This is s post for my Chinese philosophy friends who might be able to help me understand just how Confucian exemplary leadership works.
Let's just stipulate up front: Confucians believe that the virtuous should rule and they should rule by means of the moral force of their conscientious and continuous performance of virtue. They can't just ride on their reputations, though a well-earned reputation for doing the right thing is important. They have to actually do the right thing, in whatever circumstance they find themselves or, failing to do the right thing, they must publicly recognize their failure and recommit themselves to doing the right thing and do it. If the virtuous so rule, then, Confucians believe, political and social order will be created and maintained. Something about the publicly observed actions of virtuous leaders will inspire those of lesser moral accomplishments to strive to better fulfill their social and familial duties. And everyone lives happily ever after....
But a question arises: how exactly does this kind of exemplary moral leadership work? How is it that the "little people" will follow the noble-minded? Confucius does not want us to rely too heavily on law; rather, he believes in the attractive power of right action in and of itself.
I want to suggest that Confucius is implying a kind of charisma that attaches to virtuous action, a kind of charismatic virtue.
By "charisma," I am thinking of these definitional elements from the OED:
A gift or power of leadership or authority...; aura. Hence, the capacity to inspire devotion or enthusiasm.
"Gift" may not capture the Confucian aspect here, drawn as it is from the Christian notion of grace, or gift from God. But "aura" is helpful. I think Confucius wants us to believe virtuous action creates an aura of sorts, and that in turn inspires a following: people will enthusiastically devote themselves to follow the virtuous leader.
We can see this suggestion of charisma in The Analects. Here are two passages:
The Master said: "In government, the secret is Integrity [Virtue - de]. Use it, and you'll be like the polestar: always dwelling in its proper place, the other stars turning reverently about it." 2.1
* * * *
Asking Confucius about governing, Lord Chi K'ang said: "What if I secure those who abide in the Way by killing those who ignore Way - will that work?"
"How can you govern by killing?" replied Confucius. "Just set your heart on what is virtuous and benevolent, and the people will be virtuous and benevolent. The noble-minded have the Integrity [Virtue - de] of wind, and little people the Integrity of grass. When the wind sweeps over the grass, it bends." 12.19
Some translation points, first. My default text is Hinton's (I know, not everyone prefers this...). And he translates de - 德 - as "Integrity." I like this in many cases (as does Victor Mair in his translation of the Daodejing), but here it is problematic. So, we'll go with "virtue," which is often the translation of choice for de. Notice, too, that Hinton translates shan - 善 - as "virtuous and benevolent." Not bad, but it runs up against our rendering of de as "virtue." Not to worry. When I refer to "charismatic virtue," it is the de of the noble-minded person - 君子之德 - that I'm going for...
So, let's look at these passages. The first one implies, on a modern reading, something like a gravitational pull (I know, Confucius himself was not thinking about gravitation... or was he?). The North Star is the center of our universe (at least as we see it), and all the other stars are drawn to it, held in orbit around it. In a sense, the pull of the polestar creates order for the others, which is why it is such an apt metaphor for Confucius. And isn't that rather like charisma - some unseen force that attracts us to a person, that inspires us in some way.
The second passage also implies an unseen force, this time symbolized by wind. But the notion of "virtue" - de - here is a bit more complicated. It is specifically the virtue of the noble-minded person that generates the charismatic force that causes others to bend. The virtue of the little, or common, people, enables them to yield, to recognize the righteousness of the morally accomplished leader and move where it takes them. Their virtue is to be open to the charismatic virtue of the noble-minded
Its that sense of an invisible, attractive magnetism or force that suggests something like charismatic virtue.
I'm not the only one who sees "charisma" in Confucian de (though I think it is an uncommon translation). Robert Eno, whose marvelous on-line translations I have just discovered, also notes this connotation. In his translation of the Analects he defines de as:
Virtue (de 德) – a very complex concept, initially related to the notion of charisma derived from power and gift-giving, developing into an ethical term denoting self-possession and orientation towards moral action.
Interesting: the connection to "gift," with its trace of the Western, Christian concept. And I like the "self-possession," which gets back to "integrity" and the Daoist possibilities of the term.
In any event, while I think it is useful to think of Confucian de, at least the de of the noble-minded, as having an aspect of charisma, I also think we have to be careful to distinguish this from modern Weberian uses of the term.
Weber's first definition of the term (in Part I, Chapter 3, section i.2 of Economy and Society) works fairly well from a Confucian perspective:
- resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him (charismatic authority).
But when he develops this idea a bit more )in Part I, Chapter 3, section iv.10) we run into a bit of trouble:
The term "charisma" will be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional power or qualities.
The trouble comes with the suggestion that charisma attaches to some aspect of an individual's personality. A Confucian understanding, I believe, would resist this, wanting instead to focus on actions as opposed to personal qualities. Now, it may be true that noble-minded people who consistent perform right actions will have certain personality characteristics. And those might be good to have. But what matters most is not personality but action. If a person has a good personality, but does not do the right thing, that person is not worthy of emulation, at least not until he or she does the right thing.
So, I think Confucian charismatic virtue inheres in right action, not in specific personality traits. if a person who is not known for doing the right thing, and who has a bad personality, conspicuously performs a virtuous act, that action would have a kind of charismatic power to it: we would all see it and want to do likewise. For Weber, if an ordinary person, i.e. one without a charismatic personality, did something extraordinary, ti would not have the same power.
Not sure what this might mean for the famous problem, raised by Weber, of the "routinization of charisma" (it would seem, in the Confucian form, to be dependent on the encouragement and reproduction of right action, as opposed to the succession of individual rulers), but Confucian charismatic virtue is not existential but performative.
Perhaps, then, I should title this: Virtuous Charismatic Action....