05 October 2014

Commonplace: Analects 1.2

1.2 Master You said: “There are few who have developed themselves filially and fraternally who enjoy offending their superiors. Those who do not enjoy offending superiors are never troublemakers. The noble man concerns himself with the fundamentals. Once the fundamentals are established, the proper way appears. Are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness?”
Confucius was outspoken in his teachings, and spent years traveling China looking for work. He accumulated in this way a significant number of disciples. Many of them found positions of favor in varying levels of government, as I mentioned last week, and one of these, Ran Qiu, helped arrange for him to return home after he was forced to leave his birth state of Lu. At different times throughout The Analects, we hear Confucius praise or scold his disciples, and some of them are even given the podium themselves. In fact, it’s very likely that many of the things in these pages are only attributed to the master, since The Analects was assembled over many years.

One of Confucius’ disciples was the Master You of today’s selection. We will hear from him a few times early on, and then not at all - a fact which has led some scholars to speculate that he may have a had a hand in compiling the early chapters of the text. Eno suggests that the fact that he is referred to as “master” is significant in this respect.

You’s full name was You Ruo, and he had the courtesy name of Zi Ruo, and he was notable for speaking and looking much like the master himself. Mencius, a great Confucian who we will discuss more at a later date, actually relates in his Mengzhi an unflattering anecdote about how the man. Apparently, You Ruo’s appearance almost led to his advancement:
When Confucius died, after they had observed the three-year mourning period,
the disciples packed their bags to go to their homes. They all went to see Zigong, and
facing one another, they all wailed until their voices gave out, only then did they depart.
Zigong returned to the gravesite, where he built a hut and lived alone for three years more, only then departing for home. At another point, Zixia, Zizhang, and Ziyou felt that their comrade You Ruo resembled a sage, and they wished to serve him as they had Confucius.
They pressed Zengzi to join them, but Zengzi said, ‘It is not right. As though washed by
the Yangzi and Han Rivers, bleached by the autumn sun, how gleaming white – the
Master cannot be surpassed.” (Mengzhi 3A:4)
We should take a moment to note here that it is not very flattering to be compared to Confucius in appearance. Confucius was famously ugly, and Confucian sages have tended to that same ideal* (either in imitation or because there’s something about being wise and disagreeable that attracts the beauty-challenged).  Wilkinson reports that the master was said to have a big bump on his head, a spine like that of a tortoise, stocky back, and deep crow's feet (among a total of 49 distinguishing physical features, a list apparently intended to mimic and surpass the Buddha's traditional 32 lakshanas.)

Whatever his flaws as an exalted sage or male model, though, the disciple You Ruo has given us two wise sentiments to consider in this second passage of The Analects.

The first is an observation about correlation, as he notes, “There are few who have developed themselves filially and fraternally who enjoy offending their superiors. Those who do not enjoy offending superiors are never troublemakers.”

Few commenters have bothered themselves about these observations, generally enfolding them into the rest of the selection. Of my sources, only Zhu Xi comments here specifically. Even his comments are not particularly helpful, though, since they consist only of basic definitions (“To be good at serving one's father and mother is to be filial.”) But this observation is worth notice and consideration, since it expresses a basic relationship: those people who are good to their parents and good to their elders** are seldom the same sort of people who find pleasure in disruption and disobedience to society.

The nature of this correlation isn’t discussed in this passage, but later study will make clear that Confucius and his followers believed in a ground-up approach to cultivating the good life. If people were happy, they could help make their families happy. And happy families made for a happy province, which made for a happy empire. We will see many examples of this reasoning, and there is little doubt that You Ruo would endorse the view that filial and fraternal piety (caring for one’s family) would create a person who would help create an orderly and good society.

This grass-roots approach to virtue is supported by considerable evidence. Time after time, we have seen in history and social policy that it is impossible to mandate morality or enforce a new way of life from the top. If you want change in society, you must set a good example, make the best arguments, and gently nudge people into reforming themselves.  And while the whole "nudging" thing is getting a little faddish these days, it remains true that the most successful reforms are the ones which provide positive incentives for people to be virtuous.

Consider home ownership.  For a long time, it was considered to be an important civic trait for citizens of the United States, and so the government set into place incentives to help guide people into home ownership.  There are legal benefits (you can't lose a home to bankruptcy, and you have special rights and privileges on land that you own); financial benefits (there are a host of tax incentives for homeowners, and there are special government programs designed exclusively to make it easy for people to finance home ownership); and considerable moral benefits (a homeowner was set up, for a long time, as the prototypical successful American... the little house with the white picket fence, not the little condo with the white picket fence).

I'm not saying that this is necessarily a good civic virtue to instill in the citizenry, but the point is that it was much more successful to set into place these many nudges, rather than trying to directly require people to buy homes at age 30.  It is because of these nudges that home ownership hit rates of 69% (in 2004) and remains at an astonishing 65% in the USA and in other developed countries with comparable incentives.

It's a fact: encouraging people to build their own virtue from the ground up is effective in a way that mandates are usually not.

You Ruo continues, “The noble man concerns himself with the fundamentals. Once the fundamentals are established, the proper way appears. Are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness?”

Coming on the heels of the previous sentiment, we have turned from discussing the signs of a noble man to identifying the path to become one, in the most general sense. It’s the same basic principle being extended further: virtue cannot be imposed, but it must grow from the basics. And that means it’s time to talk about virtue.

Confucianism is a blend of utilitarianism and virtue ethics and in that sense is comparable with nothing so much as the philosophy of Aristotle in the West. Unfortunately, it is only lately that scholars have become aware of this fact, thanks to the phenomenons of great distance, Jesuit missionaries, and Mao. But that’s a story for another time.

Utilitarianism, as you may already know, is the philosophy that says that the correct action is the one that maximizes utility - the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.*** While its role in Confucianism is often overlooked, it is the rationale for a large number of Confucian arguments and thoughts. It will come into play a lot as we move through this text.

More dominant in Confucian thought is virtue ethics. This is the philosophy that says that correct action is the one undertaken by virtuous people, and so people should undertake to improve their virtues. For Plato, these virtues were wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance, while Aristotle placed different kinds of wisdom at the top of a pyramid of virtues.

In Confucianism, there are a variety of virtues we should strive to improve in ourselves and employ in decisions. The most important virtue is that of ren, which is a sort of ur-virtue that has no single definition or description. Hsieh Liang-tso speaks of ren to say that “it is not only that nobody can list all of the relevant examples [to describe its nature]; in practicing it no one can do it fully, and [even] to describe it is difficult.”

I will adopt various translations for ren as seems appropriate; here, it is “fundamental human goodness.” This choice of variation should serve us well, since ren is a slippery thing - “the more learned one’s words, the further one has departed from ren” - and it avoids the dangers of rigid standardized translations, where ren is always “humaneness” and li is always “ritual” and so on. *** These big Confucian ideas just can’t be represented by a single translated word.

It’s not too hard to see the danger posed by rigid translation. Take the word “hard,” for instance. If we assigned it a single meaning as we translate our text, we would have a difficult time with “it was hard to get up in the morning” and “he was too hard on that student.”

Returning to the text with our new knowledge, then: You Ruo has asked (or rather, stated, since Zhou Xi notes that this is framed as a question only for the sake of politeness), “Are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of ren?”

Just as in the first part of the passage, this is a message about how a moral world must begin at the bottom. Just as someone who treats their family well will be more likely to be a good citizen, avoiding disruption to the state and rulers, so too someone who treats their family well is likely to develop into a moral person. It’s that grass-roots approach to instilling virtue, since Confucius and his students recognized the futility of imposing the good life on people who didn't want it.

I think that's probably enough on the topic for this week, since it's something to which we will return later as we discuss specific virtues.  For now, then, an anecdote.

Remember how I said that it was only lately that scholars became truly cognizant of the similarities between Confucian thought and Aristotelian philosophy? I’ll talk more about that in a later post, but this omission actually led to one of the odder coincidences in philosophical history, as discussed by scholar Yu Jiyuan.

In 1958, a group of New Confucians in Hong Kong, intent on reviving an appreciation for Confucian philosophy and returning the study to prominence, published a famous treatise in English called the “Manifesto for a Re-Appraisal of Sinology and Reconstruction of Chinese Culture.” In addition to pointing out things that China could learn from the West that were in concord with Confucian values, like a democratic constitution, these New Confucians also called for those in the West to learn to appreciate the Confucian emphasis on development of correct character. They appear to have been unaware of Aristotle’s focus on excellence of character and the corresponding strain of Western thought, known in the field as “virtue ethics.”

The very same year, 1958, a British philosopher named Elizabeth Anscombe called for what amounted to a revival of Aristotlean ethics in her seminal paper “Modern Moral Philosophy,” focusing on the need for clarity in what makes a “virtuous character.” Her paper helped revive virtue ethics, but described a yawning abyss between Plato and Aristotle, conducting a brief survey of other major philosophers and finding that they did not address a clear definition of virtue… but without ever once mentioning Confucius. Anscombe was apparently unaware of the entire Eastern tradition of virtue ethics.

The two great conceptualizations of virtue ethics were both revived from a long quiet during the exact same year, and neither one even mentioned the existence of the other. They passed each other in silence, like ships in the night.

* In her recent NYRB review of a book about geniuses (Divine Fury: A History of Genius, by Darrin M. McMahon), Tamsin Shaw speaks about the tendency to look to the superficial: "Anyone who frequents research libraries in Europe or North America will know that it is not unusual to encounter in them individuals who appear to be rather introverted and yet sport oddly ostentatious hairstyles, with unkempt shocks of hair sprouting with peculiar abandon from their pallid male scalps. You can still encounter the odd Yeatsian dandy, but the slightly disheveled Einsteinian archetype seems largely to have prevailed in the academy, just as the Beethovenian archetype has long prevailed in the world of music. This phenomenon alone, the slightly embarrassing aping of the superficial attributes of genius, reveals an ersatz quality to the idea of genius we have inherited; even in the most solemn temples to intellectual achievement the notion is awkwardly associated with a good deal that is theatrical, preposterous, ridiculous."

** It is important to note that the text itself actually refers to brothers, not just general elders. Confucianism in the original text is fairly sexist and extremely classist. How we must handle that sort of thing is a big issue, but one for a later day. For now, let’s just operate on the assumption that The Analects contains statements of universal principles and wisdom, and set aside the uncomfortable specifics.

*** A complete defense of utilitarianism is outside of my scope here today, but if you’re interested, I can point to no better work that Scott Suskind’s enormously helpful Consequentialism FAQ, which delineates and defends my particular strain of utilitarianism.

**** Ames complains about the dangers of a rigid codification in translating a set of concepts in one language into another, saying, “Confucianism has also been depreciated from without as, in the process of being introduced into the Western academy, its key philosophical vocabulary and terms of art have been overwritten with the values of an Abrahamic religiousness, thereby reducing Confucianism in the eyes of many to a necessarily anemic, second-rate form of Christianity.”