Zhuangzi and the Skull

ZhuangziZhuangzi is one of my favorite philosophers.  He’s generally considered to be the second most important Taoist, after Laozi.  He’s perhaps best known for the story of Zhuangzi and the butterfly, and how after dreaming of being a butterly, Zhuangzi wondered whether he were a man dreaming of being a butterfly, o a butterfly dreaming of being a man.  His work, also called Zhuangzi, is, according to Wikipedia,

composed of a large collection of anecdotes, allegories, parables, and fables, which are often humorous or irreverent in nature. Its main themes are of spontaneity in action and of freedom from the human world and its conventions. The fables and anecdotes in the text attempt to illustrate the falseness of human distinctions between good and bad, large and small, life and death, and human and nature. While other philosophers wrote of moral and personal duty, Zhuangzi promoted carefree wandering and becoming one with “the Way” (Dào 道) by following nature.

My favorite part of the Zhuangzi, is the below, from Chapter 18, Perfect Enjoyment.

When Zhuangzi went to Chu, he saw an empty skull, bleached indeed, but still retaining its shape. Tapping it with his horse-switch, he asked it, saying, ‘Did you, Sir, in your greed of life, fail in the lessons of reason, and come to this? Or did you do so, in the service of a perishing state, by the punishment of the axe? Or was it through your evil conduct, reflecting disgrace on your parents and on your wife and children? Or was it through your hard endurances of cold and hunger? Or was it that you had completed your term of life?’ Having given expression to these questions, he took up the skull, and made a pillow of it when he went to sleep.

At midnight the skull appeared to him in a dream, and said, ‘What you said to me was after the fashion of an orator. All your words were about the entanglements of men in their lifetime. There are none of those things after death. Would you like to hear me, Sir, tell you about death?’

‘I should,’ said Zhuangzi, and the skull resumed: ‘In death there is no ruler above nor minister below. There are none of the phenomena of the four seasons. Tranquil and at ease, our years are those of heaven and earth. No king in his court has greater enjoyment than we have.’

Zhuangzi did not believe it, and said, ‘If I could get the Ruler of our Destiny to restore your body to life with its bones and flesh and skin, and to give you back your father and mother, your wife and children, and all your village acquaintances, would you wish me to do so?’

The skull stared fixedly at him, knitted its brows, and said, ‘How should I cast away the enjoyment of my royal court, and undertake again the toils of life among mankind?

I find it interesting, because Zhuangzi assumes that life is preferable to death.  Understandable: most people do.  Yet the skull tells him about death and reveals the truth to him.  (In this way, it’s a bit similar to the story of Saint Odhran, which I also enjoy.)  The skull would much rather remain dead than return to life.  The story teaches us to challenge even our most basic and fundamental axioms and assumptions.  How do you know it’s bad to be dead?  No one has provably returned from that state to inform us of the conditions to be found there.  All we have are our baseless guesses as to what happens after death.  (Although I should note that all evidence so far points to “absolutely nothing.”)

This story is one reason why I keep a decorate skull on my desk.  I believe it’s important to question assumptions, rather than simply plodding on.  Axioms are important.  Hell, they’re absolutely necessary.  But they shouldn’t remain unexamined.  You should investigate you axioms, approach them critically and logically, and ensure that they stand the test of reason before continuing to employ them.  Even something as basic as “life is preferable” to death should be investigated.  For me, my own conclusion is that although whether death is preferable to life is unknown, it is certain that life is good, and uncertain whether death is good, bad, or nothingness.  Additionally, those alive prefer life, and their own wishes ought to be taken into account.  If they prefer death, they should have the right to choose it, which is why I support euthanasia and legalized suicide.

Any thoughts?

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3 Responses to Zhuangzi and the Skull

  1. charles says:

    I agree. Question everything. That does not mean continue forever to question the same things to the same degree… we do increase in knowledge and we have to make choices.

    Tangent… Where do these stories come from? Did the author intend for the reader to take the story of the skull speaking to the man literally, as a historical supernatural event, or is it understood to be a story only? Just wondering how ancient Chinese literature was viewed by ancient Chinese people.

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    • johnkutensky says:

      Unfortunately, I don’t know enough to be able to say, but judging from the rest of the Zhuangzi, with talking animals and gods drilling holes in others’ heads, I would assume that it was meant to be taken as metaphorically. Perhaps more like a fable from Aesop than something from Plutarch.

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  2. Pingback: Only One Confucian in Lu! | John Kutensky

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