Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Analects, Books XI-XII

Book XI

Book XI can be seen as giving more information about Confucius's school, in the sense of his teaching and how he interacted with his students. We get some indication of the major subjects discussed and considered important (11.3), for instance: virtuous conduct, speech, administration, culture and learning.

We also get a better sense of Yan Hui, Master Kong's greatest student, who unfortunately died relatively young. He was one of the students who excelled at virtuous conduct (11.3), and was the one student Master Kong considered genuinely fond of learning (11.7). (You will remember that 'fond of learning' was a key summary phrase 1.14.) Master Kong lamented his death deeply (11.9; 11.10), but honored him not with showy externals but with proper regard for the rites (11.8; 11.11). The famous comment at 11.12 about ghosts and death is often treated alone, but I wonder if it should be included with the loosely group comments concerned with Yan Hui's death: here too, Master Kong takes our proper concern in the face of death to be simply good and appropriate behavior. We also get a poignantly ironic anecdote about him from an important time in Master Kong's life (11.21).

We also see a number of other interactions between Confucius and his more extreme students. We have a rare, if limited, defense of Zilu (=Zhong You) (11.15), who is often presented as the primary instance of the what-not-to-do student: no matter how small it may be, his genuine progress is not to be despised. We have a sharp criticism of Ziyou (=Ran You, = Ran Qiu) (11.17), one of the most important students, and some remarkably strong criticisms (11.18) of various students, although not attributed Master Kong himself. A very interesting anecdote shows Master Kong giving opposite advice to Ran You and to Zhong You alike, in which he gives them opposing advice, thus tailoring his teaching to the personality of each (11.20), and another in which he assesses their weaknesses and merits (11.22).

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the long anecdote in which Confucius asks four of his students, Zilu, Ran You, Gongxi Hua, and Zeng Xi, what their ambition is. Zilu and Ran You we have by this point met in spades. Zeng Xi was the father of Master Zeng, whose reflections we got in Book I. Gongxi Hua was praised by Master Kong in Book V for his familiarity with ritual. Each of the students gives their description of the life they would like to live if someone were to shower reward on their merits. After Zeng Xi gives his own scenario, which involved a very simple life, Confucius affirms the excellence of that ambition. Afterward, Zeng Xi asks him what the difference is, and the difference is that the other three's ambitions were equivalent to wanting extraordinary power in a state.

Book XII

Book XII opens and closes with ren, humanity to oneself and others. The first three analects consist of students asking about ren and getting different answers from Master Kong. The first answer (12.1), given to Yan Hui, is to subdue oneself and return to li (ritual or appropriate behavior); as Yan Hui is Master Kong's best and most virtuous student, this answer seems to give us something like the most complete or adequate understanding of how to cultivate humanity. The second answer (12.2), to Zhonggong (=Ran Yong), focuses on practical tasks rather than general practical principles, giving several maxims the following of which would in some way require subduing oneself and conforming to ritual, including a maxim of reciprocity ("Do not impose on others what you would not like yourself"). The third answer (12.3), to Sima Niu, is simply to hesitate in talking; Sima Niu is baffled by the answer, but Master Kong says that achieving ren is difficult and, recognizing that, one could hardly avoid hesitating to talk about. Part of what seems to be going on here is Confucius's standard practice of tailoring his teaching to the student. Yan Hui, as the most virtuous of the students, does not require particular tasks to follow; even when he asks for clarification, Master Kong stays at a general level. Zhonggong gets more pragmatic advice, presumably because he needs it. And with Sima Niu the advice ultimately boils down to insisting on treating ren with the seriousness it deserves, using an external behavior as a sign of this internal disposition. (Sima Niu also seems to have had a reputation among Confucius's students for talking, so it could very well that there is an implicit criticism here.)

With its consideration of humaneness, the chapter interweaves discussions of government (12.4, 12.7, 12.9, 12.10, 12.11, 12.14, 12.17, 12.19, 12.20, 12.21) and the noble person or gentleman (12.4, 12.5, 12.8, 12.16, 12.19, 12.24). The interweaving is so thorough it does not seem to be wholly accidental. While it may be dangerous to impose too rigorous a pattern on the book, there does seem to be a sort of unified thematic tapestry here. All of these matters -- humanity, government, nobility -- are interlinked in Confucian thought. One of their key elements is captured in the last three analects of the book, which bring us back to the ren discussed in the first three analects. Asked what ren is, Master Kong says it is to love others, and to understand is to understand others (12.22). The primary actions of all the major ideas discussed in this book are other-directed. This leads to a comment by Master Kong about friends (12.23) and another comment by Master Zeng linking culture, friendship, and the noble person (12.24).

to be continued

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