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