be perfectly happy and at peace when you are dead, but you can also learn a good lesson from the dead by trying to be less bothered by humanly matters. Because in the end, it’s all not going to matter anyway.

Conclusion

There you have it. The Zhuangzi. It really is a special text of philosophy, spelling out each of it’s lessons with powerful stories, so you definitely can’t miss out on the meaning. And overall just a great philosophy to have to live a productive and more easy going kind of life. I think we can all do with being better people for society, but most importantly for ourselves. I hope you can go out and live life in a little more of a Zhuangzi kind of way.

Resources

Puchner, Martin, et al. “Zhuangzi.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2018, pp. 1369–1397.

https://literariness.org/2019/04/21/the-philosophy-of-zhuangzi/

https://www.alanrobinsonart.com/post/166964640203/old-skull-sketch-done-with-inks-sketch-skull

 

The Pillow Book

PILLOW BOOK

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book was highly influential for its time. The work’s beliefs and expectations completely changed the common public’s view on women, domesticity, and high society. Shonagon was one of the high ladies in court, who was almost the authority of the social standards. She focused her works on feminine dealings that were not inherently domestic. It was one of the first to show women as characters with power and authority, rather than simple homemakers and mothers. She is writing about political power, particularly in support of another woman. She also reflects on what power she does and doesn’t have. “If the ladies who went to sermons in those days had lived long enough to see the way things are today, I can just imagine how they would have been criticized and condemned.”

It would have been much more of a feminist work if the Pillow Book didn’t focus only on or praise women who directly benefitted her. The obvious classism displayed in the text does not conform with modern values concerning feminism– or any version of it. She displays and explains the aesthetics and how they relate to the power a person has, and romanticizes the times and stories she encountered during her time in the emperor’s court. She is completely out of step with the true order of the world.  “I must say, however, from my own sinful point of view, it seems quite uncalled-for to go around as some do, vaunting their religious piety and rushing to be the first to be seated wherever a sermon is being preached.”

Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah (Setne 1)

Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah (Setne 1 )

Egypt is a land of ancient storied history. Stories and fables in any culture often have intentions behind them other than simple entertainment. Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah is a story that has very clear cultural teachings when the historical perspective is brought into the fold. The story is broken up into four main sections due to fragmentation over the many years. These four sections are as follows: Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah, Setne takes the book, Setne and Taboubu, and Setne returns the book. The lessons that were taught to Egyptians through this story could stem from the social position of the main character, Setne Khamwas.

Expectations of Earthly Divinity

The main character of story is the son of the legendary Pharaoh of Egypt, Ramses II. The son of the Pharaoh is not a position that should be taken lightly. Pharaohs were, depending on the time period, considered divine beings. This stems from the position that the god of the dead, Osiris, held while he still was alive. Osiris was considered the first king of Egypt according to social customs. Over time Pharaohs began to adopt a combination of religious and bureaucratic leadership. As they stepped into the religious role, they imitated Osiris. They carried a crook to symbolize their role in guiding the nation just like Osiris. They also carried a threshing flail associated with the health of their crops.

Threshing Flail and Crook https://study.com/academy/lesson/crook-flail-in-ancient-egypt-definition-symbolism.html

Horus, the god of war and the sky, was later also incorporated into this social custom. Horus is the son of Osiris, so expectations would be placed on the Pharaoh’s children to also adhere to a very important social value called ma’at. This social value was represented by a deity of the same name.

Ma’at – Truth, Justice, Harmony, and Balance

Ma’at Displayed on Ramses II Sarcophagus https://www.worldhistory.org/Ma’at/

Ma’at is a very important cultural concept based on four core values. Truth, Justice, Harmony, and Balance. The deity of the same name is a vital deity present in the most important aspects of Egyptian belief structures. Her feather of truth is the weight that a person’s soul is weighed against after they die. She follows Ra on his chariot in battle against Apophis every day the sun soars across the sky. She was spoken into existence by Ra at the beginning of the world. Ra’s goal for Ma’at was to keep the world functioning on a rational level. Such an important cultural figure or the values she represents would be taught in many different ways. Setne 1 as a text can be interpreted as a cautionary tale regarding once status and mindset in relation to Ma’at.

The Values of Ma’at in Setne 1

Setne 1 begins with a cautionary tale told to Setne by Ahwere regarding the Book of Thoth. She tells him how she lost her son, husband and her own life due to a lust for power. They sought the power of a god as a mortal and suffered the consequences. The powers described in Setne 1 also have to be interpreted with historical context as they are incredibly important to Egyptian society. The powers listed by the old priest were as follows: control over the sky, earth, netherworld, mountains and water, control over birds, reptiles and fish, the ability to observe Ra and the Ennead(other gods). This book’s spells would effectively make a mortal being as powerful as a deity. Consider the values of Ma’at. How would the balance of the mortal world be completely thrown off course if a mortal Pharaoh gained such a power?

Thoth Writing a Book https://www.csmonitor.com/From-the-news-wires/2010/0316/Archaeologists-unearth-statue-of-Egyptian-god-Thoth

Setne’s decision to pursue the Book of Thoth is the first strike against Setne’s adhereance to Ma’at  because he is neglecting his duties as a prince. Moreover he does so in order to gain a power that is out of his league. Next we must consider the aspect of Ma’at, truth. Furthering his failure to adhere to Ma’at he commits a wrong by stealing the book through lying and trickery to acquire this power. This is directly in conflict with his social position. Especially when the son of a Pharaoh represents Horus, a being that is the antithesis to the chaos god Seth. Lastly, Setne’s treatment of Taboubu very much represents a complete loss of duty. Setne threatens Taboubu with rape and also ends up having his own children killed due to his lust for Taboubu. This very much clashes with the Ma’at value of justice and harmony. During the section Setne and Taboubu, Setne is completely out of his mind and deluded. His life is not harmonious in the slightest while he commits an attrocity for Taboubu. In a society where a Pharaoh is viewed as a connection to the divine, his son/inheritor should also hold such divine values. As citizens of Egypt in the ancient day, it would also be a cautionary tale that your social position does not dictate your adherence to deity’s wills.

Priest of Bastet in the Louvre-
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Priest_of_Bastet_(Louvre,_E_10777)

 

 

Works Cited –

Mark, Joshua J. “Ma’at.” World History Encyclopedia, World History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr. 2022, https://www.worldhistory.org/Ma’at/.

Mark, Joshua J. “Setna I: A Detailed Summary & Commentary.” World History Encyclopedia, World History Encyclopedia, 30 Apr. 2022, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1056/setna-i-a-detailed-summary–commentary/.

Image sources linked in caption