They're celebrating in China and Taiwan (though they say it is merely the 2557th birthday) and Hawaii (thanks Kim!). Below the fold is an excerpt from last year's Useless Tree Confucian birthday post...
Prince T'ien asked: "What is the task of a worthy official?" "To cultivate the highest of purposes," replied Mencius. "What do you mean by the highest of purposes?" "It's simple: Humanity and Duty. You defy Humanity if you cause the death of a single innocent person, and you defy Duty if you take what is not yours. What is our dwelling place if not Humanity? And what is our road if not Duty? To dwell in Humanity and follow Duty - that is the perfection of a great person's task."
Here's something Confucius and Mencius would agree with:
Children who are not learning basic skills in the home during the most
important years of brain development (0-5 years) will enter
kindergarten already at an educational disadvantage. Since new academic
skills are continually based on previously learned knowledge, I do not
believe that elementary and high schools alone can rectify this early
educational disparity. Without parental support, involvement and
interest, these students will likely continue to lag behind throughout
their unhappy educational experience.
Parents should be concerned about and involved in their children's education. But there would be one, rather large, caveat, from a Confucian perspective: the parental role should be complementary and subsidiary to that of the teacher. Parents should not be their children's sole teacher in the primary and secondary setting; they should support and help in the work of education, which is overseen and managed by a teacher. Confucius, in other words, is against home-schooling.
His reasons (and you will have to trust me on this one for now; I am home and my books are in my office), which are echoed by Mencius, center on the pressures that emerge in the teaching process. To be a good teacher, you have to correct your students, and students might feel resentment or even anger at such correction. That sort of feeling could be corrosive to the parent-child relationship. So, as Mencius says, the ancients taught each other's children to shield parent-child bond from the pressures of teaching and learning.
But that leaves plenty of space for parents to support and encourage and help their kids with their learning. An idea, it seems, that is timeless.
UPDATE: Here is the Mencius passage, 7.18:
Kung-sun Ch'ou said: "Why is it the noble-minded never teach their own children?"
"The way people are, it's impossible," replied Mencius. "A teacher's task is to perfect teh student, and if the student doesn't improve, the teacher gets angry. When the teacher gets angry, the student in turn feels hurt: 'You demand perfection, but you're nowhere near perfect yourself.' So father and son would only hurt each other. And it's a tragedy when fathers and sons hurt each other.
"The ancients taught each other's children. That way father and son never demand perfect virtue of one another. If they demand perfect virtue of one another, they grow distant. And nothing is more ominous than fathers and sons grown distant from one another."
Even though in the original question it is suggested that the noble-minded never teach their children, I still think there is room here for parental support and encouragement for a child's education, especially his or her moral education. Home-schooling, though, would appear to be beyond the Confucian comfort zone.
Here's a question that I have run up against in my writing. I am thinking about the Taoist rejection of general, deliberate, and conscious moral codes, as suggested, for example, in this passage in Chuang Tzu:
a person really have no nature?” asked Hui Tzu of Chuang Tzu. “Yes,”
replied Chuang Tzu.“But
if you have no nature, how can you be called human?” Tao
gives you shape and heaven gives you form, so why can’t you be called human?” “But
if you’re called human, how can you have no nature?” “’Yes
this’ and ‘No that’ – that’s what I call human nature,” replied Chuang Tzu.
“Not mangling yourself with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – that’s what I call no
nature. Instead of struggling to improve
on life, you simply abide in occurrence appearing of itself.” (p. 77)
This is obviously a rejection of the Mencian notion of a universal and innately good human nature. But it is also a rejection of moral learning, which is represented as "mangling ourselves with 'good' and 'bad'". Moral learning is problematic for Chuang Tzu because he worries that a general code of principles applicable to all will not suit or fit the circumstances of all individuals, thus obstructing them from their Integrity (te) in Way (tao). This does not mean that Chuang Tzu is amoral or immoral but, rather, that morality operates on a micro level, a radically individual level and cannot be expanded to larger classes or categories of individuals.
The danger here is obvious: without general moral principles, bad behavior cannot be limited and good behavior cannot be encouraged. Social oder will breakdown and raw power will dominate right.
But I think Taoists do not worry about this sort of Confucian nightmare (Lord of the Flies run amok). And they don't because they are, basically, optimistic about how humans will behave under conditions of maximum freedom. Taoism rejects killing and encourages a certain tolerance. If repressive political institutions and social practices were removed, and if people came to apprehend Way, there would naturally follow a peaceful, non-violent and non-exploitative state of affairs. Think about passage 80 of the Tao Te Ching:
Let nations grow smaller and smaller and people fewer and fewer,
let weapons become rare and superfluous, let people feel death's gravity again and never wander far from home. Then boat and carriage will sit unused and shield and sword lie unnoticed.
Let people knot ropes for notation again
and never need anything more,
let them find pleasure in their food and beauty in their clothes, peace in their homes and joy in their ancestral ways.
Then people in neighboring nations will look across to each other, their chickens and dogs calling back and forth,
and yet they'll grow old and die without bothering to exchange visits.
Although this needs to be further explicated, I will assert that this is, essentially, an optimistic view of a peaceful and sufficient social existence under conditions of minimal government. Not quite utopian, perhaps but certainly not bad.
And that raises the question. It seems to make sense to me, but I am not sure that others would agree. So, I put it to you, dear readers: are Taoists optimistic?
Last week I went and saw the film, "No End in Sight," (Youtube trailer, here) about the deceit and dissembling that produced the war in Iraq; and this week I have been watching the TV documentary, "The War," (Youtube extended preview, here) about the US role in WWII. The contrast brings Mencius to mind.
Here's one thing I noticed right away during the first episode of "The War:" one of the segments was titled, "The Necessary War." There was a clear sense in the US, after Pearl Harbor, that the country could no longer avoid involvement in the growing world war. There was an interesting comment, somewhere along the way, made by a woman in Alabama, that many Americans knew what Hitler was doing - at least insofar as attacking Poland and France - and they did not like him in 1941. While consciousness of the Holocaust was still yet to emerge, the film makes the point that fighting Germany and Japan and Italy was understood as a just war, not only because the US had been attacked and war had been declared against it, but also because the attackers were killing innocent people and rapaciously expanding their power.
To some degree, the same thing could be said about Iraq in 2003. Saddam Husssein was obviously treating the people of Iraq terribly. He was a tyrant. And that might have justified a war against him. But what comes across so clearly in "No End in Sight" is just how deceitful and arrogant and, ultimately, strategically stupid, the Bush administration was. And in that failure it is obvious that Iraq is really not a necessary war; it is an unnecessary war.
That is where Mencius comes in. He is generally against war, concerned about the obvious injustices that arise when any sort of violence or killing is used to promote state interests. But there is a notion of just war in his writing. What makes a war just is not merely the existence of tyranny in the country to be attacked, but also the existence of just and wise rule in the country doing the attacking. Here is a long quote that gets at this idea:
When T'ang lived in Po..., Po bordered on Ko, which had a ruler who was dissolute and neglected the sacrifices. When T'ang sent someone to ask why the sacrifices were being neglected, Ko's ruler said; "We don't have enough animals." T'ang sent him cattle and sheep, but instead of using them for sacrifices, he used them for food.
Again, T'ang sent someone to ask whey the sacrifices were being neglected, and the Ko ruler said: "We don't have enough millet." So T'ang sent Po people to help plow and plant, he sent gifts of food for the old and young. But the Ko ruler ambushed them: he led his people out to steal their wine and food, millet and rice. Anyone who resisted was killed: even a boy brining millet and meat was killed and his gifts stolen.
...And when T'ang sent an army to avenge the murder of this boy, everyone within the four seas said: "It isn't lust for all beneath Heaven: it's revenge for the abuse of common men and women."
...After eleven expeditions, he hadn't an enemy left anywhere in all beneath Heaven. When he marched east, the western tribes complained. And when he marched south, the northern tribes complained: "Why does he leave us for last?" People watched for him the way they watch for rain in the midst of a great drought. When he came, they went to the market unhindered again and weeded their fields without interference. He punished the rulers and comforted the people, like rain falling in its season. And so a great joy rose among the people.
So, Ko's war on Po was just. It was just because the ruler of Po was clearly an immoral tyrant, not doing the right thing by the sacrifices and repressing his people. But his behavior and attitude are not the only thing that made war against him just. T'ang, the ruler of Ko, was acting with the best intentions: he was concerned about the sacrifices; he tried to help in various ways; and his turn to war was truly the last resort after a particularly bad provocation. And one more thing made this war just: once he attacked, T'ang made sure that the right thing was done; security was provided to the people of Po and they were able to return to trade and farming, the basis of social prosperity and harmony.
Now, we can argue about whether US intentions in WWII were altruistic or selfish. My own sense is that America was acting on its own interests, and, in this case, those interests happened to align with broader humanitarian goals. The war was necessary strategically and morally, and that is why it enjoyed such widespread social support, and why the new and untested American military fought so hard and effectively. Also, when the fighting was done, the US did the right thing (again, this was nested in selfish strategic interests) and worked hard to provide security and prosperity for Europe, including the erstwhile enemy Germany, and Japan.
None of this can be said of the US war against Iraq. While there were loud pre-war, pro-war cries of "tyranny" on the part of Hussein (a defensible characterization) and "freedom and democracy and prosperity" on the part of the US, it is not at all clear that these were the real reasons or intentions behind the war. After being reminded by "No End in Sight" of the pre-war hype and hoopla and the "post-major-combat-operations" failures, it is hard to believe that Bush and company really meant it when they said they had the best interests of the Iraqi people in mind. It is more plausible that they wanted to use Iraq to demonstrate American military power to the world, to get out from under the "Vietnam syndrome," and to cement US primacy in international politics. In short, it was not about Iraqi people, it was about American power.
Now, it could also be argued that WWII was about American power. FDR had wanted to get in the fight earlier. Strategic thinkers were no doubt worried about the rise of Germany and Japan. But the critical difference was that the US was restrained for a time, trying to find other means of diplomatically and economically responding to the growing world crisis before moving to war. And when war was decided upon it was followed by efforts to relieve the suffering that had been created.
In both of these ways, restraint and relief, the Bush administration failed in Iraq. War had already been decided upon before the charade of going to the UN. And Iraq now has no relief, and is unlikely to find any under American occupation.
Mencius would disapprove. And the only thing that can be said, in the end, is: Bush Lost the War.
That might be the conclusion Confucius and Mencius would draw from the big front page article in the NYT yesterday: More Profit and Less Nursing at Many Homes. It seems that large private investment companies have bought up nursing home companies, then cut costs, which means reduced levels of care and especially the number of staff and nurses, sucked out large profits and, sometimes, resold the now debilitated organizations for yet more profits. It's all about the money; the people involved are simply tossed aside.
There's much to be dismayed about in the article. It says something about the US as a society: we are much more supportive and interested in spending hundreds of billions of dollars on an unnecessary war than we are in finding ways to get resources into the hands of families to make it easier to care for their elderly members at home. Because that is the first best alternative: home care. What is needed to make that work is more and better visiting nurse and home health services. Also, more attention should be paid to improving work conditions for middle-aged family members to make it easier for them to take time off their jobs to manage more complex family care situations.
But, no. In the infantile political milieu of the US any such actions are labeled, by the right wing, as "socialist" or "European." And, you know, we certainly don't want to be "European," where life expectancy is longer. No, sure wouldn't want those old people living any longer....
It is hard not to be snarky when confronted by this (from the NYT article):
Habana Health Care Center, a 150-bed nursing home in Tampa, Fla., was
struggling when a group of large private investment firms purchased it
and 48 other nursing homes in 2002.
The facility’s managers quickly cut costs. Within months, the number of clinical registered nurses at the home was half what it had been a year earlier, records collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid
Services indicate. Budgets for nursing supplies, resident activities
and other services also fell, according to Florida’s Agency for Health
The investors and operators were soon earning millions of dollars a year from their 49 homes.
fared less well. Over three years, 15 at Habana died from what their
families contend was negligent care in lawsuits filed in state court.
Regulators repeatedly warned the home that staff levels were below
mandatory minimums. When regulators visited, they found malfunctioning
fire doors, unhygienic kitchens and a resident using a leg brace that
“They’ve created a hellhole,” said Vivian Hewitt,
who sued Habana in 2004 when her mother died after a large bedsore
became infected by feces.
I know, I know, someone will argue that socialism, too, has its faults and that people die because of them. Yes, I agree. I study China, after all, and am quite aware with the failings of their system. But that should not deflect our attention from the problems that our own brand of capitalism has spawned. Money dominates much of our social life and many of our social practices, and, as Confucius anticipated centuries ago, that can only produce Inhumanity:
The Master said: "If there were an honorable way to get rich, I'd do it, even if it meant being a stooge standing around with a whip. But there isn't an honorable way, so I just do what I like." (7.12)
So, can Sun Tzu be adapted to reality TV? Sure, why not? He gets adapted to just about everything else. To the extent that the game is a competition, the strategic insights of the Art of War can apply there as well as anywhere. When I taught the book in a class last January, one student wrote a paper that applied it to dating!
I don't know much about the whole Survivor thing, but I imagine that one aspect of it would make for a somewhat complex application of Sun Tzu: ultimately, Survivor is a Hobbesian context, a "war" of all against all, as each contestant looks out primarily for his or her self-interest. Alliances and teams are, therefore, very transitory. A strategic decision that assumes that a certain individual is with you might turn out to be costly if and when that person turns against you. This is not quite the circumstance that Sun Tzu was assuming (he was dealing with relatively stable military organizations: he knew who was on his side and who, generally, was against him. His own soldiers were not likely to turn on him). This would make the "ground" aspect of the book especially important - i.e. being constantly aware of immediate surroundings and conditions.
While I would like to avoid the orientalist "exotic China" thing, I can imagine the immediate relevance of Sun Tzu to reality TV:
- war is all about deception;
- the most effective engagement is the one that is not fought (i.e. the initial deployment and shape of one's "force" is sufficient to deter or scare off the enemy).
- the best strategy is to attach the other's strategy.
- use spies.
- be meticulous in planning and preparation.
- know that there are some battles that should not be fought.
I'm not going to watch (I never have been interested in the whole reality TV thing, except how it has moved to China in ways that apparently scare the government there), so someone out there can tell me if Sun Tzu is more than just a ornament in this case.
The large demonstrations this week in Jena Louisiana, protesting the apparent disproportionate punishment of six African-American high school students for beating up a white fellow student, raise many questions about race and justice in America. And Mencius can address some of them.
Several things stand out in this case for me: 1) the black students were initially charged with attempted murder, which seems quite disproportionate, given the circumstances; 2) charges were later reduced to felony assault with a deadly weapon (the weapon in this case was their shoes), which can carry a sentence of up to 20 years or so; 3) the first of the black students to be tried under the felony assault charge had his case vacated by an appellate court because, since he was sixteen at the time, it should have been brought in a juvenile court; he should not have been tried as an adult as he was.
All of this suggests demonstrates disproportionate treatment, and in the highly charged and now politically mobilized racial context, it appears that the black students were being treated too harshly, perhaps because of their race.
If Mencius were brought in to judge his case I think he would immediately agree with the appellate court: that the cases should not be tried in adult court. Justice, or redress for bad behavior, is, for Mencius, fundamentally a learning process. Everyone involved needs to stop, look inside themselves, and ask: am I doing the right thing here? How can I change my behavior to make the situation better. A process needs to be created that will turn people toward this sort of thinking. Harsh punishment will likely not cultivate the self-reflection and learning that is necessary. Rather, some sort of more engaged and consistent intervention, reaching back to the initial racial tensions surrounding the "white tree," is called for.
Let's remember this Mencius quote, which I posted just a couple of days ago in reference to another story:
said: “In good years, young men are mostly fine. In bad years they’re mostly cruel and
violent. It isn’t that Heaven endows
them with such different capacities, only that their hearts are mired in such
different situations. Think about
barley: if you plant the seeds carefully at the same time and in the same
place, they’ll sprout and grow ripe by summer solstice. If they don’t grow the same – it’s because of
the inequities in richness of soil, amounts of rainfall, or the care given by
farmers. And so, all members belonging
to a given species of things are the same. Why should humans be the lone exception…(11.7)
The approach here is not to pull up the barley by the roots or flatten it, but to recognize how the environment shapes its growth and development.
In cases of juvenile justice, which is what the Jena 6 is all about, Mencius would believe that adults must step up and assume responsibility for the moral education of children. It is the adults who must show that racial taunting is unacceptable; it is adults who must show, through their own actions, that brandishing weapons (a shotgun was present in one of the events leading up to the ultimate fight) is unacceptable; and it is the adults who must show that violence of any sort is unacceptable.
The Jena 6 should, from a Mencian point of view, be punished in some manner. But so should the white students who taunted them. Felony charges and long prison sentences are counter-productive. All punishments should be geared toward moral learning, not mere retribution. Perhaps if the white students were compelled to work with black families in need, and the black students were also placed in a situation that would bring them closer to white families, the Humanity of all would be revealed.
It may be too early to rename the CCP the Chinese Confucian Party, but this story (hat tip, CDT) certainly demonstrates how seriously the Party takes the revival of Confucianism:
The Chinese Communist Party has selected 53 "national moral models"
in its largest campaign since the foundation of the People's Republic
of China in 1949 to improve the moral standards of its people.
The identities of the role models were announced at the Great Hall
of the People on Tuesday and they were divided into five categories:
helping another person, acting bravely for a just cause, being honest
and trustworthy, working hard and "making great contributions", and
showing filial piety and love to their parents and family members.
The notion of exemplary moral leadership, in and of itself, is central to Confucian ethics but the inclusion of filial piety as one of the model categories really clinches the Confucian quality of the whole exercise.
Interestingly enough, however, nowhere in the story is Confucius mentioned. It's not like party leaders can, or really want, to hide the Confucian connection. Rather, they are straining the make the link to socialist ideology:
The CPC has highlighted the concept of "socialist core value system"
at the Sixth Plenum of the 16th CPC Central Committee in October last
year, to lay the "moral and ideological foundations" for social
The Party said the value system should consist of Marxism, Socialism
with Chinese characteristics, patriotism, the spirit of reform and
innovation and the socialist sense of honor and disgrace.
I don't remember where Marx invokes the idea of filial piety... was it somewhere in the German Ideology, or was it the Grundrisse?
It really is rather funny: a political party founded on an ideology that no one really believes anymore, not in China at least, creating a campaign for public morality that obviously draws on tradition but which avoids direct reference to that tradition. Is this really a way to revive socialism?
More seriously, I have two candidates for moral model, individuals who have certainly helped other people, acted bravely for just causes, have been honest
and trustworthy, and have worked hard and made "great contributions:"