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Quotations Explained: Zhuangzi On Wisdom And Power

Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu in some translations) is considered one of the most important representatives of Taoism. He lived from 365 BC to 290 BC.

He is said to have been an exceptionally clever person. According to the traditions, "Even the greatest scholars of his time could not refute him. The words flowed and bubbled out of him and hit the nail on the head".

One of his most famous quotes, which is a prime example of Daoist philosophy, is as follows:

"The wise man knows that it is better to sit on the banks of a remote mountain stream than to be ruler of the whole world."


A fitting reminder for us humans, especially in this day and age.

It's probably not news to you that modern society has conditioned us to strive for things and influence - while that's not an exclusive feature of modern times, the extent of that fixation definitely is.

The immense increase in mental illnesses that can be observed shows just how damaging this striving is. Burnout and the like send their regards.

Pin it and never forget it 🙂

The pursuit of excellence is not the problem here. Almost every philosophical school calls for pursuing activities with the greatest possible dedication. This is often associated with achieving flow - the state in which you seem to be completely absorbed in something and forget everything around you.

If you are interested in the topic of flow, you should this Read article.

But what is the problem? Well, the problem is the motivation. Instead of wanting to do something out of an intrinsic drive (e.g. just enjoying something), you do it out of extrinsic motivation:
Desire for recognition, money, etc.

But Chuang Tzu was talking very specifically about the rulers of the world in this quote. And why?
I assume that he took this extreme position because it represents the superlative of power and probably many have the desire to rule the world.

In my understanding, however, not only the hunger for power and control are common motives for this, but also the idea of being free and being able to do what one wants.

But especially the latter is an illusion. If you observe the great and powerful people of our time, it only looks at first glance as if they can do whatever they want. In fact, however, they have to make an enormous effort to maintain their position. And usually there is always someone who is after their position.

Ordinary people don't have that kind of bondage. I'm not saying that we ordinary people don't have our own problems, but for them it's usually easier and more realistic to take the freedom to sit by a beautiful mountain river and just enjoy being there.

If you are interested in Daoism, here are the 5 best books about Daoism for beginners.

This mindset of Zhuangzi is not limited to this quote, it can be found in several other places and also in his biography. For example, he refused the offer of an emperor to come to his court and become a high minister there. Even the gifts brought by the messenger did not make the philosopher agree. He preferred to wander peacefully and roll around in a disgusting stinking puddle of mud than to be put in his place by the customs of the court.

Luke and I agree that there is actually something incredibly liberating and peaceful about not striving for power and a lot of influence.

How do you see it? Is it wise to stay away from power?

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