I was as happy as all of those cold people out on the Mall in Washington DC yesterday, even though I watched the proceedings in the warmth of the local movie theater, transformed into a public square for Obama's inauguration. And as I listened to the speech, I heard some resonances with Mencius.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.
They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
I want to focus here on the phrase "the force of our example" and think about it in a broader context than foreign policy, in terms of leadership in general. (I should note, however, that the state-controlled media in the PRC cut away from the line about communism in their live feed. Still scared of Mencius, I guess...).
Leading by example, not by coercion or force, is central to Mencius, and Confucianism generally. Take this:
Mencius said: "The noble-minded teach in five ways. They transform like rain coming in its season. They realize Integrity. They perfect talents. They answer questions. They cultivate themselves and so stand apart as examples. These five ways are how the noble-minded teach. (13.40)
Let's hope Obama moves in this direction. It may be impossible, in modern politics anywhere, to rely sole or even predominantly on leading by example. But being able to do so is founded upon a certain kind of acceptance and legitimacy. If Obama can lead by example, it will be a sign that he is doing things well. And I like that line about transforming "like rain coming in its season." It captures something of the feeling that many Americans have today. It was time for a change, and Obama is the embodiment of change. He is the rain in season. Now he has to get on to the other forms of Mencian teaching.
And I must say that I was heartened to read that the first phone calls to foreign leaders went to major players in the Middle East, including Palestinian President Abbas. Helping to rebuild after the horrible Gaza attack and working to prevent further violence there, on all sides, is critically important.
There was another, more prominent, Mencius moment in the speech, here:
...What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a
recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to
ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly
accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is
nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than
giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
If Mencius had been on the speech writing team he would have included reference to our duty to family and neighbors and friends (which I suspect Obama would have accepted), but he would have accepted the gradually expanding universe of duties running to nation and world. Remember the bear paw and the fish:
Mencius said: "I want fish, and I also want bear paws. If I can't have both, I'll give up fish and take bear paws. I want life, and I also want Duty. If I can't have both, I'll give up life and take Duty. I want life - but there's something I want more than life, so I won't do something wrong just to stay alive. I loathe death - but there's something I loathe more than death, so there are disasters I won't avoid. (11.10)
He puts things rather more starkly than does Obama but the emphasis on Duty is clear.
The thing about Duty and Mencius, however, is that you have to actually do it. You can't just talk about it, you have to enact and fulfill Duty. So, Obama's speech was good, but now is the time to do it.