Conference: Happiness East & West

On Dec. 10–11, 2009, the HKU Department of Philosophy hosted a quite successful international conference on comparative philosophy: “Happiness East & West.” Details are here.

The conference organizer was my colleague Timothy O’Leary. Much thanks to Timothy for planning the event and to the Louis Cha Fund, the HKU Faculty of Arts, and the HKU School of Humanities for their sponsorship.

My own contribution to the “Happiness” conference is called “Wandering the Way: A Eudaimonistic Approach to the Zhuangzi.”

Update (Jan 3 2010): A working draft of my paper is here. A précis follows.

Wandering the Way:

A Eudaimonistic Approach to the Zhuangzi

Chris Fraser


One common conception of happiness is that it lies in the experience of pleasure. Another is a eudaimonistic conception of happiness as a state of well-being or flourishing. As a rule, the Zhuāngzǐ 莊子 disvalues happiness in the sense of pleasure. Numerous passages in the anthology valorize a state of affective equanimity or harmony and treat emotions as unwanted disturbances, whether negative emotions such as sadness and grief or positive ones such as joy and happiness. Intriguingly, however, one Zhuāngzǐ passage (HY 21/24–38) depicts such equanimity as a component of an activity it calls “letting the heart wander in the beginning of things,” which it in turn characterizes as “ultimate happiness.” Arguably, then, the passage presents a conception of happiness in the second sense, as a state or activity akin in some way to eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia in Greek thought is a general label for the final end of life, an intrinsically good state or activity constitutive of the good life. Many Greek thinkers tie eudaimonia to moral virtue (arete), such that a unified understanding of what is morally right, integrated with the motivation to do it, is either sufficient for eudaimonia or an essential component of it. In these two respects, the Greek conception of eudaimonia is alien to the Zhuāngzǐ. The arguments in “Discourse on Evening Things Out” (齊物論) and “Autumn Waters” (秋水), among other important texts, suggest that Zhuangist writers would reject the idea that human life has any fixed purpose or end, and they would surely deny that morality plays a central role in the best sort of life. Still, throughout the Zhuāngzǐ we do find a concern with living well, typically expressed through normative descriptions of the ideal or good life. Numerous passages depict ideal human types, such as the sage (聖人), the “ultimate human” (至人), or the “genuine human” (真人); advocate preserving one’s “genuineness” (真); or portray and commend the exercise of 德 (power, virtuosity). In this respect, eudaimonistic ideals are clearly prominent in the Zhuāngzǐ. These ideals seem distinctive in emphasizing the manner in which one lives, rather than the content of one’s activities. Though the two issues are not entirely distinct, we might say that the Zhuāngzǐ is concerned primarily with how we do whatever we do, rather than what it is we do. The Zhuangist approach thus sidesteps thorny normative questions about the content of eudaimonia that beset familiar positions in the Western tradition, such as Aristotle’s. It also skirts normative issues that trouble Ruist and Mohist positions in the Chinese tradition.

This paper develops a Zhuangist account of the ideal or good life on which its defining feature is the exercise of “virtuosity” or “power” ( 德) in a general mode of activity called “wandering” or “roaming” (yóu 遊). “Wandering” comprises several key elements. One is cognitive understanding of the dào 道 (way), or the order and patterns of the cosmos. This includes recognition of the incomprehensible vastness and duration of the cosmos, the continual transformation of everything in it, the contingency and causal dependence of each thing on others, and accordingly the contingency and heterogeneity of value. Another element is affective equanimity concerning the contingent, transitory circumstances of one’s life. Such equanimity is partly the product of a third element, cognitive and affective identification with the whole of nature and the process of change. These three elements each contribute to a fourth, the ability to adapt fluidly and efficaciously to changing conditions, such that one can spontaneously find the most efficient path in selecting among and performing activities. Zhuangist writers apparently regard this ideal of cognitively aware, affectively calm, adaptive activity as a generalization or extension of features characteristic of the performance of skills. Such “wandering,” I propose, represents a distinctive view of agency on which the mode of immediate, responsive, efficacious action epitomized by skills is considered the highest exercise of human capacities.

Zhuāngzǐ passages suggest several potential justifications for this view of the good life. Purportedly, such “wandering” reflects a correct understanding of the natural world and the conditions of human life. It promotes psychophysical well-being while facilitating practical success. Moreover, it constitutes the fullest exercise of our most distinctively human features, namely our capacities for cognitive understanding, aesthetic and affective appreciation, and intelligent, responsive agency. The paper argues that these grounds tell against characterizing Zhuangist thought as a “virtue ethic,” despite its eudaimonistic aspects. For the Zhuāngzǐ, the good life—a life of dé (virtuosity)—is distinguished by the agent’s cognitive and affective grasp of the dào (way), or the order and patterns of the cosmos, and her efficacious, harmonious interaction with it. Thus dé, the Zhuangist analogue of virtue, is not normatively basic. It is understood through its relation to dào, a source of normativity conceptually independent of human flourishing. Indeed, we might say that for the Zhuāngzǐ, human dé just is the capacity for resiliently and skillfully living one’s life in harmony with the dào.