Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Four Books of China

Let's talk again about virtue versus neutral rules. First, a recall: I found Alisdair McIntyre's book After Virtue very refreshing when I read it recently. McIntyre argues that a rediscovery of Aristolte's take on the virtues, and hence an older tradition of moral philosophy, gives us a route of the relativistic dead-end into which contemporary liberal politlical theory has backed itself. The neutral state, which does not have any conception of the good life, is empty.

Is this just a eurocentric prejudice? I've been reading The Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition translated with commentary by Daniel Gardiner.

It is a summary and commentary on the four most seminal books of ancient China, including Confucius' Analects and the Mencius, as interpreted by Song Dynasty commentator Zhi Xi in the 13th century.

Almost every educated Chinese gentleman for a thousand years spent much of their youth pondering these books. The books played a central role in the culture for 1500 years before that. Indeed, the books, together with the Five Classics were much of education. They formed the core of the Chinese civil service examinations which chose ruling offiicals for nine centuries, right up to the early years of the twentieth century.

I found my way to reading them because they played such a dominant role in another book I read recently. I loved Jonathan Spence's Return to Dragon Mountain, the evocative true story of a Chinese family in the seventeenth century as the Ming Dynasty collapsed. Much of their energy was spent studying these classics, and therefore competing for power as officials and reputation as cultivated gentlemen.

The fascinating thing is they have some broad, rough similarities to Aristotle, who of course lived almost comtemporaneously with Confucius in the "Axial Age" . It was an unimaginably long way from Macedonia to Shandong Province, but something must have been in the air.

Confucius believes, above all, in virtue and setting a virtuous example. He consistently shies away from setting down universal moral rules. The aim is to cultivate oneself, so one does the appropriate thing whatever the specifics of the situation may be.

For example, the commentary on the Analects notes (p39)

Note here that, asked about true goodness, Confucius again presents characteristics or qualities of it, not a definition. These qualities are universally desirable, according to him, and are to be exhibited even when the truly good person finds himself among peoples who have no stake in Chinese culture or customs.

And in the fourth book Maintaining Perfect Balance, 2:2, it says

The superior man maintains perfect balance and keeps to the constant because, as a superior man, he accords with circumstances in finding the perfect balance

The commentary on this extract says

Preserving the balance is situational and is determined by the circumstances of the moment. There is no unchanging, absolute standard of right. The challenge for the individual is to weigh all circumstances senstitively and behave in a manner fully appropriate to the circumstances. (p113)

Of course, I don't want to overdo similarities. The cultivated man, in the view of these sages, probes for the underlying principle in things, and then tries to act appropriately.

And there is no doubt that it is a hierarchal and quite stuffy view of the world, filled with ritual and obedience - perhaps conditioned by the strife and chaos of the era. People clutched to whatever sense of order they could. In some ways it is a celebration of bureaucratic diligence which did not always serve China well.

But what I take from this is the Four Books are at root about cultivating personal qualities first, not applying universal rules of conduct or neutral law. There are personal qualities that everyone can aspire to, and which serve as examples to others.

6. The Master said, One who practices government by virtue may be compared to the North Star : it remains in its place while the multitude of other stars turn around it.

Commentary: [Virtue in the rulrer exercises a moral power over those he governs; this virtue operates silently and without force, through a sort of charismatic attraction. Virtue's capacity to exert influence over others, even to transform them, is spoken of repeatedly throughout the Analects]

And most famously (section 74, p37)

If you desire good, the people will be good. The virtue of the superior man is wind; the virtue of the small person is grass. When the wind passes over it, the grass is sure to bend.

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