Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Seeds of judgment

In the Confucian ethics class today, we arrived at Mencius. Western moral philosophers like the Mencius, as Confucius' ideas have here become more systematic, and, in argument against rival views, philosophical arguments are made. Mencius charms also because of his confidence that all human beings are innately good, with "sprouts" or "seeds" of goodness. And yet, as in the East Asian Religions class I sat in on before going to China, the students weren't having it. Mencius seems argumentative, self-certain and too systematic, especially compared to the more Zenlike, self-critical and open-ended practice of Confucius as reported in the Analects. We spent some time on this passage (4B28).
We decided that Confucius would have stopped at the tenth line, with humble self-scrutiny instead of judgment of others; he would most surely not have gone on to find himself so impressive that the disregard of others could be accounted for only by their brutishness! Of course, this is a limit case; Mencius isn't really claiming to be so good, is he? And yet the sense of being treated unfairly haunts Mencius, even as it's wrapped in a Stoic equanimity. Thus the superior man has perpetual anxiety, but he has no unexpected troubles, 4B28 continues (in Gardner, The Four Books, 80), as though the junzi is prepared for the worst and only for this reason isn't perpetually disappointed in others. Wasn't this supposed to be an optimistic view?

In fact, the Mencius describes not only that and how one's sprouts can be cultivated but that and how most people do nothing of the sort. This might be the source of a terrible sadness at wasted human potential, worked through to stop the junzi from giving up and giving in; who else but the junzi, armed with the insights and practices of Confucius, has a hope of solving this problem - if kings were wise enough to employ their services? But to the students it seems just judgmental. He doesn't seem to them sorry to find that with many of his fellow humans what is there to choose between him and a beast?

No comments: