Commentary on Chuang-tzu

Life Preservation

There is a limit to our life, but to knowledge there is no limit. With what is limited to pursue after what is unlimited is a perilous thing; and when, knowing this, we still seek the increase of our knowledge, the peril cannot be averted. There should not be the practice of what is good with any thought of the fame (which it will bring), nor of what is evil with any approximation to the punishment (which it will incur): an accordance with the Central Element (of our nature) is the regular way to preserve the body, to maintain the life, to nourish our parents, and to complete our term of years. (Chuang-tzu, Book III -Nourishing the Lord of Life, 1, version James Legge)

Is Chuang-tzu an agnostic? In fact, the kind of knowledge he refers to is the mere philosophical and ethical speculation that Master's time abounded in. Knowledge is without limit since it is not related to fix, immobile or periodical processes, etc. Therefore, if we were thinking of an extremely mobile human and physical universe in permanent transformation, it would be absurd that we should want to "freeze" everything into a systematic knowledge.

On the other hand, "knowledge" might also allude to the Confucian doctrine that emphasizes learning and self-cultivating as a source of human conduct. Chuang-tzu's opinion is that if anyone wants to be at one's best and do his social duty, then he should be in harmony with the inner law of his being, his whims and everything that makes him a unique human being.

These are obviously contrasting opinions: Confucius is the partisan of pedantic education and the observance of norms (rites), whereas Chuang-tzu advocates natural, non-hypocrite behavior...

It is interesting to discover, when analyzing things closely, that natural, frank behavior is never tempted to become either immoral or amoral. Taoists, including Chuang-tzu, think that rites are obeyed more when one doesn't strive for it, and one's attitude toward fellow people is sincere. On the contrary, trying obsessively to obey the social rites may lead to effects opposite to norms!

N.B. Originally, we have interpreted this passage in a different way (although the ethical Taoist meaning wasn't lost) because we then used another version of the book. The present version of James Legge's seems to me the most pertinent one. Of course, the subject is still debatable in this respect.

Commentary by Jhian Yang


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