Monday, June 01, 2015

The Analects, Books II-III

Book II

Book II opens with one of the more extraordinary images of the book: to govern with genuine de is to be like the pole star, staying in its place while all the other stars do reverence to it (2.1). De is often translated as 'virtue'; it is moral authority. The contrast, given by Master Kong himself at 2.3, is with coercive force. The notion of 'might makes right' is a perpetual universal human temptation; it promises success and power. But it is a lying promise. If people are governed by coercion but not moral authority, they are corrupted in ways that will begin to make it impossible to govern them. Confucius makes this clear to Duke Ai and Ji Kang Zi. The obedience of the people, he notes to Duke Ai, derives from the ruler putting the straight above the crooked (2.19). People reverence rulers who possess dignity, are loyal to rulers who fulfill their proper responsibilities in their families, and are encouraged by rulers who "promote the good and instruct the incompetent" (2.20). This alone is true governance.

As with Plato, so with Confucius: government in the proper sense begins with learning in the proper sense. What makes Hui Master Kong's most brilliant student is not that he seems clever, but that he is able to take what he learns and set a good example with what he has learned (2.9). There are two aspects to this kind of education: you must study, yes, but you must also think it through yourself; and you must think for yourself, yes, but you also must study (2.15). As with Hui, the one who truly learns becomes thereby a teacher, even if only by example; but true teaching is when "by keeping the old warm one can provide understanding of the new" (2.11). In admonishing You, one of his students, he remarks one of the universals of education: that real understanding requires understanding what you understand and what you don't (2.17). And learning needs to be pursued for the right reason. The goal of learning is to become a noble person. But the noble do not treat themselves as if they were mere tools for the use of others (2.12). To achieve this end we must be both practical in approach (2.13) and catholic in mind (2.14).

This is not some abstract standard. It literally starts at home, in the family, with children acting properly toward their parents. This is not merely a matter of support. One must follow the appropriate standard (li) at all times (2.5), and this requires most of all (and sometimes hardest of all) a proper attitude of respect (2.7; 2.8). This is not a trivial matter. If Master Kong is a teacher, and teaching is what makes it possible to govern properly, why does he not take part in government? But this involves a false notion of government, perhaps even one that falls back into the 'might makes right' idea. What is the single most important thing a person can do to contribute to government? "Only be dutiful towards your parents and friendly towards your brothers" (2.21). This was one of the most important things even for rulers to do (2.20); and it is more fundamental to the real governance of a real society than all the pomp and splendor associated with high office.

Book III

Much of Book III is concerned with the lamentable failure of people to live according to appropriate standard of action or rite (li). The Ji family tries to puff itself up by appropriating the symbols traditionally belonging to the Emperor (3.1; 3.6), as do the Three Families who hold the actual power in the state of Lu (3.2) and Guan Zhong, the chief minister of Qi (3.22). This kind of attempt shows a failure to grasp the elementary point of an appropriate standard or rite -- that it must be followed appropriately. If you cannot have the integrity that comes from humanity toward yourself and others (ren), how can you possibly act in genuine accordance with the rites (3.3)? The face must come before the make-up and the silk before the paint on it (3.8). You must, like the student Lin Fang, inquire into the root of the standard (3.4). And in that light, the absurdity of trying to appropriate the appearances of appropriate action without regard for its spirit becomes plain: the Ji family inappropriately sacrifices to Mount Tai, but in doing so they are treating Mount Tai as if it were worse than a student like Lin Fang who is able clearly to see that there must be a root to the rites (3.6).

To properly act in accordance with rite requires taking the trouble to learn, and finding the right exemplars (3.9; 3.14; 3.15). This relates to government as well, since rulers need to act toward ministers with appropriate standards (li), and ministers need to respond to rulers with loyalty (zhong), as Confucius told the duke of Lu (3.19).

to be continued

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