"Sorrow and the Sage: Grief in the Zhuangzi" Discussion Questions

Amy Olberding
  1. Both Seneca and Zhuangzi respond to a loved one’s death with grief. Why is this notable, given their philosophical views? What does each think of the grief they feel? What accounts for their different reactions to their own grief, according to Olberding? Are you convinced by either of their views? Why or why not?
  2. Zhuangzi describes two examples of people who don’t grieve death. Describe these examples. Why does Olberding think that these examples do not represent ideal ways of relating to death? Use her discussion of immortality and of humor to explain. Are you convinced by Olberding about the importance of death? Why or why not?
  3. Olberding draws on Ted Cohen in her discussion of humor. Explain Cohen’s view of humor. Given this view, why is death a particularly rich source of humor? The cases of the four friends (Masters Si, Yu, Li, and Lai), MENGSUN Cai, and Zhuangzi’s grief all involve humor. Given Cohen’s view, what does Olberding suggest about these cases and the supposed humor they involve? Do you agree with her interpretation?
  4. An important aspect of Zhuangzi’s thought has to do with worries about social convention and the way it distorts our thinking, leading us to live worse lives. What worries does Olberding suggest that Zhuangzi has about the grieving practices in his society, and how are these worries reflected in the way he handles his own grief? What sorts of grieving practices do we have in our society? Do they lead to the same sorts of problems? Why or why not?
  5. Olberding distinguishes between two senses of “natural”—global and local. Describe these two senses. How do they factor into her interpretation of Zhuangzi? Focus especially on her interpretation of what Zhuangzi thinks about death’s badness and how we should respond to a loved one’s death.
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