Chuang Tzu is, to modify the cliché about Spinoza , a ‘Heaven-intoxicated man’. For him, it is not a matter of obeying Heaven; the sage ‘constantly goes by the spontaneous and does not add anything to the process of life’, he ‘lives the life generated by Heaven’. At first sight one might suppose that like the Yangists he wants us to give full scope to the spontaneous inclinations of man’s nature. But we noticed in the last section that the implicit imperative of Taoism , ‘Mirror clearly’, introduces a rift within human spontaneity, rejecting the passions which blur awareness , exalting the impulses which stir in an impersonal calm which mirrors the situation with utmost clarity. The word ‘nature’ does not appear at all in the Inner chapters, although it is common elsewhere in the book. Chuang Tzu is interested not in the nature which a man inherits at birth but in the Power which he develops by intensive training. We do not possess from birth that selfless mirror-like objectivity which ensures that every prompting is the ‘impulse from Heaven’. To quote a writer in the Outer chapters who does speak of nature, ‘By the training of the nature we recover the Power’.
When thinking and putting our thoughts into words we are behaving as men; when attending and responding, in ways which we can never fully express in language or justify by reasons, our behaviour belongs with the birth, growth, decay and death of the body among the spontaneous processes generated by Heaven. We are then doing, without knowing how we do it, what Heaven destines for us. Paradoxically, to enact the destined is, since our egoism is always tempting us to think out a better way, ‘the most difficult thing of all’. In one dialogue with Hui Shih, Chuang Tzu declares that the sage ‘has the shape of a man, is without what is essentially man’, and explains that ‘Judging “That’s it” and “That’s not” is what I mean by “what is essentially man” ’. In another dialogue Yen Hui, disciple of Confucius , discovers that he has never yet been the agent of his own actions, and when he does become the agent, ‘there has never yet begun to be a Hui’.
Shall I say then that I act best when as a man I dissolve and allow Heaven to act through me? Here we find a recurrent tension in Chuang Tzu’s thinking. He does not in practice expect to live in a permanent ecstasy moving like a sleepwalker guided by Heaven; he recognises that one must be sometimes ‘of Heaven’s party’, sometimes ‘of man’s party’, and declares that ‘someone in whom neither Heaven nor man is victor over the other, this is what is meant by the True Man’. The clearest formulation of a compromise stands at the head of ‘The teacher who is the ultimate ancestor’ : ‘Whoever knows what is Heaven’s doing, lives the life generated by Heaven. Whoever knows what is man’s doing, uses what his wits know about to nurture what his wits do not know about.’ Man does not know how he is born, engenders, dies , or how he acts with spontaneous assurance, which are the workings of Heaven through him; he does know how to nourish the autonomous processes of his body with food and his spontaneous aptitude by training (and by Chuang Tzu’s own philosophising).
But immediately after this formulation Chuang Tzu recognises that he cannot afford a dichotomy of ‘Heaven’ and ‘man’. It is his deepest certainty that all alternatives are false alternatives. He proceeds to ask ‘How do I know that the doer I call “Heaven” is not the man? How do I know that the doer I call the “man” is not Heaven?’ As usual he throws off his profound question without developing it, but we may perhaps risk developing it for him. Granted that there are surrenders to spontaneity in which one seems to be driven by forces from beyond, is not the carpenter or swimmer in full command of his unreasoning skill? Whether the agent is Heaven or the man himself seems to be a matter of degree. The same applies to the specifically human activities, analysing alternatives and conforming to rules. Is it not in some sense natural for man to exercise the gift of reason, an ingratitude to Heaven to refuse it? The dichotomy is elsewhere explicitly rejected: ‘For the sage there has never begun to be Heaven, never begun to be man.’ But it is never quite resolved, and there are some surprising twists in the discussion. One fragment actually declares that Heaven is agent only in the animal and that the perfect man ‘hates Heaven’.
That there are people in whom the habits of thinking in alternatives and living by rules are unbreakable is a point fully understood by Chuang Tzu. He sees these habits as fetters or mutilations imposed by Heaven. But what is it that Heaven is punishing? It seems that Heaven has a kind of justice different from man’s, and requites not what we deliberately do but what we are. ‘The maker of things, when he recompenses a man, recompenses not the man but what is from Heaven in the man.’ Chuang Tzu’s exemplar of the noble man crippled by Heaven is none other than Confucius. His attitude to China’s greatest teacher is remarkable, and easily misunderstood if one treats the whole book as a unity. The bitter mockery of Confucius in the Yangist chapters ‘Robber Chih’ and ‘The old fisherman’, and the elaborate condescension with which Old Tan instructs him in a cycle of stories in the Outer chapters, are quite foreign to Chuang Tzu, who never allows any of his characters to treat the Master disrespectfully to his face . Among the landmarks in his intellectual scenery Confucius stands as the great moralist, Hui Shih as the great rationalist, and he has respect for both. He sees a funny side to them of course, but Chuang Tzu was a man who could joke about death on his own deathbed.
Very curiously, while the Hui Shih of the Inner chapters and elsewhere in the book talks like the logician that he is, Confucius is a moralist only in his behaviour; his thoughts are Chuang Tzu’s own. But he understands them only in the abstract, and calmly accepts that he himself is irrevocably condemned to live by the conventions. As he tells a disciple, he is ‘one of those under sentence from Heaven’; and a pupil whose foot has been chopped recognises him as mutilated by Heaven as he himself has been crippled by human justice. A Western reader may well see Confucius as a tragic figure. But the tragic sense assumes that the conflict between fate and human hope cannot be resolved, while a Taoist sees it as a weakness even to wish that the inevitable could be otherwise. Confucius is credited with having the dignity to accept himself as he is. But why Chuang Tzu chooses to present Confucius as sympathising in theory with his own philosophy is a puzzling question. It was common enough for thinkers of competing schools to put their own opinions into the mouths of the same legendary ancient sages, but to do this to the fully historical and comparatively recent founder of a rival school, whose doctrines are publicly known, is quite a different matter. Nobody else does it, apart from later Taoists writing new stories about Confucius. Psychological speculation is hardly in order here, but it is almost as though Confucius were a father -figure whose blessing the rebellious son likes to imagine would have been granted in the end.
Although Chuang Tzu shares the general tendency of Confucians and Taoists to think of Heaven as an impersonal power rather than as an emperor issuing his decrees up in the sky, his attitude has a strong element of numinous awe, a sense of man’s littleness before an incomprehensible power which he likes to personify as ‘the maker of things’. This concept, and the related metaphor of man as metal moulded by a smith, hardly attracts a Westerner’s attention, since they are familiar in our own Christian background. But there is no Creator in Chinese religion or philosophy (Heaven continually ‘generates’ things, after the analogy of a father rather than a craftsman, he does not create things out of nothing), and Chuang Tzu himself is thinking of his maker as moulding and remoulding in an endless process of transformation. Later when the ‘maker of things’ appears in Chinese literature it is as a poetic conceit borrowed from Chuang Tzu, and inside the book it belongs exclusively to Chuang Tzu himself. He also uses the word Ti, here translated ‘God ’, a supreme ruler who belongs to the culture of the older Shang dynasty rather than to the Chou, which replaced him by Heaven. It is clear that Chuang Tzu does not in any simple sense believe in a personal God, but he does think of Heaven and the Way as transcending the distinction between personal and impersonal (which would be as unreal to him as other dichotomies), and of awe as though for a person as an appropriate attitude to the inscrutable forces wiser than ourselves, throughout the cosmos and in the depths of our own hearts, which he calls ‘daemonic’. One of his names for the highest kind of man is the ‘daemonic man’, and he thinks of man as lifted above himself by infusion of the daemonic from outside when the heart is cleared of all accretions of past knowledge.
Quite apart from the Taoist rejection of all dichotomies, within Chinese cosmology the distinction between personal and impersonal is not absolute but relative. A Western grappling with the concept of Heaven is likely to presuppose that it is either a person living up in the sky or an impersonal and physical Nature named by metaphor after the sky. But the Heaven which ordains everything beyond the scope of man’s powers is simply the sky itself. We have already noticed the concept of chi , ‘energy’, which has the place which ‘matter’ holds in our own cosmology, and is at the root of some of the profoundest differences of viewpoint between the ancient Chinese and ourselves. The universe is not constituted from inert matter, it is a pool of energetic fluid, the chi, out of which through their endless cycles things condense and into which they dissolve. At its purest, most transparent and active, it is the breath of the living man and the vitalising ‘quintessence’ which in physiological terms is his semen. Within the cosmos as a whole it of course ascends as the air we breathe, while the more massive and inert chi settles down below as the earth (as in man it coheres as the body). Within this cosmology the universe will be activated by the insubstantial free-moving air of Heaven, and the extent to which any thinker chooses to personify it will depend on how far he pushes the analogy between the cosmos and man.
The experience of achieving without knowing how, living from moment to moment without knowing why, trusting to Heaven and to one’s daemon , is crucial to the Taoist attitude. It is a surrender to the incomprehensible which could easily lead to the conviction of possessing magical powers. Chuang Tzu refers more than once to walking through fire and water or riding the wind. How literally does he wish us to take him? The references are general, in contexts where we can easily take them as metaphorical. It is remarkable that throughout the thirty-three chapters of Chuang Tzu we never find a story of an admired figure exercising or pursuing unusual powers, with the exception perhaps of Lieh-tzu , in whom it is derided as a weakness. The tale of Cook Ting’s prowess with the chopper exhibits the workings of the daemonic as vividly as any miracle-story, of which there is not a single example in all the narrative variety of Chuang Tzu.