Starting Points

Zhuangzi and the Parable of the Monkeys

A monkey trainer tells his monkeys that he will give them three nuts in the morning and four in the evening. The monkeys are outraged. So the trainer changes course. He offers the monkeys four in the morning and three in the evening. Now the monkeys are happy.

The Zhuangzi: A Daoist Classic

This story is typical of the Zhuangzi, a Daoist classic from China in the 3rd century BCE. It uses gentle humour to poke fun at rigid ways of thinking. But don’t suppose its meaning is straightforward. If you do, you risk being the rigid thinker at the butt of the Zhuangzi’s multi-faceted humour.

(Note: “Zhuangzi” is sometimes spelled “Chuang Tzu” and “Daoism” is sometimes spelled “Taoism.” These differences come from two different systems for transliterating Chinese characters.)

The book of Zhuangzi is named after a sage of the same name (“Zhuangzi” means “Master Zhuang”) who lived in the 4th century BCE. We don’t know much about him and it’s unlikely that all the material in the Zhuangzi comes from him. But a lively philosophical personality shines through the text. Zhuangzi has the serene vision of a mystic and the lively wit of an inveterate jokester.


The Lesson of the Monkeys

The most obvious lesson from the story of the monkeys is that the monkeys are making a fuss over nothing. Either way, they get seven nuts by the end of the day. We, too, behave like the monkeys sometimes. We insist on having things our way when really it makes no difference.

But that can’t be the whole story. After all, many of the things we get upset about plausibly don’t balance out at the end of the day. Does the Zhuangzi also help us cope with these things?

The Hundred Schools of Thought

A bit of context helps. Zhuangzi lived during the Warring States Period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. This was a time of conflict and social upheaval. Hard times often make for great philosophy. Traditional modes of thought seem inadequate and people start searching for new answers. This period in Chinese history was known for its “Hundred Schools of Thought.” Confucians, Mohists, and other thinkers contended over how to organize society.

How can we determine which of these thinkers is right, Zhuangzi asks. Could we find a judge to settle the argument? But if that judge takes one side, who’s to judge whether that judge is right? Another judge? And then how do we judge whether that second judge is right?

The trouble, it seems, is that each person sees things from a particular perspective. The same applies to us. There’s no “objective” point of view that can settle the matter. That would be like trying to find a point of view outside all points of view.

Is Zhuangzi a Relativist?

Zhuangzi is sometimes described as a relativist but I think he’s subtler than that. The trouble with what I’ll call naïve relativism is that it undermines itself. Imagine someone saying, “No claims are absolutely true.” Okay then, what about that claim? Is it absolutely true? It had better not be. But then, if it isn’t absolutely true, then perhaps some claims are absolutely true after all. It’s the sort of statement that’s true if it’s false and false if it’s true.

Zhuangzi isn’t a naïve relativist because he relishes this kind of paradox. In a moment of lofty poetry, he writes: “Heaven and earth were born alongside me, and the ten thousand things and I are one.” But immediately afterward he calls this mystical vision into question:

“If we’re already one, can I say it? But since I’ve just said we’re one, can I not say it? The unity and my saying it make two. The two and their unity make three. Starting from here, even a clever mathematician couldn’t get it, much less an ordinary person! If going from nothing to something you get three, what about going from something to something? Don’t do it! Just go along with things.”

“Everything is one” has the same problem as “No claims are true absolutely.” As soon as you say it, you’ve undermined it. Words have a tendency to proliferate. If you want to find unity, stop talking about it and “just go along with things.”

Going Along With Things

That brings us back to the monkeys and the nuts. The moral of the story, as I see it, isn’t that the monkeys are foolish but that the trainer is wise. Suppose the trainer had said, “three in the morning and four at night or four in the morning and three at night—it’s all the same!” Then he’d be extending the quarrel with the monkeys. The solution isn’t to show the monkeys they’re being foolish but to “go along with things.” The trainer finds a way of letting the monkeys feel like they’re right instead of showing them that they’re wrong.

Instead of arguing over right and wrong, Zhuangzi looks for a frictionless way of being in the world. This ideal is sometimes described as wuwei or “nonaction.” Nonaction is different from inaction. The monkey trainer isn’t doing nothing. But he’s finding a way of acting that doesn’t meet with resistance. Winning arguments doesn’t get you anywhere in the long run, Zhuangzi teaches us. True wisdom lies somewhere out beyond where words can reach.

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