How can the Daoist, Zhuangzi, be understood in relation to what is known by historians of ideas as the Axial Age – or, as I think it is more accurately put, the Axial shifts that can be observed as part of civilizational development? The notion was formulated by Karl Jaspers. He discussed how many cultures have come to recognise key figures, from Socrates to the Buddha, as constellating in their lives historic changes in the experience of being human, and articulating in their teachings the philosophies of life that might support new ways of human flourishing.
Zhuangzi (alongside Laozi and others) are such figures too, emerging at a period in Chinese history in which human beings “dared to rely on themselves as individuals”, as Jaspers put it, and confront traditional ways of doing things. It meant that “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination” so that human beings might be more “open to new and boundless possibilities” and raise themselves above their limited selves.
In an essay entitled, The Axial Age Theory, part of a collection edited by Robert N Bellah and Hans Joas, The Axial Age and Its Consequences, Heiner Roetz defends the thesis, with modifications, as a useful way of thinking about the Chinese case, which experienced a breakdown of the old order in a deep crisis of the ancient society in the middle of the last millennium BCE.
“It shook the traditional worldview based on the religion of “Heaven” (tian) and the code of propriety (li) of the Zhou people. There is a very clear notion in Zhou texts that something unprecedented has commenced. They speak of a “chaotic” and “drowning” world that has lost its foundations and is falling apart. The original “undividedness” has been “cut into pieces” (Laozi 28), “the great primordial virtue is no longer one” (Zhuangzi 11).”
It was a situation in which, as Zhuangzi also wittily puts it (Zhuangzi 10): “He who steals a belt buckle is put to death, but he who steals a country becomes a feudal lord.”
Alongside the discontent and suffering, the existential experience of the crisis is captured in the well-known reflection of Chuang Chou (Zhuangzi) dreaming he was a butterfly, and then wondering if he was a butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang Chou (Zhuangzi 2). The story conveys the new imperative of individual responsibility in its posing of this perplexity: when Chuang Chou wakes up he is “solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou” and yet can’t be quite sure of what he knows. Similarly, the story insists that there “must be some distinction [between Chuang Chou and the butterfly].” And yet it is hard to articulate what this “Transformation of Things” might be.
In other words, replying on oneself requires a toleration of doubt. A sense of uncertainty is carried in the affirmation that “This is called the Transformation of Things”. What is this This? It asks for an embrace of transitions and transformations. In Zhuangzi 1, Nieh Ch’ueh asks Wang Ni about how it is possible to know “what is profitable or harmful” without knowing what is right in an absolute sense, as Wang Ni admits he does not: “The way I see it, the rules of benevolence and righteousness and the paths of right and wrong are all hopelessly snarled and jumbled”. It’s the Axial anxiety in a nutshell. But Wang Ni’s response also captures the Axial possibility.
He says that the “Perfect Man is godlike”: an individual who can both embrace the transition of things, as a human person, and stay in touch with an ineffable steadiness that transcends them, in knowing the Dao or Way. “Though the great swamps blaze, they cannot burn him; though the great rivers freeze, they cannot chill him; though swift lightening splits the hills and howling gales shake the sea, they cannot frighten him… Even life and death have no effect on him, much less the rules of profit and loss!” This is pointing to a detachment from the apparent and overwhelming immediacy of the present in favour of cultivating a familiarity with, what Chang Wu-tzu, later in Zhuangzi 1, calls a “leap into the boundless”. The Axial promise, as presented and conveyed by Zhuangzi, is that the boundless can become a home in the present, here and now.
It’s likened to a form of active receptivity. It comes with reflecting on the experiences and tasks that life offers, but in the manner found in the concept of wuwei. Another of the well-known stories from Zhuangzi (3) captures its stance, that concerning Cook Ting. Like Chuang Chou noticing but not trying to solve the problem of whether he is Chuang Chou or a butterfly, so Cook Ting does not try to solve the problem of how to carve an ox. He marvelously dismembers because he follows rather than insists on knowing. “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill,” he says. “Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.” It takes the inner cultivation of a kind of patient attention: “I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my effort on what I’m doing, work very slowly…” There’s a focus on inwardness and the implicit, which the whole of nature in its mundaneness and magnificence manifests when seen.
So the Daoist way develops in response to unsettling times. But it is also, at least as Zhuangzi describes it, disturbing and challenging. A third well-known passage from Zhuangzi (18) captures the sense of shock that his teaching provokes, the story about how he responded when his wife died. His friend Huishi goes to see him, and finds him pounding a pot and singing. Huishi is not entirely ignorant of the Way. He argues that it would be enough not to weep at her death, but that singing after her death is going too far. Zhuangzi explains that he did grieve at first but then saw that her death is part of the change that was also inherent in her birth. That sight of change, even in the extreme moment of his beloved wife’s death, led to a transcendent perception: “Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room.” His response is, therefore, a powerful and provocative sign of the practical depth of his immersion in the Way – again, a path that an Axial individual can now choose to pursue. That choice means not just living by the Way, which the myriad of things do anyway, if – in the case of humans – typically with resistance. But a path is now open so as to live by the Way with conscious participation and transcendent awareness.
I think that the significance of the Axial change can be discerned by reflecting on another clear theme in Zhuangzi, namely the profound sense of the good origin of all things in “ancient times”. Culture has tended to take humanity away from this goodness, which is why Zhuangzi would prefer to live in the mud than a palace (Zhuangzi 17): artifice and bureaucracy deadens. What the individual can chose to do, though, is cultivate de, or the virtue that resonates with the original goodness and the Way. It is a conscious rediscovery of the primordial undividedness.
It’s contrasted with the experience of de in peoples before the Axial shift when he describes the “True Man of ancient times” (though Zhuangzi doesn’t use Axial terms, of course.) They, then, acted and lived without awareness, or the features of intention and consciousness now developing. “The True Man of ancient times did not rebel against want, did not grow proud in plenty, and did not plan his affairs. A man like this could commit an error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make it show. A man like this could climb the high places and not be frightened, could enter the water and not get wet, could enter the fire and not get burned. His knowledge was able to climb all the way up to the Way like this.” (Zhuangzi 6). But, I’d add, the True Man back then didn’t know he had this knowledge. This would explain why Zhuangzi adds further details which suggest the people of ancient times experienced life very differently. It was as if they didn’t have minds “to repel the Way.” So: “The True Man of ancient times slept without dreaming and woke without care; he ate without savouring and his breath came from deep inside… The True Man of ancient times knew nothing about loving life, knew nothing about hating death.” (Zhuangzi 6).
I’d interpret this portrait of not being in conflict with the Way, “when man and Heaven do not defeat each other” (Zhuangzi 6), as what another advocate of Axial shift ideas, Owen Barfield, called “original participation”. It was a time, often associated now with what are called aboriginal cultures, in which there was no distinction between the inner and outer worlds because self-consciousness did not exist; between what is “me” and “not me” because there was no differentiated sense of autonomy; between the mortal and immortal or creatures and human beings: the was no solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou.
To use another anachronistic term, it was a time without ego-consciousness – hence there could be errors and no regrets, success without show and, so to speak, water could be entered without getting wet, fire without getting burned. Barfield writes in an essay, The Rediscovery of Meaning: “Early man did not observe nature in our detached way. He participated mentally and physically in her inner and outer processes. The evolution of man has signified not alone the steady expansion of consciousness (man getting to know more and more about more and more); there has been a parallel process of contraction – which was also a process of awakening – a gradual focusing or pinpointing down from an earlier kind of knowledge, which could also be called participation. It was at once more universal and less clear.”
In other words, subjectivity and self-conscious awareness has emerged. What is known is known as known. But a lot of knowledge is lost in the process as a byproduct of people daring to rely on themselves as individuals, challenging hitherto unconsciously accepted customs and conventions. Zhuangzi offers a response to the challenge to both be a self-aware individual and participate again in the Way – that is, to be once more universal but also more, not less, clear. The Daoist sage in contemporary times might share what Barfield calls “final participation”.
The manner in which Zhuangzi differentiates himself from Confucian ideas illuminates what he seeks to avoid in the realisation of his final participation, namely avoiding a slide into a new kind of unconsciousness. You know it because it leads to a blind focus on “external things” and ritual (Zhuangzi 26). Though many follow it in his time, it’s an entirely inappropriate response to the challenges of the age. “You can’t bear to watch the sufferings of [this] age, and so you go and make trouble for ten thousand ages to come! Are you just naturally a boor? Or don’t you have the sense to understand the situation? You take pride in practicing charity and making people happy – the shame of it will follow you all your days! These are the actions, the ‘progress’ of mediocre men… But what good are these actions of yours? They end in nothing but a boast!”
Zhuangzi is different. He can sing of the Way because he participates in it afresh, with a deliberate wuwei, and so becomes a prophet for the new Axial age: “It exists beyond the highest point, and yet you cannot call it lofty; it exists beneath the limit of the six directions, and yet you cannot call it deep. It was born before Heaven and earth, and yet you cannot say it has been there for long; it is earlier than the earliest time, and yet you cannot call it old.” (Zhuangzi 6). And therefore he can add: “Your life has a limit but knowledge has none.” (Zhuangzi 3).