19 October 2012

Confucius and Catholic social teaching

One day, when I was freshly arrived in Baotou, I was poring over the Hidden Harmonies blog and came across a well-written and well-argued post by melektaus, one of that blog’s authors, regarding the several wrongheaded myths about Confucius which pervade in the Western media. I wrote a response in Chinese at the Tocharian Rider, here, and here is the translation:

Hidden Harmonies’ melektaus and I share quite a number of views, though I tend to be slightly more conservative; this holds true also on the topic of Confucius. In answer to his essay ‘Defaming Confucius’, I have a few friendly corrections.

Firstly, I agree entirely with melektaus’ critiques of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Regarding the Bible, Hegel and Plato, however, I think his reasoning tends to be a bit unfair. None of them is necessarily totalitarian. As an Episcopalian, I can claim with some certainty that the character of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament are quite different. In particular, St Paul’s views tend to be anti-slavery and anti-discrimination whether on the basis of gender or ethnicity (for example that famous passage in Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’). Plato perhaps had some deep scepticism toward Athenian-style democracy, but this was because he feared that a democratic system without controls would soon devolve into a tyranny; Plato’s preferred style of government was an aristocracy (which is to say, a rule by the best, what we would often think of as a meritocracy), then a timocracy, then an oligarchy, then a democracy, and his least-preferred was tyranny. Hegel also came in for some rather gross mischaracterisation: unfortunately, melektaus referred us to Karl Popper’s ridiculous anti-Hegelian histrionics. To be clear, Hegel’s thinking absolutely had some very deep problems; the first of which is probably his teleology - though his best critic on this facet is almost certainly Kierkegaard. History certainly has an ‘end’, a telos, but human knowledge will, to the end of time, have its limitations; and Hegel’s mistake lies in his optimism (regarding human knowledge), since it precludes any possibility of faith or hope. His writing style was esoteric and bloodless, and is difficult to understand. But Popper’s attacks on him are superlatively naïve: Hegel’s defence of ‘the State’ certainly did not apply to all states, given his insistence on the function of the state as pursuing justice - his model certainly provided the means to distinguish good states (those which could pursue justice) from bad ones (those which pursued only power and profit). Hegel was no supporter of slavery, and certainly no supporter of the abridgement of human dignity. Not only did he refuse to defend the totalitarians amongst his students, but he also was the first German idealist to articulate the importance of the bürgerliche Gesellschaft (that is to say, the ‘civil society’) to the State and to human development more generally.

However, regarding melektaus’ main points on Confucius:

Myth One: I believe melektaus has it mostly right here. Confucius did not support tyrants or dictators one bit. Confucius and his student Mencius (along with Plato, I should add) were virtue ethicists: by right, governmental authority should belong to a ‘superior person’, a junzi, whose governance style can be referred to as wuwei (creative inaction). But this wuwei is not to be confused with the Western liberal doctrine of laissez-faire: the first duty of the junzi is to love her family; thereafter she is better-disposed to love her subjects. Mencius taught that a good farmer can resist tugging on his plants to make them grow, but also that a good farmer should clear the weeds from his plot. The junzi’s power is likewise not to be considered unlimited: a junzi is responsible to Heaven, to the earth, and to the people. Perhaps melektaus exaggerates a bit when he claims Confucius was arguably an anarchist (the Confucius of the Analects certainly was not, as he believed government was a good thing and encouraged his best students to seek official positions), but his criticism of Huntington and similar authors is spot-on.

Myth Two: Here I think melektaus gets some points completely correct, and others a bit wrong (much as I would dearly like to agree with him). As virtue theorists, Confucius and Mencius certainly would not have approved of social systems which divided wealth too unequally, and would have seen members of the working class treated with the dignity they are due. For example, the passage in the Analects which goes: 「子退朝,曰,傷人乎,不問馬。」 (‘Confucius asked after a fire: is anyone hurt? He did not ask after the horses.’), shows his attitude clearly. The meaning of the passage is, he cares for the human welfare of the grooms (servants, normally poor people) who might have been hurt in the fire, over the property of wealthy people (the horses). Mencius takes it still a step further when he says: 「庖有肥肉,廄有肥馬,民有飢色,野有餓莩,此率獸而食人也。」 (‘In your stores there is fat meat, in your stables there are fat horses; but the people have the look of starvation, and the land is barren. This is leading on beasts to devour men.’). This ‘leading on beasts to devour men’ passage demonstrates even more clearly Mencius’ primary concern with the well-being of common people. In the ideal Confucian society, every person of seventy will have good meat to eat and silk clothes to wear, and the masses will be neither cold nor hungry. In this aspect it would not be a far cry to describe the Confucians as egalitarian.

However, their social outlook is predicated somewhat on the notion of authority: a child must listen to his parents; a younger sister must listen to her older sister; a student must listen to her teacher; a vassal must listen to his lord. Again, though, this authority does not correlate with authoritarianism: the motivation must always be care, and parents, older siblings, teachers and lords must all have responsibilities which arise from care. It is well to think of this sort of authority as the same sort of authority supported by Dr Johnson and Pope Gregory XVI. Both of the latter men are notable for having detested (against the grain of their time) slave systems and authoritarian government with a burning passion, but as Dr Johnson said, ‘Government is necessary to man, and where obedience is not compelled, there is no government.’ Pope Gregory XVI was even more blunt: ‘When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin.’ The subtle dialectic, lost on careless readers, is that because they detest the abuses of absolute power, they support that gentler form of power which manifests itself in authority, in trustworthiness. Confucius may be said to think in a similar way.

Myth Three: Here melektaus’ argument is mostly right. But again it is useful to point out the distinction between authority and authoritarianism. There is no conflict between recognising a superior’s authority and remonstrating that same superior, because the very moral reasoning which prompts that remonstration comes ultimately from authority (a child’s from her parents, for example) - in this way authority can critique itself. Though the recourse to remonstrance is important to understanding Confucian thought, it is also circumscribed. A child or a younger sibling or a student can remonstrate their (parent / elder sibling / teacher) in private, personally, but should not humiliate them in public. (EDIT: it should be noted that Christian doctrine in the Epistles takes the same form. Remonstrance by the sinned-against to the sinner should be undertaken personally before it is done publicly.) Again, the most important thing for Confucius and Mencius is that these relationships are characterised by love and care, and publicly behave as such.

Myth Four: Yeah, here melektaus is absolutely, unquestionably right. Foot-binding was introduced during the Southern Tang Dynasty, a good thousand-some years after Confucius’ death, and only in the decadence of the Song Dynasty did it become (like the Western corset) what may charitably be called an idiotic popular fad, though one which sadly did not disappear until the late Qing Dynasty. Confucius and Mencius had nothing to do with the fashion. As for the broader point, my Chinese teacher put it this way: just because Confucius didn’t talk to or about women, doesn’t mean that he was maligning them.

The above is my considered opinion, but I would still like to strongly recommend melektaus’ piece, as he makes a number of incredibly good points and is doing a much-needed service in clearing up Western misconceptions about Confucius and Confucianism.

I checked again the comments section, and what should I find but an interesting link from one of the commenters (perspectivehere) to the work of one Dr Thomas Hong-Soon Han, an economist at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies; specifically the article ‘Catholicism and Confucianism in Dialogue for Corporate Social Responsibility’, which details the similarities between the economic thought of Confucius and that of Catholic social teaching (particularly in the ideal of datong 大同), and which is directed at laying some groundwork within the ‘spacious room for dialogue and solidarity between Catholicism and Confucianism’.

Of particular interest is Dr Han’s argument that Confucianism, like socialism and like distributism, argues for an economy which is harmonised with ethics. It does not see wealth as problematic per se, but it does see as superlatively problematic the naked pursuit of profit at the expense of virtue and at the expense of everyone else in the community. It shares with Catholicism its firm beliefs in the organic unity of nature, the society and the individual; in the paramount importance of the family as the crucible of virtue; in the need for solidarity between classes of people; and in the need for a preferential option for the poor. Though Dr Han makes it clear that it would be wrongheaded to speak of a Confucian ‘theology’ as such (Confucianism not being a creedal religion), he certainly points to a broad body of shared belief and shared basis for social organisation and action. The article is worth reading in its entirety, though - he ends with what amounts to a clarion call for both Catholics and Confucians to practice what they preach regarding social teaching and to animate the discussion with concrete proposals for social reform.

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