02 June 2013

Harmonising Confucianism (out of existence?), and possible reference points from the fate of apostolic Christianity

Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu 杜甫

I have been reading two very worthwhile blogs of late: the first, Dr Sam Crane’s The Useless Tree, and the second, my friend and colleague at Solidarity Hall Susannah Black’s Radio Free Thulcandra. Recently, they have each touched on the topic of the public role of religion with regard to secular liberalism, and do (on the surface) seem to be saying very different things. As for myself, an Anglican Christian, these are questions of pressing importance, but they should also interest, very much so, followers of the Confucian way. This is because both apostolic Christianity and Confucianism are, at their basis, religions (for those who would contest the point, more on this a bit later) with virtue-ethical traditions which seek to order shared space and time to facilitate the proper ends of human excellence. Both emphasise justice over the pursuit of profit or power, and both emphasise the value of cultivating habits in overcoming the desires for both.

Also, both Christianity and Confucianism are now having to contend with a social reality which has been blown apart by a nominalist and voluntarist ideology (liberalism) entirely averse to virtue-ethical thinking, and a form of ethics which, in ways utterly contrary to both traditions, detaches individuals from their social contexts and, through the logic of the market, encourages them to think first of individual utility – profit and power – over all other considerations.

It cannot be stressed enough that this alienation is by no means a novel condition for either belief. Christianity arose in the context of the Second Temple, and of the Herodian client state of the Roman Empire – though the Romans did indeed emphasise virtue ethics, it was a pagan form which oriented the individual agent to the pursuit of dominance, of power; Confucianism arose in the context of the Spring and Autumn period when the influence of the Zhou emperor was on the wane and warlords competed with each other for power, wealth and territory. In neither case was either ideology suitable or ‘relevant’ to the culture it entered, nor did it attempt to make itself so. Christ was crucified for his radical recapitulation of virtue amongst the poor and discarded of the Roman Empire and the Second Temple faith. Confucius, though he faced no such ignominious end, was nevertheless spurned along with his teachings by the feudal lords of his day and age.

Susannah Black, in her piece ‘The Language of Exile’, talks only about the Christian tradition in comparison with Judaism, but she speaks in a way which might have relevance for Confucianism.
The desire for a “land of our own” here, now, visibly: a Christian nation or a Holy Roman Empire that is more than provisional, is an impatience to get on with things. The Zionism that Strauss championed (at least for a time and provisionally) was of this kind; he both supported it, and suspected it as a ducking out of the Jewish responsibility to keep living as a remnant exilic community. He described it as a desire to “to gain access to normal historical ‘reality’ (land and soil, power and arms, peasantry and aristocracy.)” What does one do with this desire, whether one is Jewish or Christian?

One option is assimilation. Assimilationist Judaism is the equivalent of some kinds of post-Enlightenment Protestantism, and it is the religion which is the opiate of the masses: This kind of belief, which is not supposed to have any public or political manifestation, is very problematic. Certainly it is individualist rather than communitarian or political, but that’s the least of it: Ultimately the belief is not supposed to be seen at all: it is acceptable only inasmuch as it makes no difference in one’s words or behavior.
In other words, the modern, liberal-democratic, secular, capitalist society seems to offer the Christian a choice: assimilation or resistance (often taken to be futile). Ms Black includes amongst the assimilationists, interestingly enough, ‘fundamentalism, some of modern evangelicalism, some of dispensationalism’, on account of the fact that they are ‘exiled, disembodied, individualistic, and apolitical’ (at least, I take it, ‘apolitical’ in the sense of not having a politic of its own: being unable to offer an alternative to the electoral politics of the secular society and yet more likely than not to retreat to personal pietism and duck out of participating in that politics altogether). On the other hand, Ms Black notes that the people who want to rebuild the Holy Roman Empire have a tendency to end up in some fairly undesirable places: ‘a somewhat similar appeal to that which sent Paul Wolfowitz on his overseas adventures’.

In other words, we run the risk of becoming either Herodians or Zealots; a choice we must resist with a third way. Ms Black does not offer this third way; instead she tries to sketch out the rough edges of a neo-Augustinian (perhaps Benedictine) theopolitics of exile, one which does not capitulate to the post-Enlightenment secular conquest of public space and public time, but one which also does not claim an immanent political supremacy à la Zionism or Islamism. Neither assimilation and silence, nor Kingdom Now is called for. But Christianity should not relinquish its historic duty to provide real public space and real public time for those seeking sanctuary from the ravages of the cultural wasteland of late liberal capitalism.

So what has any of this to do with Confucianism?

Well, that depends very much on what you take Confucianism to be. That it is not wholly analogical to the Abrahamic faiths is an obvious point: there are no creeds and no formal doctrines; the supernatural is a subject best avoided in Confucianism; and the main concern is with improving society in the here-and-now, rather than extending hope for the hereafter. At the same time, these differences have been vastly overstated in Western orientalist studies going all the way back to Voltaire, whose pontifications on the irreligious nature of Confucianism have sadly influenced all Western studies thereof up until Tu Wei-Ming. Confucianism is very much a religion, even if it is not an Abrahamic one: it has a canon (however loosely-defined in certain periods) of sacred Classics and Books, it has rituals and music, it has teachings and doctrines, it has a transcendent (not a materialist) metaphysics, and its sociopolitical ideals are grounded in faith-based assumptions about the workings of the cosmos. Most important, it anticipates a way of ordering the world, through ritual and music, in ways which do not assume that violence and heterogeneity of ends are the most basic human realities to be recognised – and thus runs counter to the ‘state of nature’ mythology underwriting Hobbes and Locke.

Thus, it appears to me as though liberalism ultimately offers Confucianism the same choice: assimilation or resistance (which is taken to be futile). And this is a choice which Confucianism, if it wishes to remain true to its basic orientation to the transcendent order it champions, must refuse in much the same way Christianity must.

Dr Crane might agree with the first half of this assessment, though he does not assign it the same normative meaning as I do as an indictment of the regnant disorder of liberalism, but rather as an indication of Confucianism’s need to assimilate to that disorder. He makes a set of statements which he means as purely positive and empirical, though (the fact-value distinction being at best a self-serving fiction of the secular social sciences) all such descriptions have embedded in them a set of prescriptive assumptions. Taking a look here:
The US is a liberal society and polity in the sense that a certain individualism, defined in terms of rights and preferences and “lifestyle,” is deeply ingrained. Communitarianism, though an important part of American tradition and political discourse, seems always to be constrained by more powerfully institutionalized principles and practices of liberalism. Assertions of “community” cannot transgress individual rights. I say this not in celebration (I have long had a certain sympathy for communitarianism) but simply as a point of fact (which some might want to dispute empirically...). For example, Christianity has transformed over time in the US. The more communitarian mainline denominations - Catholics, Episcopalians, etc. - have declined in recent decades while smaller sects and denominations that can cater to more personal, individualistic religious preferences have grown. Similarly, a more muscular class-based politics, something more genuinely socialist than the usual American left-liberalism, has never gained much backing here. Culturally and politically, Americans are just too averse to identifying themselves in broad social groups. We talk about “community” all the time. But we are forever acting and thinking as individuals.
I think it is past disputing that the US is a liberal polity, and that this is backed by powerful institutional arrangements, path dependence and civic mythology. However, I do not think this analysis works ‘all the way down’. For one thing, it ignores local and slow food movements, fair trade movements, worker cooperatives, local currencies, and even broader-based political movements like the gun-control and pro-life movements as manifestations of communitarian sentiment, organisation and action – foregoing certain personal liberties in pursuit of some shared good. It ignores the appeal of artists like Bruce Springsteen who have always entreated broadly through their music to communitarian, ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ ideals. It also ignores the role of legal action and outright violence in preventing, for example, a ‘muscular class-based politics’ from nucleating – the entire role of Pinkerton and the various National Guards collaborating with the robber barons in crushing various manifestations of the labour movement in the US. Now, it is likely that all of the above efforts at creating constraints on market liberalism have been fighting losing battles, but that the battles have been fought at all is itself a fact which deserves attention.

This is disappointing to me for the precise reason that Dr Crane, who is usually so astute about critiquing similar culturally essentialist and determinist characterisations when it comes to China, is nonetheless making just such a culturally essentialist and determinist argument here: ‘culturally and politically, Americans are just too averse to identifying themselves in broad social groups’, full stop. It’s ‘fundamental’. Don’t get me wrong – I think he is right that we are an individualist culture under a liberal government hostile to authentic expressions of communitarianism; however, the way he frames the argument is to render the individualism in American culture a non-negotiable vis-à-vis Confucianism and apostolic Christianity. He argues against the model of China as authoritarian cultural monolith impervious to criticism or change, but then erects a model of America as liberal cultural monolith impervious to criticism or change.

In short, for Dr Crane, only one option is left for Confucianism, regardless of place (and, by extension, for those forms of apostolic Christianity): assimilation to the invulnerable liberal order.

This makes Dr Crane’s hermeneutic of Confucian texts incredibly problematic. On one hand, Dr Crane is primarily concerned with this question: how can Confucianism be made to appeal directly to a certain set of American a priori liberal political and cultural preconceptions (for example, democracy)? He buttresses the validity of this question merely by asserting that the Confucianism of Song China is not the same as the Confucianism of pre-Qin China – thus, why should we expect the Confucianism of today to bear any resemblance to either?

It is troubling to me that Dr Crane denies that there exists any meaningful sort of hermeneutic of continuity in the Confucian tradition which needs be respected, that there is some central character to the Confucian philosophical tradition which is retained between Qin and Han, Tang and Song, Qing and modernity. Troubling too, is that he sees Confucian texts as useful only insofar as they do not challenge the (American) reader in her sociopolitical context. Again, to describe is to prescribe. He observes that ‘communitarian’ apostolic Christianity has fallen in numbers in comparison with fundamentalist (see above) denominations which cater to personal preference. And he notes that genuine socialism has never had the (presumably numerical) ‘backing’ in the US that left-liberal progressivism has. By framing the problem thus, he makes an implicit argument that the first-order problem Confucianism faces in America is getting more followers.

Put bluntly, this was not Mencius’s own first-order concern.




James Legge translation:

King Hui of Liang said, ‘Small as my virtue is, in the government of my kingdom, I do indeed exert my mind to the utmost. If the year be bad on the inside of the river, I remove as many of the people as I can to the east of the river, and convey grain to the country in the inside. When the year is bad on the east of the river, I act on the same plan. On examining the government of the neighboring kingdoms, I do not find that there is any prince who exerts his mind as I do. And yet the people of the neighboring kingdoms do not decrease, nor do my people increase. How is this?’

Mencius replied, ‘Your majesty is fond of war - let me take an illustration from war. The soldiers move forward to the sound of the drums; and after their weapons have been crossed, on one side they throw away their coats of mail, trail their arms behind them, and run. Some run a hundred paces and stop; some run fifty paces and stop. What would you think if those who run fifty paces were to laugh at those who run a hundred paces?’

The king said, ‘They should not do so. Though they did not run a hundred paces, yet they also ran away.’

‘Since your Majesty knows this,’ replied Mencius, ‘you need not hope that your people will become more numerous than those of the neighboring kingdoms. If the seasons of husbandry be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fishes and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used. When the grain and fish and turtles are more than can be eaten, and there is more wood than can be used, this enables the people to nourish their living and mourn for their dead, without any feeling against any. This condition, in which the people nourish their living and bury their dead without any feeling against any, is the first step of royal government.’
In other words, Mencius does not take popularity to be the primary concern of his philosophical teachings, but rather responsible conduct and the imposition of limits on desire in the interests of a humane social order. This is at odds with the implications of the current practice of liberal democracy generally, and particularly with the practice of liberal democracy in the United States, which punishes statesmen for comporting themselves in a way which is responsible for the entire body politic (as opposed to in the interests of their respective parties and special interest groups), and which particularly punishes statesmen for articulating any limit on desire, whether their own or of their constituency. Any doubts on this score should be settled by an examination of the electoral fate of Jimmy Carter in the wake of his infamous ‘malaise’ speech calling for more responsible use of oil and energy resources, which more than any other artefact of American statesmanship in the past half century was Mencian in character.

More generally, though, market and political liberalism have between them been responsible for erecting the model of Homo oeconomicus as the central normative presumption in American public life and policy-making: an actor whose sole trustworthy motivation is the calculation and pursuit of his own utility, his own profit (in Classical Chinese, 利 li).

Again, Mencius would not approve of this ‘basic liberal presumption’. This comes from the very opening chapter of the Mencius:
孟子對曰:「王何必曰利?亦有仁義而已矣。王曰『何以利吾國』?大夫曰『何以利吾家』?士庶人曰『何以利吾身』?上下交征利而國危矣。萬乘之國弒其君者, 必千乘之家;千乘之國弒其君者,必百乘之家。萬取千焉,千取百焉,不為不多矣。苟為後義而先利,不奪不饜。未有仁而遺其親者也,未有義而後其君者也。王亦 曰仁義而已矣,何必曰利?」

James Legge translation:

Mencius replied, ‘Why must your Majesty use that word, “profit”? What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics. If your Majesty say, “What is to be done to profit my kingdom?” the great officers will say, “What is to be done to profit our families?” and the inferior officers and the common people will say, “What is to be done to profit our persons?” Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered. In the kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the murderer of his sovereign shall be the chief of a family of a thousand chariots. In the kingdom of a thousand chariots, the murderer of his prince shall be the chief of a family of a hundred chariots. To have a thousand in ten thousand, and a hundred in a thousand, cannot be said not to be a large allotment, but if righteousness be put last, and profit be put first, they will not be satisfied without snatching all. There never has been a benevolent man who neglected his parents. There never has been a righteous man who made his sovereign an after consideration. Let your Majesty also say, “Benevolence and righteousness, and let these be your only themes.” Why must you use that word – “profit”?’
I don’t think Dr Crane is necessarily arguing in bad faith, much the same way I don’t think the people who run the various Confucius Institutes throughout Western academia are necessarily operating in bad faith. He obviously sees a great deal of worth in the Confucian texts, and it is clear he believes that American society can learn from them (though precisely what they are supposed to learn is not always clear). But neither can Ms Black’s admonition be ignored that assimilated faith, the only faith that liberalism can countenance – whether Judaism or Islam or Christianity or Buddhism or Confucianism – is a faith which is ‘disembodied, individualistic, apolitical’ and above all, silent. Public expressions of a faith assimilated to liberalism are ‘acceptable only inasmuch as [they make] no difference in one’s words or behavior’. Confucianism cannot be ‘consonant with liberalism’; what is demanded from Crane’s accommodation is silence and deference.

This is made abundantly clear in Dr Crane’s most recent post, on how elderly folk are now being asked to take care of each other, rather than having their families take care of them. He notes that even a modified modern modicum of Confucianism has become something close to an impossibility in the modern economy. Competitive materialism has reduced the young to competition and uncertainty, and has left the elderly to fend for themselves. And what does Dr Crane suggest is the lesson from all this?
I in no way intend to demean contemporary Chinese experience. Rather, my purpose here is to suggest that the Chinese past is not the Chinese present, and that the Chinese present is becoming more similar to the American present than to the Chinese past.

I have on-going discussions with various friends and acquaintances on the extent to which we might be able to understand China as a “Confucian society.” I think it is not. And the transformation of elder care is, I believe, a prime indicator that it is not. There may be conscientious individual Confucians (i.e. persons who really do fulfill something close to a Confucian morality in their personal lives) in China now but, for most, the competitive materialism of capital-eque society and economy and culture make Confucianism an anachronistic shadow of a lost time.
That is to say, the basic commitments of any Confucianism worthy of the name have been compromised, not only in ‘authoritarian’ China but also in ‘liberal’ Japan, among other places. They have been made impossible, as the basic commitments of all other pre-modern conservatisms have been made impossible, by the dynamics of modern social space, which are a function of the ‘race to the bottom’ and the unbridled worship of profit which liberalism has effectively enthroned. Thus compromised, Confucianism is left as a curious obsolescence with no credibility to critique from the basis of its own native moral orientation the ideology to which it has always needed to assimilate, and which has destroyed it. What is left when it ‘assimilates’ to liberal modernity in the way Dr Crane prescribes is nothing but a series of pseudo-Confucian ‘Confucius-say’ platitudes and pieties, which liberals can then easily dismiss as so much anachronistic hypocrisy when noting as the good professor himself does the impossibility of Confucian virtue being lived out.

Confucianism has thus been effectively ‘harmonised’ out of existence by the soft coercion of globalist economics. And Dr Crane’s punchline (whether he meant it so or not) is TINA, and ‘all hail the conquering market’.

However, I do not think Dr Crane has exhausted all the options. Apostolic Christianity retains the Benedictine option, and (as Ms Black begins to sketch out) our theology allows us to rearticulate the real public space and time provided by churches in the language of alternate citizenship and ambassadorial functions.

Confucianism is a trickier case – Confucianism having been traditionally and stridently opposed to monastic life (whether of the Daoist or the Buddhist variety), the Benedictine option is not really open to it in any obvious way. Confucianism is also a diffused religion, which does not have its own sacral institutional spaces but is acted out entirely in the ‘public sphere’: family, community and state are sacralised by Confucianism. Thus, there exists a stronger conflict between Confucian norms and liberal ones. Liberalism in the West merely ‘polices the secular’ and shunts the realm of religion into its own ‘private’ spaces (the church and the home). However, because Confucianism sacralises the public realm itself, it contends more directly than apostolic Christianity for virtue in the public sphere, and liberalism must displace it entirely from ‘the secular’. Unfortunately, in the encounter with Western liberal ideas, Confucian intellectuals were caught flat-footed and off-guard without their own language to articulate what was happening to their tradition, and the tradition all but dissolved entirely (partly under the weight of the ‘is Confucianism a religion?’ debate in the decades before and after the catastrophe of Xinhai). The task facing political expressions of Confucianism now, in articulating a politics of resistance to capitalism and modernity, is thus more Herculean even than that facing apostolic Christianity.

However, Confucianism has a long tradition of dissent from corrupt governments to draw upon, but at the same time its position as moral authority in society has never been challenged to the same extent as it has been since 1911. In periods where government was corrupt and the social fabric was damaged in the extreme, many Confucians felt the dialectic pull of the hermitage – amply supported in the Analects as an option against a government (and, one presumes, a society) which will not follow ‘the Way’. Here there may be an alternative meeting with Daoist ideals. One among numerous examples of such Confucians was the great Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu. The question is, can such an ethic of hermitage and withdrawal be the basis for an engaging counterculture, an alternate ordering of space which makes living virtuously along Confucian lines possible? In other words, is there space for a post-liberal Confucianism? This may end up being the question for those who would keep Confucianism intact with its radical teeth.


  1. Magnificent post. Christianity and Confucianism are actually in pretty good positions to critique liberalism because they are not economistic ideologies like Marxism. When the command economies faced growth slowdowns in the 1970s and onward, they started to lose their practical claim for support among the populace−the promise of robust, relatively egalitarian growth and improving living standards.

    The Italian Social Catholic Amintore Fanfani once pointed out that Christian morality may demand policies that might hurt economic growth (for example, actually obligating workers and employers to observe numerous religious holidays, which could theoretically hurt productivity,) but these policies should be supported anyway, because some things take precedence over purely economic concerns.

    I am not sure why Dr. Crane would have such a defeatist attitude, although it is understandable to feel that things are hopeless sometimes. Many people are unhappy with the prevailing ideology but the mainstream media does not really give voice to alternative viewpoints.

    We need Christians, Confucians, and other people of good will to provide a critique of liberalism, or we will simply be ceding the stage to nasty elements. I find it distressing that Islamism and extreme right-wing nationalism (I am not sure if it is time to use the “F” word just yet) are probably the strongest anti-liberal forces in the world right now.

  2. Amen! Many thanks, John.

    In fairness to Dr Crane, I doubt he would describe his position as 'defeatist' - he would likely say he is merely being pragmatic. But this pragmatism seems predicated on the idea that the American system of economic, social and political organisation is immutable and ideal and the one to which point the apostolic Christians and Confucians is not. I feel myself somewhat honour-bound to point out that this is mistaken, not as a Confucian but as an apostolic Christian with strong sympathies toward Gongyang-style social Confucianism.

    As for the last, yes, I think we (David Lindsay very much included here; in fact, he was the one who convinced me of this) need to start articulating a muscular Christian alternative to modernity. The true danger of political Islam lies not in its militancy or its fecundity, as all too many idiotic 'anti-jihadists' tend to claim, but in its appeal to an objective moral reality which places virtue and discipline above and over-against all manifestations of 'do-what-thou-wilt' egoism and cost-benefit utilitarianism.

    And this itself is not truly a danger if Christianity can recover its theopolitical critiques of the civilisation it birthed.