The Great Creed of Inaction: The Use of Uselessness

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Oscar Wilde wrote the following incredibly powerful words in an essay titled ‘A Chinese Sage’ published in Speaker on 8 February 1890:

“There is also this to be remembered — that the prizes of the world degrade a man as much as the world’s punishments. The age is rotten with its worship of success. As for education, true wisdom can neither be learnt nor taught. It is a spiritual state, to which he who lives in harmony with nature attains. Knowledge is shallow if we compare it with the extent of the unknown, and only the unknowable is of value. Society produces rogues, and education makes one rogue cleverer than another. That is the only result of School Boards. Besides, of what philosophic importance can education be, when it simply serves to make each man differ from his neighbour? We arrive ultimately at a chaos of opinions, doubt everything, and fall into the vulgar habit of arguing; and it is only the intellectually lost who ever argue.”

This essay was a review, as well as an eloquent encapsulation, of the text by the great Chinese philosopher who lived around 3rd or 4th century BCE named Zhuang Zhou, or Zhuangzi. When I encountered this text, I was fascinated by the beauty and elegance of its ideas, but the idea I found most fascinating in the text is ‘the use of uselessness’ in that how conventional notions of utility are a negation of the intrinsic value of the world and there is something deeply valuable about uselessness itself, an idea that would appear radically counterintuitive in the excessively ambitious character of the modern world; which is why it does not come as a surprise that Wilde describes Zhuangzi’s text as “the most caustic criticism of modern life.” Young adults surrounded by society’s implicit expectations and family’s relentless exhortations “So, what are you accomplishing next?” would find Zhuangzi’s cheerful acceptance of passivity and resignation to be like much-needed and extremely liberating fresh air.

 

‘In the World of Men’ narrates the story of an old, gnarled tree which was deemed useless because its chopped wood would serve no purpose at all and so it was left alone by the carpenter. Later, the tree appeared in his dream to unravel that “a long time to be of no use … is of great use to me.” Profitable trees are chopped and maimed to derive benefits out of them, and “their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them.” The carpenter suggests that the old tree’s uselessness is its protective asset and that it must not be deemed lowly because of it: “it protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you’ll be way off.” For instance, by modern standards of material success, we may deem somebody as unsuccessful while it may be that they are in a state of spiritual contentment. Conversely, many humans find themselves miserable, deeply dissatisfied, and compromise their true potentialities by finding themselves stuck in an endless rat race. The carpenter implied that there is a value in that tree merely resting which can be taken to mean that repose entails a state of harmony with nature. So, a perfect man for Zhuangzi is “passive and accepts the laws of life” in Wilde’s words. In the same vein, uselessness also guarantees a life free of pain and grief: ‘Free and Easy Wandering’ depicts a yak that only “knows how to be big, though it doesn’t know how to catch rats. Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you… relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life and nothing can harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?”

I found Wilde’s review article to be extremely powerful as well as helpful in viewing Zhuangzi’s philosophy in contradistinction to modern human condition, for the modern “age is rotten with its worship of success” while Zhuangzi “has nothing to do with modern sympathy with failures.” He is “preaching the great creed of inaction” and is marked by an evident “contempt for utilitarian systems.” However, since Zhuangzi was writing around 4th century BCE, no one can accuse him of critiquing modernity, but we can conjecture that he was expressing his critique of the prevalent ideas of his age he found himself amidst. For instance, Confucian thought placed an overwhelming emphasis on structures and hierarchies and the need for humans to develop pro-active efforts directed towards changing self, communities, and governments. Zhuangzi’s philosophy opposes all these prescriptions for he seems to not only not endorse the role of governments, but he also seeks to keep the world original and simple, where humans are marked by attitudes of letting go, effortlessness, and equanimity.

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One thought on “The Great Creed of Inaction: The Use of Uselessness

  1. Awesome post! These kinds of contradicting ideas and ways of looking at the worldvare fascinating. One thing I ask myself a lot is if it’s possible to find a happy medium between our ambitious culture and the more relaxed way of life depicted in Taoism and the text you shared.

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