Employing the Usefulness of the Useless, or: Examining the Relevance of a Philosophical Life

Master Zhuang and a frog

Master Chuang Tzu and a frog

“All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless.”

– Chuang Tzu, Chapter 4 

One of my favorite memories of college is not very interesting. I’m going to tell it anyway, because I’m the one writing the essay, and I get to choose to take a risk and tell a not very interesting story so as to help me make some kind of (possibly not very interesting) point.

I must’ve been 20 years old or thereabouts. I was sitting in a “Chinese Philosophy” class and we were several weeks into the semester, which meant we were still slogging through the requisite moral and literary admonitions of the Analects. The professor, great teacher that he was, made it a point to make the Confucius sections of the course as perfunctory as possible. You can’t talk about Chinese philosophy without talking about Confucius, of course, but the less you have to talk about him the better. Placing Confucius at the beginning of the course was akin to being a child and having a parent create a dinner meal in such a manner that you were semi-consciously inhaling all your asparagus as rapidly as possible before being allowed to enjoy the meatloaf and brownies your mom made (except that while the Analects tastes like raw broccoli raab, it has the nutritional value of a box of Lemonheads). We just had to take a few weeks to get through the bastard, and then we would get to the tastier, more substantial, more filling stuff.

(That analogy is a bit of a cliché – the whole “eating nasty vegetables to get to the good food” one – and I’ve never understood it because most vegetables are delicious. But food analogies work best when speaking about philosophy because philosophy comes in many different flavors and textures, and it needs to be chewed and digested. And sometimes really challenging philosophies give you indigestion and rotten philosophies make you sick. So, like my boring story, I’m sticking with this analogy, even though it might be weak.)

Anyhow, after several weeks, Confucius had simply become too much for one of the students. He hadn’t the tongue nor the small intestine needed to force feed himself anymore of the dry, under-seasoned, overcooked Confucian philosophy. He stood up in the middle of class – a balding, middle-aged man with a thick handle-bar mustache, trucker’s cap and a paunch – interrupting the professor, who had his back turned as he was writing something on the whiteboard, and asked, quite angrily, “What the hell is the point of all of this?”

“Excuse me?” the professor asked, turning around.

“I said what the hell is the point of all this philosophizing? What’s the point of all this sitting around talking about boring shit? I’ve never seen anything so useless in my life.”

The professor, a youngish, proto-hipster type, almost as if he were expecting the response (or had dealt with it before), stated, “Ah, yes. Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but very few understand the usefulness of the useless. If you stick around long enough, we will get to Chuang Tzu and you will learn that while philosophy might be useless, that is precisely what makes it so useful.”

The student, some poor “non-traditional” bastard who had probably been forced to take a philosophy class because there were no more seats open in any of the history courses, didn’t stick around for Chuang Tzu. He simply grabbed his coat off his desk, and left the classroom right then, never to return. Which is too bad, really.

(The fact that this story rates as one of my favorites from that period in my life should give you an idea of how “useless” my college experience was. Most of the other memories of that time consist of me sitting drunkenly alone in some dark corner of a house party on the outskirts of the campus trying unsuccessfully to get laid.)

This story has stuck with me for so long, one: because it’s such a perfect analogy for the world’s relationship with philosophy at large, and two: because it was the first time I, myself, had ever heard of the idea of the “usefulness of the useless,” an idea that would come to change the course of my life.

Later that semester we did get past Confucius, and we got past Mencius, and we got past Mo Tzu. Later that semester we eventually got to Lao Tzu, which was basically the reason I took the class. But Lao Tzu came and went. In fact, all the aforementioned names came and went. It was as if the philosophy professor was the child in the analogy I gave a few paragraphs above, and he was the one trying to get through the boring part of the meal to get to the Good Stuff.

We ended the semester and spent the most time dissecting The Book of Chuang Tzu, in which the idea of the usefulness of the useless becomes a recurring theme. And, sure enough, if we (or I, at least) came away with anything, it was understanding to find the usefulness of the useless.

Chuang Tzu did not waste much time getting to that point. At the end of the first chapter, Chuang Tzu’s friend Hui Tzu – a fellow useless philosopher – tells Chuang Tzu about a huge tree whose wood is “useless.” The branches are too gnarled and bumpy to be of any use to even the best of carpenters. Chuang Tzu points out that the only reason the tree has been able to grow so large and live a long time without being bothered or accosted is precisely because it is so useless. Then Chuang Tzu ends the chapter by suggesting that Hui Tzu use the useless tree to take a nap under it, since it’s large enough to provide useful shade for such a use (again, only being large enough in the first place because it was too useless to chop down).

In the middle of chapter 4, seemingly in explication of the tree story at the end of chapter one, Chuang Tzu tells the story of “Carpenter Shih” who sees an extremely large tree which he refuses to cut down, telling his apprentice (from Burton Watson’s translation):

“Forget it – say no more!” said the carpenter. “It’s a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time; make vessels and they’d break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It’s not a timber tree – there’s nothing it can be used for. That’s how it got to be that old!” 

After Carpenter Shih returns home and falls asleep for the night, that same large tree intrudes on Carpenter Shih’s dreams to tell him (Watson, again):

“What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs – as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves – the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it’s the same way with all other things.

“As for me, I’ve been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I’ve finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What’s the point of this – things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die-how do you know I’m a worthless tree?”

Joe deSousa (CC BY 2.0)

Joe deSousa (CC BY 2.0)

At the end of chapter four, Chuang Tzu has Confucius (of all people) point out that it’s the grease that makes the torch useful, and it yet it is the grease that burns itself out of existence in its usefulness. The same goes for cinnamon trees and lacquer trees. Their usefulness leads to their destruction. Throughout the book we are admonished to be like “Burnt ashes” and “uncarved blocks of wood” and other things of the like – things that are generally not considered to be all that useful.

So what does any of this have to do with the study and practice of philosophy? Maybe nothing. What the hell do I know?

Regardless, the Chuang Tzu is not merely a philosophical text. It is also a spiritual one, meant to help others navigate their own labyrinthian spiritual quests. Texts like the Chuang Tzu are not “road maps,” per se, as each person’s spiritual path is distinct and idiosyncratic, and another person’s road map might not be so…useful. What they are are vehicles for delivering a set of ineffable, esoteric, supra-lingual principles – or, at least, attempts to do as much.

And what do we know about spiritual practices? That to the typical (normal?), world-attached person, most such practices seem pretty worthless. Meditation, prayer, mantra-recitation, yoga, fasting – these things don’t bolster the stock market. They don’t take care of threats to our “National Security.” They don’t help us drill for oil. They don’t create jobs. Etc. Etc. Etc. And yet, if more people practiced such things, maybe some of these issues would take care of themselves.

Maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe you think that plenty of fundamental Christians pray and they’re still fascist dicks. The asswipe members of the “Islamic State” undoubtedly also do much of the above-mentioned practices, and yet, that hasn’t stopped them from being murderous, child-raping, slack-jawed, idiot sand-fuckers. But I would argue that what we’re talking about is the cliched-but-in-this-case-relevant distinction between “Religion” and “Spirituality.” Fundamentalists have a tendency to partake in “Religious” practices as opposed to “Spiritual” ones. (NB that this distinction presents with a litany of problems and contradictions, and I personally find the term “spiritual” too limiting, loaded and in some ways distasteful, but it’s the most functional term I could use for the purposes of this essay.)

The point of all this, being that spiritual practices are typically considered useless, worthless and/or not-worthwhile for the vast majority of people, but the people who actually invoke these practices tend to find them very useful in ways that the others couldn’t even fathom. And what all of this has to do with philosophy is that, at its best, philosophy is a spiritual practice.

Over the past couple of millennia philosophy and spirituality have dichotomized into two separate, distinct entities, when in reality any worthwhile philosophy is nourishing for the soul, and any nourishing spirituality consists of sound philosophy.

The “ancients” seemed to understand as much. In old Greece, spirituality and philosophy were essentially one and the same, at least for the philosophers. Socrates and Plato and Democritus and Zeno and Epictetus and Epicurus and so on were on a search for spiritual truths. This inclination could be found as late as the Roman Stoics, wherein both Seneca and Marcus Aurelius proposed that “Philosophy”–as the Stoics understood it–was the only path to spiritual salvation.

In ancient China, again we see that, at least amongst the philosophers, there was no distinction between philosophy and spirituality. Ancient Chinese philosophical books have provided spiritual feed for “Western” societies for at least 150 years now – and obviously have done the same in their home of the “Far East” for more than two millennia. Most obvious among those works would be the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu. However, even the Anelects of Confucius, the essays of Mencius and the writings of Mo Tzu are all quite obviously attempting to quell the spiritual cravings of their readers through the practice of what we would traditionally call “Philosophy.” And we’re yet to even touch upon the Ch’an (later “Zen”) literature which was most prolific during the middle part of the 1st millennium AD, which blurred the lines so thoroughly that students of both philosophy and of “Religion” (traditionally the field that concerns itself most with “spiritual” matters) are at a loss of whether to describe traditional Ch’an literature as philosophy or as religion. Most seem to demur to the label of “religion” but it’s not totally clear why. I would argue that works such as the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng, the Lin Chi Lu and the recorded sayings of Huang Po, fit slightly less awkwardly within the heuristics we use to determine whether something is “philosophy” than they do within the heuristics of “religion.” After all, there’s no anthropomorphic God, no set dogma and no real religious hierarchy involved in the Ch’an sect. There are set practices and principles of practice, but there is nothing the disciple is expected or required to believe. There are no real concepts of “right” or “wrong” re: those principles and practices (some of this changed as Ch’an made its way to Japan and made itself “Zen”– a way of living with many virtues, but one which became somewhat more religious as time went on, even with masters like Bankei and Ikkyu coming along to resist, futilely, such momentum).

Beyond all that, historically, the philosophy of most indigenous tribes/shamanic-animist traditions – from the Americas, to Africa and all points in between – was inseparable from its spirituality. Their philosophies on how to live life were/are/have been direct extensions of their religious understandings of the world.

But all of that’s almost beside the point. As we move along it will become quite clear why a true philosophy is a true spirituality – and vice versa – but in the meantime I imagine (if anyone is still reading at all) that people are getting weird at the mere suggestion that we are going to do anything “philosophical.”

“Why philosophy?” they might be asking. “It’s a waste of time. I’m a doer. I don’t just sit around thinking about stupid shit all day. I GET THINGS DONE, GODDAMMIT.”

To which I respond: Good for you. I applaud your ability to keep yourself busy and to… I don’t know… complete things, I guess. Although you know that someday, sooner rather than later, you’re going to die, and your loved ones are going to die and your kids are going to die and their loved ones are going to die, and your kids’ kids are going to die and so on and so forth. And “Western” civilization as we know it will crumble and other civilizations will spring up in its wake, and eventually the human species, or its evolutionary progeny, will become extinct, and the earth will die and the sun will expand manifold, swallowing up whatever’s left of the earth and several other planets in its wake, and – if physics is right about this thing – eventually the Universe itself will continue to expand to the point that atoms themselves will be unable to retain their constitution and the entire Universe will literally RIP APART. The fabric of space and time and everything that we know will cease to exist in the most literal meaning of the phrase, so literal in fact, that our minds are utterly incapable of conjuring any kind of understanding of what kind of nothingness will exist (or not exist) in the really – if you really stop to think about it – not very distant future. It’s all going to happen sooner rather than later – in many ways it’s already happened – and all your work and busy-ness and completing things-ness will ultimately be for nought.

And so the answer to “why philosophy?” should be readily apparent, because even a nihilist (especially a nihilist) would do well to ensure their lack of belief or faith has been capably thought out by somebody who knows what the hell they’re doing.

Even so, there are two other answers I’d be generous enough to share.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains which sit behind Santa Fe taken during a winter sunset after a downfall on 29 January 2013. By Vivaverdi (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sangre de Cristo Mountains which sit behind Santa Fe taken during a winter sunset after a downfall on 29 January 2013.
By Vivaverdi (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One: When I was growing up, we lived in a rural area – in the middle of nowhere really, 5 miles from the nearest town, which boasted a population of about 800 people. It was quite often that my old man would gaze upon the sight of a sublime sunset over the jagged Sangre de Cristo mountains as the dipping sun caused the range to live up to its name, turning the range into a glowing, radioactive blood-orange, or while he was looking up at a veritable kaleidoscope of stars in the night sky, or sitting outside on the porch with a cup of coffee during a cool summer evening, and he would get philosophical, damn near poetic really about the nature of life, love, and the Universe. My dad wasn’t what we would call in today’s parlance a man who was “in touch” with his feelings. I, myself, was a sometimes overly sensitive boy more in touch with my emotions than I had any desire to be. And so if philosophy had what it took to bring the two of us together and to bond us in a manner I still miss to this day, then that was reason enough for me. Just as philosophy’s ability to connect two people together was enough for Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu, Seneca and Lucillus, Zeno and Pythagora.

And while that might be reason enough for me, in and of itself, there is still the following: As both Alan Watts and William James (and I’m sure a host of others) have already pointed out, as human beings, we are all philosophers. The very act of having what we call  a “conscience” means that we are cursed to be philosophers. Even the philosophy that philosophy is a stupid waste of time is still a philosophy. The only question is whether we are “good” philosophers or poor ones. And it’s a fine question, because since we have no choice in the matter, it would seem to make sense that it would be beneficial for us to be decent at it. Like walking. We kind of have to walk, so we should, at the very least, be kind of competent at it.

Still, we need to get something straight. When I speak about “philosophy” I’m not talking about lifeless syllogisms or modal logic-semantics or discussions on “The Coextensiveness Thesis and Kant’s Modal Agnosticism in the ‘Postulates.” Though, I’m not attempting to be dismissive of such things, for they ultimately have their virtues as well. It’s just that they have a time and a place, and this discussion is neither. What I’m talking about is that philosophy which my old man would practice on those cold winter mornings, when he would wake up at the call of the roosters and chop wood in the freezing snow and start roaring fires in the stove, and the effort and pain of it all would lead to a “runner’s high” whereupon he’d sit next the wood stove and discuss with me the merits of such a chosen life. Whether living in poverty in the mountains of southern Colorado in the middle of winter precluded one from living the “good life.” I’m talking about  the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius’s essays and Lao Tzu’s poems and Lin Chi’s koans.

I’m talking about the type of philosophy that is good for the “soul.” The type of philosophy that you can carry with you at all seconds of the day. The type of philosophy that doesn’t necessarily lead us to a greater understanding of the “meaning” of everything, but the type of philosophy which leads us to a useful meaning of “understanding.” The kind of philosophy that gets us through the worst of days in one piece and the best of days in a measured peace.

Therefore, if philosophy is spirituality and vice-versa, the kind of philosophy I’m writing about is the kind that makes us happier, in the sense that spiritual awakenings make us happier (supposedly). It’s a hedonic philosophy. But as a spirituality that also happens to be a philosophy, it also must necessarily must make some kind of “sense.” It has to be a spirituality that stands up to scrutiny, that at once encourages and survives skepticism. It has to be philosophically sound.

Naturally I feel that the philosophy of Apathy and Laziness that I have written about before, fall into this category. When you are apathetic and lazy, you are the gnarled, useless tree of Chuang Tzu’s. If you are useless, no society can use you, and therefore society leaves you alone and you are free to grow large and useless, and you are free to play in the mud. In short, by becoming useless, life in and of itself suddenly becomes “useful.” You no longer need justify your existence with busy-ness and worry. And I came to this conclusion after many years of the useless practice of philosophy as a means for spiritual growth. Just the act of shooting the shit with other like and unlike-minded individuals. Or, if I really wanted to be extra useless, I would shoot the shit with myself. Not only have I wasted endless hours sitting around talking about “boring shit,” I have wasted endless hours talking to myself about “boring” shit.

Moron. I’ll never accomplish anything wasting so much time with such spurious behavior. Maybe I should find some motivation to become more ambitious and useful.

…Or maybe I can go find a big, ugly tree to take a nap under.

How about you?

Mr. Furious

Mr. Furious

Mr. Furious lives in rural southern Colorado and tries to live as boring, apathetic and lazy a life as possible. He is hoping one day to be invited to do a "Life Class" for "Super Soul Sundays" on the Oprah Winfrey Network. You can read his short fiction, poetry and short essays at www.puerileandpointless.blogspot.com. He wrote a really stupid novel called " Puerile and Pointless with no Hope for Enlightenment" that you can purchase at Amazon and waste your time with. He can be contacted and/or harassed at misterfurious1@yahoo.com.
Mr. Furious
  • Shenrigenju

    I enjoyed reading this. I ebb and flow between being useful and useless – between activity and respite.

  • BuzzCoastin

    A cook was butchering an ox for Duke Wen Hui.
    The places his hand touched,
    His shoulder leaned against,
    His foot stepped on,
    His knee pressed upon,
    Came apart with a sound.

    He moved the blade, making a noise
    That never fell out of rhythm.
    It harmonized with the Mulberry Woods Dance,
    Like music from ancient times.

    Duke Wen Hui exclaimed: “Ah! Excellent!
    Your skill has advanced to this level?”

    The cook puts down the knife and answered:
    “What I follow is Tao,
    Which is beyond all skills.

    “When I started butchering,
    What I saw was nothing but the whole ox.
    After three years,
    I no longer saw the whole ox.

    “Nowadays, I meet it with my mind
    Rather than see it with my eyes.
    My sensory organs are inactive
    While I direct the mind’s movement.

    “It goes according to natural laws,
    Striking apart large gaps,
    Moving toward large openings,
    Following its natural structure.

    “Even places where tendons attach to bones
    Give no resistance,
    Never mind the larger bones!

    “A good cook goes through a knife in a year,
    Because he cuts.
    An average cook goes through a knife in a month,
    Because he hacks.

    “I have used this knife for nineteen years.
    It has butchered thousands of oxen,
    But the blade is still like it’s newly sharpened.

    “The joints have openings,
    And the knife’s blade has no thickness.
    Apply this lack of thickness into the openings,
    And the moving blade swishes through,
    With room to spare!

    “That’s why after nineteen years,
    The blade is still like it’s newly sharpened.

    “Nevertheless, every time I come across joints,
    I see its tricky parts,
    I pay attention and use caution,
    My vision concentrates,
    My movement slows down.

    “I move the knife very slightly,
    Whump! It has already separated.
    The ox doesn’t even know it’s dead,
    and falls to the ground like mud.

    “I stand holding the knife,
    And look all around it.
    The work gives me much satisfaction.
    I clean the knife and put it away.”

    Duke Wen Hui said: “Excellent!
    I listen to your words,
    And learn a principle of life.’

    Zhuangzi (莊子) Chuang Tzu, the king’s cook

  • Earthstar

    There are gears and watches, and then there are watchmakers
    We are cogs in life and wheels and minds turn within us as well
    All apprentice on paths such as these
    Around, through and into the Tao

  • trompe l’oeil

    “They’re trying to turn everyone’s brains into atom smashers”
    My Philosopher friend, Michael.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    After a while, you become so engaged with a relationship, a possession or a way of thinking that you don’t even notice how it limits you–can’t do with out it; you started using it, now it’s using you.

  • Mr B

    Overly long, self-indulgent and tedious.

    • mannyfurious

      Yes. But is it useless?

  • Chris

    You are wicked smart. Here I am just playing with my balls. Ha Ha

    • mannyfurious

      Lazy fuck.

  • drokhole

    Absolutely phenomenal read! Have been really enjoying your essays on here, Furious. Incredible quality and insights.

    To extend on your particular (and particularly well-stated) point about fostering an active philosophy in one’s life, I think you’ll find interesting this lecture – Philosophy Beyond Doctrine – by Manly P Hall (along with the broader lecture series it was a part of):

    Philosophy Beyond Doctrine
    http://youtu.be/QEHwoNP9fKE

    • mannyfurious

      Nice find. In all honesty I had never heard of Mr. Hall (philosopy/spirituality card revoked, I know). I’ve spent all evening listening to lectures on youtube. Good stuff.

      • drokhole

        No worries, I only discovered him a few years ago. Still working my way through his lectures, which continue to surprise and challenge and provoke plenty of food for thought (of the delicious and nutritious variety). Hard to pick and choose favorites, but I really enjoyed his series on the Wagnerian operas and the Greek gods. The user who posted the above lecture has a boatload of Hall’s lecture series (maybe all of them?) on his channel.

      • drokhole

        Or check out the channel for Hawk Trismegiatus, he’s got a bunch of Hall’s lectures, too. Here’s an entire series on philosophy (starting with the first lecture):

        http://youtu.be/j2XhXMVRvCs

  • apeon

    Oh!, for a useless, declarative, simple, sentence, standing alone, sharing its truth~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~