Are intense emotions a necessary part of a good life? This seems a partly normative, partly psychological question. I’m interested in hearing what others think about it.
In a recent article in Asian Philosophy I take some preliminary steps toward understanding and partly defending a Zhuangist stance on emotion, which I dub the “Virtuoso View.” (A precis of the article can be found here.) I characterize this view roughly as follows:
“Virtuosos,” or persons of dé 德 (power, virtuosity), accept the inevitable without experiencing intense emotions. They nurture an inner state of calm and ease, without consciously attending to their own welfare. This state enables them to attend fully to their circumstances and competently handle matters at hand. Such people are not utterly emotionless: they experience a general sense of ease or peace, and they retain affective commitments to the welfare of their parents, for example. But they are free from strong, disruptive emotions, whether pleasant, positive ones such as joy or unpleasant, negative ones such as sorrow. The virtuoso’s heart remains “empty,” and he achieves “release” from things. Virtuosos liberate themselves by shifting the focus of agency to what they can control. They achieve a form of flexible, responsive agency that is independent of contingent factors, in that it focuses on “wandering” (遊) through the world by fluidly adapting to and “riding along with things” (乘物).
In the article, I emphasize the connections between this stance on emotion and what I see as a distinctive Zhuangist conception of flourishing agency. I suggest that the Zhuangist view of dé (virtuosity, power) is exemplified by the intelligent, adaptive, responsive activity manifested in the expert performance of skills. Such high-performance activities, I propose, are particular instantiations of the Zhuangist conception of a flourishing life—a life of dé and wandering. The best kind of life, according to this eudaimonistic ideal, is one in which the agent constantly maintains a version of the “high-performance state” that obtains during such activity—to do so is just to employ dé in wandering. Typically, a constitutive element of high-performance activity is the sort of affective state the Virtuoso View describes. For the Zhuangist, such a life of dé represents the fullest expression of our natural capacities as human beings. The flourishing exercise of dé—the fullest application of our powers of agency—requires that we “dwell in the flow,” in such a way that our emotional ties to “external things” are always provisional, transitory, and easily released.
One natural line of objection to these views is that emotions may have a crucial place in a good life. Some emotions—such as pleasure or joy—may have intrinsic value. A life without them might thus be less good than one in which they occur with some regularity. Or emotions such as joy and grief may be justified responses to value, and their absence might signal a lack of proper appreciation of value. If emotions are necessary to appreciate value, then the Zhuangist view I develop may advocate a life that is less good, at least in some respects, than one in which we regularly experience certain emotions.
Among the potential responses to this set of objections, an advocate of the Zhuangist view might argue that intense emotions are not indispensable to appreciating value, as we can thoroughly appreciate the value of something without feeling strong emotions about it. Indeed, it’s normal for us to continue to appreciate the value of things or events, whether positive or negative, long after our initial emotional response to them has faded and we have recovered affective equilibrium. A Zhuangist might also argue that the Virtuoso View amounts to exchanging certain familiar affective experiences—such as the four intense emotions of joy, anger, grief, and pleasure—for more sophisticated affective experiences that are of greater value, as when, in a story in Book 21, Laozi claims that by identifying with the Dào-totality and the cosmic process of transformation, achieving affective equanimity, and “letting the heart wander in the beginning of things,” he has experienced “ultimate beauty and ultimate happiness.”
Two points I don’t make in the published article are that the various passages on emotion in the Zhuangzi need not imply that the Virtuoso View will be suitable for, attainable by, or attractive to everyone. People may have different dé and justifiably follow different dào. Moreover, like many eudaimonistic views, the Zhuangist ideal of the good life I depict may risk falling into a narrow “essentialism”: perhaps it picks out a genuinely distinctive, important, yet narrow feature of human agency but then untenably inflates this into the crux of its conception of human flourishing.
My question for discussion, then, is this: Are intense emotions such as joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure (喜怒哀樂)—the four typically mentioned in the Zhuangzi—an indispensable part of the good life? Can an agent live a flourishing, well-rounded life without them, or while experiencing them only rarely and briefly? I find these provocative questions and see no easy, knockdown arguments for or against a Zhuangist stance.