Courage (yong, 勇)–a Confucian virtue?
I’ve been working on some cross-comparisons of contemporary ideas about courage, the ancient Greek idea (andreia), and the early Confucian idea (yong). I gave the following as part of a presentation about yong in Hong Kong at a moral psychology conference in December. I didn’t end up with enough time in that session to get a lot of feedback, so I’m going to post the relevant portion of it below. The gist of it is that courage/yong isn’t a virtue in early Confucianism; in the following, I try to make that case with regard to the Analects:
There is a significantly ambivalent attitude displayed in some passages of the Analects, which perhaps reflects the unclear or contested status of yong as a virtue at all. As Bryan Van Norden ( “Mencius on Courage,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXI: The Philosophy of Religion, 1997) and other contemporary commentators have pointed out, the Analects doesn’t provide a consistently positive portrayal of yong. The following translations and some commentary are taken from Edward Slingerland’s Confucius Analects. I include relevant commentary from Slingerland that seems to me to show how difficult it is to regard yong, “courage,” as a virtue and comment coherently on the text.
Analects 5.7 – The Master said, “If the Way is not put into practice, I will set off upon the sea in a small raft. And the one who would follow me—would it not be Zilu?” Upon hearing this, Zilu was happy. The Master commented, “Zilu’s fondness for courage exceeds mine. But where can I find some really suitable material (cai)?”
Slingerland’s comment on Zilu: “A former warrior, Zilu was admired by Confucius for his courage, but seems to lack other virtues (such as good judgment) that would balance out his courage. Understood this way, the point of this passage is that a virtue such as courage that is entirely uninformed by other virtues becomes a vice.”
It’s not clear to me why Slingerland takes Confucius to be showing admiration for Zilu’s courage, since Zilu’s fondness for it exceeds Confucius’s, probably to Zilu’s failing. Slingerland’s understanding of the passage has yong as a virtue that can become a vice if uninformed by other virtues. This seems puzzling too; we need to know what conception of the virtues allows one to say that a virtue can become a vice. Slingerland’s reading is based overall on this along with other passages as well, of course. So to understand what conception of the virtues might make sense of yong as a virtue, we need to examine them. These other passages seem to show how possession of yong without possession of crucial other traits results in less than favorable outcomes:
Analects 8.2 – The Master said, “If you are respectful but lack ritual you will become exasperating; if you are careful but lack ritual you will become timid; if you are courageous but lack ritual you will become unruly; and if you are upright but lack ritual you will become inflexible….”
Analects 17.8 – The Master said, “Zilu! Have you heard about the six [virtuous] words and their six corresponding vices*?”…”Loving Goodness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of foolishness. Loving wisdom without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of deviance. Loving trustworthiness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of harmful rigidity. Loving uprightness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of intolerance. Loving courage without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of unruliness. Loving resoluteness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of willfulness. (*Slingerland translates bi 蔽 as “vices;” it could also be translated as “obfuscations.”)
Analects 17.23 – Zilu asked, “Does the gentleman admire courage?” The Master said, “The gentleman admires rightness above all. A gentleman who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would create political disorder, while a common person who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would become a bandit.”
Analects 17.24 – Zigong asked, “Does the gentleman also have those whom he despises?” The Master replied, “Yes, he does. He despises those who proclaim the faults of others; those who, occupying an inferior position, slander their superiors; those who are courageous but lack ritual; and those who are resolute and daring, but overly stubborn.
According to these passages, yong requires ritual, love of learning, and a sense of rightness in order to keep it from producing unruliness (luan 亂). These passages clearly show yong to be a neutral characteristic that can either be put to use for virtuous ends or not. What conception of virtue would regard yong, so characterized, to be a virtue? A “unity of virtues” conception would not be useful here. On a strong version of that view, a person possesses some virtue if and only if she possesses all other virtues. On a weaker version the virtues are so closely related to each other that as a matter of fact a person could not have one virtue without having all the others (see Terry Penner, “The Unity of Virtue,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 82). Neither version helps us here, since it is made abundantly clear the a person could possess yong while not possessing some other characteristics, supposing they are virtues, that are necessary for it to produce good results. Slingerland’s comment quoted above is inadvertently instructive here. It can’t really be that yong is a virtue that “becomes a vice” without the relevant other things present. Rather, it seems more accurate to say that yong is not a virtue at all but is something can be instrumental to the pursuit of virtuous ends—at least as these passages present it.
Things are somewhat different in the following two passages , however, and that is why there seems to be an overall ambivalence—or perhaps incoherence—in the Analects regarding yong:
Analects 9.29 ﹣ The Master said, “The wise are not confused, the Good* do not worry, and the courageous do not fear.” (*Slingerland translates ren zhe 仁者 here as “the Good;” “the benevolent” or “the humane” would probably be more standard.)
Analects 14.28 ﹣ The Master said, “The Way of the gentleman is threefold, and yet I have not been able to achieve any aspect of it: ‘The Good do not worry, the wise are not confused, and the courageous do not fear.’” Zigong replied, “[By quoting this saying], the Master has in fact described himself.”
In both of these passages, there is clear indication that a short-list description of admirable people includes possession of yong. That does not directly imply that yong is a virtue—all it implies is that admirable people have yong. But that might be enough for some people to regard these passages as showing yong to be a virtue—not yet for me, however.
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