29 June 2017

The dew is particularly luxuriant this morning

I’m currently reading the Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals 《春秋繁露》 partially authored by the great Confucian philosopher Dong Zhongshu (but in fact a compiled tradition beginning with him), in translation by Drs Sarah Queen and John Major. I’ve only worked through about three chapters so far, and am having some difficulty keeping straight the multiple layers of commentary that make up the work (the Spring and Autumn Annals 《春秋》 itself, supposedly written by Confucius; the Gongyang Commentary 《公羊傳》 on the Annals; and then the Luxuriant Dew 《繁露》 commentary on the Gongyang tradition, named after the first chapter of the book). Dong offers a reading of the Spring and Autumn Annals which attributes political-philosophical and moral meanings to what it includes in the record of the State of Lu, what it excludes, and how it refers to the actors involved. But I am finding it so far to be a rich, profound and insightful work of political philosophy.

The Spring and Autumn Annals itself is a work of history so laconic that it would easily meet the approval of the most parsimonious Spartan king. But the oral traditions which accompanied it, one of which was, according to Ban Gu’s Book of Han, transmitted from Confucius’ disciple Zixia to the Gongyang family, whose descendant Gongyang Shou committed this oral tradition to writing during the Han Dynasty, attributes great depth of meaning to the way in which Confucius described (or glossed, or concealed) events and people. The idea was that the history was a template for rectifying names: recording events as faithfully as circumstances and proper feeling would allow, but also approving or disapproving the way in which historical figures conducted themselves by attaching or refusing to attach titles to them. The Gongyang Commentary takes the form of a question-and-answer catechesis to each passage, pointing out and clarifying vague, unclear or perplexing points.

The Luxuriant Dew, then (at least in these first few chapters), takes the form of several similarly catechetical dialogues between Dong Zhongshu – or another authoritative master of the Gongyang Commentary – and his students, with them raising questions or objections about certain inconsistencies or moral quandaries raised by the Gongyang tradition. And he tackles some fairly concrete questions of statecraft, including those of war and peace.

Dong Zhongshu is by no means a consistent pacifist in the way Micius is, but he is certainly (particularly given his violent Western Han political context and particularly when compared against even other classicists and philosophers of the time) a ‘dove’ who treats war with a singular detestation, as he believes Confucius also does in the Spring and Autumn Annals.
Someone raising a question said, [The Spring and Autumn] records battles and attacks in great detail. Why, then, are there no expressions indicating that it despised such battles and attacks?

The answer is:
[When the Spring and Autumn records] meetings and assemblies,
    large states [are described as having] hosted small states;
  [when the Spring and Autumn records] battles and attacks,
    [states] mentioned later [are described as having] hosted the ones [mentioned] first.

If the Spring and Autumn did not despise warfare, why would it place the state that initiated the aggression in an inferior position? This was an expression indicating its hatred of warfare.
How great is the harm suffered by the people during warfare! Examine its intentions and observe its precepts, and you will discover that the Spring and Autumn despises those who rely on force rather than virtue and those who coerce and devastate the people, but it cherishes those who rely on humaneness and righteousness to win the submission of the people. An Ode declares:
“Spreading the virtue of his governance throughout the lands.”
This is what the
Spring and Autumn considers to be praiseworthy.
At the same time, in a way very similar to Orthodox social thought on the subject, even though he does not and will not grant that war can be righteous or just, he believes that there can be greater or lesser degrees of justice even within war, and that observing these degrees is very important:
In the case of prearranged battles, the Spring and Autumn praises the fact that [the two sides] arranged the battle in advance; it does not praise the battle. There is evidence that this is so. The Spring and Autumn loves the people, and warfare kills them. What pleasure does a noble man derive from killing what he loves? …

Compared with a deceitful assault, a prearranged battle is considered righteous. Compared with [the alternative of] not fighting, a prearranged battle is not righteous. Therefore no alliance is better than an alliance, and yet there are references to praiseworthy alliances. No battles are better than engaging in battle, and yet there are references to praiseworthy battles. Within an unrighteous act, righteousness may dwell. Within a righteous act, unrighteousness may dwell.
Indeed, the emphasis on degree, on proportion, on reasoning by analogy, recurs throughout the opening chapters of the Luxuriant Dew. In no other way, Dong believes, can the profundity of the Way truly be grasped:
Someone said: The Way of the Spring and Autumn is to observe what brings confusion to people and offer explanations to greatly enlighten them. Now Zhao Dun was a worthy, but he did not follow the principle [of punishing the assassin of his lord]. Everyone saw his goodness, but no one saw his crime. Thus because of his worthiness, the Spring and Autumn expressly associates him with this great evil and implicates him with strong criticism to cause people to think deeply and look into themselves, reflecting on the Way, so that they say, “Oh! The great duty of the ruler and minister and the Way of father and son indeed extend this far!”
But the reliance on analogical reasoning only gets one so far when looking at the Spring and Autumn. Whereas Socrates’ student Plato veiled the truth in its higher forms beneath shades of irony and by giving both sides of an argument brief flashing glimpses of that truth, Gongyang Shou’s student Dong Zhongshu takes a somewhat different approach, but with similar intent. There’s an apophatic subtlety to Dong Zhongshu’s commentary, that not only places as much emphasis on what is left out of the narrative as on what is stated explicitly, but even warns against taking what is left in the narrative too literally, or applying a legalistic mindset to its distinctions. The moral truths of the Spring and Autumn Annals are not something that can be approached merely by the consistent application of a hermeneutic, no matter how rational. Perhaps this is why Dong’s approach has been considered ‘mystical’.
An Ode declares:
“The flowers of the cherry tree, how they wave about!
    It is not that I do not think of you, but your home is far away.”
Confucius commented: “He did not really think of her. If he did, there would be no such thing as being far away.” From this, we see that you must observe [the
Spring and Autumn’s] guiding principles and not take its words too literally. When you do not take its words too literally, you will head toward the proper path.
There are two things, then, which stand firmly and implacably in the way of the Gongyang tradition of Confucian classicism being considered a form of ‘fundamentalism’ – a charge which has sadly lighted upon certain latter-day Gongyang scholars, with more or less encouragement from their critics. Firstly, the Gongyang Zhuan is an oral tradition. The reason the Gongyang Zhuan is considered a ‘New Text’ is precisely because it was transmitted orally by catechesis from Zixia down to Gongyang Shou. There is no written ‘text’, no ‘original’, to be given divine sanction and infallibility: indeed, this was precisely the critique of Gongyang studies by the ‘Old Text’ followers of the Zuo Zhuan. Secondly, there is this apophatic tendency, this moral imagination, at work within the tradition itself, warning followers precisely against the attribution of infallibility to either the Spring and Autumn or to the Gongyang commentary. I’ve noted before that Jiang Qing, implacable though he may seem wherever his nemesis of Rawlsian liberalism rears its head, also adheres to this kind of apophasis about his own project.

Still looking forward to sinking my teeth further into this great foundational text, begun by one of Confucianism’s greatest advocates and a firm ‘social justice’ philosopher. The spring and autumn dew is sure to reveal many more of its luxuriances.


  1. Philosophy, it seems to me, is an attempt to apply reason to human behavior through logic. However, science has determined that the human brain is pretty much hardwired by the time we're three years old - three years during which emotion, particularly a search for security, rules our behavior. We learn to reason only once we are secure enough to put our emotions under control. For Christians, faith is indispensable to the successful implementation of this process. Scripture elucidates that behavior which, if pursued religiously, facilitates the control of our passions and creates an environment conducive to harmonious and abundant life. It is our hearts which we must regulate, the mind will follow.

  2. I'm not sure I want to take Tertullian's tack that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem: there is a place for philosophy that is separate from the place for theology, but subordinate to it.

    The analogy I've used before, I think, is that theology is not merely the queen, but the mother of the sciences, including philosophy.