Newsletter: August 2022
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Today is BC Day here in British Columbia, a civic holiday that gives holiday makers a long weekend to get out of the city and do nice things. I managed to spend most of the weekend in my erstwhile home of Galiano Island. Now I’m back in my present home in Vancouver, where summer heat has finally arrived after a rainy spring and a mild early summer.
This coming week in “How Should We Live? Answers from the Modern World,” we’ll explore how Japanese aesthetics provides a model of care and respect that might have broader application in our lives. And then the following week we’ll wrap up the course with a look at how indigenous wisdom might be a particularly helpful source of guidance in a time of ecological crisis.
And that will be it for online teaching until the autumn! I look forward to announcing autumn courses before the end of this month. And to that end, I’ll extend one last please-and-thank-you request to respond to the survey I sent out a week ago. Among other things, your responses will help me plan future courses.
In the break between courses, I look forward to getting back to writing a bit more. I’ve been keeping the blog trundling along in the meantime. A post from a couple weeks ago takes a look at some of the tangles that arise when we think about free will.
Summer in Vancouver is a great time for hiking. You can spend a lifetime here and still discover new places to tramp about. Last week I braved 34° heat (i.e. 92°F) and dragged by body up Evans Peak in Golden Ears Provincial Park, which rewarded me with some spectacular views.
I’ve said it before: one of the pleasures in teaching these online courses is the way they bring together people from all over the world. In the winter session, we had a significant number of participants from India. This summer’s course has seen a significant uptick in participants from China. China has a long and deep philosophical tradition—and indeed past (and no doubt future) courses I’ve taught have been enriched by texts from the Chinese tradition. Today’s mini essay is a thank you to my Chinese participants in the form of a brief meditation on my favourite Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi (莊子). Zhuangzi—a thinker from the late fourth century BCE whose name is also transliterated as Chuang Tzu and pronounced something like “Jwong dzuh”—writes with a peculiar mix of parable and paradox. He’s also often very funny.
A perennial theme of debate in many philosophical traditions is the relative merit of the theoretical and the practical. Philosophers are a notoriously impractical bunch and indeed the dominant trend in Western philosophy is a stubborn defense of impracticality. Practical wisdom is laudable, says Aristotle, and, as political animals, we human beings can’t duck the demands of practical activity. But the highest human good is contemplation, an activity whose value lies in its lack of practical applicability. No further “useful” result comes from contemplation and it’s precisely for this reason that we can say that it’s valuable solely for its own sake.
One of the most outspoken critics of this theoretical bent in the Western tradition is Karl Marx. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways,” he writes. “The point, however, is to change it.” Marx inverts the hierarchy of theoretical and practical, arguing that the highest human calling consists in our capacity for productive work. In shaping nature according to our purposes, he argues, we realize our distinctively human potential.
At first glance, Zhuangzi would seem to side with Marx on this one. Not that he’s calling for the dictatorship of the proletariat but he says things that align with Marx’s valuation of the practical over the theoretical. He pokes fun at philosophers who quibble over fine-grained theoretical distinctions and writes admiringly about practical know-how. In one much-discussed passage, he celebrates the skill of a butcher who cuts up an ox with such finesse that the butcher never touches ligament or tendon and never blunts his chopper.
But Zhuangzi is even more outspoken in his praise of the impractical. Throughout the Zhuangzi (the eponymous text that collects his writings and other associated fragments) we find celebrations of deformity, disability, and general uselessness. Zhuangzi vividly describes Splay-limb Shu whose chin is sunk in his belly and whose “shoulders are above his head, pinched together so they point at the sky.” Shu manages scrape together a living and receives charitable donations of food and firewood. But when it comes time to muster an army or press-gang workers, Shu is always exempt. He waves cheerfully to the soldiers going off to war. Shu’s uselessness in the eyes of his compatriots frees him from hardship and violence and he always has enough to get by.
In another passage, Zhuangzi lauds the uselessness of an amputee, and here his praise has a double edge. Amputation was a common punishment for political advisors who gave bad advice—or good advice that the ruler didn’t want to hear. Look where your attempts to be “useful” got you, the story seems to imply, while also showing the happy lot of someone liberated from the rigours of political wrangling.
Zhuangzi pushes back against both the ideal of theoretical reflection and the ideal of practical know-how. He even seems to push back against one common understanding of Daoism, the movement he’s partly credited with inspiring. This understanding of Daoism—which is more readily found in the other wellspring of Daoism, the Daodejing (also known as the Tao Te Ching)—celebrates the natural over the artificial and encourages us to go with the flow of things without resistance. You find these ideas in Zhuangzi, but where we might most readily associate the natural with elegance and majesty, Zhuangzi draws our attention to the bent, the misshapen, the deformed. If you gaze in awe at the lofty pines but disdain the twisted shrub, Zhuangzi implies, you’ve got your admiration of nature all wrong.
Zhuangzi conceives his own philosophy on similar lines. His friend Huizi compares him to a big tree that’s so gnarled and twisted that it’s useless for timber: “Your talk is similarly big and useless, and everyone alike rejects it.” Zhuangzi takes this as a compliment, saying of the tree: “Since it isn’t any use, what bad can happen to it?”
At this point we’ve almost come full circle, with Zhuangzi closer to Aristotle than to Marx. Recall that Aristotle values contemplation precisely because it has no practical benefit. But Aristotle still thinks politics is an essential vocation and he gives no attention to those who are unfit for full political participation. What’s more, Zhuangzi’s contemplation attends to the exception rather than the rule. Aristotle is one of the great systematic thinkers in the history of philosophy. His writings encompass everything from the nature of the heavens to the germination of plants, presenting the cosmos as a sublime unity. In Zhuangzi, no line of thought proceeds very far before being disrupted by a freak, a joke, or an anomaly.
What emerges from Zhuangzi is a constant reminder that all our grand schemes, whether theoretical or practical, are less than they might appear to us. Better to drop your grand ambitions and just take things as they come. Don’t fuss so much over life and life won’t stir up a fuss for you.