Tuesday, February 21, 2017

With Zengxi

In the Confucian ethics tutorial, we pivoted out of an initial focus on the Analects in a pretty fun way. We had three assigned readings, and a delightful interlude with a passage from Confucius.

The first was a denunciation of "Chinese ethics" by a philosopher who thinks its apparently pleasing openness to complexity and the spontaneous insight of the sage is really a recipe for authoritarianism, an empty center which philosophers and emperors vie to fill, neither brooking dissent. The most pressing concern of Chinese scholars today would be to formulate an ethics that, unlike the traditional ethics, is not inextricably bound to the notion of a transcendent (sacred) state power. 

Next was a sociologist's reflection on why Confucianism has not made inroads beyond East Asia, as Buddhism and Confucianism have. He pointed to its use as political ideology, from the KMT to Singapore to the CCP, and incompatibility with Western individualism. If Confucianism does indeed become globalized, its major carriers ... may indeed be Asian artists and storytellers rather than scholars and politicians, he concludes, along with humanistic Buddhist and Daoist associations which meld a Confucian social ethic with religious benevolence and ritual. This embedded Confucianism may have a better chance of spreading than a separated, purified version. (110)

These arguments shone a light on the interpretations and appropriations of the Analects we've been looking at these past weeks, Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, Yu Dan's Confucius from the Heart and Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh's The Path, all of which offer an appealingly pragmatic virtue ethics of everyday life disconnected from politics or even family structure. This may be a "Confucian ethics" without Chinese characteristic, but is it fair to Confucius? Confucius (as described in the Analects) was a good teacher but would really have liked a chance to influence rulers, preparing his followers to be good scholar officials should they be fortunate enough to have the opportunity. (He was chagrined at not finding a buyer for his wares, Analects 9.13.) Public service was key, even if the way to do that well was constant moral self-cultivation. Reading Analects as an ethics divorced and divorceable from politics is as anachronistic as reading Aristotle's Ethics without his Politics, as incomplete as supposing Analects a stand-alone text rather a guide to (and entirely dependent on) the Classics of Poetry, Rites, History and Music.

Our third reading was the Great Learning, the brief text from the Liji which Song Neoconfucian Zhu Xi used - with suitable commentary - to anchor the Four Books. It recasts the Analects (the second of the four books) as skilfully as John's "In the beginning was the Word" does Genesis. The commentary-amplified Great Learning assures us that everyone is endowed with "luminous inner virtue," and that public benefit ripples outward from its cultivation through study of the principle of things (li). Read in this frame, the Four Books seem focused on individual cultivation, and metaphysics rather than politics - but of course the Four Books were also the examination material and lingua franca of all public officials!

Going back to the Analects, which doesn't touch on human nature, inner luminous virtue or li, we found a passage which sets out the problematic relationship of moral self-cultivation and public service. Confucius asks four of his followers what they would do if someone employed them. One describes how he'd make a state prosperous in three years. Another has more modest ambitions to be an effective official. A third would assist in proper performance of ceremonies.

The Master then turned to Zengxi. "You, Zengxi! What would you do?" 
Zengzi stopped strumming his zither, and as the last notes faded away he set the instrument aside and rose to his feet. "I would choose to do something quite different from any of the other three." 
"What harm is there in that?" the Master said. "We are all just talking about our aspirations." 
Zenzgi then said, "In the third month of Spring, once the Spring garments have been completed, I should like to assemble a company of five or six young men and six or seven boys to go bathe in the Yi River and enjoy the breeze upon the Rain Dance Altar, and then return singing to the Master's house." 
The Master sighed deeply, saying, "I am with Zengxi!" (11.26)

The point here is not an Epicurean one about the joy of seasonal pleasures with friends at the expense of society at large, nor is it likely an expression of world-weary despondency at the end of a political career which never had a chance to flower. It seems to be something more like one of those "no A without B, no B without C, no C without D..." formulations. One's aspiration, it seems, mustn't be political influence, service or even ritual propriety. Though these are things the junzi embodies too, they will not be fully embodied if they are the aim!

The aim should be something like living fully, humanly, in time and society. Philip Ivanhoe argued that Confucianism is a "character consequentialism" - an endorsement of individual self-cultivation because it has the best consequences for society as a whole. Should the individual then think of their self-cultivation as public service? Confucius' appreciation of Zengzi suggests otherwise. Perhaps the point is that the Confucian way, once embarked on, provides reasons enough for its continuation - reasons not accessible from the outside, even untranslatable into the language of external values (what Alasdair Macintyre called "goods internal to a practice").

The Master said, “One who knows it [the Way] is not the equal of one who loves it, and one who loves it is not the equal of one who takes joy in it. (6.20)

Well and good, but can this help us answer questions about the authoritarian political consequences of Confucianism? Stay tuned!

Eske Möllgaard, "Chinese Ethics?" The Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics, ed. William Schweiker (Blackwell, 2008); Richard Madsen, "Obstacles to the Globalization of Confucianism," in Confucianism, a Habit of the Heart: Bellah, Civil Religion, and East Asia, ed. Philip J. Ivanhoe and Sungmoon Kim (SUNY, 2016), 99-111, 110; Philip J. Ivanhoe, "Character Consequentialism: An Early Confucian Contribution to Contemporary Ethical Theory," Journal of Religious Ethics 19/1 (1991): 55-70; Confucius: Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans. Slingerland (Hackett, 2003), 123, 59 

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