Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Confucius: Democracy Advocate?

Picking up on something that Boram Lee very eloquently wrote in the Confucianism and Sexism string:

“… my impression is that at its heart Confucianism is neither autocratic nor authoritarian, as some modern Asian regimes like to claim.

It seems to me that one of the main defining features of Confucianism, at least on its political and economic dimensions, is its commitment to decentralization. Its ideal society is one consisting of small communities, each small community composed of persons governing themselves with ritual. The ideal government is not a centralized bureacracy, but self-government by each over themselves, where no coercion is involved, only voluntary control and participation in social activities, and leadership based on rational and emotional persuasion, not the use of laws and punishments. A centralized bureacracy following paternalistic policies towards uneducated peasants is only a second-best option.”

I think I understand most of the arguments for thinking of Confucianism as compatible with democratic ideals. They are some version of Boram’s point: the Confucian ideal of political community is of each person exercising moral self-scrutiny and self-cultivation; education of others and continuing self-education is an important ideal; persuasion and non-violent moral example are preferred to use of force and harsh legalism; hence, democracy is not far away as an ideal–what else would even seem appropriate for a community of junzi-like citizens but a democracy?

I think that would be great if it were true. And maybe there is some pragmatic value in making democracy seem continuous with a powerful self-conception (i.e. of being “Confucian” in some broad sense) that has traditionally been expressed only in non-democratic ways. But why does this kind of argument seem so strange to me? One thing that comes to mind very quickly is that it makes Confucianism’s ideals sound like those of Kant, or any of the other Enlightenment “autonomists.” The community of junzis sounds something like the “kingdom of ends,” a self-governing lot of moral agents who regard each other with respect for their personhoods.

Could I really complain about that? I’m not sure; but I feel like I should complain–Doesn’t it distort Confucianism? Isn’t it mistaken to think that the junzi ideal really lends itself to self-governance? What’s the connection exactly between self-cultivation and self-governance–doesn’t this rest on some conflation? And why has Confucianism only been used in the service of autocracy so far?

I’m not trying to make trouble here, just trying to scratch this itch.

February 17, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Democracy

17 Comments

  1. Like Manyul, I’ll admit something bothers me about it as well. First, I wonder (in response to Boram) how far “non-coercion” should be pushed in Confucianism. What does it mean to be coercive? To literally force a person to do something via legalistic frameworks (clearly the Confucians are against this, or at least they see it as a merely second-best option, as Boram suggests)? Does shame count as coercion (shame can function as a powerful tool of paternalism, I’d think)? How non-coercive is Confucianism supposed to be? Second, “democracy” to me conjures up ideas of political arrangements meant to maximize autonomy for a set of rights-bearing individuals. But my impression of Confucianism is that autonomy is not a concern (too atomistic), nor are there rights-bearing individuals. Third, are all individuals “equal” in Confucianism? I’m not sure — at the very least, I’m not sure what framework I’d be expected to use to say how they were, if they were. I’m also bothered by the idea that the common folks — who very well may not be virtuous — are going to elect their leaders, who will, in turn, set the example for how people should comport themselves. But why should the common people, for a Confucian, have such power? Wouldn’t it be dangerous to the cultivationm of virtue on a larger level? After all, “the common people can be made to follow a path, but not to understand it.” Hardly the portrait of the educated voter.

    Just some thoughts. Interesting questions.

    Comment by Chris | February 17, 2008

  2. Perhaps part of the problem is that the classical ru did not imagine a society in which everybody would be a junzi. (Maybe they agreed, or anyway some of them agreed, that all people have what it takes. But that’s not the same thing.)

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 17, 2008

  3. Was Confucius a democrat? Nope. Sexist? Absolutely. Ditto on both counts for subsequent classical ru. Presumably we all agree on this. So, when we ask about these topics, we must be asking some other question. On the one hand, there is a family of questions in the vicinity of “was it their society’s fault, or the fault of their (core or essential) philosophy?” Of course there are ways to make this much less crude, but you get the idea: these are counterfactual questions about the classical ru. On the other hand, there are questions about what subsequent Confucians, in different circumstances, did, can, or should think. In this latter context, the issue of what sorts of arguments New Confucians in the 20th century made are certainly relevant; and we can also ask (with Bryan) what “neo-Mengzian” political philosophy might look like today. I think that keeping these two families of questions distinct might be useful, because we’ll probably want to use very different standards to evaluate answers to these different types of questions.

    Comment by Steve Angle | February 17, 2008

  4. Another question we might want to consider is: how can we construct an authoritarian vision which does not turn insidious to the people in a society a large? I agree that in no way can Confucius be construed as a democrat, and that major violence needs to be done to Confucian texts to read them as advocating anything like democracy (I’ve had this argument with Boram before). However, neither should we assume that there is something wrong with Confucianism on account of its non-democratic nature. Presumably the reason most of us feel uncomfortable with authoritarian regimes is because they often degenerate into preoccupation with serving their own interests rather than those of the larger community. Indeed, many rights theorists like to argue that one of the most pressing reasons we need rights-talk (not to beg any questions) is to protect individuals when more powerful individuals or institutions fail to act as they ought toward others. As Craig Ihara argues, however, rights aren’t the only way to ensure that those in power perform their duties for their community, and Confucians were in fact concerned with such action, without invoking either rights or democracy. Likewise, we might consider, along with the Confucians, how we might accomplish a benevolent monarchy or dictatorship which serves the interest of the community as a whole. To assume without argument that democratic government is the only way to ensure a thriving community (or even the best way) is not, it seems to me, to engage with the Confucians on their own terms. Confucians offer a different way of governing than our own–we should try to understand what the effects of proper execution of the Confucian ideals would yield before we conclude that Confucianism ought to be made consistent with democratic ideals.

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | February 18, 2008

  5. Yes, the distinction between the two different types of questions that Steve makes is helpful and important. In general we can distinguish between the question: what did Confucius (or another Confucian thinker) believe about X, in the historical circumstances in which he was situated. And on the other hand the question: how can we best adapt Confucian teachings about X to our present circumstances. The first question interests me as a scholar, and the second interests me as a self-styled Confucian. As a living tradition, Confucianism cannot ignore the second question. Isn’t the world now in chaos, rife with social ills and injustice? What is the Confucian solution to these problems?

    Contact with new doctrines, ideologies and systems of thought is also an important part of the changing circumstances, to which Confucianism must adapt. For instance, Confucius had nothing to say about the Yangist doctrine of human nature, which came after him. But I believe Mencius has staked out a genuinely Confucian position on human nature. That Confucius had nothing (significant) to say on this makes Mencius’s position on it no less authentic. (Elsewhere on this blog I had suggested this: implicit in the belief that the junzi exerts moral influence is the assumption that the people to have a sense of virtue whereby they appreciate the virtuous conduct of the junzi. It seems to be assumed that this moral sense comes naturally, like the sense of gratitude for kind deeds received, or the sense of humor. What else can explain the psychological mechanics of moral influence? Mencius’s position that human nature is good, that we innately have incipient moral leanings, brings this unstated assumption to the surface and further develops it.)

    Likewise, though Song Confucianism is criticized as being Buddhistic (and this criticism often seems to be accompanied, historically, by a call for a return to the original Confucius or Mencius), I’m inclined to disagree with the criticism. It seems to me that the Cheng brothers and Zhu Xi have staked out Confucian positions on metaphysics, meditative practice like quiet-sitting (jingzuo), etc., no less genuinely Confucian because of discernible Buddhist influences. To insist on returning to the authentic Confucius has its merits, which today has culminated in such fine works of scholarship as the Brookses’ ORIGINAL ANALECTS. But this insistence should not be at the expense of ignoring the subsequent development of Confucian doctrines through dialogue with other schools of thought. Didn’t Confucius say “When I am walking in a group of three people, there will surely be a teacher for me among them. I pick out the good parts and follow them; the bad parts, and change them [in myself].” (Analects 7.21; Brookses’ trans.) It seems to me that Confucianism can learn from other doctrines, including the modern Western idea of democracy, feminist philosophy, etc., criticize itself accordingly, and arrive at a genuinely Confucian position on democracy, the unequal status of women. Such a position would probably be underdetermined by textual evidence, but it will be genuine in the sense that it develops implicit assumptions in Confucianism, or works out the kinks or tensions built into Confucianism one way or the other, preferably in a way that prunes only the branches and preserves the roots. (E.g., the tension between the argument that all human beings are capable of becoming sages and thus that there should be universal education, and the argument that there is a natural division of labor between men and women, so that women should only be taught about domestic affairs. In this case it’s clear which argument is more fundamental, and hence which way the tension should be resolved.)

    So, finally (phew!), here are my responses to Manyul and Chris. First, on whether I am importing too much of Kantian autonomy, or modern Western individualism, into Confucian teachings and thus distorting them. Even if there is such importation, I do not see this as objectionable. Unless it grows by imbibing new ideas, and grapples with the issues raised by them, Confucianism would become stagnant. I believe this has already happened towards the end of the 4th century B.C.E, when Mencius responded to the Yangist as well as Song Xing’s doctrines of human nature and individualism, by putting a Confucian spin to these doctrines. The result is the passages we find in 6A16~17. Here are a couple of sentences from 6A17: “All humans share the same desire to be dignified. But as a matter of fact, every human being has in oneself that which is dignified. One has simply never reflected on it. What man exalts is not true dignity. Those Zhao Meng exalts, Zhao Meng can also humble….” This strikes me as a passage that rivals Kant’s statement that humans to the extent that they are moral have dignity (intrinsic worth), which is beyond any market price (relative worth). Historically the Mencian idea gets played out in a different way: not in terms of universal human rights, but in terms of universal education. But if we so choose, it can be used as a Confucian (or at least Mencian) basis for supporting universal human rights.

    I do recognize that the Confucian idea of self or personhood tends to be communal rather than individualistic. For that reason the kind of democracy I think Confucians could accept will focus on autonomous local communities. It will be decentralized democracy, with a vibrant civil society consisting of these local communities. Perhaps we could even have a communitarian version of Mill’s diverse experiments in living, and marketplace of ideas. History also may provide lessons as to why Confucians might fare better with this sort of decentralized democracy than other forms of government. The problem with imperial China, as de Bary observes, is that it lacked a vibrant civil society that could countervail the abuse of state power. The Choson Yi dynasty government, where Confucian ministers enjoyed lot more power vis-a-vis the king, and where a system of checks and balances between different branches of govt. was instituted, still suffered constantly through factional strife. Though I’m far from being a historian, the problem here seems to be that with bureaucratic decision-making, rival factions with different ideologies are bound to fight for control over the helm of the ship of state, and the ship will go nowhere. Factional strife would disappear if instead of a single ship of state we had many different boats all heading in the direction that their crews want to take them.

    There are other pressing questions that Manyul and Chris has posed, but I’ve now run out of steam, so I’ll stop at last. Besides, I’m probably digressing into irrelevant issues that are only of personal interest to me, so I shouldn’t divert attention from the questions.

    Comment by Boram Lee | February 18, 2008

  6. Oh, and maybe it’s just the coffee in my bloodstream, but somehow I thought Analects 11.25 (24 or 26 in different texts) is relevant. The Brookses, in the ORIGINAL ANALECTS, calls it “the longest, and the most beautiful, of Analects passages” (p.151). Below is Ames and Rosemont’s translation:

    BEGIN QUOTATION

    Zilu, Zengxi, Ranyou, and Zihua were all sitting in attendance on Confucius. The Master said, “Just because I am a bit older than you do not hesitate on my account. You keep saying, ‘No one recognizes my worth!’ but if someone did recognize your worth, how would you be of use to them?”
    “As for me,” Zilu hastily replied, “give me a state of a thousand chariots to govern, set me in among powerful neighbors, harass me with foreign armies, and add to that widespread famine, and at the end of three years, I will have imbued the people with courage, and moreover, provided them with a sure direction.”
    The Master smiled at him, and said, “Ranyou, what would you do?”
    “Give me a small territory of sixty or seventy—or even fifty or sixty—li square, and at the end of three years, I will have made the people thrive. As for observing ritual propriety and the playing of music, these must wait upon an exemplary person.”
    “And what would you do, Zihua?” asked the Master.
    “Not to say that I have the ability to do so, but I am willing to learn: in the events of the Ancestral Temple and in the forging of diplomatic alliances, donning the appropriate ceremonial robes and cap, I would like to serve as a minor protocol officer.”
    “And what about you, Zengxi?” asked the Master.
    Zengzi plucked a final note on his zither to bring the piece to an end, and setting the instrument aside, he rose to his feet. “I would choose to do something somewhat different from the rest,” he said.
    “No harm in that,” said the Master. “Each of you can speak your mind.”
    “At the end of spring, with the spring clothes having already been finished, I would like, in the company of five or six young men and six or seven children, to cleanse ourselves in the Yi River, to revel in the cool breezes at the Altar for Rain, and then return home singing.”
    The Master heaved a deep sigh, and said, “I’m with Zengxi!”….

    END QUOTATION

    Comment by Boram Lee | February 18, 2008

  7. Steve, I grant that my own focus (which is pretty exclusively on the ideas and issues and arguments that got bandied about in the Warring States period) might skew my reactions somewhat. Still, I need to hear more about what it means for neo-Mencian political philosophy to be faithful to the original, especially if it doesn’t place a substantial weight on the reactions the original Mencians would most likely have had to updated versions of their views.

    (Being faithful to the original is one of the three goals Van Norden mentions; he also wants his revised version to be a live option for philosophers now and to be inspiring in some sense.)

    Maybe I can risk a distinction. One might set out to answer the quostion of how fundamentally would classical ru philosophy have to change for it to be a live option for us today? On the other hand, when those of us who are steeped in more than one philosophical tradition think about certain issues, we might find important points of reference in both or all of them, and this will inevitably shape how we think (and how we write). (I think this second sort of project is what you call global philosophy.) One difference between the two sorts of approach, it seems to me, is that the first does, but the second does not, raise questions about faithfulness to the original. (Largely as a result, I think the second sort of project is far less likely to collapse into apologetics.)

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 18, 2008

  8. Boram,

    Maybe this is only a quibble. You say:

    “Unless it grows by imbibing new ideas, and grapples with the issues raised by them, Confucianism would become stagnant. I believe this has already happened towards the end of the 4th century B.C.E, when Mencius responded to the Yangist as well as Song Xing’s doctrines of human nature and individualism, by putting a Confucian spin to these doctrines. The result is the passages we find in 6A16~17. Here are a couple of sentences from 6A17: “All humans share the same desire to be dignified. But as a matter of fact, every human being has in oneself that which is dignified. One has simply never reflected on it. What man exalts is not true dignity.”

    I had two reactions to this, one textual, one more to the point in this post.

    1) The reaction I had about this particular bit of text was that it seemed to be cheating a bit to translate ‘gui’ 貴 as “dignified.” ‘Gui’ is a term meant to indicate that someone is highly regarded, or honored. So the passage is about the desire for honors, and what it means to be honored not so much in the eyes of men but of heaven. So, at the end of 6A17, Mencius ties ‘gui’ to this meaning by implying that the truly honorable man–not those who are merely honored in the eyes of men–has “high reputation and praise befall him, and despite this he does not desire after the fineries of men” (聞廣譽施於身所以不願人之文繡也). So, I’m not sure this indicates the presence of a concept of “dignity” in the Kantian sense–which would be something like “value without price.”

    2) I think it makes sense as Steve Angle was saying to try to distinguish, say, the Warring States philosophical projects from those of modern and contemporary Confucians. But I think there are two complications in trying to separate those things. For one, I think there is probably a tendency among modern and contemporary Confucians to try to make the textual connection to Confucius or Mencius, to add some sort of weight of tradition to their views–I think this runs rampant through Tu Weiming’s work, for example. And I think Boram was just doing something like that. So, we end up with readings of the texts that seem to stretch them beyond the limits of at least one hermeneutic desideratum: accuracy. Second, and related in a twisted way to the point I just made, if someone wants to declare their Confucian “credentials” it certainly *seems* like they need to have some connection to Confucius and Mencius. Or, maybe that’s only apparent? or too simplistic?

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 18, 2008

  9. Dan, I think this is helpful. (And since when is drawing a distinction a “risk” for a philosopher? I thought it was our stock-in-trade?) You’re right to point out that Bryan’s notion of “historical retrieval” requires that we arrive at “a position that is ‘appropriate’ in the sense that it is faithful to the philosophy that inspires it. It must be recognizable as being, at some fundamental level, a version of the original philosophy” [p. 323]. This is admittedly pretty vague, but he then fleshes out what he means by saying, on the next page, that New Confucianism is not sufficiently “faithful” because it “sees Ruism through the lens of Buddhist-influenced ‘Neo-Confucianism'” [p. 324]. This is very helpful in defining the parameters of “historical retrieval”: clearly Neo-Confucianism itself wouldn’t count, either. I think I hadn’t paid enough attention to how narrowly Bryan intends “historical retrieval” to be understood. If this belongs in my second family of questions at all, it is an unusually narrow version. The “live option” and “inspiring” ideas suggest that it’s meant as the second type of question, rather than simply a counterfactual question about actual historical figures, but I must say that I find it hard to imagine that Mengzian Ruism in such a strict sense could possibly be a live option (in Williams’s sense, I assume?) to us today.

    Comment by Steve Angle | February 18, 2008

  10. I should probably add that what makes honor different from Kantian dignity is that honor is tied to praise (hence, high reputation or material gifts that are meant to signify praiseworthiness); dignity commands respect (achtung, baby). So, what Mencius thinks all people have is something that deserves praise. That just sounds like Mencius, not Kant.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 18, 2008

  11. Steve, surely the fact that distinction-drawing is our stock-in-trade makes it all the more risky? ;)

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 18, 2008

  12. I think it might be helpful to examine how the writings of Marx have been used and abused in the varieties of Marxism. Hence, for instance, in Making Sense of Marx (1985) Elster finds much to criticize in the master, yet he nonetheless is able to conclude as follows:

    “It is not possible today, morally or intellectually, to be a Marxist in the traditional sense. This would be someone who accepted all or most of the views that Marx held to be true and important–scientific socialism, the labour theory of value or the theory of falling rate of profit [I see things a bit differently than Elster on these two items], together with other and more defensible views. But, speaking now for myself only, I believe it is still possible to be a Marxist in a rather different sense of the term. I find that most of the views that *I* hold to be true and important, I can trace back to Marx. This includes methodology, substantive theories and, above all, values. The critique of exploitation and alienation remains central. A better society would be one that allowed all human beings to do what only human beings can do–to create, to invent, to imagine other worlds.”

    Or consider R.G. Peffer’s use of Rawls to fill out a normative Marxist political philosophy containing a clear theory of social justice and/or human rights in Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice, 1990. Do we say that this critique and these additions prevent us from calling Peffer’s theory “Marxist?”

    Consider too the distinction made by Paul Thomas in a discussion of the “critical reception” of Marx, “then and now:”

    “Marx evidently casts a long shadow. Even in the case of words in the Marxist lexicon that turn out to owe little to Marx himself–*scientific socialism*, for example, is much more the province of Engels, as is *imperialism* the province of V.I. Lenin, or *hegemony* of Antonio Gramsci–it is Marx’s authority that is usually invoked whenever those terms, and a myriad of words like them, are employed. The term *Leninism* itself is usually prefaced by *Marxism*–or *Marxist*–…. If one sign of a theorist’s power is the adjectival status that is awarded his or her name, the Marx has been powerful indeed. But *Marxian* needs to be distinguished from *Marxist*. A Marxian belief is one that can be safely attributed to Marx himself. A Marxist belief may also be a Marxian one, but not necessarily. A Marxist belief is one held by anyone, academic or political stalwart, who thinks or can persuade others that the belief in question is in accordance with Marx’s intellectual or political legacy. It would be tempting overdraw and simplify this relationship by saying that all Marxian beliefs are Marxist ones but that not all Marxist ones are Marxian. This temptation should be resisted with all the power at one’s command. It is indeed the case that not Marxist beliefs are Marxian; there are far too many of them for this to be possible. But it is definitely not the case that all Marxian beliefs are Marxist, for the good and simple reason that when Marxism developed, knowledge of what Marx wrote was inadequate. We might wish to bemoan this fact for any number of reasons, but the point remains as I write, there is no Marxism that can be regarded as a straightforward exposition (let alone extension) of Marx’s own views. At the heart of Marx’s reception there is instead a paradox: We have today a galaxy of different Marxisms, within which the place of Marx’s own thought is ambiguous.” (From Thomas’ contribution to Terrell Carver, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Marx, 1991).

    I think we might allow that one could be a Confucian of sorts, on the order of Tu Weiming, or the so-called “Boston Confucians,” or in a manner that finds much in the Confucian corpus that is *not* inherently in confict with democratic ideals, principles and values. Even if, say, self-cultivation is not exactly equivalent to what Kant meant by moral autonomy, there is much I suspect that is common between the two concepts and thus self-cultivation might do some work (i.e., perform a similar or analogous functional role) in the Chinese context for filling out a Chinese path to democracy, one not utterly beholden to the (Western) Liberal tradition yet no less democratic for all that. The philosophically anarchist quality of several Confucian ideas about governing are similar to the ideal of self-rule in democratic theory. Of course it’s anachronistic, to say the least, to make Confucius out to be a democrat simpliciter, but I think the Confucian tradition is conceptually rich enough to elaborate a more or less “Chinese” justification of democratic principles and practices, and this strikes me as important.

    The intellectual enterprise, as peformed by intellectuals, will attempt to assess what is living and what is dead in the Confucian corpus. The academic or scholarly enterprise may overlap with the intellectual one, but they are not the same, hence the scholar will express irritation that this or that interpretation or use of a Confucian concept or the Confucian worldview is not that of Confucius (or any of the classical neo-Confucians). Perhaps, but that intellectual enterprise may nonetheless demonstrate a fidelity to what Confucius himself attempted to do with regard to the traditions and ideas he inherited from his ancestors.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 18, 2008

  13. And to respond, albeit obliquely, to the following: “why has Confucianism only been used in the service of autocracy so far?”

    Think of how the ideas of Marx or Jesus (as portrayed in the Gospels) have been used and abused by putative Marxists and Christians. Should we be surprised that such things happen with someone like Confucius as well? Perhaps a Jesus, Confucius or Marx are ahead of their times in many respects and it is only later generations that are suited to make the best use of what’s been bequeathed them. Or consider how some concepts and conceptions can be enlisted in seemingly contrary ways: utilitarian ideas have frequently been invoked on behalf of representative democracy and liberal capitalism, yet they have also been enlisted in the justification of authoritarian regimes and enlightened or benevolent despotism. Is this a testament to the virtues or vices of utilitarianism?

    Moreover, as a former teacher wrote, “It is..one thing to stress the impact of ideas and opinions on policies and actions. It is quite another matter to single out certain thinkers or theories or concepts as responsible for what they could neither have visualized nor intended in all its implications. [....] In pleading against the tyrannical and tragic consequences of isms and systems, we may foist too easily the entire burden of blame upon those very thinkers whose theories were most vulnerable to distortion or exploitation.” [Incidentally, I think this is what Leszek Kolawkowski did with Marx in his otherwise valuable study of Marxism.]

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 18, 2008

  14. I find myself gravitating toward Boram in #5. Yes, of course, the particular historical circumstances of Confucius and Mencius (and just about every other Chinese thinker in the territory we call “China” historically to the present) were autocratic and sexist. And they reflected that context. It is an entirely different question, however, to ask what the old texts might be able to say to us today. Just to take the US: can Confucius and Mencius (I am not going to say “Confucianism” because there are too many forms and strands) lend anything to political discourse in a liberal context? I think it can. Ren reminds us that, however much we might think individuals are completely autonomous, there is a certain interdependence we all experience, and which is fundamental to out constitution as “individuals.” Although in a liberal order we cannot reject the notion of individual rights, a consideration of Ren reminds us or our embeddedness in social relationships, which will shape our behavior (or should!) and thus will also influence how and when we claim our rights. Ren broadens our view of ourselves and thus potentially at least our view of our interests. I am straying here into Steve’s territory….
    Ask not what we can do for Confucius (he’s long gone, after all) but ask what Confucius can do for us….

    Comment by Sam | February 18, 2008

  15. On Mencius 6A17, gui, etc.

    Manyul, perhaps there was a little cheating going on, though I prefer to call it “reanimating the old to appreciate the new”. I suppose I’ve “cheated” in the sense that I could have used some other English synonym for ‘dignified’, such as ‘honored’, ‘ennobled’, but used ‘dignified’ instead to facilitate comparison with Kant’s notion of dignity.

    You seem to think “dignity” is misleading, because you interpret gui in the sense of (being worthy of) receiving praise or accolades, either from other humans, or from Heaven (as you put it, “honored not so much in the eyes of men but of heaven”).

    I disagree with your interpretation, and think it misleading. Aren’t you just describing a more sophisticated version of the village worthy (Analects 17.13, Mencius 7B37)? Not much different from those who act morally because they seek approval and praise from other men, are those who act morally because they seek approval and praise from ghosts and spirits, or even from Heaven.

    Look at the list of the honors of Heaven in 6A16: “benevolence, dutifulness, conscientiousness, truthfulness to one’s word, unflagging delight in what is good” (Lau trans.). It is at the same time a list of virtues which, according to Mencius, are most intimately part of human nature, and these virtues are honors because our own hearts can (upon reflection) recognize, approve and reverence them as such, and not because they are praised or deemed praiseworthy by anyone else.

    When Confucius and Mencius talk about Heaven, they sometimes talk about those aspects of Heaven we can deeply identify with (in the case of Mencius, this would be xing), and those aspects of Heaven which, so to speak, are outside of and separate from us (in this sense, Heaven=fate). For Confucius, compare Analects 9.5 (where Confucius in his mission to preserve Zhou culture feels allied with Heaven) and 11.9 (where Confucius feels alienated from Heaven). The honors of Heaven that Mencius talks about are things we can deeply identify with as essential parts (qing) of human nature (xing), which we can seek within ourselves (7A3). They are not praises or accolades that come from some source outside of and separate from us, where “seeking is of no use to getting and what is sought lies ourside” ourselves (7A3, Lau trans.).

    Now, your interpretation does seem to make sense of “high reputation and praise befall him, and despite this he does not desire after the fineries of men” in 6A17. But this is how I make sense of it. Immediately preceding your quoted statement in the text is this: “being filled with moral virtue, one does not envy other people’s enjoyment of fine food” (Lau trans.). The order is important, I would think. One is FIRST filled with moral virtue, AND THEN one receives high reputation and praise from others on account of moral virtue. That is in keeping with the remark in 6A16: “Men of antiquity bent their efforts towards acquiring honors bestowed by Heaven, and honours bestowed by man followed as a matter of course” (Lau trans.). But notice that they did not seek to become virtuous in order that they may receive honors from others! Clearly Mencius disapproves of the men of today who “bend their effors towards acquiring honors bestowed by Heaven in order to win honors bestowed by man”.

    So, I’m not convinced by the accusation that I have sacrificed accuracy, and tailored the Mencian passage to suit the comparison with Kantian dignity. Accuracy, of course, is a great desideratum, and I want no part in lowering the standards of accuracy if I can help it. Early Chinese Buddhism, for instance, was hampered by sacrificing accuracy in favor of “matching of terms” (ge yi) between Indian Buddhism and indigenous Chinese philosophy. It was only after the Buddhist texts were accurately translated (e.g., in huge project spearheaded by Kumarajiva) that Chinese Buddhism was able to flourish. That is a historical lesson for comparative philosophy.

    I should have been clearer, but nowhere did I say that Mencius’s gui is the same as Kant’s dignity. I did not meant to suggest a crude exercise of ge yi or matching of terms. I did note that what was similar to these two concepts was the implicit distinction between intrinsic worth and relative worth. Clearly, the honors that humans bestow only have relative worth, and depends on others’ appraisal of you (what Zhao Meng exalts, Zhao Meng can also demean). The gui that Heaven endows is already there in human nature, whether others, or even we ourselves, recognize it to be there or not. And I suggested that this Mencian idea can be utilized in support of the idea of universal human rights (but never that Mencius was talking about human rights!).

    What I have also briefly tried to do in my previous comment, was to trace the Mencian idea about Heaven-endowed dignity to certain strands of thought in Song Xing and Yangism. Doing so, I think, helps us arrive at a deeper understanding of the Mencian idea. According to Zhuangzi, Ch.33, Song Xing spoke of “the heart’s conduct”, and this signals a subjective or introspective turn in ancient Chinese philosophy (as A. C. Graham observes) that Mencius picked up on. Zhuangzi, Ch.1, also says of Song Xing: “he refused to be encouraged though the whole world praised him, or deterred though the whole world blamed him, he was unwavering about the division between inward and outward, discriminating about the boundary between honor and disgrace….” (Graham trans.) Graham in his DISPUTERS comments, I think judiciously, of Song Xing’s “freeing of self-respect from the judgment of others” (p.96).

    The Yangists, on the other hand, signal a turn towards the individual, and they also seem to have introduced the talk about human nature as “the capacity, which may be injured by excess or damage from outside, to live out the term of life which Heaven has destined for man” (Graham, DISPUTERS, p.56). They seem to have resisted the utilitarian thought that an individual’s life should be sacrificed for the benefit of the world. According to the Yangists, the things of the world are there for the sake of nourishing an individual’s life, not the other way around. Mencius picks up on the Yangist theme of human nature, and its relation to Heaven, but also moralizes it.

    It will also be an interesting task to trace the development of Mencius’s idea about gui, and related constellation of ideas, in subsequent intellectual thought. I suggest, tentatively, that the Neo-Confucian idea of “reverencing the person” (jing shen) is one of the related ideas, most notably found in the compilation Xiaoxue, “Elementary Learning”, meant to precede the Great Learning Daxua. (Given the time frame, more than a 1000 years, the connection I want to draw is quite tenuous, but I hope you can still see it.) Let me quote from Xu Heng’s (of the Yuan dynasty) summary of Xiaoxue:

    BEGIN QUOTATION
    “Reverencing the Person”–The preface [to this section] cites Confucius’ saying [in the Record of Rites] “In the noble person there is no irreverence. To reverence the person is the important thing. The person is the branch [outgrowth] of parental love. How can one not reverence it? Not to reverence the person is to do violence to parental love. To do violence to parental love is to do violence to the trunk [of the tree of life]. Harm the trunk and the branch will die.”

    The sage uttered this as a warning. One who would be a person cannot for a single day depart from reverence. How much more should one reverence one’s own person, which is truly the trunk of all things and affairs? Err in this, and all things go awry. How then could one not be reverent?

    Reverencing the person consists of four things: skill in directing the mind, proper bearing, clothing, and food and drink…. We can distinguish among these by saying that skillful direction of the mind and proper bearing have to do with the cultivation of virtue [the moral nature], while clothing and food and drink have to do with controlling the self (keji)…. That is why the ancients insisted on reverence as the basis for the cultivation of the person.”
    END QUOTATION (from SOURCES OF CHINESE TRADITION, 2nd edition, Vol.1, pp.769~70)

    My point in mentioning “reverencing the person”? Achtung!

    p.s. Other challenges posed by Manyul, Chris, and Alexus will have to wait, though the free criticism is very much welcome. These discussions are pure pleasure, but also time-consuming, and this particular subject matter is important enough to me to merit more careful thought and reflection than I can now give.

    Comment by Boram Lee | February 19, 2008

  16. I forgot to mention that the point of mentioning the Yangist influence on Mencius is this. The Yangists resisted utilitarian sacrifice of the individual for the benefit of society, because they maintained the primacy of the value of an individual’s life. This has parallels to Kantian opposition to utilitarianism, and the frequent use of individual rights against utilitarian considerations, and clearly that’s an important function of the Western use of individual rights. Mencius’s talk of gui has historical roots in Yangism that we can adopt to serve a similar function.

    Comment by Boram Lee | February 19, 2008

  17. Manyul writes: “I think there is probably a tendency among modern and contemporary Confucians to try to make the textual connection to Confucius or Mencius, to add some sort of weight of tradition to their views–-I think this runs rampant through Tu Weiming’s work, for example. And I think Boram was just doing something like that.”

    I consider myself a Confucian, but heretically I don’t think either Confucius or Mencius was infallible. I believe Mencius was wrong in a couple of ways. I also put much more weight on how Confucians learned from other schools of thought, and am particularly fond of thinkers neglected or ridiculed by subsequent generations, such as Yangzi, Song Xing, and Hui Shi. If I recall correctly, Hui Shi’s conclusion “Let your love spread to all the myriad things; heaven and earth count as one unit” is a frequent refrain in Neo-Confucian writings, even though his name isn’t acknowledged. Mencius 5B8 best expresses the reason why I like making textual connections to Confucius or Mencius:

    “…And not content with making friends with the best Gentlemen in the Empire, he goes back in time and communes with the ancients. When one reads the poems and writings of the ancients, can it be right not to know something them as men? Hence one tries to understand the age in which they lived. This can be described as ‘looking for friends in history’.”

    The only difference is that, since I’m no gentleman, what I’m doing is looking for teachers in history.

    Comment by Boram Lee | February 19, 2008


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