Confucius Says

by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 10, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Growing up in a so-called Western society, I was taught that what followed the clause "Confucius says..." was not to be taken seriously, because surely what an ancient Chinese man has to say has little to do with what a modern American man must do. Usually the completed sentence went something like this: "Confucius says, Take the garbage out" or "Confucius says, Don't chew your nails."

That Confucius (551-479 BC) might have uttered such words is improbable, but he did assent to their general intent: honor your parents and all authority, including the prince or State. But we are supposed to do this only as part of a more general program of self-improvement, on the way to becoming a "Gentleman", to following the "Way", to attaining the "Good."

Regarding the precise nature of these abstractions, however, Confucius is reticent - though in a charming way - as much of the Analects consists of various disciples and statesmen asking him about this nature and being told that he doesn't - rumors to the contrary - know anything about it. Example:

"Meng Wu Po asked whether Tzu-lu was good. The Master [that's Confucius] said, I do not know. On his repeating the question, the Master said, In a country of a thousand war-chariots Yu could be trusted to carry out the recruiting. But whether he is Good I do not know."

This is droll, though slightly disingenuous, as elsewhere in the Analects the Master seems to know the Good when he sees it. How otherwise to explain that he was doomed to a life of migrating to "places where right prevails"? Or his response to a question regarding the conduct of a particular government (the response being "Ugh!")?

The Master condemned contemporary office-seekers, for reasons now more or less self-evident to a modern-day student of political science. "Before they have got to office," Confucius says, "they think about nothing but how to get it; and when they have got it, all they care about is to avoid losing it." To keep office, "there is no length to which they will not go." You can almost see him shaking his head sadly as he says this.

For Confucius, allegiance to a ruler is conditional upon the ruler's "Goodness", as this will determine whether the government is doing a good job. But what was a "good job" in the context of the despotisms of ancient China? A good government, Confucius says, should secure "sufficient food, sufficient weapons, and the confidence of the common people." Of these, the least important are weapons, the most important confidence. If confidence goes, he says, the people are "lost." (I wonder what he would have to say about the dismal turnout at the polls in recent American presidential elections in light of a $300 billion defense budget - "Ugh!" I suppose.)

Confucius was not just a court philosopher and gadfly. He himself wanted to be a statesman, if not a king. Tragically, his wish went unfulfilled, but he probably wielded more influence over the history of China - and East Asia, and, indeed, the world - as philosopher than as philosopher-king. And he has continued to wield influence over the conduct of Chinese politics, even during the country's tryst with Communism and its recent flirtation with capitalist reforms.

Aristotle viewed ethics and politics as two sides of the same coin, that a polity of good people would be a good polity. Confucius also. But, like Aristotle - who thought democracy a "perversion" of constitutional government - Confucius was no great friend of the common people. The "Way" has to originate at the top, because "the common people can be made to follow it; they cannot be made to understand it."

That said, Confucius did advocate a life of common poverty over a life of court opulence. Drink water, eat a crust of bread or a handful of rice, sleep on the floor or live "in a mean street." Wine's all right within limits, as are music and dancing. Happiness -- again echoing Aristotle -- follows from moderation, and moderation will follow if one's primary goal is to do the right thing, not the most lucrative. "A gentleman," says the Master wryly, "takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men to discover what will pay."

If elected president, Confucius's first step would be "to correct the language." This is not your average campaign promise - what could he mean? "If language is incorrect, then what is said does not concord with what is meant" and "what is to be done cannot be effected"; and this leads, eventually, to misery. When Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language" drew a connection between political and linguistic corruption (collateral damage, liquidation, "war is peace"), he was only riffing on a Confucian theme. The Master said, "He who does not understand words" - that is, he who does not understand that the choice of words is a clue to the speaker's motives - "cannot understand people," and, by extension, the art of government - or the art of dissent. The result? "Nothing pretending to be Something, Emptiness pretending to be Fulness, Penury pretending to be Affluence" - and Confucius packing off to a new State, in search of something better.

There are those who would have us believe that there are things called the "West" and the "East", and even one Mr. Kipling suggested that "never the twain shall meet." Curiously, the wise man Jesus has been appropriated by the West, even though his origins lay much to the east of Greece, the West's traditional birthplace. Moreover, his opinions are closer to those of traditionally "Eastern" thinkers than those of, say, the Homeric Greeks, who thought revenge a glorious thing.

The most scandalous example of this is the so-called Golden Rule, which in one version of the New Testament goes like this: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." But really this only a rather prolix reformulation of Confucius, who, some 500 years before Christ, said, "Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you." Thus, insofar as the Golden Rule is the basis of the Christian ethical code, this code is really Confucian, West is really East - or, better, these simple categories are just silly, and should be discarded.

But among the countless differences between Christ and Confucius is that the latter appears to have had a sense of humor. His metier is not the baffling riddle, but the witty aphorism. Of how many wise men can this be said, that they are, in addition to being wise, also - funny? Only the wisest, I think. Only the wisest. As a (non-Confucian) saying goes, "Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." While for those who both think and feel, life is - well, my intellect founders on that one. Confucius says...

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Review of The Analects, trans. Arthur Waley [Everyman's Library, New York, 2000].

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