Bill Long 9/5/10
Social Stability and Groundedness
When Confucius began his famous first saying with the word xue(2), normally translated "learning" or "learn," he was using a word that could, in the subsequent tradition, be taken in two ways. An "activist" could see in that word the importance of mingling with and serving others in order to learn. On the other hand, a more "monastic" or "studious" person could understand the word "learning" in a more bookish fashion--i.e., you learn by mastering the classics, observing filial duties, learning and applying basic ethical principles. That this isn't simply an academic distinction is apparent by looking ahead to 1.7. In Legge's translation, it says:
"Tsze-hsia said, 'If a man withdraws his mind from the love of beauty and applies it as sincerely to the love of the virtuous; if, in serving his parents, he can exert his utmost strength; if, in serving his prince, he can devote his life; if, in his intercourse with his friends, his words are sincere;-although men say that he has not learned, I will certainly say that he has."
In other words, "learning" here is found in the active life: the practice of virtue, serving of the prince, intercourse with friends, and sincerity of words. Part of the joy of the Analects is to realize the suppleness of Confucius' basic concepts; they encourage thought and action, discussion and story, in order to learn how to live our lives. Thus, as a teacher Confucius ends up by giving us the proper terminology or curbstones between which we run our course, but then he allows us lots of latitude to merge our hearts with the words so that we find the concepts' unique marriage with our own inclinations. Truly a genius teacher is here at work..
I.2. Social Stability
From a series of rhetorical questions in I.1, we now turn to the first statement of one of Confucius' disciples, Yu Tzu. It is a two-part statement: (a) the first deals with the propriety of rebellion and (b) the second with the root principles of the life of the virtuous person or gentleperson. I would like to take the characters literally so that we see both the language that emerges and the close flow of the text. The first part has two rather lengthy "if/then" types of statements. First we begin with the basics: a person enaged in filial duties (xiao(4))and brotherly love (ti(4)). Those duties include obedience (shun(4)) to parents and affection towards the older brother (xiong(1) chang(2)). We are not concerned here with the lawless person; the person without discipline or the disobedient son. Confucius only has time for those who truly want to bend their entire inclination to the world of virtuous living. As he says elsewhere:
"If I hold up one corner and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson," VII.8.
So, we have the situation in I.2. where the virtuous one, the one already engaging in xiao(4) and ti(4), does something questionable. What is it? He delights (hao(4)) or is fond of acting incorrectly or in error (fan(4)) towards superiors. Another translation has "inclined to offend those above." We aren't given reasons for why the person is inclined to offend. Perhaps it is because he has imperfectly internalized the Confucian system. Perhaps he has a legitimate "beef" with some person or aspect of the system. But such "offensive" activity is "rare" (xian(1)). The disiciple leaves it tantalizingly unclear whether such activity, though rare, might be at times justified. After all, the person is living with xiao(4) and ti(4), so perhaps it is sometimes permitted. But then, as if to dissuade us from thinking that we can really plan our lives this way, the second clause says that the person not fond of causing offense but, rather, fond of causing disturbance or confusion (luan(4)) is never justified in so doing. That is, it is incompatible with the centrality of filial piety and brotherly love to lead a disturbance. My Chinese commentary equates the words zuo(4) luan(4) in the text with leading a rebellion (zao(4) fan(4)). Thus, the person living in filial piety and brotherly affection cannot, simply cannot, lead a rebellion. A rebellion is incompatible with his status as pious and loving.
Yet, there is an uninterpreted gap between the "rare" and the "never" and the "inclination to offend" and the "inclination to sow confusion." I suppose the Confucian teachers wouldn't want to offer a seminar on the difference between the two; suffice it to say that we should take the word "rare" as indicating that it doesn't really apply to us. It is like saying, in 2010, it is "rare" in America for a person to achieve fantastic success and riches without a college education. It can be done, of course, but don't plan your life around it. Don't plan your life on being the exception because, if you plan this way, you certainly won't be the exception.
I.2. The Life of the Superior Person
What, in contrast, characterizes the jun(1) zi(3), the "gentleman" or the "superior person"? In a word, such a person "attends to" (wu(4)) the roots or the radical things of life. "Radical" here does not mean something that is "off center" or "subversive." It simply means something that is connected to the fundamental principles of life. The "gentleperson," then, lives by rooting his or her life in fundamental principles. And, I.2. goes on to say, it is from this rootedness that the "way" (dao(4)) has its birth. An interesting idea is suggested here. It isn't as if there is a way already paved for us to walk down, even though duties to parents and family are essential. Rather, it is that the way emerges naturally from the person who is well rooted in life. If the roots are firmly set, the plant will flourish. Then, as if to repeat the thought, I believe that the last sentence reiterates what has just been said, though changing the words. Filial piety (xiao(4)) and brotherly affection (ti(4)) are the roots of benevolent (ren(2)) action.
Well, we have some pretty huge Confucian ethical terms here and, it seems to me, we really don't have a clear sense of which comes first. Does the way (dao(4)) come before, after, or is it really synonymous with filial piety (xiao(4)) and brotherly love (ti(4))? Does the superior person get that designation prior to walking the way and cultivating filial piety and brotherly love, or is that designation something that comes after a long life of ethical service? Is the way of benevolence the same as living in the "way" (dao(4))? All of these questions have an interesting dimension but they point to the reality that the basic truth of Confucian ethics and living is like a kaleidoscopic spinning top--it is filled with so much action and so many colors that one would be hard-pressed to say that any one of the colors or portions of the kaleidoscope is the "root" part. Yet, on the other hand, the Analects talks about the importance of our roots, as if the roots is an identifiable and simple principle. We are overloaded with questions. And, there is one thing that you must do if you are full of questions. Keep reading...