Zhuangzi translation and commentary

Thank you for coming to this site, a translation and commentary on the fourth century BC Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi! This is a work-in-progress, so your feedback is welcome. Feel free to read away below, or here are an introduction to this project, how to use this site, and how to leave comments.

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Overbite asked Royal Relativity, “Do you know what all things agree upon as right?”

Royal Relativity said, “How could I know that?”

“Do you know that you don’t know it?”

“How could I know that?”

“Doesn’t anyone know anything??”

“How could I know that? But even so, suppose I tried saying something. How could I possibly know, when I say I know something, that I don’t not know it? How could I possibly know, when I say I don’t know something, that I don’t know it? [1]

Let me try asking you something. If people sleep in the damp, their backs hurt and they wake half paralyzed. But is this true of an eel? If they live in trees they shudder with fear. But is this true of a monkey? Of these three then, which knows the right place to live? People eat the flesh of cattle, deer eat fodder, maggots like snakes, and hawks enjoy mice. Of these four, which knows the right taste? Monkeys take baboons as partners, deer befriend elk, and eels consort with fish. People say that Mao Qiang and Li Ji are beautiful. But if fish saw them they would dive deep, if birds saw them they would fly high, and if deer saw them they would cut and run. Of these four, which knows beauty rightly? 

From where I see it, the sprouts of kindness and morality and the pathways of right and wrong are all snarled and jumbled. How would I know the difference between them?” [1]

Overbite said, “If you don’t know gain from loss, do perfect people know?” 

Royal Relativity said, “Perfect people are spiritual. Though the lowlands burn, they are not hot. Though the Yellow River and the Han freeze, they are not cold. When furious lightning splits the mountains and winds thrash the sea, they are not scared. People like this mount the clouds and mists, straddle the sun and moon, and roam beyond the four seas. Death and life make no difference to them, how much less the sprouts of benefit and harm!” [2]

[1] Compare Analects 2.17, where Confucius says “To say that you know when you do know and that you don’t when you don’t, is knowledge.” It is tempting to lose oneself in the slapstick here but worthwhile to walk through the reasoning. Relativity's final description of "the sprouts of kindness and morality" as "all snarled and jumbled" hearkens back to Hui Shi's mind being "full of underbrush" in 1:06. The idea of moral 端 duān, "sprouts," is from the Confucian philosopher, Mengzi, and 仁 rényì, "kindness and morality," are Confucian virtues. But in the next paragraph he will talk about sprouts of 利害 lìhài, "benefit and harm," which are the Mohist standards of judgment, so I think he is speaking about moralizers in general here.

[2] Overbite's question ups the ante. Is the ignorance expressed in the first exchange an admission of Relativity's own shortcomings, or is it illustrative of the attitude of a wise person? Relativity's response is difficult to interpret. The first glance reading describes perfect people who are invulnerable to fire and floods. In addition to requiring belief in magic, this commits us to exactly the position rejected in the first exchange, that there is one right way. Instead, I think the point is not that perfect people are immune to disasters but that they do not regard these things as disasters since they are not able to know for sure that they are really harmful. This reading brings the second half of the passage in line with the skeptical logic of the first. 

Still, there's a question: Is there an ideal or isn't there? The first part seems to say, No; the second part, Yes. Perhaps the perfect people aren't supposed to represent an ideal, just an alternative. But, if so, what's "perfect" about them?