In the Classic Chinese text Zhuangzi, there is a passage that says “Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you understand this and still strive for knowledge, you will be in danger for certain!” (Zhuang Zhou, 46).
But what does this mean? Clearly, the first part indicates that our lives are ephemeral – that eventually our existence, our conciousness, our being will cease to exist. Someday we will die and no longer exist – therefore our life is ‘limited’.
Knowledge, on the other hand, is unlimited. Now, is knowledge really unlimited? Perhaps it may seem unlimited, in the sense that there are so many different subjects and so many different views and so many different sources of information that essentially one could dedicate their entire lives to studying one particular object and still not know everything about said object. This doesn’t necessarily mean that knowledge is unlimited, it just means that there is so much knowledge in the world that one individual could never learn it in one life – or a million lifetimes for that matter.
However, ‘unlimited knowledge’ in Zhuang Zhou’s sense most likely means that knowledge is, to us, unlimited because there is no boundary (or stop) to our learning (that is until we die). There is so much knowedge out there that it is, in our lifetime, unlimited. There are no limits – whether it be scientific, philosophical, artistic or self-knowledge – knowledge is unlimited to us.
So our lives are limited, but knowledge is not. This should be a good thing, right? I mean, this means that we can spend our entires lives learning – there will never be a time when we run out of things to learn. Yet, Zhuang Zhou writes that ” If you use what is limited [your life] to pursue what has no limit [knowledge], you will be in danger”.
So what exactly is Zhuang Zhou saying? Well, I believe that Zhuang Zhou is saying that perhaps we will never be satisfied with our search for knowledge. After all, there is so much information out there that we will never be able to learn it all – and thus we begin to feel discontent, unsatisfied or even depressed at the idea that no matter how hard we try or how much we learn – there will still be knowedge out there that we will never know of. I could spend the rest of my life studying bamboo – just bamboo. I could dedicate all my years to researching and learning about bamboo – about its biology, its purpose, its evolution, its uses – and yet, even if I spent say 100 years studying bamboo, there would still be aspects of this plant that I would never know about. Every time we learn something new, this only opens more doors on the path to knowledge. In other words, knowledge is unlimited, and many times us humans think that what we want is something ‘unlimited’. Yet, in regards to knowledge, unlimtied means that we will never be satisfied. We can learn all we want, but we will never know everything, and we will die with many mysterious uncertainties, unexplained phenomenas, and unanswered questions lingering in our minds.
The other reason that the pursuit of knowledge might be dangerous is simply because knowledge can be a powerful weapon. Knowledge can destroy our current perspective on things, it can cause us to see the world in a different light, it can teach us ways to manipulate or hurt people. Knowedge can show us how to do this or do that, and sometimes these actions may have serious consequences. Knowedge is useful, but usefulness can be utilized in many different ways – from good deeds to crimes. Thus, knowedge can be dangerous in that it can teach us things that may be harmful, or it can expose us to a new perception that hurts us.
So, Zhuang Zhou ends his statement saying “If you understand this and still strive for knowledge, you will be in danger for certain!”. Or, if you understand that your life is limited and that knowledge is dangerous, yet you still chase after knowedge, you will be in danger no matter what!
Some may think that this is supposed to turn people off from a pursuit of knowledge. That ‘danger’ automatically implies something bad – something harmful, something that should be avoided. However, I should like to add that Zhuang Zhou was also strong critic of words and of preconceived notions. Zhuang Zhou believed that words held people back, and that words were merely a standard that kept people in line. Zhou makes numerous hints that words are just that – they are merely words. They are symbolic but have no tangible, physical substance. They do not exist materially – and therefore the only meaning a word has is the meaning that is given to it by an individual. Zhou states that you shouldnt let words hold you back, because words do not technically exist in the physical world.
So, while most people would associate ‘danger’ with something negative, something that ought to be avoided, I think that Zhuang Zhou would believe that ‘danger’ isn’t necessarily bad (indeed, Zhou didn’t beleive there was such a thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’). Just because the word ‘danger’ implies harm does not mean harm will actually come. Thus, I do not think that Zhuang Zhou was not trying to scare people off from the path of knowledge.
Rather, I think that Zhaung Zhou was saying that striving for knowedge can (most likely will) lead to danger, yet this doesn’t mean bad things will necessarily happen to you. It may be ‘dangerous’, but just because something is dangerous, that does not necessarily mean one should avoid it. Driving, for example, is very dangerous. Going dozens of miles an hour in a metal car, coupled with the fact that there are numerous hazards, bad drivers, bad weather, possible car malfunctions, distractions etc. Driving is very dangerous when we consider all the possibly things that could happen – yet we still do it. Another example of something dangerous could be sleeping. When we are asleep we become vulnerable, unconscious – unaware. Something bad could happen to us – yet we still sleep and never worry about it.
Thus, Zhuang Zhou is saying that a path towards knowledge will lead to danger, but this does not necessarily imply bad things will happen to you. When you think about it, most of the things we do are dangerous – yet we still do them. So, one shouldnt be afraid of the path to knowledge just because it is dangerous. So, Zhuang Zhou said that striving for knowledge will lead to danger.
Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote “never was anything great achieved without danger”. Thus, while the path may be dangerous, it can lead to great things. Do not shy away from knowledge just because it leads to danger – if anything, embrace it. After all, living can be quite boring sometimes. A little danger is rather fun every now and then.