First, I had to stop and think for a minute.
Am I, in fact, interested in Confucianism?
Being interested in Confucius in one sense is like being interested in Socrates-- we really have nothing in the sage's own writing, as everything handed down to us are really the interpretations, extemporizing and extrapolations about what the sage is supposed to have said by those who came after him.
I suppose it is true that the older I get, the more I am drawn to certain practical or tempering aspects of these two practical philosophers-- both whom I am sure I never really appreciated when I was in my Nietzschean twenties.
So, what is it about Confucius? We learn he is even being resurrected after decades of silencing by none-other than the Chinese communist party. What is it about his thinking that continues to speak to us even after 2500 years?
Remember the Nine Tripods that I was telling Mr. Roth about the other day? Remember what the Zhou King's trusty minister 王孫満(*) said to the rebellious Chu army general camped out outside the city walls?
The tripods do not matter, virtue does.
I think this is one aspect of his philosophy that is so appealing to so many-- this stress on individual cultivation, character and virtue (don't all three of those terms seem quaint or old-fashion now?)
I remember reading years ago that China has long been characterized as being a “wise man”--in contrast to “holy man”-- culture (such as those found in India or the Holy Land, for example). While this characterization can be traced all the way to ancient Zhou Dynasty times, with Confucius, the significant role given to self-cultivated wisdom (humanism) came to take center stage.
What does that mean, then, for an individual?
Well, for one thing, the way we live our lives here and now, become very important; for according to Confucius it was this life--rather than metaphysical issues of God and an afterlife-- which truly mattered. To put it very simply, Confucius believed it was in man’s best interest-- indeed it as his true nature-- to live morally and in harmony with nature and in society.
Sam Crane at The Useless Tree describes it this way:
For Confucius, "harmony" is an effect; it is the thing created when individuals fulfill their social roles, especially in regard to their closest loving relationships, their families. It is generated, in a social sense, from the bottom-up, from the myriad individual enactments of personal responsibilities happening in innumerable families and close social networks. Any implementation - in a modern public policy manner - of these sensibilities would have to concern itself with enabling individuals to perform their family and social obligations.
Be sure to read on for his discussion of how this differs from both communist party collectivism as well as liberal individualism.
Confucian harmony is best attained through the cultivation of self, both by the correct performing of rituals (li) which had the power to put one in contact with the wisdom of the past, as well as, and above all, through a Socratic type of self-study ideally leading to the transformation of self.
In the words of one French scholar, Confucian wisdom, inextricably linked with morality, could only be acquired “after an effort lasting every minute of one’s life, by control of the smallest details of conduct, by observation of the rules of life in society (i), by respect for others and for oneself and by the sense of reciprocity (shu)” Man’s task, he explains, was to devote his life to gaining such wisdom through education, ritual, and proper social organization.
A task to last a lifetime; the cultivation of self as expressed through our social interactions, relationships and contributions-- these are all things which I found very compelling. (Do you think a lifetime of reading and travel that was achieved for reasons of pure personal pleasure are as Good, for example, as those which bear fruit in contributions that benefit other people-- even just one's family members, for example? This is an honest question, not a statement).
One compelling by-product of Confucian thought which affects the culture at large would be-- first of all, a stress on the past.
Confucius' "Ethical Way” is presented as something passed down from Heaven to the idealized sage-kings of antiquity, and Utopian society was something seen to have been already realized, solely in the reality of the past. It was never, for example, imagined in any sort of hope in the future or an afterlife as in the West. And it was in the past that one could find the “exemplary models” necessary for all moral actions, including the methods of enlightened government. In a similar way to the Italians of the Renaissance who held the Ancients to be the “Grand Exemplars” in everything from art to politics, Confucius taught that the problems of the present age could be best solved by a “return to antiquity.” He considered the ancient kings to have been men of perfect virtue and therefore having been almost godlike.
Confucian, and later Neo-Confucian scholars and philosophers tended to elucidate on everything from political intrigues to philosophical dilemmas in terms of past precedents, “for only those with a clear vision of the past can uphold civilization’s future.” This is something referred to by one famous Chinese art historian as "Possessing the Past." Therefore the libraries and art collections of the various imperial palaces in Chinese history (the area from which I am writing in fact) became potent links to this highly venerated past, representing “a form of historiography that showed how rulers employed ritual, symbol, and history to legitimatize their rule.”
This is also something that appeals to me personally. Indeed, I am no Utopian thinker.
Ideally as well, scholars, philosophers, artists and other literati would have a central place in a Confucian society. As Gloria Davies mentions in her interview with Alan Sanders in a recent edition of the Philosophers Zone,
It's interesting, and in fact I think the Chinese government probably pays a lot more attention to the ramblings of intellectuals in China than any Australian government would to the ramblings of academics like myself, and that's because elite Chinese culture actually does turn on a kind of conviction in the power of ideas. The power of ideas to transform people, to transform society at large. When an intellectual comes up with a particularly catchy phrase, or a persuasive way of describing a situation, you'll find the government actually taking that up.
A government of scholars who are adept at the arts-- what do you think? How would that compare to a government of engineers? Or a government of successful businessmen or career politicians?
I know, I know, it's never going to happen-- no matter what Sam Crane says about Mr. Clinton!
So, I guess we are left with Shunya's issue with the New Confucianism (a movement whose main proponents were in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the US, I believe). To be honest, I just do not see it as being as problematic as Shunya thinks-- for indeed, I always like more Confucius if it means less Maoist philosophy. Yes, Mao's image was scrubbed from the Olympics and harmony and humanism were held up in his place. Was that any worse than the alternative, though?
Having spent my entire adult life in East Asia, I have watched as issues surrounding "Asian Values" starting with Mahathir 15 or so years ago have continued to generate much anxiety and rhetoric (not much dialog really). We, of course, also had Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and I just finished Robert Kagan's new book which paints another dark picture of more conflict between the liberal democracies and the world's many autocracies. And then Shunya asks, "Can't one be progressive without being self-righteous?" Which, I suppose is too ask can one not impose their utopian vision on another culture and still remain *not* on the side of the executioners?"
I think so, but I wonder what Confucius would say?
(*) It is interesting to note that the story of the wise minister (J. I am still waiting on the pinyin for his name! I only know the japanese reading) lives on over a thousand years later in Japan where even today the expression, “to inquire after the weight of the tripods” is still used (albeit by the older generation!) when someone’s ability is being called into question by an inferior.
The Philosophers Zone interview with Gloria Davies is recommended listening.