A Ku Indeed!

Zhuangzi and Death

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy by Chris on March 14, 2008

zhuangzi1.jpgDeath, death, death. Yeah, that’s all I seem to think about. What do you expect? I’m writing the last chapter of this book — and it’s on death. So let’s just say I have death on the brain lately. I see dead people.

I’m in a small reading group with the visiting professor from Tsinghua, and we’re reading the Zhuangzi. My knowledge of Taoism (or Zhuangzi) is not great, so this is a helpful group for me. Today we were reading from chapter two of the inner chapters, and I came across this interesting passage:

Men may say, “There is no death”; but what advantage is this? When the body is decomposed, the mind will be the same with it — must not the case be pronounced very deplorable? Is the life of man indeed enveloped in such darkness? Is it I alone to whom it appears so? And does it not appear to be so to other men?

It’s an interesting passage because, like my post earlier about Confucius, it seems oriented towards “shaking” the reader out of a tranquility about their natural condition that one might suspect is brought about by life lost in the “idle talk” of the public, or “the They” or the masses at large. Of course, to “the They” it is really “one” who dies as opposed to you the particular individual who must come face to face with finitude. To “the They”, death is just an empirical fact, something around the corner that will need to be attended to one day (but not today!). For “the They” when death is attended to, it will be (in true Tolstoy Ivan Illych manner) through the filling out of wills and determining inheritances.

Of course, such a reading (to beware of death as it is understood by “the They”) might not be entirely improbable, given Zhuangzi’s discussion (on the previous page) of what Heidegger would have called “idle talk” (the mode of discourse of “the They”). Zhuangzi suggests:

Great knowledge is wide and comprehensive,

Small knowledge is partial and restricted,

Great speech is exact and complete,

Small speech is just merely so much talk.

I suspect that either Zhuangzi is reacting to the fact that people of his time have fallen for the belief that no one really dies, or he is reacting to the obscuring of death through thinking about it only in “objective” terms, as noted above (thinking of death as an “event” or as something that is meaningful only in terms of social rituals) such that death becomes nothing more than the subject of ‘idle talk’ without connection to the actual experience of anticipating one’s death.

Not a bad message to get across. Surprising, though, how when so much changes, so much remains the same. This message is no less important now as it was then.


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