Throughout history, great philosophers have explored the idea of happiness, two of these great philosophers are Chuang Tzu and Socrates. It can be argued that there are similarities and differences in their ideas. The following is a discussion on their ideas of happiness and wisdom as well as some commentary of how these ideas have been presented in my life.
Tzu and Socrates teach us to withhold judgment before we come to conclusions based on appearances. Socrates taught how eloquence may appear to be truth and may deceive us into doing wrong. For example, Socrates commented that his accuser’s words had so much power that they even made him forgetful of who he was, even though they held no truth (Plato 841). He repeatedly entreated the men of Athens not to make hasty judgments in favor of his accusers, “…far more dangerous are these, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better.” (842). The reality, of course, was that his accusers through their eloquence were making the worse appear better. Furthermore, those he showed up to be false, be they politicians, poets, or craftsmen, had the appearance of wisdom but were not because they claimed much more wisdom than they had and in in things that they had no knowledge (843). On the other hand, Tzu teaches us that all things change and are in constant change. To illustrate this point, Tzu uses the metaphor of seeds to show the true nature of things that would be missed by premature judgment. “Craw’s fee turn into maggots and their leaves turn into butterflies. All creatures come out of the mysterious workings and go back into them again.” (Tzu 887). From one of his stories, we learn a man has a tumor sprung on his elbow; his view is that death is part of the “process of change” that a person goes through during their life (886). Tzu also teaches us that death appears to be an evil, but is not by explaining his wife’s death as part of a cycle of change. Tzu says “Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery, a change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.” (Tzu 886). These cycles of change would have gone unperceived by someone who just saw things on a surface level. Through the above, we can see how the teachings of Tzu and Socrates help us see beyond the immediate and prove deeper to the truth underneath.
Tzu and Socrates, though they had different definitions of happiness, both exhorted their followers to follow wisdom and truth before they sought after the world and its riches; this they argued, will give one true happiness. Tzu defined true happiness as keeping alive and as inaction as the best way to gain this happiness (Tzu 911). “Each thing minds its business and all grow up out of inaction. So I say, Heaven and earth do nothing, and there is nothing that is not done.” If there is nothing that is not done, it does not mean not doing anything, but rather, doing out of this state of being, we can take this to be what he means by the happiness of being alive.The inaction Tzu is talking about does not imply not acting at all; as he explains, through the combination of the inaction of heaven and earth, all things arise; through these two “do nothing, yet there is nothing that is not done.” Furthermore, Tzu shows us how we miss the true happiness of being alive by our worldly attachments. We busy ourselves obsessively with trying to acquire worldly things and fool ourselves into believing and thinking the worldly things we pursue are making us happy, while in reality we are in danger of missing out on this deeper sense of happiness that does not come from outer achievement or material possessions (Tzu 885). On the other hand, Socrates’s definition of true happiness was seeking the greatest improvement of the soul; he tried to convince the citizens of Athens that the greatest improvement of the soul, and therefore true happiness, comes from wisdom and truth and chastised them for not giving much value or attention to these truths (Plato 848). One of the notable chastisements he gives out is to Meletus; Socrates proves Meletus’s inability to produce a witness to the accusations he has made against him shows he has spent no time seeking truth or wisdom. He further chastised the Athenians by saying that he believed that if a man says he has virtue and does not, he values the world more than the values virtue (Plato 848). To demonstrate, he shows his accusers and judges to be more concerned with the world than with actually serving justice or with virtue, as they chose to condemn him even after he has unequivocally proven his accusers to be wrong. (Plato 850). The above demonstrates the great value Tzu and Socrates placed on the pursuit of true happiness, which they saw above social position or worldly possessions.
Both Socrates and Tzu have similar ideas about death and advocate a mature response to death and to change. Both Tzu and Socrates question whether death is good or bad and come to the same conclusion about death: death is but a change. Both compare death to dreamless sleep that goes on indefinitely. Firstly, Socrate’s ideas of death are tied to morality; He sees morality as more important than fear of death. For instance, he says one ought to, because of one’s honor, stand at one’s post “in the hour of danger” even when facing death (Plato 847). To further illustrate, he tells the court trying him, of a time he was a Senator and faced death by standing up to injustice. His most certain penalty was imprisonment and death, but he notes “I cared not a straw for death and that my only fear was the fear of doing an unrighteousness or unholy thing.” (Plato 849). When finally the court convicts him to death, Socrates bravely faces death by saying death is nothing to fear, as it is either a dreamless sleep or a movement into a different world. (Plato 853). According to Socrates, If one has been a good person, then there is nothing to fear in death, for God will not neglect such a person (Plato 853). According to Socrates, A life unexamined is a life not worth living is actually worth living (851-852); in other words, it is among the worst things that could happen to a person. For Tzu, having superior knowledge of death makes it something not to fear; it is just another change. For he knows that his wife has always been and always will be. He knows she is at peace and describes her as lying down to sleep in “a vast room.” To weep, he cautions, would signify a lack of faith, a lack of understanding in these cycles. In both cases, knowledge of truth means there is nothing to fear. Death is just another step. Another tale of Tzu’s further illustrates this point; Tzu happens upon a skull that teaches him about death in a dream; Tzu learns that there is no hierarchy in heaven as there is on earth; no one to rule and no one to be ruled (886). When Tzu questions whether or not the skull would wish to return to friends and family, the skull replies he has greater happiness than a King on the throne and would have no reason for taking the problems and cares of a human being. (Tzu 886-887).
In my experience, I have found that both Tzu’s and Socrates’ philosophies are present in my life and applicable in today’s age. Throughout my youth, I have enjoyed reading a variety of writings on religion and philosophy including the Tao Te Ching. I find that I have application and understanding of morality and detachment has deepened and contributed to my overall happiness. I learned that I achieve my goals a lot better if I’m pursuing them for the right reasons and not overly attached to an outcome. For example, I was overly concerned about the outcome, the school became a chore and I was constantly stressed out trying to fit into what others expected of me. I have learned to let go of over-attachment to getting perfect grades; the result was that I could take more chances and be more genuine in the classes I take and in the direction I take my career. The result was that my grades have actually stayed high and I’m enjoying school a lot more. My goals have also matured. For example, I feel like my social responsibility as a human being and citizen take precedence over worldly success, whereas before I to look at careers in terms of the salaries and status they could give me. The result was that I was miserable overall because it wasn’t what I truly wanted. As a result of these readings, I am more conscientious about how I apply these lessons and expect it will help me further improve my satisfaction and happiness in life.
In conclusion, Chuang Tzu and Socrates’s ideas about happiness and wisdom prompt us to look beyond the immediate in our lives to find the truths underneath or we might miss the most important things in life. These great masters teach us to stand for virtue and morality before we pursue the things of the world for the transitory satisfaction they give; they assure us we will find true happiness if we do. Their lessons on death are timeless. Socrates taught that even in the face of danger, we can stand for what is right, while Tzu taught us to see it as part of the changing cycles of life. Through my personal experiences, I found that their teachings are just as relevant as ever. All of the teachings seem to still prove us to question our versions of the truth and challenge us to look within to virtue and wisdom for true lasting happiness.
- Allen, Paul & Peterson, Claire. It Begins With Our Questions. Hayden-McNeil, LCC. 2015.