Mature Taoism: The Zhuangzi
From internal evidence, we would judge Hui Shi to have had much more influence on Zhuangzi than his knowledge of Laozi or of the contents of the Daode Jing as we know it. Hui Shi appears more often in dialogue with Zhuangzi than any other figure and in ways that suggest a long-term philosophical involvement and interaction, like relationship of philosophical friends. And, as we observed, the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi show mastery of the technical terminology and state of the art theories of language in ancient China. Still the tone seems “Daoist” in the senses we've identified. Zhuangzi marks the high point of mature Daoist philosophical theory as he finds a better way to answer later Mohist challenges than did Hui Shi.
Zhuangzi finds a “naturalist” position that coherently explains why dao has normative priority over tiannature:sky. The way to avoid the anti-language trap is:
To acknowledge that language is natural, which Zhuangzi does in his beloved image of the “pipes of tiannature:sky.”
We can only answer normative questions from within dao, not from the perspective of nature or any other authority. The point is that 'authority' is a normative concept within some dao so any appeal presupposes a dao of following it. Thus Zhuangzi's first step does not warrant treating all discourse dao as right or as wrong — or even as equal. We make normative or evaluative judgments only against the background of a presupposed way of justifying and interpreting them. The judgments depend on some discourse dao.
The priority of dao over tiannature:sky underwrites the themes of dependency and relativism that pervade the Zhuangzi and ultimately the skepticism, the open-minded toleration and the political anarchism (or disinterest in political activity or involvement). Yet, while nature is not a standard, Taoism does countenance natural daos. Mohism had presupposed one (a natural impulse to benefit) as had the Confucian intuitionist, Mencius (a natural moral tendency in the heart-mind). Zhuangzi's accepts there must be some natural or innate guides, but notes:
There are many such natural ways, and we presuppose further ways when we choose among natural ones as we do again when we cultivate them in one way rather than another. So the dependence on dao multiplies endlessly. The Zhuangzi hints at this in a famous image, humans live and act in ways as fish live and act in water. We don't notice in how many ways we depend on ways. Being in a sea of ways is being human. (This insight has inspired many writers to draw a parallel with Heidegger's Dasein.) We cannot get outside of dao to any more ultimate kind of authority.
These meta-reflections inform relativist (perspectival or pluralist) and skeptical themes in the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi. The style furthers both themes. Rather than speaking with an authorial voice, the text is filled with fantasy conversations between perspectives, including those of millipedes, convicts, musicians and the wind. A Zhuangzi reflective passage is more likely to end with a double rhetorical question (“is it … or isn't it … ?”) than a strong conclusion.
Does Zhuangzi then have anything to teach us? His is an example of the key lesson — open-minded receptivity to all the different voices of dao — particularly those who have run afoul of human authority or seem least authoritative. Each actual (naturally) existing dao has insights. They may be surprisingly valuable — as viewed from within our different ways. On the flip side, we gain nothing from trying to imagine a perfect or ultimate source of guidance. If there were a perfect man or ideal observer-actor, we probably could not understand him. Would his ways have any relevance for us with our limits? Perfection may well look like its opposite to us.
Laozi may have been tempted to postulate a perfect dao. It would be a dao with no social contribution. So the Zhuangzi differs in this important attitude from the Laozi — we need not try to escape from social life and conventions. Conventions underlie the possibility of communication and are, thus, useful. This gives Zhuangzi's Taoism less of the primitive thrust of the Daode Jing (the term wu-wei virtually disappears in the inner chapters).
The most dramatic message of the Zhuangzi is a theme that links Taoism to Zen (Chan — the distinctively Daoist influenced branch of Buddhism) — the “mysticism” of losing oneself in activity, particularly the absorption in skilled execution of a highly cultivated way . His most famous example concerns a butcher — hardly a prestige or status profession — who carves beef with the focus and absorption of a virtuoso dancer in an elegantly choreographed performance. The height of human satisfaction comes in achieving and exercising such skills with the focus and commitment that gets us “outside ourselves” and into such an intimate connection with our dao .
Other examples include lute players, cicada catchers, wheelwrights and logicians. Each description has a hint of realism in the recognition we must put in effort to acquire the skills and then to convert them to “second nature.” We come to see them as natural and as ourselves being at one with nature. Yet in the throes of skillful performance, we still can perfect them more and no matter how good we may become at one thing, may be miserable at others — particularly at conveying the skills to others.
Finally politically, Zhuangzi famously prefers fishing to high status and political office. He asks what a turtle would choose if offered the option of being nailed in a place of veneration an honor in some place of worship or staying at the lake and “dragging his tail in the mud.” However this anti-political stance is unlikely to be grounded in simple self-preservation. The openness of Zhuangzi's pluralism does undermine the justification of political authority that was assumed in ancient China. Confucians and Mohists disagreed bitterly about what dao to follow in a society, but agreed without question that proper order was achieved only when a society followed a single dao . Zhuangzi's stance suggests that society could function with people following many ways of acting. Nothing requires suppressing or eliminating a dao that works from some point of view.
The Zhuangzi text, as we noted, contains the writings of a range of thinkers loosely allied with these Daoist themes. Large sections lean toward the primitivism of Laozi and others emphasize the relativism, and still others become eclectic and uncritical in their openness. For a more complete account see the entry on Zhuangzi and Texts and Textual Theory below.