29 November 2015

Classical Confucianism and the self-institution dialectic

One of the favourite passages of the neo-Confucians who place their penultimate concern in issues of personal pietistic self-cultivation, comes from Yan Yuan, the twelfth chapter of the Analects 《論語》 of Confucius:

The duke Jing, of Qi, asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, ‘There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.’ ‘Good!’ said the duke; ‘if, indeed, the prince be not prince, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, although I have my revenue, can I enjoy it?’
And yet, is it indeed that simple? Can we dispense with the questions of government, of society, of institutions entirely, if we just focus on the single fundamental relationships between father and son, or mother and daughter? After all, parents are parents and children are children, merely by virtue of the brute reproductive biological fact. In a certain sense, this is not something Confucians can ignore, because one can’t really have society without natural families or natural family relationships, and given the attention Confucius places on these relationships throughout the classical canon, it would be ridiculous to assert otherwise. But thankfully, classical Confucianism is much too subtle to fall prey to such pietistic oversimplification. How, one is led to ask, does one become a good father or a good son, let alone a good prince or a good minister? So says the pre-Qin Book of Rites 《禮記》, in the very first chapter:

They are the rules of propriety, that furnish the means of determining (the observances towards) relatives, as near and remote; of settling points which may cause suspicion or doubt; of distinguishing where there should be agreement, and where difference; and of making clear what is right and what is wrong.
And again, two verses later – just in case it wasn’t clear:

The course (of duty), virtue, benevolence, and righteousness cannot be fully carried out without the rules of propriety; nor are training and oral lessons for the rectification of manners complete; nor can the clearing up of quarrels and discriminating in disputes be accomplished; nor can (the duties between) ruler and minister, high and low, father and son, elder brother and younger, be determined; nor can students for office and (other) learners, in serving their masters, have an attachment for them; nor can majesty and dignity be shown in assigning the different places at court, in the government of the armies, and in discharging the duties of office so as to secure the operation of the laws; nor can there be the (proper) sincerity and gravity in presenting the offerings to spiritual beings on occasions of supplication, thanksgiving, and the various sacrifices. Therefore the superior man is respectful and reverent, assiduous in his duties and not going beyond them, retiring and yielding - thus illustrating (the principle of) propriety.
What are we to make of this, then? Parents are parents, and children are children. Can they not be trusted simply to know this and act accordingly? Why should they need the external regulation of the rites? Why should Confucius say that character cannot be established without the rites? Turning to a closely-related topic, a later chapter of the Book of Rites which deals with music, the Yueji 《樂記》, brings to light part of Confucius’s dialectic between the self and her (natural, political and social) environment – as it pertains to musical theory. As demonstrated here:

All the modulations of the voice arise from the mind, and the various affections of the mind are produced by things (external to it). The affections thus produced are manifested in the sounds that are uttered. Changes are produced by the way in which those sounds respond to one another; and those changes constitute what we call the modulations of the voice. The combinations of those modulated sounds, so as to give pleasure, and the (direction in harmony with them of the) shields and axes, and of the plumes and ox-tails, constitutes what we call music.
Music, that is to say (in Confucian terms) an interplay of meaningful sounds in harmony, depends on a right relationship between the self and the things of the external world. It is no accident at all that rites and music are so closely related to one another in Confucian thinking; they mirror and complement each other, and both are taken as the bases for the development of a just order and a good society. And they both help to attune the roots of virtue which lie in the self with affections (dong 動) for the external things and people which gave rise to that self, and without which the self would have no reference for itself. For what universal appeal it has, Confucianism as a coherent philosophy rests heavily upon this dialectic, which is why so much attention is paid to rites and music, and especially those particular, culturally-specific and (to use the Hegelism) sittlich forms of music and ritual which were ascribed to the Xia (夏, 2070 – 1600 BC), Yin (殷, 1600 – 1046 BC) and Western Zhou (周, 1046 – 771 BC) societies which preceded Confucius. As far as Confucius and his disciples were concerned, a society could not be just which did not pay honour to its forefathers – and therefore the answers to questions of justice and moral conduct were to be sought in the wisdom of the Stone Age sages and the Bronze Age kings.

All this is not to say, of course, that Confucius would hold that these particularistic forms should be ossified for their own sake and never be adjudged. The needs of the time (and not its wants or bad habits) are paramount in Confucian thinking; the principles that would need to be upheld in any potential ritual system are also made clear in the Book of Rites:

The appointment of the measures of weight, length and capacity; the fixing the elegancies (of ceremony); the changing the commencement of the year and month; alterations in the colour of dress; differences of flags and their blazonry; changes in vessels and weapons, and distinctions in dress: these were things, changes in which could be enjoined on the people. But no changes could be enjoined upon them in what concerned affection for kin, the honour paid to the honourable, the respect due to the aged, and the different positions and functions of male and female.
Confucianism risks being severely flattened, reduced in dimension and bereft of its classical (and indeed pre-classical) moorings, if it is turned merely into an ideology of pietism, quietism and individualistic self-cultivation. This is one of the reasons why the increased attention paid to institutions, first during the Qing with the Jesuit-influenced Changzhou scholars and now again with the political Confucian school on the Chinese mainland, is so interesting and indeed vital to Confucianism’s continued relevance. It is necessary for the individual Confucian to keep herself attuned to her social and natural surroundings through rites and music. That implies a positive politics of virtue, rather than simply a negative libertarian vision of the social and legal world.

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