Why do you use the username, @autumnfloods? What’s the story behind it?

A student asked me:

Why do you use the username, @autumnfloods? What’s the story behind it?

“Autumn Floods” is the name of Chapter 17 of the Book of Zhuangzi (莊子), which happens to be a chapter that I find incredibly profound and moving, whether I read it in the original Classical Chinese or even in the various English translations.

The chapter is a constant reminder of how we should have the intellectual humility to remember always that we never know enough and should never be certain about anything even if we may have had many “relevant” experiences, or heard something repeated over and over again as if it were the Truth.

Here is an excerpt from the “Autumn Floods” chapter:

“You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog – he’s limited by the space he lives in. You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect – he’s bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar – he’s shackled by his doctrines. Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea – so you realize your own pettiness. From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Great Principle.

“Of all the waters of the world, none is as great as the sea. Ten thousand streams flow into it – I have never heard of a time when they stopped – and yet it is never full. The water leaks away at [the river] Wei-lu – I have never heard of a time when it didn’t – and yet the sea is never empty. Spring or autumn, it never changes. Flood or drought, it takes no notice. It is so much greater than the streams of the Yangtze or the Yellow River that it is impossible to measure the difference. But I have never for this reason prided myself on it. I take my place with heaven and earth and receive breath from the yin and yang. I sit here between heaven and earth as a little stone or a little tree sits on a huge mountain. Since I can see my own smallness, what reason would I have to pride myself?”

Zhuangzi, Chapter 17, trans. Burton Watson

And just a little later in the same chapter:

“There is no end to the weighing of things, no stop to time, no constancy to the division of lots, no fixed rule to beginning and end. Therefore great wisdom observes both far and near, and for that reason recognizes small without considering it paltry, recognizes large without considering it unwieldy, for it knows that there is no end to the weighing of things. It has a clear understanding of past and present, and for that reason it spends a long time without finding it tedious, a short time without fretting at its shortness, for it knows that time has no stop. It perceives the nature of fullness and emptiness, and for that reason it does not delight if it acquires something nor worry if it loses it, for it knows that there is no constancy to the division of lots. It comprehends the Level Road, and for that reason it does not rejoice in life nor look on death as a calamity, for it knows that no fixed rule can be assigned to beginning and end.

“Calculate what man knows and it cannot compare to what he does not know. Calculate the time he is alive and it cannot compare to the time before he was born. Yet man takes something so small and tries to exhaust the dimensions of something so large! Hence he is muddled and confused and can never get anywhere. Looking at it this way, how do we know that the tip of a hair can be singled out as the measure of the smallest thing possible? Or how do we know that heaven and earth can fully encompass the dimensions of the largest thing possible?”

Zhuangzi, Chapter 17, trans. Burton Watson

Beautiful, isn’t it? We can never know enough, nor should we ever pride ourselves for whatever knowledge or richness of experience we may have.

A wonderful lesson and a reminder. And this is of special importance for me as I journey deeper and deeper into the world of academia. I’ve seen too many people go into ridiculous extremes (in religion, politics, and even in decisions affecting everyday life like lifestyle or even parenting) simply because of this lack of intellectual humility to acknowledge that our knowledge and experiences are simply too finite and constantly prone to error.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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