12 October 2011

In which I agree and disagree with Sam Crane on the subject of Master Zhongni

Zhu Xi (left) and Zhou Enlai (right)

Sam Crane, in this post at the Useless Tree responding to
a Reuters blog post
on a Confucius Institute in Kentucky, tackles the question of whether Confucius can save the middle class. His short answer – no – is one I can certainly agree with, though for different reasons than the ones he gives… having to do both with the character of the great disappearing American middle class and with the character of Confucian philosophy. However, I believe Mr Crane’s attempted accommodation between modern Western liberalism and Confucianism to be somewhat misguided on several counts.

I’ve discussed Confucius and the ways in which Westerners should (and should not) productively interact with his philosophy at length elsewhere – mostly in relation to liberals and palaeoliberals who want to co-opt him into saying things he manifestly never would have supported himself (given both what he wrote and the context in which he wrote it). So when I see yet another liberal (albeit of a much more moderate and left-liberal bent) attempting to create a programme to make Confucius more ‘broadly… acceptable’, more ‘relat[able]’, more ‘relevant’, it does rub me somewhat the wrong way*. First of all, from a literary and an historical view, neither Confucius nor his disciples were very interested in bowing to the ‘way things were’ in order to become more ‘broadly acceptable’ or more ‘relevant’: Confucius ended his career in relative ignominy and frustration at the state of the world, a poor teacher in his own hometown; Mencius retired early in similar frustration with his lack of influence. However, in spite of these ends, neither man truly wanted to ‘sell out’ or adapt his thought to the dominant paradigm of the day – to the pursuit of gain (li 利) at the expense of justice (yi 義).

I do agree with a lot of Mr Crane’s exposition on the places of ‘overlap’ between Confucianism and contemporary liberalism, but I think his commenters have already done a fairly good job of showing the deficiencies of translating zhi 志 as ‘free will’, in the voluntarist and content-free sense it is often meant by contemporary liberal thinking. For the Confucians 志 is not without virtue-ethical content. When Confucius said, in Analects 9.25, ‘三軍可奪帥也,匹夫不可奪志也’ (‘A commander can be kidnapped from a large army, but a common man’s will cannot be taken from him’), Legge notes that the ‘man’ being considered is ‘one of a pair’ (相匹) – that pair being ‘husband and wife’. Relationships and embedded (rather than necessarily universal) ethics are present in implication even when Confucius nears something approaching a liberal sentiment. Also, very interesting is the context in Analects 12.1 and 12.2:


Yan Yuan asked about humanity.

The Master said: ‘To restrain oneself and follow ritual is humane. [If one can] for a single day restrain himself and follow ritual, his humanity would be recognised everywhere. Humanity is self-originating; can it not only then occur in others?’

Yan Yuan asked, ‘Please tell me, how does this happen?’

The Master said: ‘Do not look at what goes against ritual; do not hear what goes against ritual; do not speak what goes against ritual; do not do what goes against ritual.’

Yan Yuan said, ‘Although I am unwise, I will follow these words.’

Mr Crane takes the first part of this quote, and takes it to mean that humane behaviour being self-originating is an affirmation of the individual responsibility for his own actions; of standing over and above his own desires (which might, if we consider the passage in isolation, make of Confucius a sort of proto-Kantian!). But note that there is an interesting (and troubling, for this interpretation) dialectic at work in the latter part of the passage: it is not the ‘I’ directing and controlling his own desires in isolation, but rather the individual conscience is something in some numinous way received: from ritual! Poor Yan Hui’s modest and (what reads like a) rather befuddled response may carry the interpretation that the reader is not merely supposed to take the first part of the passage for granted, as a ‘given’ affirmation of the ‘I’. The ‘self’ is, for Confucius, suspended in dialectic with the power that created it.

Useful also are James Legge’s own notes (though, naturally, Legge’s missionary tendencies ought to be taken with a grain of salt; he is apt to rather overstate his case, particularly when he is attempting to draw parallels between Confucian assumptions about human nature and the Christian doctrine of original sin). But his point about the teleological connotations of li 禮 (‘ritual’) ought to be well-taken: as Zhu Xi defined it, it was 天理之節文 ‘the cultural artefacts of Heaven-imparted principles’. The good life can be lived out only within a community defined by rituals oriented to a higher purpose outside itself.

The anti-consequentialist nature of Confucian ethics is well-documented in the exchanges between Confucius’ disciples and 墨子 Micius (popularly thought of as China’s first utilitarian, though that term is somewhat disputed), as well as the countless passages in Mencius and the Analects (i.e. 4.16) which place (another) li 利 ‘gain’ (whether collective or individual) in a subordinate position to yi 義 ‘justice’ (‘君子喻於義,小人喻於利’). But Confucius is exceedingly careful to steer clear of the opposite polar extreme of liberal deontology: for Confucius, moral sentiment (志 may be translated thus, but in a negative sense Confucius uses chi 恥 ‘shame’) must first be properly aligned for truly good intent, and thus action, to arise – in marked contrast to the Kantian demand that sentiments be divorced from intentions. If any meaningful connexion with the normative demands of any Western ethical tradition is to be made with Confucianism here, it seems it must be made through Plato and Aristotle.

Which brings me to my evolving suspicion that Confucianism may, in fact, be much more radical than Mr Crane supposes. Though Confucius’ intellectual legacy was indeed one of the most prominent and most tragic victims of Maoism run amok during the Cultural Revolution, we should be careful to remember that both the Georgist socialism of Sun Zhongshan and the radical conservatism of Zhou Enlai were informed by Confucian influences, and Mr Crane himself would also very likely acknowledge that this influence may continue to speak through the intellectual standard-bearers of the Chinese New Left.

EDIT: After reading some of Mr Crane’s back posts, such as this one, I have a somewhat greater appreciation for what he’s trying to do. And I have the utmost respect for the comparative religion work of the former Dean of Marsh Chapel, Dr Robert Neville. But, being both a metalhead and a MacIntyrean, I think it may be necessary (as a bulwark against the new Dark Ages of which MacIntyre warns) to build small enclaves of Confucian or Confucian-sympathetic asceticism within the broader society, rather than seeking a society-wide rapprochement (either in China or in the United States) with Confucian ethics. If we are approaching a new Dark Ages, or for that matter, a new 戰國時代 Warring States Period, that may be the necessary means of, shall we say, taking hold of the flame.

* To Mr Crane’s credit, and I do give him major props for this, he does actually (in the comments) recognise the suspended and embedded nature of individual agency within the Confucian worldview, and also poses the question of whether and to what extent ‘liberal Confucianism’ would still be Confucian. I’m highly tempted to say that if it did (and still retain some of its Confucian character), it would probably end up looking very much like Sun Zhongshan’s 三民主義 (Three Principles of the People), and have a distinctly religious-socialist rather than a secular flavour.

… Still, the whole language of being ‘relevant’ doesn’t mesh well with my own philosophical and theological instincts. Making oneself understood is good, and being sensitive to the needs of others is better still, but – as my dad would put it – too many good things have been sacrificed already upon the altar of Relevance, including many worthwhile aspects of Christianity itself (hence, the rise of moralistic therapeutic deism).

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