Why Love and Morality are the Best and the Worst Things We Do: Zhuangzi and the Spitting Fishes

"When the springs dry up, the fish have to cluster together on the shore, gasping
on each other to keep damp and spitting on each other to stay wet. But that
is no match for forgetting all about one another in the rivers and lakes. Rather
than praising Yao and condemning Jie, we'd be better off forgetting them
both and transforming along our own Way."

So says Zhuangzi (The Essential Writings, page 43).

What does he mean?

Some background might help:

"Yao" is a stock ancient Chinese paragon of virtue: think Gandhi.
"Jie" is a stock example of extreme evil: think Attila the Hun.

"Our own Way" is at once the Dao and our own Dao, our own Course. The ocean is the all-encompassing and invisible medium of the activity of the fish; it is also their sustenance and support; it is also the enabler of their free slip and glide and float and drift each along its own trackless way, untouched, unguided, unblocked, unconstrained. The water is to each an open channel in which it swims, to any fish both its own Way and the opening of every Way into every other Way, the Ways of all fish, what feeds them, what embraces them, what mobilizes them, what allows them to swim either together or alone as they please, but unreliant on each other, dancing around one another but without crash or scrape: the water, the Way.

Zhuangzi is comparing our moral judgments of other people to the spit of the beached fishes, barely surviving, choking and drooling on each other to keep each other wet. The satire touches both our morality and our sociality, which are seen here as two sides of the same coin, part of a single package. We need each other, and we need our judgments of each other, because we are out of our element, we are trapped and grounded and immobilized and starving to death. We judge in order to cluster, we cluster in order to judge. We mark out our in-group by barfing out our judgments about what and whom we approve and despise. And yet this is literally the best thing we do, because it is the best we can do: in our current sorry situation, it is our only option, our only possible survival. It's disgusting and pathetic, but it's better than nothing, it's better than choking to death in the otherwise waterless world in which we find ourselves stranded.

That warm sense of mutual approval and recognition, the thin shiny surrounding glow of friendship and love, is our last little vestige of that vastness, the water in which we shimmy and shake our way through and around and away from each other. We are not mistaken in feeling this love is precious, it is the most precious thing we have--but it is precious because it is a shabby reminder of our former mutual asociality, a pale and turbid shadow of the clear seas which enabled us to move toward and away.

That righteous feeling of rectitude and belonging and approval we get when we say what is right and wrong, and who is right and wrong, when we feel justified and take it upon ourselves to justify ourselves and each other--that too is a last little vestige of the opposite, of being oblivious to both judging and being judged, as spit is a sort of gross but still much needed gob of what was once water, the unconstraining sea of mutual oblivion. Our morality is indeed the most valuable thing in all our experience, our only reminder and the only contact with the beyond-good-and-evil, the sovereign amorality in which we used to freely transform.

The Way, the water, is transformation. Transformation is the transformation not only of what we are, but of what we associate with and what we approve, of our loves and our values.

Zhuangzi says, "What makes my life good also makes my death good." What makes good? What makes life? What makes death? Transformation.

Do we want love? Do we want goodness? Yes and no. Speak to me, love me, approve of me, spit on me: sadly enough, it may be the only thing keeping me alive, the only moisture available, the last gasp of ocean available in this wasteland of a shoreline.

Emerson, paraphrasing Goethe's paraphrase of Spinoza, wrote: "Hence arose the saying, 'If I love you, what is that to you?' We say so, because we feel that what we love is not in your will, but above it. It is not you, but your radiance. It is that which you know not in yourself, and can never know." It is not your spit, fellow fish, but the moisture still vaguely detectable in that spit that I love when I love you, that I approve when I approve you, that you love when you love me, that you approve when you approve me--the radiance of you, which you know not and can never know, the open expanse of transformation that is more you than you and more me than me, connecting us inextricably in one way or another, either in our desperate heapings here on the shore or out in the slippery transparent depths of our boundless mutual forgetting.

"Who can be together in their very not being together, do things for one another
by not doing things for one another? Who can climb up upon the Heavens, roaming
on the mists, twisting and turning round and round without limit, living their
lives in mutual forgetfulness, never coming to an end?"

(Zhuangzi, The Essential Writings, p. 46)