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« The Dao of Neutrinos | Main | Cherish the Young »

October 07, 2011

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"...and perhaps he goes too far with "free will."

Indeed. I would think taking 志 as "free will" would involve a pretty massive rethinking of philosophical writing and literary criticism through the Han if not much later. The 大序 notion of 詩言志 would not fit at all with the rest of that text if we read 志 that way.

Point taken. If we take it as "purpose" or "intention" would the sense of agency survive?

Those work much better than "free will." I think one issue for me is that I simply don't think that any strain of early Chinese political or moral (or aesthetic) thought puts much importance on choice, on using free will to make moral choices. Yes, Mencius will take 義 over 生 if he would have to 為苟得, but I don't think he sees any value in ever forcing people to make that choice. Indeed if people are faced with real moral choices like that than something has gone wrong with the state. A ruler should not put people in the position of having to, say, worry about whether to feed themselves or their parents. In the most general terms, I think this is very different from Christian moral ideas in which moral testing is important.

Yes, I see the problem with "choice" and agree that we are not talking about a Christian sensibility here. (but Mencius 6A14 is interesting here: 所以考其善不善者,豈有他哉?Lau goes with: "Is there any other way of telling whether what a man does is good or bad than by the choice he makes?" And Bloom goes with: "In examining whether one is good at it or not, the only way is to observe what one chooses in oneself.")
In any event, back to the main argument. My point here about a kind of agency in Confucianism is meant to suggest a potential point of convergence with liberalism. Confucianism does not embrace a liberal notion of individual autonomy and choice. But the socially embedded personal agency (if I can call it that) found in The Analects and Mencius could be taken as a starting point in a movement toward, and compromise with, liberalism. Of course, the question would then be if a "liberal Confucianism" would still be "Confucianism"...

Yes, I think your central argument here is on strong ground. And the line 於己取之而已矣 certainly points to the importance of one making the right choices (e.g. bear paw, and righteousness). Indeed this sounds almost like Xunzi in some ways.

I think my point is a smaller one, that though one has to make the right choices to be good (or at least not make the wrong choices), for the common people (i.e. not the 君子), they will rarely have the moral fortitude to make the right choice when it is painful to do so, thus better to keep them from facing that choice in the first place.

Actually, I think this fits quite nicely with the modern left-liberal world view. The right is much more obsessed with forcing people to make difficult choices (and thereby prove their worth). I'm with Mencius here, better to keep people from having to make those choices whenever possible. If they take care of their parents, that's a good end, whether or not that had to make a difficult choice to accomplish it.

I find that I am usually with Mencius on most things...

Hi Sam, thanks for the great post and great blog.

I’ve always been puzzled by 12.1. On the one hand Confucius seems to say that 仁 involves disciplining oneself by turning to patterns from others, and that one’s doing so will have an immense power over in bringing others to virtue. On the other hand, he seems to end on a point that is radically opposed to the first pair of points: that being 仁 is up to oneself, not others.

1. One possible solution is to say that the rhetorical question at the end is not meant to have the answer “oneself.” Indeed, if the answer were supposed to be “others,” then all the ideas in the passage would hang together neatly and easily, right on the surface.

2. Another possible solution is to say that Confucius was being careless, especially about the conflict between the idea that one man’s virtue would lead everyone else to virtue and the idea that we don’t get our virtue from others.

3. Another possible solution, which I’d never thought of before reading your post, can be suggested by Hinton’s “translation” or revision of the text. Hinton introduces a ruler to the text, possibly suggesting the following line of thought: the advantage of ritual, especially in a ruler, is that it is the refraining from trying to push others to virtue. If those with power to push stop pushing, everyone will do fine, for virtue comes from oneself, from each person.

4. A&R’s “translation” may reflect another proposed solution: that the effect on the whole world is not to give people 仁 but to give them something less, a sort of ersatz仁that requires the constant presence of a model. Confucius’ rhetorical question at the end simply does not apply to the 民, for whom being 仁 is simply inaccessible. That may be the correct solution. It would seem to require an odd sort of context: it would seem to have to arise from Yan Hui’s blaming, not his associates in the Confucian group, but rather the people at large. For example: “How can I have virtuous attitudes when I have to lock my door at night?”

The Hinton solution seems the best fit with liberalism.

Bill,
Thanks for the great comment. It strikes me that #3 could work even without Hinton's addition of the ruler to the passage: each of us should work towards 仁, and of course we do so in our relationships to others; we should not push others to virtue but continually return to our selves - 為仁由己 - to reflect upon our actions in relation to others.

Also, my sense is that A&R would not like the implications of #4, since earlier A&H did not read 民 as wholly negative: "For Confucius, not only is the emergence of particularity (ren 人) from the masses [民] possible, the masses can even give rise to authoritative humanity (ren 仁)." (143). They cite Analects 8.2 here.

Hi Sam,

Good point about A&R.

Regarding #3, the question is about whom to take as the subject of the first half of: “一日克己復禮,天下歸仁焉.” The core idea of solution #3 is the idea that if the subject of the first half doesn’t push, then people in general will not be getting pushed, so their inner tendency to virtue will get expressed.

If the subject of the first half is the ruler, i.e. the government, then there is some broad plausibility in the idea that if he doesn’t push, people in general will not get pushed much.

If the subject of the first half is any private individual, such as Yan Hui – that is, if one person for one day disciplines herself and returns to virtue, then … – well, I don’t see the plausibility in the idea that if some one individual doesn’t push, people in general won’t get pushed.

(A third subject one might consider is people in general, or tianxia, thus: “If [they] for one day discipline themselves and return to ritual, [the people of] the world will return to virtue.” I think this reading may be what you’re proposing. But I think this reading has three problems. First, the grammar is a little iffy, since on this reading the subject of the first half isn’t really tianxia (i.e. disciplining itself). Second, the relevance to an exhortation to Yan Hui is unclear. Third, on this reading the idea of the sentence seems a little out of harmony with the idea that virtue is up to oneself.)

So I don’t yet see how #3 would work without adding the ruler.

Bill,
Yes, I see your point here. Some sort of exemplary person, ruler or not, seems to be the necessary subject...

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