I saw a riveting production of Arthur Miller's classic, The Crucible, here at Williams College last Friday. It was directed by the brilliant Omar Sangare, my friend and colleague. I hadn't seen the show for many years, way back when I was in high school and played the role of Reverend Hale. It was bracing to be confronted again by Miller's sharp political-cultural critique, made all the sharper by Sangare's stark staging.
What struck me most was the final scene, when protagonist John Proctor refuses to sign his name to the false confession that would free him from the witch hunt. The famous lines are:
PROCTOR, with a cry of his whole soul: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name! I have given you my soul; leave me my name!
I see this as a powerfully Confucian statement. He cannot stand the idea that his name, quite literally, will no longer publicly stand for his moral aspiration. A flawed man, he has been unfaithful to his wife and his marriage vows, and that causes him deep shame. But that is held between he and his wife, and the bewitched mistress. It is the kind of thing that might be redeemed in his effort to make things right with his wife. Elizabeth Proctor, indeed, has forgiven him, and will not judge him, and that is all the more reason for him to want to hold on to his good name. The reputation reflects his effort to be good in the world again, even with his failings.
But all of that is gone once he signs his name to a false proclamation. He will always then be known as a man who cavorted with the devil, even though he didn't. Or, just as bad, for those who know that he did not, he will be defined by the lie that saved him.
And the fact that this tragedy revolves so centrally around a name, his name, is what brings Confucius to mind. We often think of the famous Analects 13.3 in more general moral terms: the "rectification of names" suggests to us that we must live up to the names that we claim, we must conscientiously perform the duties that attach to our social roles as "fathers" or "sisters" or "husbands" or "teachers." But in The Crucible we are reminded that ethics are ultimately personal. Yes, John Proctor agonizes because in signing away his name he would be failing in his familial and social roles. For all that, however, there is something more direct at stake: the very name of "John Proctor." In that name all the other names are congregated. He might fail as a husband, but redeem "John Proctor". If he loses "John Proctor," though, he has lost the very core of his being.
Confucius understands this. His ethics, too, move from the personal to the public. Analects 13.3 ends:
Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."
The loss of a name, a personal name, is the loss of the most fundamental moral language, the loss of proper behavior: Confucius and John Proctor seem to both embrace this understanding.
And Proctor's decision to die for his name resonates with Mencius:
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)