Of Futility in Book II of the Zhuangzi

Where are you headed? Quo vadis?

In book II of the Zhuangzi the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi writes about the futile things that we do in human life without considering where we are going, without remembering why we are doing all we are doing, without thinking about why we are thinking about what we are thinking about. His words may give us pause.


[Edited after Prof. Nylan’s comments] based on Watson tr., Zhuangzi: Basic Writings

Zhuangzi questions the pattern of human life that people find “normal”, but in his discussion of absurdities and unknowns he actually points the message primarily against the fruitlessly endless deliberations of the Confucians and the Mohists. Implicitly he chides the adherents of the numerous philosophies for seeking “little understanding [that is] cramped and busy”, with “little words [that] are shrill and quarrelsome” (II, p. 32). Through this he breaks free of the fiercely debated into what he considers essential: no longer is it about music or no music, rites-based society or law-based society, or innately decent human nature or innately immoral human nature, but about the mysterious unity of the Way itself.

An Image of Restless, Muddled Striving

Zhuangzi paints an unflattering picture of human striving in the imagery he uses, starting with the quotation in the previous paragraph. He goes on to depict the way that humans conduct their lives, whether for gain, for pleasure or for knowledge: “Once a man receives this fixed bodily form, he holds onto it, waiting for the end. Sometimes clashing with things, sometimes bending before them, he runs his course like a galloping steed, and nothing can stop him” (II.3, p. 33). This is his reaction to it:

Is he not pathetic? Sweating and labouring to the end of his days and never seeing his accomplishment, utterly exhausting himself and never knowing where to look for rest – can you help pitying him? I’m not dead yet! he says, but what good is that? His body decays, his mind follows it – can you deny that this is a great sorrow? Man’s life has always been a muddle like this. How could I be the only muddled one, and other men not muddled? (pp. 33–34)

All that striving never reaches its end, and it never finds rest. Eventually the person passes away. What good is it to have striven and nothing to have come of it?, Zhuangzi asks the adherents of the Hundred Schools of Thought, and compares this picture with words and the Way: “When the Way relies on little accomplishments and words rely on vain show, then we have the rights and wrongs of the Confucians and the Mohists” (II.4, p. 34). He later also renders their never-ending arguments as “three in the morning” (II.6, p. 36). The pursuit of the knowledge that these schools claim, then, is part of the futile race likened to a vain wind.

Against Hairsplitting Intellectualism

Zhuangzi also uses uncertainty and confusingly mysterious logic against the intellectualism prevalent in the deliberations of the day. What is reality? To this question he answers with recourse into infinity and absurdity:

We have already become one, so how can I say anything? I have just said that we are one, so how can I not be saying anything? The one and what I said about it make two, and two and the original one make three. If we go on this way, then even the cleverest mathematician can’t tell where we’ll end, much less an ordinary man. (p. 39)

Why is the one used more than once? It is used with what Zhuangzi has said to make two, and then it is immediately reused to make three, ad infinitum. Zhuangzi is contending with the numbers piling up from a phenomenon and a statement about that phenomenon being two different thing. Perhaps, though, he is also demonstrating how absurd he thinks the debates are, for he says, “If by moving from nonbeing to being we get to three, how far will we get if we move from being to being? Better not to move, but to let things be!” (p. 39). But even before he talks about one, two and three, he has already parodied the absurdity of people’s philosophizing with a deliberately confusing statement full of analysis and ontology (p. 38), then said of this statement, which has explicitly claimed to be no different from those of the other people: “Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something” (p. 38). Along similar lines he describes his dream of being a butterfly and says upon “waking up” he cannot tell whether he is Zhuang Zhou who dreamt that he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming he is Zhuang Zhou (p. 44).

Find Rest in the Way

Forget these discriminations, Zhuangzi says (p. 39). Some things are meant to be unknown, and mystery is not an evil: “Therefore understanding that rests in what it does not understand is the finest” (p. 40). The text further encourages the reader to forsake the endless arguments and entrust himself to the Way, leaping in and making it home (p. 44): “The constant is the useful; the useful is the passable; the passable is the successful; and with success, all is accomplished. [The man of far-reaching vision] relies on this alone, relies upon it and does not know he is doing so. This is called the Way” (p. 36).

Zhuangzi invites people to depart from what he views as pointless and pathetic, into not merely talking and talking about the Way but entering the Way itself, not by labour of blood, sweat and tears but simply by entrusting oneself to the Way letting oneself be held afloat by the Way itself upon leaping into it. Of course he knows that as humans we shall ever be talking, but he hopes that as we do so we understand that what we say is often full of mistaken presumptions and factoids. Having poked holes into the striving and philosophizing and debating of people like the Confucians and the Mohists, Zhuangzi thus calls people to a better Way, that is, the Way itself. In this way he bypasses the fixations of the other schools of thought and proceeds directly to resting in the Way while everyone else just deliberates and wrangles about it ad nauseam.


Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have known me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

So, too, do we recognize that many things in this life are an idle chasing after the wind (Ecc. 1.16–17), and that revelation gives us a clearer picture than anything that Descartes cooks up. Jesus is the Way to whom we can entrust ourselves, in whom we can find rest: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11.28–29).

So while we struggle with ideas about the Way we should remember that the Way is not just an abstract ideal but a living person who has come and intersected with space and time in personal incarnation. The Word is not propositional only but also experiential, knowable not by study alone but crucially by steps of faith. The Way can be known: His arm is mighty to save, and He “has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1.2).

We can do as the Psalmist says:

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
(Ps. 46.8–11)

This is not to say that we should become mindless anti-intellectuals. It is enough to know that our own wisdom is nothing to God’s wisdom, that indeed because apart from Him there is no true wisdom we must seek wisdom from the Source of all wisdom, that our deliberations must be in light of God’s heart and God’s character.

There is no life in deliberation alone. There must be action tied closely to our remembrance of the purpose of all that we do on this earth.

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