Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ancient medicine

Like most important ancient texts, Confucius' Analects 论语 confronts readers today in an entirely unprecedented form: as a stand-alone and self-interpreting book (not too mention translated). In the West, it joins the ranks of other "world classics" or "scriptures of world religions" wrested from thickets of commentary to blink obscurely at casual readers who wouldn't have made it past the threshold in days gone by. Even in its own tradition it wasn't thought to be discreet, but part of overlapping canons of other valued texts. (You've heard me make similar claims about the Book of Job's only "becoming a book" in our time.) Until the Song Dynasty Neoconfucians, as Daniel Gardner reminds us, Analects wouldn't have been in a top-five list of classics. It was more of a classic reader's guide - an indispensable how-to-read guide, which could neither displace the real classics nor stand alone without them.

I've just finished reading a serious effort to rectify the situation, Edward Slingerland's annotated translation, which offers for each vignette background and excerpts from some of the hundreds of commentaries written over the centuries - including those of recent Western scholars. It expands the length of the text by about a factor of ten, but what a world it opens up, of scores of characters (historical, as well as Confucius' contemporaries and students) and parsings of characters by each other - even before you get to the later parsings. Read with care!

Indeed, Confucius and his disciples turn out already to be part of a commentarial tradition. It's well known that Confucius claimed not to be an innovator, just a man who loved learning - studying the classics; in other words he was a commentator, and hoped in his life to show how a virtuous and ritually correct commentator might make his times more like the virtuous classical past.

Daniel K. Gardner, intro to The Four Books (Indianapolis: Hackett 2007), xvff
Confucius: Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 106

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