26 September 2014

Commonplace Wisdom

I've decided to start putting together a sort of commonplace book, beginning with The Analects of Confucius.  That seems an appropriate beginning, especially since Sunday is the anniversary of his birthday in 551 B.C.E. (as best anyone knows, anyway).  But why a commonplace book?  Why not just study the wisdom in every bit of The Analects?

The Analects is one of the most intelligent things ever written.  It is a deep and abiding analysis of what makes a good state.  The the values which it pursues in its elegant proverbs of virtue ethics and consequentialism are mostly the same ones I hold.  But I have neither the background nor the intellect to appreciate every bit of it - and I just plain think Confucius was wrong about some things.  After all, when the Master wrote that "He who has no rank in a state does not discuss his policies," he wrote in a time well before the modern idea of the informed and equal citizenry came about.

The idea to begin assembling a commonplace book with large selections came to me as I slowly made my way through Endymion Wilkinson's Manual of Chinese History, a book which humbles me in many ways.  It was through this method that many of the ancient wisdom books, The Analects included, probably came about.  His students set down all of the things they remembered or retained, and other things were added over the course of centuries.  It's a lot like the Bible, in fact - and it's just as difficult to pretend every last word is useful to you.

This difficulty is why one of the most fascinating things about Christian Bible study groups is how creative they can become when they get to the lesser-known verses or more strange ones. At one Baptist Bible study group I attended in Clearwater, they were going through the whole text, section by section. They skipped nothing, even the most tedious “begat” sections, out of the belief that a divinely-inspired book would have no cruft. It was a marvel to watch when they had moved beyond Genesis (which was interesting and had numerous great folk stories) and Leviticus (which was boring but had lots of moral commands) and into the books like Numbers.

Numbers begins like nothing so much as The Iliad, with a catalogue of men and armies, before moving on into bizarre commands that now seem hard to justify. There are interesting moments, of course, like the command to keep the Passover, or God’s angry fire-smiting of complainers, or the falling of manna. But if you’re taking each verse, you can’t skip to the highlights. So what do you do with passages like Numbers 5:17-23, the “law of jealousies?”

In this passage, we are told that if a guy suspects his wife of cheating, he can take her and a special offering to a priest, who will “take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water.” The priest will say special words (“The Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot”), write the woman’s name in a special book, and blot the name with the “bitter water.” If she was cheating, then she’ll get terribly sick and “the woman shall be curse among her people,” but “[i]f the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.”

It’s hedge magic. Specifically, it’s a spell to tell for certain if someone’s wife has been cheating on them. If the wife has been unfaithful, the sympathetic connection of the woman’s name and her health will make her become sick, thanks to the god’s power.

It is really, really hard to read this sort of thing and find serious insight in it. But some Bible studies, including the one I attended, dutifully tackled every single one of these odd verses, considering them enlightened communication straight from the deity to their ears. In these sorts of instances, unfortunately, it proved to be really difficult. It was ultimately possible, as I recall, to consider that this spell was a moral lesson about how infidelity will taint your whole life… but it was quite a stretch.

Part of the problem is that the collecting process of the Bible has broken down.  The Bible, as with most similar books, came about over many years.  Numerous books and verses were collected or discarded, as people kept the parts they found beautiful or important or relevant.  This dialogue over the ages was slowed as all the oral parts became ossified in text, and frozen more as different "versions" were set down in print.  Now there's still some slow adaptation and change, of course.  There are still new translations, that change the ideas subtly.  And there are bizarre things like the Conservative Bible Project, which makes the Bible more in line with American conservative political beliefs.  But there aren't that many people doing the Jefferson Bible thing, intentionally abandoning whole chunks.  For most people, they make do by ignoring some pieces, but if you refuse to do that, then you're in a rough spot.

So it is that I decided to begin working on assembling the things I had found most helpful to improving myself and my life, beginning with The Analects.  There's a certain kind of hubris to it, I admit, since I'm daring to pass judgment on what is "useful" from one of the greatest and deepest things ever written.  But ultimately I don't think it's unreasonable: I don't know Chinese, and read it in translation, so those sayings based entirely on culture and puns are much less useful.  I also have the advantage of 2,500 more years of scientific advancement... it's not all that surprising that someone who has the benefit of the Enlightenment might have a leg up on even the greatest sage of a bygone era.

Someday, I will move on from the Master to Montesquieu or Montaigne or Mencius or Marcus Aurelius.  But for the time being, I'm going to start assembling my own commonplace book from the works of Confucius.  It should be a fun journey.

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