Comparative and Continental Philosophy 3 (1):79-98 (2011)
One could define a “tragic” viewpoint in many ways, but its core is the claim that things in this world do not always work out for the best. Probably the greatest tragic figure in the Zhuangzi is the defiant praying mantis, who waves her arms to fend off the oncoming chariot. This praying mantis is surely a symbol of Confucius, who was said in the Lun Yu to know that what he does is impossible but to do it anyway. In the Zhuangzi, such characters are fools, not heroes. While the view of life in the Zhuangzi is certainly not an optimistic trust that virtue is rewarded, it is just as surely not a tragic text. It tends rather toward comedy or play. This paper will examine the Zhuangzi in relationship to the tragic. The underlying claim is that the Zhuangzi’s rejection of the optimism of an anthropocentric universe is more radical than tragedy and helps reveal how a tragic viewpoint remains under the sway of an anthropocentric European tradition. Ultimately, pessimism and optimism both assume the validity of human categories, but this is precisely what is attacked in the Zhuangzi. Ironically, it is precisely the unique flexibility of human beings that allows us not just to recognize the insignificance of our goals and values in the world (seeing our situation as tragic) but to accept and take up that insignificance (seeing it rather as comic). The paper concludes with some reflections on why Zhuangzi’s position is both attractive and disturbing
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