Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Forgetting to be worried

First real meeting of my tiny comparative ethics class, focusing on Confucianism. I guess I could call it an Oxbridge-style tutorial: two students and a professor meeting in the professor's office. But I'm amused by what one of my friends call it: my "book club"!

Today's book was The Path, meant as an accessible overview of the material ahead and a way to pose more general questions about the why, the what and the how of "doing" Confucian ethics here and now. I think it worked!

Why?
The Path's answer is that an engagement with ancient Chinese ideas "will change your life" - not quite the same promise as an ethics class but close enough to allow for some interesting discussion. The Path has been derided by some as a self-help book, and defended as the antithesis, a non-self-help book, since it suggests we will live more fulfilled and useful lives if we stop trying to find our "real selves" and instead work on making ourselves more aware, more flexible, more responsive, more open to change, starting right where we are. Well and good, one of my students - a philosophy major - said, but why is that good? There's no account here of the good, let alone acknowledgment that there might be disagreements about it. The Path directs us to work on real everyday relationships rather than big theories. You'd have to know more about Chinese ethical traditions than The Path tells you to know that the answer to these questions comes through the study of history. Which takes us to...

What?
The Path is for American readers today, so its Chinese examples are few and far between, including quotations from the classic texts at issue. (In the course the book is based on students are expected to read a few of these texts.) But there is a free Kindle book with quotations from the Chinese sources being discussed. Here are some from The Analects.
We spent a long time on the fourth one here, 7.19. Is Confucius describing his strengths, his aspirations or his weaknesses? My students weren't impressed at forgetting to eat and to be worried. In any case, forgetfulness doesn't sound like a virtue, does it, not like a sign of self-awareness! Maybe he's being humble or ironic, I suggested, after arguing unsuccessfully for the value of "flow" experiences. (In fact we had a fascinating discussion about the value of awareness and sincerity in our acts, including rituals, which will surely continue in coming weeks.) Perhaps we need to know about the context, I suggested. Who was the Duke of She? Who was Zilu? What if - as many commentaries say - he was an unjust ruler trying to conscript Confucius in his service? What if it's really about people like Zilu? Confucius' teachings are usually not delivered into a vacuum but in specific interpersonal situations, engaging with particular people with particular characters. Maybe the reason Confucius (moving to the next line) "loves the past and is diligent in seeking it" is because it is from history that we learn to recognize and deal with such characters - including our own?

How?
Confucius didn't write the Analects, and wouldn't have recommended anyone read just them even if he had. So how can we, sitting in my office in Greenwich Village in 2017, get anything out of an engagement with the Analects? I've assigned students an edition which includes commentary from Zhuxi, a much later figure (if decisive for the Confucian canon which came to define Chinese culture), and am reading other commentaries myself. After a preliminary discussion of the Analects next week, we'll turn to commentaries and interpretations (including looking back at the selections in The Path)... but we'll also read some of the Classic of History, to get a better sense of how ethics was taught. One of the students mentioned Plutarch's Lives as an analog, so I might bring that in. Maybe also something like the Episcopal Church's lives of saints, including recent ones.

I'm no 君子 junzi or 儒 ru myself, of course, so this will be a more rhetorical exercise than even I appreciate. But it might get us thinking in interesting new ways about the questions of ethics: what is it? what is it for? how is it articulated? how is it learned and taught?

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