Daoist Zhuangzi “The Trouble with Machines”

A disciple of Confucius once set off with his students on a journey. As they walked, they happened by a very old man engaged in digging a ditch from a well to a garden. The old man was pouring water from a pitcher into the ditch. The water disappeared into the dust long before it reached his garden.

The disciple of Confucius stopped and said to the man, “Don’t you know that there is a machine for that?”

“Really?” said the old man.

“Yes,” said the disciple of Confucius. “It has gears and a handle, and it pumps streams of water. It’s called a Makes-It-Pour.”

“My teacher has told me about cunning machines,” the old man said. “My teacher also said that people with cunning machines become cunning in their interactions with others; and those who become cunning in their interactions with others become cunning in their hearts; and those who become cunning in their hearts cannot be pure and uncorrupted in their thoughts. This is not the way of The Way of the creative universe. I have heard of the engine you mention; but I would be ashamed to use such a device.”

The disciple of Confucius frowned and walked on, without saying another word.

Finally, several miles down the road, one of the students asked the disciple of Confucius, “Sir, you are clearly very upset. Why did that impractical old man back there so upset you?”

“I had thought,” said the teacher, “that there was only one person like Confucius in his wisdom. Confucius teaches that the test for any idea is how practical and useful it is. Yet, here is this man, pure of heart, master of himself, unbound by even the practical and the useful. He is the essence of the cultivated human being.”


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