Saturday, October 31, 2015

Aristotle and Ritual

Henry Rosemont Jr. has a very interesting SEP article on Translating and Interpreting Chinese Philosophy. One passage from it, with an example of how cross-cultural philosophical comparisons might be valuables:

Taking the Aristotle/Confucius comparisons, we learn just how much weight Confucius gave to rituals, family, customs and traditions as prerequisite for flourishing personal lives and social harmony, for example. The weight grows even heavier when we reflect that Aristotle said almost nothing about rituals, family, customs and traditions, though he dealt in great detail with great sensitivity in virtually all aspects of human life personal and social. By his silence on ritual matters he obliges us to look at Confucius’s insistence on those dimensions of human life again. He was deeply concerned with ritual performance; why?

In the same way we may obtain new insights into Aristotelianism: there are libraries full of commentaries on the writings of Aristotle gathered over the past two millennia, but it is doubtful that any of them commented on the significance of the absence of any concern with ritual matters in those writings. By placing Confucius alongside him the lacunae quickly becomes obvious, and invites our contemplation.

The point itself is excellent (and applies to any two historical figures whose philosophical interests were of sufficient scope to admit serious comparison). But Aristotle does say a fair amount about rituals. That's what the Poetics is, for instance; Greek tragedy and comedy were civic rituals. Much of Aristotle's Ethics and Politics could be seen as involving considerations of rituals as well. The real point of difference, I think, is that almost all the rituals Aristotle talks about are civic rituals, rituals specifically concerned with interactions as citizens, or are at least treated only to the extent that they are such. Confucius's interest in rituals extends over a much larger ground. This doesn't change the primary argument in any way, of course, and in a way makes the point again: an apparently simple difference on closer investigation can turn out to be more complex, raising an even richer crop of questions on both sides. And it also implies another point, raised by Rosemont's comment about commentators: even when one realizes that Aristotle does have at least some discussion of ritual matters, it seems that readers of Aristotle have tended not to focus on this, whereas readers of the works associated with Confucius have tended, if anything, to focus on ritual even more, and this raises intriguing questions about the different interactions between readers and texts in both philosophical traditions.

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