28 September 2014

Commonplace: Analects 1.1

學而時習之、不亦說乎。 有朋自遠方來、不亦樂乎。人不知而不慍、不亦君子乎。
1.1 The Master said: "To study and at due times practice what one has studied, is this not a pleasure? When friends come from distant places, is this not joy? To remain unsoured when his talents are unrecognized, is this not a noble man?” *
Confucius is now known with such respect that his name is a byword for wisdom in the West, and in China he has achieved the distinction of being called the "Ultimate Sage and First Teacher." Confucius was not truly appreciated in his own lifetime.  He was never forced to drink hemlock or anything, so perhaps Socrates has the greater claim on our sympathy, but Confucius never found the success he sought.  Though he always spoke of the correct method of governance, and he gathered a significant number of disciples, he was perhaps too troublesome to employ.  By his own account he could be contrary and defiant, and often spoke truth to power, and these are not traits that endear themselves to many rulers.  Ames and Rosemont describe his practical influence as "marginal," while Waley notes that Confucius' highest rank never seems to have been greater than shih-shih, the "Leader of the Knights" - not a high post.  To put it bluntly, Confucius was, at best, middle management.

Unhappy with his advancement, he tried taking his services beyond his home state of Lu.  At the time of his birth, China was no longer a great mass of dozens of different small states controlled by a single emperor, as in the time of the Zhou dynasty (an era he would come to revere).  Fourteen states had swallowed up all the others, and each was looking for an advantage.  Confucius must have thought that one of these rivals would welcome his teachings, and so he traveled to Ch'i, Wei, Ch'ên, Ts'ai, and K'uang.   But he never found success, and was kept from returning to Lu for some years.  While it was common at the time to offer services to different rulers, as Wilkinson tells us, it didn't earn Confucius any favors back home.  It was only the influence of some of his disciples, who were in Lu's bureaucracy, that enabled him to come home from his exile and settle down to a quiet life.

This failure has always been something that was hard for later fans to accept.  Depictions of Confucius over time kept giving him more and more impressive regalia and titles, with many late portrayals showing him wearing kingly robes and seated on a throne (though chairs only arrived in China a full thousand years after the master's death).  The embarrassing 2010 movie version presented a long-running popular theory in which Confucius' wisdom and leadership led to his promotion as a high adviser to Lu's king, where he defeats all obstacles, and where only his betrayal by a villain yields an unjust expulsion from his post.**

But however unfortunate and unfair it may be, Confucius was not a success in his own lifetime.  It is entirely possible that being a font of immense wisdom and unimpeachable learning has nothing to do with actually being a good leader.

Confucius had, instead, the consolation of philosophy.***  And in today's passage, we find what Grier calls the "fusion of his theory and practice."  This selection encapsulates many of the topics that would dominate Confucian thought: how to live a good life in evil times; what the true pleasures of the world can be; and the path to resisting adversity.

Eno points out that there are three precepts here, each with their own force, building to a "punchline."  We can find wisdom in each, in turn.  There is also danger: as happens so often with Confucius, the complexities of his thought could easily be reduced to fridge-magnet-grade pablum.

In the first place, we are reminded that an educated and talented man may find pleasure in cultivation and teaching, for its own sake.  Confucius says, "To study and at due times practice what one has studied, is this not a pleasure?"

Anyone who has become proficient in a skill knows the pleasure of practicing that skill and passing it on.  Noel Burch described four stages to becoming competent at anything: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious incompetence.  And once we have reached the third stage, when we do something well and know that we do it well, it becomes a pleasure of itself.

Hsieh Liang-tso, a tenth-century Confucian, says that this precept means one's life should be one of constant practice of the correct behavior, of all sorts.  When you have learned how to stand properly and with reverence, that one should always stand properly, he says.  In this, then, we can imagine trying to teach a conscious or unconscious competence in all aspects of life.  Zhou Xi agrees, writing, "Learning never ceases, like a bird repeatedly flaps its wings. When one has learned and then continually practices it, then what one has learned becomes familiar and there is pleasure in one's heart."

Perhaps we are reminded of stories of those who have spent their lives in pursuit of competence in all things, practicing their learning at every moment like a bird flapping its wings.  Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong writes of observing his master, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, during their first moment of meeting:
As I watched he walked directly to the altar, and with a great deal of care, began to rearrange some flowers that were standing on the altar in a tall vase. ... I came to realize that because he was a Zen master and gave one hundred percent of himself to rearranging those flowers, as he did to everything, in that moment he was actually rearranging my mind.
What a pleasure to do things well!

Confucius says, further, "When friends come from distant places, is this not joy?" Hsieh expands this with the admonishment that "friends" should be a broad idea.  "Exploring among the ancients," Hsieh says, "for those who were 'first to discover this common element in my heart,' and researching among people today, those whom you believe are not so different from you, all are friends."

In the final precept, Confucius wryly ties together the neat little lesson with a self-referential comment: "To remain unsoured when his talents are unrecognized, is this not a noble man?"**** he asks.  The implications of these three teachings in a row are clear:  I am a man of learning and a valuable teacher, I have many people who are my friends and follow my words, and yet I am unappreciated.

Confucius is now one of the most well-known sages of history, so it's hard to feel very sorry for the way he went unrecognized.  But consider that for every genius who was recognized only after his death, there might be ten who are never recognized at all.  Scholarship and friendship may take us much of the way, but many people lack what may be the decisive element: sheer blind luck.  Your work must appeal to the right people at the right time, and you need to have the opportunity to take your shot.  I have known geniuses, and not all of them were successes in life.

And if you fail, and are left without material reward or recognition, then?  Well, then, Confucius teaches, we must not become embittered.  Even if you do not find the success you deserve, it will do no good to become resentful - to become "soured."

This is not just moral advice, it is practical.  To be sure, this is not particularly easy.  Zhou Xi describes the experience of avoiding resentment as "disagreeable and hard," which in the hugely restrained language of the ancients is something like "oh my god this sucks I just can't even."  But what is the advantage of becoming angry or resentful?  Is it likely to improve your prospects, by making you better at your work or by drawing others' positive attention?  Certainly not.  We might find help in growing ambition to improve, but resentment is unlikely to bring you happiness or success.  After all, as Yin Dun wrote,  "Learning lies in oneself. Whether one is appreciated or not lies with others. Why should there be any resentment?

Hsieh suggests that these three precepts are the heart of Confucian practice.  We must know how to treat ourselves, learning and enjoying practice; we must know how to treat others, embracing our allies of past and future; and we must not resent adversity.  Hsieh quotes Confucius' student Yen-tzu speaking of the ideal sage "living on a bowlful of rice and a ladleful of water, and not allowing this to affect his joy."

This, then, is the ideal to which we should strive.


* In this first entry of my commonplace book, I have taken advantage of the commentaries of Endymion Wilkinson in his Manual of Chinese History, the comments of Nicholas Gier on the Muller text, the traditional commentary of Zhou Xi and Hsieh Liang-tso, and the commentary of Arthur Waley, Robert Eno, Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, and A.C. Muller in their respective translations of The Analects.  Chinese transliteration remains however I found it, since I don't know any Chinese (yet).

** The Confucius of this film is oddly martial and contemporary, leading wars and decrying the evils of slavery.  Seriously, don't watch the movie.  Even Chinese people weren't that fond of it... during its opening weeks, so many more people went to see Avatar that the Chinese government started leaning on theatre owners to help Confucius out by pulling the decadent corruption of the West from their screens.  Honestly, folks, it's okay to admit that our heroes weren't good at everything.  Needing our role models to be perfect says more about our own inability to think critically than anything else.  Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, Martin Luther was an anti-Semite, and Confucius wasn't a very good administrator.

*** He didn't need quite so much consolation as Boethius, though, who wrote a book of the same name while waiting for his execution.  On the other hand, the foundation of Boethius' consolation was his absolute assurance that "God, the Creator, presideth over His work."  Confucius lacked the comfort of that particular a priori truth.

**** The word here translated as "noble man," and elsewhere as "gentleman" or "worthy man," is actually junzi, a word that meant something like "son of a king" in Confucius' time.  He used it to mean any person of worth, no matter their rank.  It was quite an egalitarian and revolutionary concept at the time - more on that in later episodes!

No comments:

Post a Comment