Monday, January 27, 2014


130. Confucius

 As described by Karen Armstrong in The great transformation, philosophy in India and China was very early, in the 9th to 6th century BC, to turn inside the self in ethical reflection, renouncing violence, war, and excessive material acquisition. In India in one stream this turn took the form of lifting the self (atman) above or outside itself, to be absorbed into the higher all or one (brahman), or in kenosis, an emptying of the self to become receptive to a higher will or force. In another stream the aim was not to surrender personal identity but the find the true, higher self.

In the 5th century BC some sages and their followers became oriented towards extremes of compassion and altruism, extended not just to humans but also to animals and even plants, so that life was barely livable, for not stepping on an insect or a fresh blade of grass. They invented the Golden Rule of not doing unto others what one would not want to be done unto oneself.

In Chinese philosophy Confucius raised altruism and orientation to the other human being as a central tenet, and adopted the golden rule. Prior to Confucius (born 551 BC) there were 200 years of strife and war. Confucius strove for peace, justice and tolerance. Confucianism is humanistic, in seeking goodness and happiness not in nature nor beyond nature but in humanity itself. It also was pragmatist, in a unity of thought and action.

Confucian ideals were brought more ‘down to earth’, made more concrete and practical, more utility-based and oriented at welfare, in Mohism, with external sanctions and incentives added to the intrinsic values of Confucianism. 

What attracts me in Confucianism is its orientation towards the other, and the idea that thought and action interact, which is akin to the pragmatism that I employ. That stands in contrast to the more self-oriented and passive stance of Buddhism, and to the reach towards a higher order in nature, beyond humanity and society, in Taoism.

What I dislike in Confucianism is its excessive subservience to authority and its obsessive formal adherence to details of ritual and ceremony. From Karen Armstrong I learn that ceremony has the crucial value of creating a communal ethical sense in the public celebration of spirituality. She compared it to the public feasts and performances of tragedy among the ancient Greeks, for sharing catharsis, purification of the soul. I can see the value of that but remain suspicious of rigid ritual.

A central value in Confucianism is filial piety. To this I object, claiming that the upheavals and rebellion of puberty have value in the preparation of children to break away and assume their own life and convictions. Education should in my view not be the mere transfer and indoctrination of established thought and morality. Literally[1] ‘education’ means ‘leading outside’. While in religious circles that is interpreted as a leading out of darkness into the light of faith, I prefer to interpret it as helping the young to break out and think their own ideas.

If we see Nietzsche as dynamics without altruism, we might see Confucius as altruism without dynamism, while what I advocate is dynamism with altruism. In Confucianism the proper attitude to life is to remain calm in joy and sorrow. There appears to be a lack of Dionysus.

But perhaps while preserving the pragmatic interaction between thought and action, and the orientation towards the other, confucianism can be developed into a more dynamic view. Some of that occurred in later Chinese thought, as I will discuss in the following item. 



[1] As noted by Joseph Nalin Swaris.