Material Fetters and Spiritual Transcendence: Zhuang Zi and Environmental Thought

  • Yim-tze Charles Kwong
Part of the Palgrave Studies in World Environmental History book series (PSWEH)


In basic earthly terms, the environmental question is a matter of maintaining Nature in a balanced state of health and harmony, of preserving the inherent integrity of the environment and its capacity to support all forms of life and matter emerging in a transformational process. From the early days of civilization, however, human beings have locked themselves in a spiral of deepening materialism, engendering and exacerbating environmental problems through ever-intensifying activities of overproduction and over-consumption. While animals also cause damage to the environment out of existential needs like grazing and loosening soil, few living things have gone beyond Nature’s capacity to heal and rebalance itself, and none has damaged Nature in the gratuitous manner of human acts of needless and pointless extravagance. It is obvious that the environmental crisis cannot be addressed on the material level alone, for mankind’s material overindulgence is itself rooted in a deeper spiritual disorder.


Original Text Penguin Book Environmental Crisis Myriad Thing Environmental Question 


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  1. 2.
    Deforestation for the construction of temples and palaces in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East in the third millennium BC resulted in severe flooding, and accelerated soil loss, leading to declining soil productivity, and desertification in the region, which precipitated the disappearance of whole forests and caused shortages of wood as early as about two thousand years ago. See John Perlin, A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 35–47.Google Scholar
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    Genesis 1: 26–8. See Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 2.Google Scholar
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    For a summary of Judeo-Christian views of Nature, see Yim-tze Kwong, ‘Environmental Ethics and Aesthetics: The Laozi Revisited’, in Environmental History in East Asia: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Ts’ui-jung Liu (New York: Routledge, 2014), 40–63, esp. 40–2.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Cf. Wing-tsit Chan’s observation: ‘Te [de] is Tao [Dao] endowed in the individual things. While Tao is common to all, it is what each thing has obtained from Tao, or its te, that makes it different from others. Te is then the individualizing factor, the embodiment of definite principles which give things their determinate features or characters’. See Wing-tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu: A Translation and Study of the Tao-te Ching (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 11. Chan bases his interpretation partly on the homophonous de (得) ‘to obtain’, which is a traditional definition of ‘virtue’ (de 德).Google Scholar
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    Literally ‘ladder/stairway of nature’, the Latin term is a conception derived from Plato and Aristotle and developed fully in Neoplatonism. It depicts a strict, religious hierarchical structure of all matter and life believed to have been decreed by God, moving downward from God and angelic beings through humankind, animals, and plants to minerals, soil, and dirt. As one shifts from religion to science, one notes that the scala naturae is not static in evolutionary terms; but it does remain a hierarchy consisting of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms. For a modern exposition, see Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964).Google Scholar
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© Yim-tze Charles Kwong 2016

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