Zhuangzi vs. Anarchists, observed by Anthropologists

What does an ancient Chinese philosopher considered to be a grandfather of Daoism have in common with modern anarchists and anthropologists (and perhaps also Marxists and existentialists)? Each takes a position on humanity and humans as well as what it means to be a member of the former and one of the latter. Each builds up, deconstructs, and/or describes life in a way that I find compelling and in this essay, I will try to make sense of the contradictions and comparisons between these personally resonant ideologies from the perspective of someone partway down the path from birth to death.

Zhuangzi wrote the Zhuangzi in Warring States period China. He probably lived between 369 and 286 BCE and there is a vigorous debate among scholars about how much of the text that bears his name he actually wrote. His poems and parables describe characters who are struggling and thriving, confused and certain. Zhuangzi identifies sages, fools, and the powerful and constructs a compelling but often self-erasing picture of how to live in a universe that is constantly transforming and often indifferent. There is a "useless" tree that haunts a carpenter's dreams, an anthropomorphic angel of the subjectivity of utility. Zhuangzi dreams that he's a butterfly but when he wakes, he's not sure if he's actually a character in a butterfly's dream. His radical uncertainty extends to knowledge and power, the former an infinite, probably degenerative opioid and the latter a dangerous pretension. But he does not recommend the anchorite's removal from life nor try to erase suffering through contemplation or ideological reorientation (Zhuangzi is no Lao Tzu nor Buddha nor Thoreau). Rather, he tells of carpenters and butchers who develop flow with their craft and clever people who turn seemingly desperate or dismal situations into profitable gains. His pragmatism extends to psychology as well; if you're down, re-orient your goals, your position, your contract with the world. And yet be suspicious of certainty in anything. There is a lightness that borders on cynicism with the entire project of language that brings to mind Wittgenstein's argument that concepts, words, and ideals are untrustworthy outside of a particular context. And yet we have this text, a linguistic masterpiece.

If Marx had read a copy of the Zhuangzi, maybe he wouldn't have advocated for his wildly aggressive solution to the problems of capitalism. Both of these philosophers had few positive things to say about their contemporary society and culture and perhaps Zhuangzi would have written more about economics if he had been alive post-industrialization. Each feels strongly that workers have honor and that doing things and making things are keys to a life well-lived. But Zhuangzi is more interested in the personal edification and nearness to a sort of individual/natural perfection that comes from work, while Marx was interested in the society, the group. The distinction between humanity and an individual human: Zhuangzi was skeptical that one human might "manage" a "bettering" of the world. That was more the Mohist bag, the effective altruists of ancient China. But perhaps it's just the Marxist's desire to analytically destroy with 99% of their energy and create with 1% (no one has more devastating analyses of the modern world than Slavoj Žižek). If piling up power isn't the move in either the capitalist or communist sense, what is a group-aware person to do?

Anarchists are even more vehemently opposed to authority than Zhuangzi; Zhuangzi is happy to stay out of the way of the powerful, while anarchists want to abolish government and hierarchy. When asked to become prime minister by an ancient Chinese ruler, Zhuangzi asked whether the turtle held at court in a tank would have preferred to remain in the mud; "leave me in peace to fish in this river". An anarchist might have seized the opportunity to try to dismantle the state. Zhuangzi advocated for staying out of the way of the swinging swords of the powerful, to be "of the way of the nature of all things". This skepticism of ideals, of concepts, puts Zhuangzi at odds with both anarchists and Marxists, and perhaps leaves him open to communion with anthropologists. Isn't the cultural relativism of the human-watchers a closer fit to Zhuangzi's view of existence?

Zhuangzi may have seen anthropology as an overindulgence in the knowledge-search; how to know more and more about people, a person, a culture is a path Zhuangzi would have rejected past a certain point. He seemed willing to admit that the knowledge glass, once shattered, could not be put back together. When one has started down the path of self-understanding, of meta-analysis, of philosophy, there seems to be no turning back (otherwise Zhuangzi wouldn't have written the Zhuangzi and we would be better off not reading it). Anthropologists' descriptions of pre-conquest/pre-colonial civilizations may be compelling and inspire a desire to higher levels of interpersonal communion and emotional sensitivity, but the pragmatism in the Zhuangzi would advocate for a resonant, mutual understanding with the world's present, rather than a utopian starting-over or re-imagination. How can one live under and with the conditions of "all things" rather than how can one make and manage systems that would be better for oneself and others (or purely observe others, forgetting or devaluing oneself).

The lack of influence over one's existence and the lack of some specifically identifiable higher power brings Zhuangzi into conceptual contact with existential philosophers. Mustn't one make up one's own meaning in a universe that doesn't have one pre-developed? Zhuangzi would have likely advocated for a sufficient meaning-making, while rejecting a fervent obsession with meaning or its non-existence. Resonating with nature, finding flow sometimes, and developing a sense of contentment regardless of the difficulty of one's circumstances are Zhuangzi's prescriptions for fungal and astronomical nihilism (and these are far more certain/stable emotional and expectational paths than Nietzsche's vaguely super/willful project).

I'm partial to Zhuangzi; after getting an education in international relations and in business and working for various companies, the analysis & improvement of systems, organizations, and people have become worn out obsessions. Zhuangzi speaks to why. The Zhuangzi has helped me develop a new ethic for living, an ethic that doesn't disdain or condemn analysis or improvement or the wielding of power, but it's an ethic that does reject an overabundance of these lenses and acts. Writing poetry, taking long bike rides through the countryside, and pragmatically responding to the situations that arise in life feel more aligned. The Zhuangzian way doesn't have a plan and can't be characterized in brief; it's a way that is the way of life, of nature; paying some attention, doing some things, and inevitably, dying.

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