Usefulness and Uselessness

From first impression, this plant doesn't seem nutritious or bothered.
From first impressions, this plant doesn’t seem nutritious or bothered.

Hui met a person who knew about and liked Taoism, and he asked him “why do you not practice its axioms?” He said “I must do something. I must do something before I die.”

Is this the answer to have been expected? Whatever the case, I think it proves that most people value Usefulness, but Usefulness seems to garner its virtue from our collaborative nature. However, the Zhuangzi dismisses Usefulness and says that Uselessness is better for us.

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, “I have a big tree of the kind men call shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!”


No Use and No Worry

“Quietly Listening to Wind in the Pines” by Ma Lin, a Song Dynasty painting

Uselessness enables one of the most important virtues in Taoism, free and easy wandering. After all, Taoism is all about aligning oneself to the nature of things, and naturally, those to which a Taoist aligns must not in itself be aligned. This means that an artificial alignment like withdrawing from weeping when the wife wins, or more relevantly, forcing a contribution from oneself, if anything, is harmful because Usefulness restricts what arises from wu-wei, or spontaneity, and therefore, the Tao, the Great Way (as translation puts it). So, if something or someone is useless, then they can live without stress from others and retreat to an island maybe indefinitely.

Another reason why the Zhuangzi emphasizes Uselessness is because it enables longevity, in either age or mind, depending on how mystical the interpretation. In religious Taoism, this is how the devout justify immortality, but in philosophical Taoism, Uselessness preserves the easiness of the mind because, much like a goal in Buddhism, there may be no attachments that compromise one’s will (agency) or that create one’s harm.

Chuang Tzu said, “Maybe you’ve never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low-until it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there’s the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly 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 plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?”


Usefulness as Contribution

Isle of SkyeWhen I say Usefulness, I mean to associate it with Contribution, and I think that this is the primary connotation and also its best light. The word Contribution, undoubtedly, has such a well-intended, charitable meaning that it may even weaken my argument. Still, I think that Usefulness inhibits us to detach ourselves from the world because even if someone wishes to retreat to the islands with those most important, depending on how much she contributes and how full of use she is, people will cut her vacation short. So, it is Usefulness itself which creates this inhibition to relax, a weakening of agency, and also perhaps an objectification of oneself.

I also want to approach this another way: Usefulness implies some sort of contribution to society, to family, perhaps to inanimate objects, or interestingly to oneself, but it is necessary to create something in order to contribute it. And this creation could be merely a thought, yet a thought lost in contributing to oneself. However, there is no lost or profit in Taoism, and someone could disagree with this approach by saying that in giving to society, we contribute to ourselves because society gives us, for example, protection, but the main point of Usefulness is to be of use, and re-justifying it like that would trash the best part of Usefulness, its charitable meaning.


Usefulness and Uselessness also relates to the concept of a preservation of one’s genuineness. Hui posted Yangism: Noble or Ignoble for Tao Practiced to explain genuineness in Yangism. 


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