Chuang Tzu's Perfect Man

Essay by geerrCollege, UndergraduateA+, November 2009

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Chuang Tzu was a brilliant, original, and influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BCE. The background from which he arose involved a period of strife, conquest, oppression, and an attempt to preserve traditional societal values. This situation gives light to the origin of Chuang Tzu’s philosophy, which was centered on skepticism and mystical detachment (which is why it differs so radically from Confucianism). His ideology provided the disillusioned members of Chinese society with a method to cope with and survive in a world ridden with chaos and suffering.

In his “Basic Writings,” Chuang Tzu delineates the nature of what he believes is the perfect man, and he does so using three basic rhetorical devices. The most obvious are paradoxical anecdotal passages in which illogical statements push the mind into a state of deeper contemplation to discover an underlying truth. The second is pseudo-logical discussion, in which a conversation starts out logically but progresses to address the irrationality of various subjects.

Humor, the final rhetorical device, serves to better the reader’s understanding of the philosophical ideas and provide a favorable alternative to constant forceful persuasion. A combination of these things provides Chuang Tzu with the tools he requires to convey his ideas, although he admits that language is wholly inadequate in describing the true nature of the Way.

Chuang Tzu’s ideal person has discovered the Tao, or Way. The Tao can be described as “the underlying unity that embraces man, Nature, and all that is in the universe.” This manner of living involves a central message of freedom, from both the material world and traditional, rational thought. By following the Way, the true sage can attain an existence liberated from worldly constraint and live in peaceful harmony with nature.

To achieve such a state of living, it is necessary to free oneself from the material world and its affairs. In doing so, traditional societal conceptions of duality (right and wrong, good and bad, life and death, etc.) are forgotten, and one is completely detached. It is this creation of forced and unnatural distinctions that Chuang Tzu’s philosophy fervently denounces, as this eliminates the equality of all things. The perfect man can find delight in all things and opposites, and all parts of the universe are seen as one, no matter what preconceived notions society may have of them.

“Life, death, preservation, loss, failure, success, poverty, riches, worthiness, unworthiness, slander, fame, hunger, thirst, cold, heat – these are all the alternations of the world, the workings of fate…[T]hey should not be enough to destroy your harmony; they should not be allowed to enter the storehouse of the spirit. If you can harmonize and delight in them, master them and never be at a loss for joy…this is what I call being in whole power.”Clearly, this passage advocates the removal of inhibitions and artificial societal constraints, liberating the individual to return to a more natural and primal state, in which total harmony can be achieved.

An excellent example of the equality of all things occurs in the section entitled “Supreme Happiness.” In one anecdote, Chuang Tzu encounters a skull lying on the side of a road and stops in his travels to express pity for the deceased human being. In a dream, the skull imparts wisdom to Chuang Tzu, saying that it is unnecessary to distinguish life as good and death as bad. The skull states that with death comes the loss of all worldly distinctions and troubles, resulting in total happiness. Death is just a passage of the illusion of life. This reflects on the ideal nature of life followed by the Taoist sage, in which one “forgets” all preconceived notions of the material world.

“So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.”A major facet of the removal of oneself from the demarcations of society involves the belief that life is transitory. Therefore, the quests for material wealth and personal aggrandizement were seen as vain follies. The ephemeral nature of human existence makes these qualities unnecessary, and they only served as distractions from seeing and understanding the world and contemplating its meaning. This idea also translates to the quest for complete knowledge, which is part of the many distinctions of society and therefore must be forgotten as well.

“The sage hatches no schemes, so what use has he for knowledge? ...He suffers no loss, so what use has he for favors?”“You life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger.”Because the perfect man actively seeks neither knowledge nor material gain, he exists in a state of inaction known in Taoism as “wu-wei.” The sage has the form of a man, but not the feelings of a man, perceiving with his spirit rather than his body and mind. With no objectives or goals, his spirit is free to work without plan and follows its own instinct guided by nature.

“When I talk about having no feelings, I mean that a man doesn’t allow likes or dislikes to get in and do him harm. He just lets things be the way they are and doesn’t try to help things along.”“To know what you can’t do anything about, and to be content with it as you would with fate—only a man of virtue can do that”His inaction allows for pure harmony with nature and involves a state of free and easy wandering. Because he accepts the dynamic nature of the universe and fate, the perfect man is free from strife and lives in permanent accord with the world around him. Thus is the purpose of wu-wei, to initiate a self-transformation in which the individual is free from suffering and can therefore experience joy in all things. This idea would certainly give comfort to the members of the Chinese nation, who, during that particular historical period, were living with great tribulation and violence.

One example of the proper actions of the Taoist sage is the anecdote regarding the meat carver. The man follows the Way, which transcends skill. By relying on his spirit rather than his body or mind, perception and understanding cease to exist, and the spirit is allowed to move wherever it wants. The butcher explains that he has maintained the same knife for nineteen years while following the Tao, while others were forced to exchange their carving instruments every month or every year. In such a way should one deal with all aspects of the world and incorporate this philosophy into the care of one’s own life.

In conclusion, the perfect man exists in a state without true consciousness, in which he makes no distinctions and perceives all of nature as one. Societal traditions and distinctions are forgotten, and the sage acts in accordance with wu-wei, going with the flow and perceiving with his spirit rather than his body or mind. This allows for complete harmonization with nature and the ability to find joy in all things. Thus, the ultimate reality of Taoism involves a kind of salvation. Unlike many other religions and ideologies that promise eternal bliss in a heavenly afterlife, the Way provides a lifestyle that is free from suffering and harm, with all aspects of the universe treated equally. It is this promise that appealed to many contemporaries of Chuang Tzu, as well as followers of Taoism afterwards. It provided them with a means to cope with the rampant suffering of the period live a more peaceful life.

References1.Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings. Trans. Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, New York, 1996), 1-3.