Zhuangzi: The Case for Daoist Anarchism
In his book, The Anarchist Current: Continuity and Change in Anarchist Thought, Robert Graham, also the writer of a recent three volume anarchist anthology, writes the following:
“The subtitle of Volume One of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A
Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, was ‘From Anarchy to Anarchism’. By this I
meant to emphasize that people lived without states for tens of thousands of years, and
therefore in a kind of ‘anarchy,’ before the first states began to emerge about 6,000
years ago. Far from being impossible, as Thomas Hobbes and many other political
commentators have argued, anarchy was a very successful form of human social
organization which existed for most of the time of human existence on this planet.”
But, of course, this anarchy was not like anything we would call “anarchy” now. This was in a time before much of the technology we have now invented [and which many see as salvation rather than self-imprisonment or a means to our increasing destruction] existed. But we have, in large measure, entirely changed our consciousness by means of technological progress and, much as the primitivists would like to, there is no going back. It is the hope of the anarchist, however, that though there may be no going back there might still be a chance of going better, going more cooperatively and less coercively. We may be those who went from wandering through the forest, eating berries as we went, to those who chopped down the forest to grow a field full of commercial grown berries, but that change is neither inevitable nor permanent. All we need do is change again. The anarchist is one who believes that such change is both possible and desirable.
I mention Robert Graham in connection with this because he is one of a few anarchist historians who intimate that the Chinese Daoists who existed over two millennia ago [beginning roughly at the time of the first Greek Cynics, Antisthenes and Diogenes, about 2,400 years ago] are examples of an anarchism and of anarchist thought. Another example of this idea is Peter Marshall in his anarchist history titled Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism which includes a chapter on “Taoism and Buddhism”. Clearly, there is something worth exploring here. Yet you can also add me to this list for, in my own independent researches, entirely unaware of the thinking of anarchist historians, I also came to the view that Daoism, at least in the philosophical Daoist texts I have read, in a more modern context looks like a form of anarchism. Indeed, in my own case, I actually came from Daoism to anarchism in my historical development although, in some cases, there are obvious differences. Anarchism, for example, is in the main [and certainly according to an anarchist canon which goes something like Godwin-Proudhon- Bakunin-Kropotkin-Malatesta-Goldman, etc.,] a political, material thing uninterested in mysticism and spiritual concerns; Daoism, on the other hand, is concerned with these things. But we should not let such obvious differences of context and interest mask, or deny, the similarities.
Robert Graham begins his anthologising of anarchism with the text he calls “Neither Lord nor Subject” by Bao Jingyan, a text he dates to around 300 BCE. He writes of this text in The Anarchist Current that:
“Writing around 300 CE, the Daoist sage Bao Jingyan gave the Daoist rejection of the
hierarchical cosmology of the Confucians a more political slant, seeing it as nothing more
than a pretext for the subjugation of the weak and innocent by the strong and cunning.
He harkened back to the ‘original undifferentiated’ condition of the world in which ‘all
creatures found happiness in self-fulfilment,’ expressing a nonhierarchical, ecological
sensibility which eschews ‘the use of force that goes against the true nature of things.’
He noted that in ‘the earliest times,’ prior to the creation of a hierarchical social order, ‘there was neither lord nor subjects.’ He saw compulsory labour and poverty as the
results of the division of people into ranks and classes.”
Here we already start to get a flavour of something that is both Daoist yet also with hints of anarchism, especially in its non-hierarchicalism. If anarchism be a form of such anti-authoritarianism then we are going to find a lot more of this in what follows for my argument in this essay is to be that the Daoist text, The Book of Zhuangzi, is perhaps the most anarchist book you could ever read. Of course, first of all I have to do a little scene setting for those unfamiliar with Daoism and its texts to convince you of this — so here goes.
There are three major texts of ancient Daoism known by shorthand as the Laozi, the Zhuangzi and the Liezi. The first of those, the Laozi, is also known worldwide as the Daodejing [or the Tao Te Ching, a difference in name which comes from using different systems of transliteration from Chinese to English; for linguistic scholars, I am following the Pinyin system. Following this system, Lao Tzu, the imagined writer of the Daodejing, becomes Laozi. Daodejing may be translated as “The Book of the Way and its Virtue”]. The Zhuangzi [in another transliteration system called The Chuang Tzu] is the second best known Daoist text after the Daodejing. But it is a completely different sort of book. Where the Daodejing contains 81 tightly constructed poetic chapters, the Zhuangzi [named after the person who it is imagined inspired it, although scholars now think he didn’t write much of it himself] contains 33 much more extensive chapters combining ancient stories [often with conclusions to be drawn from them], philosophical teaching, poetic sections, parables and much ancient Chinese mythology [which will baffle those alien to such a context which means many of us today]. All this acts as a natural barrier to the modern [and perhaps particularly Western] reader wanting to penetrate the mysteries of the Zhuangzi. But don’t give up just yet. There are riches to be found for those prepared to persevere.
Zhuangzi [the man, the word meaning “Master Zhuang”, a title of respect] is a Daoist. But what is a Daoist? A Daoist is one who follows the Dao. Dao means “way” or “path”. Daoists are “Wayists”. The particular way being followed here is an imagined “way of nature” [don’t worry, this is not imagined as an actual intelligent force, much less as a deity; its both more complex and more simple than that] and this is particularly a way of nature left alone and uninterfered with by arrogant human beings. A basic Daoist principle is that interference with the way of nature is only going to make things worse. We, with 2,400 years of extra hindsight and an ecological apocalypse on our hands, can only nod sagely in agreement with this ancient and uncivilised sentiment. Zhuangzi has much to say about this Way and the benefits of non-interference with it. This is not given as authoritative instruction that must be followed but as sage wisdom to be willingly received. The Zhuangzi does not tell you what to do or think; it advises readers to learn from common experience and engage in wise courses of action which lead to peaceful and mutually beneficial outcomes. In the terms of ancient literary studies, the Zhuangzi is wisdom literature.
An overall view of the Zhuangzi reveals a book concerned with spontaneity of action and freedom from the human world, a human world increasingly based on abstract [and often authoritatively enforced] conventions. [It evinces a similarity to the contemporaneous disaffection with “civilised” convention in Greek Cynicism in this respect.] The book likewise makes a repeated case for the artificiality and arbitrariness of human distinctions between good and bad, life and death, and human and nature. This, in fact, amounts to an assertion that human thinking is necessarily fictional and self- serving – but not necessarily for the best. It always seems to come back to the idea that human interference in the way of nature will only make things worse – like trying to swim against the current of a river. What the book, in general, recommends is going with the flow – even [or especially] if this means moulding yourself to your natural circumstances [essentially letting yourself go and succumbing to the way of nature]. So, when I said there are differences between Daoism and anarchism, I meant it.
Daoism, as we should realise, is from a completely different time and place to ours and its texts arise in the context of concerns other than the industrial world of the nineteenth century in which classical anarchism arose. In general, it is much more mystical, spiritual and philosophical – but always with a context in lived experience and outcomes for material life itself. We should not, however, simply expect to find the concerns of canonical anarchist figures reproduced here. It is not as if all peoples in all times and all places have faced the same problems. One thing to remember about anarchism, which Daoism can help teach us, is that although “classical anarchism” is normally regarded as a particularly Western [and white] phenomenon, once you take its principles and values into account you begin to recognise it in myriad examples that are neither Western, white nor from the time period in which “classical anarchism” arose.[David Graeber’s Fragments of An Anarchist Anthropology would be a good book to educate readers on this point too, besides taking note of the fact that figures like Bakunin and Kropotkin are actually fairly Eastern not Western. Even Goldman and Berkman came out of what is now called Eastern Europe. Anarchism is much more than just the musings of representatives of some great Western European tradition or hegemony. Its international and intercultural in scope and origin.] Values of anti- authoritarianism, cooperation, responsibility, etc., i.e. anarchist values, are not unique to certain historical figures or a particularised historical movement. We can also see plenty of examples of them elsewhere. We see them, so a number of anarchist thinkers would argue, in Daoism and, so I would argue, we see them without doubt in the Zhuangzi.
In fact I myself would argue that the Zhuangzi is one of the most thoroughgoing of texts for arguing against both cops in the street but, perhaps more importantly, also the cop in your head. Daoism shares with Buddhism, and especially Zen Buddhism which it historically influenced as Buddhism passed from India, through China, to Japan, the focus that “what you think creates the world you live in”. But, if this is true, then “what you think” — that is, the thoughts that guide you, the way you conceive of the world or existence itself, the whole gamut of options in regard to right and wrong, good and bad, etc., — becomes of paramount importance. For example, if you think “women are inferior” or “there are people who should be in authority over us” this is going to make a big difference to how you actually live your life – especially if you have to deal with people who think “men are inferior” or that “no one should have authority over anyone else”. Thus, what you think, and how you think, is regarded as most important and of direct relevance to how people live – for one clearly influences [if not determines] the other. This is the importance of “the cop in your head”, something the Zhuangzi fundamentally pays attention to as a “Wayist” text.
But rather than blathering on with general assertions, let’s actually turn to that text now and example some of its ideas in an effort to show its anarchist credentials. Given the text’s length [my copy is a 300 page book], this will necessarily have to be selective so I can only here hope to give “the gist” of the text and hope that interested readers delve further for themselves [which is what I regard anarchist self-education as being about anyway]. As we start the book [with the very anarchist sounding opening chapter title of “Wandering Where You Will”] we are, within a few paragraphs, learning from a parable about a cicada and a young dove, that we only know the things appropriate to our own life and station and that “The perfect man has no self; the spiritual man has no merit; the holy man has no fame” in a eulogy to a life of simple living with few wants and desires. Not wanting to seek fame or notoriety [the exact opposite of a modern world of acquisitive people wanting Twitter followers and You Tube views as popularity = influence = wealth] is a constant throughout the text and part of a mentality which promotes being happy with having enough and simple living. This may not seem, in itself, very anarchist but it is, in fact, a direct challenge to both capitalism and consumerism [the engines of modern civilization] and so any authoritarianism which is allied with them. To be happy with enough can be a challenge to authority and authoritative ideologies in itself. But we should notice that this is not simply a challenge to an external authority; it is challenging to ideas that might have been taught to us from birth by osmosis and so challenges “the cop in your head” perhaps just as much. To value simplicity of living you need to first be able to think of it as an option at all.
In the second chapter [“Working Everything Out Evenly”, which smacks of equality and balance, things very important to a “Wayist” philosophy of yin and yang, night entailing day and day entailing night, etc.] takes on a philosophical complexion with the aim of critiquing how [and so what] we think. As I have tried to make plain in my own books about anarchism [primarily in Being Human: A Philosophy of Personal and Political Anarchism and A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection], this “how we think” aspect of anarchism is actually vital to everything else that follows. But one needs a philosophical cast of mind to be able to see this and so to appreciate it. Many classical anarchists were more activists who had a need to explain themselves in the midst of their very materialist activism rather than philosophers who set out ideas, or even modes of thought, that were hygienic for the anarchist to have and use. Yet Daoism is very much concerned with this and so does the thoughtful anarchist a service as well in so doing. This extends from the existentialist conclusion that “I can only truly know what I know” [i.e. by experience or acquaintance rather than in an abstract, epistemologically conceived “knowledge”] to the “oneness” and fundamental inter relatedness of all things. All this, of course, is of relevance to “the Way” which, in many respects, is such principles regarded in shorthand form. But it is of profound significance for the thinking anarchist that “all is one” and that everything is entailed in everything else. It means that life is not just about you and could never be. If you are concerned about anything then you are concerned about everything: and so everything is your proper concern. Here there is found no excuse for division, much less authority or hierarchy. There is only equality, inter-relation and a need for balance. “Heaven and Earth and I were born at the same time, and all life and I are one.” Ecologically-minded anarchists will find much to their liking here.
More difficult for modern, Western anarchists to accept [and this is, by far, not the only kind of anarchist that exists today as Erica Lagalisse’s book Occult Features of Anarchism reminds us, as well as those more indigenously inclined, who also insist their historical and spiritually-influenced anarchisms have as much validity as the more secularised “mainstream” tradition] may be that “knowledge” and “science” are not up to much [and we may note that both have been used historically over centuries to control people] and that the differences and classifications they thrive on and consist of are artificial. The Zhuangzi in general takes a skeptical view of such things, preferring the holism of the Way combined with a morally-inflected persuasion and intuition to the formation of bodies of authoritative knowledge [either as a rationalism or as a privileging of epistemology as understood within Western Philosophy] from which political power bases can be formed.
There is a sense in the Daoism of Zhuangzi in which wanting to know too much in order to then wield it as an authority is thought dangerous to good polity in itself. Everything is different and things do what they do, somehow fitting together into the whole which is the Way, but the Zhuangzi never seems to imagine that it is our business to know exactly how or that knowing would be beneficial for us. Wanting such authority is seen as itself a danger to avoid and humility is counselled rather than a claimed sovereignty over the elements themselves imagined to be achieved through a rationally acquired “knowledge”. Here, as elsewhere, interfering with the Way will only make matters worse and said “knowledge” — and the “science” then claimed by means of it, something which even well-known anarchists have wanted to affiliate themselves with, wanting to be seen as “modern” in the eyes of the masses – are neither regarded as being what they are claimed to be nor as able to bring peace and harmony to the lived experience of people generally. Such things are problems and not solutions for Zhuangzi.
“How can the wise one sit beside the sun and the moon and embrace the universe? Because she brings all things together in harmony, she rejects difference and confusion and ignores status and power. While ordinary people rush busily around, the sage seems stupid and ignorant, but to her all life is one and united. All life is simply what it is and all appear to her to be doing what they rightly should.”
“Stop using artificial means of differentiation” is the recommendation here, privilege and power being only two relations of these. This leads us into Zhuangzi’s famous “butterfly dream” in which the question is if a man is dreaming they are a butterfly or a butterfly is dreaming it is a man. Who can say? Certainly not us! This, once more, is the claim that knowledge is not what we think it is and once more restates the Zhuangzi’s basically anti-epistemological orientation. Knowledge is here seen as either a potential authority itself or the tool of authority. But its authenticity as the thing it is claimed to be is questioned and doubted; the way it is used is deemed illegitimate and ineffective. Rather than worrying about knowing, the Zhuangzi counsels instead:
“Forget about life, forget about worrying about right and wrong. Plunge into the
unknown and the endless until you find your place there!”
“Knowledge talk” is seen to be just another kind of rhetoric here, something which involves “spineless flatterers” when “pleasure is taken in argument”. But the Zhuangzi instead praises “the good and honest people” who are “ignored” [because they neither argue nor claim to know things] and who follow “the quiet calm of actionless action” [I’ll address this in a moment]. The Zhuangzi urges readers to ignore their sense [i.e. a logic or authoritative body of knowledge] and follow their spirit, a more intuitive and less authoritative thing. This promotes spontaneity [freedom] and demotivates deliberation [a matter of control and coercion].
An interesting imagery used to communicate Zhuangzi’s idea of the optimum human existence is that of the wanderer, one who meanders about. The simple image itself promotes a type of necessary flexibility of thought and approach to life for the wanderer never really knows what situation they might meet on their way. A static body of knowledge would not be very useful for a wanderer because such bodies of knowledge are most useful only for fixed circumstances that are thought under control, not a situation the wanderer faces. And so:
“The sage sees their role as that of a wanderer, sees knowledge as a curse, convention as a glue, virtue as just a means, and effort as common trade. The sage has no great plans, so what use have they for knowledge? They make no divisions, so what use have they for glue? They have no problems, so what use have they for virtue? They have no career, so what need have they for common trade?”
Such a person is said to “let all things be and allow life to continue in its own way” rather than to go about forcing the external world to fit into their categories according to their desires. We are going to find a lot of that in the Zhuangzi for if the choice is between making the world how we want it or moulding ourselves to go with the flow of the Way then the second one wins out every time due to the Zhuangzi’s consistent approach of human humility in the face of the way of nature. Thus:
“The true human being of old did not hold onto life, nor did they fear death. They arrived
without expectation and left without resistance. They went calmly, they came calmly,
and that was that. They did not set out to forget their origin, nor were they interested in what would become of them. They loved to receive anything but also forgot what they
had received and gave it away. They did not give precedence to the heart but to the Way,
nor did they prefer the ways of humanity to those of Heaven. This is what is known
as a true human being.”
Elsewhere in the Zhuangzi Laozi [the supposed writer of the Daodejing] makes an appearance and, speaking to this point, makes reference to the stream which “does nothing, but it follows its nature”. The point here is the absence of deliberation or intention, the artificial marking out of a determined endpoint or goal. Nature, we may observe, has no goal; it is not trying to get anywhere. The Zhuangzi, observing this fact, says “Be like that!” but not in a dogmatic sense, in a pragmatic sense – because the text believes it will inevitably go better for you that way.
This brings us to the concept of the Dao itself, something which earlier I said was both “more complex and more simple” than the idea of it as an actual intelligent force or some kind of deity. Here’s what the Zhuangzi says about it in its sixth chapter:
“The great Way has both reality and expression, but it does nothing and has no
form. It can be passed on, but not received. It can be obtained, but not seen. It is rooted
in its own self, existing before Heaven and Earth were born, indeed for eternity. It gives
divinity to the spirit and to the gods. It brought to life Heaven and Earth.”
It is, we may say, mystical. But its only an idea. [Elsewhere Zhuangzi has a lot to say about “words” and he often thinks we are better off without them but I have no time to really wander off into philosophy of language in this essay.] The idea has reality but “does nothing” and is without form in itself. Except there is no “in itself” for this Way is the sum total of everything interacting together. Let’s put it another way, this time referring to the concepts of yin and yang, concepts which describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world:
“When a mother and father tell a child to go somewhere, be that east, west, south
or north, the child obeys. Yin and yang are the mother and father of humanity. They
have brought me close to death and if I disobey this would be just perversity. My
death is not their problem! The cosmos gives me form, brings me to birth, guides me
into old age and settles me in death.”
What I take from this is that there is a natural order of things. It is not that we must be forced to follow this natural order of things, however, for the point is that we should not need to be forced. “Force” or “coercion” should have nothing to do with anything. Things
just are naturally a certain way so why impose yourself upon them? It may seem simplistic, but Zhuangzi really does think that “Enjoying the Way, people do nothing and their lives are fulfilled.”
But there is an issue there, this “doing nothing” or what was earlier referred to as “the quiet calm of actionless action”. “Actionless action” — sometimes translated by others as “non-action” — is a very specific and important term in the original Chinese. Transliterated into English this is wu-wei and it is a basic principle of Daoism since it is used to describe how the Dao is imagined to go about its business, that is, if we imagined it had any business to be about – which it doesn’t! [And that’s the point!] Wu-wei is not lethargic disinterest or lazily doing nothing. It is not a disconnected “Who cares!” or an abdication of responsibility [which would be a choice not to care]. Instead, I see this as a way to end authority for the end of authority is in ending the desire to influence the world. The Daoism Zhuangzi holds to might be the reason he promotes wu-wei here – seeing it as the Dao’s mode of operation as he does – but in talking about such “actionless action” — an activity which is neither knowing nor intentional nor purposeful – he actually opens a path to the end of authority, the anarchist’s wish. This is achieved itself not by wishing but by letting go of wishes – for then all that happens will be done according to wu-wei anyway.
The Zhuangzi, unlike the Daodejing, does not talk much about rulers and ruling; it just doesn’t seem to have much interest in such things and can seemingly get along fine without them. But it does have this which is relevant to the life of actionless action:
“Let Your heart journey in simplicity.
Be one with that which is beyond definition.
Let things be what they are.
Have no personal views.
This is how everything under heaven is ruled.”
If you are thinking “This is no kind of rule at all; this is ruling by not ruling” then I think you are exactly right. And that is an anarchism. Its almost certainly not anarchism as you might have become aware of it before — but so what? It is the anarchism of simple living, few desires, leaving things be and not wanting to impose yourself [or any particular order] on the world. This is, in fact, the practical heart of Zhuangzi’s anarchism; it is a way of life that proceeds like this. And so:
“Do not hanker for fame.
Do not make plans.
Do not try to do things.
Do not try to master knowledge.
Hold what is but do not hold it to be anything.
Work with all that comes from Heaven, but do not seek to hold it.
Just be empty.”
“Heaven” here is simply that which is beyond you and we need be no more theological about it than that. But here again we see simplicity, humility, lack of intention, a refusal to control by means of knowledge, a recognition of reality as it is but a refusal to set it up as something to bow down to [or, more importantly, make others bow down to], an “easy come, easy go” attitude to life which is about not clinging to things. Just be empty – because when you are empty in this way there will be absolutely no basis for authority, force or coercion. Thus:
“The perfect human’s heart is like a mirror.
It does not search after things.
It does not look for things.
It does not seek knowledge, just responds.
As a result, such a one can handle everything and is not harmed by anything.”
There is that wanderer’s flexibility again. It is undoubtedly an individualist approach to life that is, thus, inculcated here but, try as the socialist or the Communalist might, they will never succeed in denying individuality to each one of us. And we would object if they tried to — for we just are individuals. But the Zhuangzi certainly does not just reduce things down to individualism either for its context, lest we forget, is the Dao – and the Dao is everything, the perfect holism, the ultimate social unity. This holism is seen in my next quotation:
“In a time of perfect virtue, people live side by side with the birds and beasts,
sharing the world in common with all life. No one knows of distinctions such as
nobility or peasantry! Totally without wisdom but with a virtue that does not
disappear, totally without desire, they are then genuinely simple. If people are truly
simple then they can follow their authentic nature.”
This quotation shows how the Dao’s holism removes distinctions [like nobility and peasantry] which human beings, in their fictional thinking and deliberate artificiality, have set up. There are no naturally occurring nobles and peasants, no natural governments or naturally occurring authorities. In the nature of things, without desire according to the Way, things just share the world in common with all other things. According to Zhuangzi, “Heaven and Earth take actionless action and nothing remains undone.” We do not need authority or coercion for things to go on their way. Things go on their way, anyway! The whole level of human thought which is about deliberation or intention, plans and schemes, is removed by Zhuangzi, seen as interference with, and a danger to, the natural balance that all things find without even trying to find it. This is a huge challenge to accept for human beings who have been taught all their lives to be slaves to desires, to want and be acquisitive, to capture and possess. You do have a cop in your head – and Zhuangzi is about getting rid of that cop too! In this respect, the Zhuangzi wants to completely remake the human beings many of us have become in order to remake human polity whole and entire. For while we continually seek to make the world according to our ways of thinking – be that capitalist or anarchist – we will always be trying to swim upstream, going against the flow, not in phase with the way of nature but at odds with it. In this respect – and as I tried to reflect in Being Human – human beings do not need to make anarchy for it is already there. What we do need to do is stop trying to control the world so that the anarchy that already exists, simple and benevolent, peaceful and harmonious, can come through as a natural context to all life.
What view, then, does Zhuangzi take on human activity? The following text is a good example:
“Create weights and measures to judge by and people will steal by weights and
measures; create balances and weights and people will steal by balances and
weights: create contracts and legal agreements to inspire trust and people will steal
by contracts and legal agreements; create benevolence and righteousness to ensure
honesty and even in this benevolence and righteousness will teach them to steal.”
What is inculcated here is something that David Graeber also refers to in his Fragments of An Anarchist Anthropology — as well as in those places where he refers to French sociologist Marcel Mauss’s study of gifting in “archaic societies”. This, put simply, is the refusal to calculate and so the refusal to become people concerned with what they have or haven’t got, what they possess, control or amount to. For, of course, the best way to be equal one with another is to refuse to count any differences between you, to refuse to assign one thing to one person and some other things to another. It is the assertion of both Mauss and Graeber that there have been human societies which actually did this and it is the observation of Zhuangzi that it would be better if we all did. For then, of course, there would be no property and no wealth as we, that is, as capitalists, understand it. This is then one more attack by Zhuangzi on the cop in our heads and this cop is the capitalist cop which wants us all to become human calculators worrying about who has what. But Zhuangzi does not want us to worry about that. He does not want us to even worry about counting, let alone to count at all. He wants us to become people who refuse to calculate and so make a world of differences based on capital impossible.
This then leads to the logic of this text:
“The sage is a means of control so the world should not see him clearly. Thus, if
sages and wisdom are abandoned, great robbers would cease; destroy the jade and
shatter the pearls, then petty thieves will not appear; burn the accounts and rip up the
contracts, and people will return to simplicity; break up the weights and measures
and the people will no longer argue; obliterate the laws of the world the sages have
made, then the people can begin to be reasoned with.”
Therefore, “If the nature of everything under Heaven is not distorted, if the world’s Virtue is not despoiled, then what need is there to govern the world?” What need is there to govern the world indeed? Zhuangzi believes that there is indeed no need to govern the world if only we will leave it alone to its own natural harmony, refuse to calculate in regard to ourselves and our interacting with it, and live simple lives in humble satisfaction. He further believes that:
“The disruption of the ways of Heaven distresses the true being of things, halting
the fulfilment of Heaven’s Mysteries. This causes the animals to disperse, the birds
to sing throughout the night, misfortune to hit the crops and the woods, and disaster
to blight the very insects themselves. Alas, all this is caused by the people’s error of
thinking they know how to rule!”
Don’t interfere, human beings. You will only make things worse! “The one who wants possessions wants to be seen as privileged, the one who has nothing is the real companion of Heaven and Earth.” It is lack of acquisitiveness which is seen by Zhuangzi to be of benefit to all life on earth, lack of acquisitiveness and lack of intention which is also the refusal to calculate, calculation being demonstrative of the authority, coercion, manipulation and ultimately exploitation which it will inevitably motivate. For Zhuangzi the ideal social situation is directly linked to the cop in our head and particularly with its deactivation, with our making our thinking safe for the world. It cannot be overstated how much Zhuangzi, in the book that takes his name, thinks that our thinking, and how we think, is of paramount importance here for as the thinking so the thinker. It is a point I think many an anarchist doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to. Zhuangzi points up the need of mental hygiene as at the top of the anarchist’s list. The following text describes how a person of reformed thinking, such as Zhuangzi recommends, acts accordingly:
“Such a person will leave the gold in the mountains and the pearls to lie in the
deep. They do not view money and goods as genuine profit, nor are they attracted by
fame and fortune, nor by enjoyment of long life, nor sadness at an early death; they
do not value wealth as a blessing, nor are they ashamed by poverty. They will not lust
for the wealth of a generation to have as their own; they have no wish to rule the whole world as their private domain. Their honour is clarity of understanding that all
life is part of one treasury and that death and birth are united.”
Change your mind and change your life – and, potentially, the lives of everyone else too. What we are about here then is, essentially, a “transvaluation of all values”, something readers of Nietzsche, and of Emma Goldman – who was also a reader of, and a lecturer on, Nietzsche – also talked about. I myself, in the seventh chapter of my book Being Human, gave a list of nine “anarchist values” [it should have been ten. I omitted “decentralisation” when I should have included it but I remedied this in the later A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection which included 13 anarchist values] for anarchists to steer their lives by. For the issue is that “Someone who believes wealth is the most important thing cannot give up their income; someone who seeks pre-eminence cannot give up the hunt for fame; those who love power cannot hand it over to others.” That being so, we must endeavour not to be these sorts of people; we must stop it at source and that source is the thinking we have ourselves come to be possessed by. We must reconfigure our own selves and so the selves of others too. “The one who manifests simplicity and purity can genuinely be called the true human being.” But in every sphere Zhuangzi sees human beings taking what was natural and turning it, under the influence of artificial and self-serving thinking, into something of partisan use which destroys the whole and, eventually, of course, us too. “The ancient ones”, however:
“wishing to keep themselves alive, did not use elaborate style to express their knowledge. They did not disturb everything in the whole world through their knowledge, nor did they use knowledge to try and disrupt Virtue. Alone and hermit-like, they stayed where they were and looked to restore their innate nature. What more could
they do than this? The Way has no place for pettiness, and nor has Virtue. Pettiness is dangerous to Virtue; dangerous actions are dangerous to the Way. It is said, rectify
yourself and be done. Happiness which is complete is called the Timeliness of Purpose.”
I make no bones about the fact that I see what Zhuangzi is saying here as a kind of virtue. It is not, of course, in the context of wu-wei, about the cultivation of a virtue in the Zhuangzi – that would be to have an intention. “It is said, people who lose themselves in their desire for things also lose their innate nature by being vulgar. They are known as people who turn things upside down.” Instead, “Don’t cling to your own ideas, for this is contrary to the greatness of the Way.” Yet we are talking about virtue here [remember, Daodejing can be translated as “The Book of the Way and its Virtue”] and this accords with at least anarchism as I have described it for, in Being Human, I spoke of anarchism as a matter of “anarchist virtues” too. Both Daoism and anarchism are, as I see them, matters of ethics and virtue [whether deliberately cultivated or not]. Both, ultimately, seek to live in peace and harmony [whether natural or created] with those around them. I take this similarity to indicate the possibility of fruitful cross-fertilization between these strands of thought in both directions. Thus, we arrive at the non-calculating human being common to both:
“Listen! Have you not heard how the perfect human being behaves? They forget
their insides and they disregard their eyes and ears. With no defined goal, they
meander through the rubbish. What they are good at is doing nothing. Indeed, it is
called being but not expecting any reward, bringing up but not controlling.”
This non-calculating is a better way to behave for human beings because:
“When the ties between people are based on profit, then, when troubles come, people part easily. When people are brought together by Heaven, then, when troubles come, they hold together.”
Thus, the figure of Zhuangzi makes an appearance himself in his own book:
“Zhuangzi, dressed in a worn patched gown made of course cloth and with shoes held together with string, went to visit the king. The king said, ‘Why are you in such a state?’ Zhuangzi replied, ‘This is poverty but not distress, if a scholar has the Way and the Virtue but is unable to use them, that is distress. If their clothes are worn and shoes held together with string, that is poverty but not distress.’”
Here, Zhuangzi’s values have been changed. He does not think like the king nor like someone who could ever be [or want to be] a king. This anarchism of values, of a change of mind and a casting out of the socially enforced cop in your head, is eulogised in the following text:
“The value of your self lies within and it is not affected by what happens externally. The constant transformation of all forms of life is like a beginning without end. What is there in this to disturb your heart? Those who comprehend the Way are free from all this.”
But what are they free from? Possession, acquisition, property. Control, authority, coercion. Calculation, difference, division. This virtue-centred living eventually becomes almost a spirituality in the recitation of Zhuangzi at this point but I believe it is worth repeating in order for anarchists to hear for it is no less of political import:
“Perfect behaviour does not discriminate amongst people;
Perfect righteousness takes no account of things;
Perfect knowledge makes no plans;
Perfect benevolence exhibits no emotion;
Perfect faith makes no oath of sincerity.
Suppress the whims of the will and untie mistakes of the heart.
Expunge the knots of Virtue, unblock the flow of the Way.
Honours and wealth,
distinctions and authority,
fame and gain,
these six are formed by the illusions of the will.
Looks and style,
beauty and reason,
thrill of life and memories,
these six are the faults of the heart.
Hatred and desire,
joy and anger,
sadness and happiness,
these six are the knots of Virtue.
Rejection and acceptance,
giving and taking,
knowledge and ability,
these six are the impediments to the free flow of the Way.
When these four sets of six no longer trouble the breast,
then you will be centred.
Being centred, you will be calm.
Being calm, you will be enlightened.
Being enlightened, you will be empty.
Being empty, you will be in actionless action,
but with actionless action nothing remains undone.”
I appreciate that setting things out this way may not be to everybody’s taste. However, I do not think we should allow matters of taste alone to decide our thinking [although, I admit, they commonly do]. But all this could also be said more simply and Zhuangzi can do that too. For example, “Value life. If you value life then you will put profit into perspective.” Once more we are given a value. Once more living life becomes a matter of values. But, more than that, it becomes a matter of life and not profit.
This essay has been necessarily brief and you can be sure both that there is more to say about the Zhuangzi and about its relation [and Daoism’s relation] to anarchism. But, for now, I must leave that to you, my reader. I wish you well in your wandering, wherever it takes you.