Monthly Archives: May 2006

Analects 1.2

Finally–moving along. I’ve been away from home for the past few days, so I haven’t had so much time to post. At this rate, it will take me the rest of my life to get through the Analects. So I’m going to pick it up. I’ll have much more time once I get back to Connecticut (I’m in vacation mode now), but a little bit of Analects is always good, even on vacation. So here’s 1.2.

有子曰:「 其為人也孝弟,而好犯上者,鮮矣;不好犯上,而好作亂者,未之有也。君子務本,本立而道生。孝弟也者,其為仁之本與!」

TRANSLATION: Youzi said: “Those who are filial and brotherly (toward others) but also enjoy committing offenses against their superiors are few (indeed). Those who don’t enjoy committing offenses against their superiors but (go about) creating disorder are non-existent. The junzi attends to the root. When the root is established, right action grows therefrom. Those who are filial and brotherly are getting at the root of humane behavior!”

COMMENTARY: okay, time to defend this seemingly odd translation. The translation I give here is not literal, but that’s alright, I think. In one of my earlier posts, I mention that we ought to make translations in general that are as close to literal as possible, but my goal here on this reading of the Analects is to give a rich interpretation–so I’m admitting right up front that these translations will be mostly interpretive. Therefore, I would not recommend them for someone with no previous knowledge of the Analects (I don’t want to beg the question against different intepretations).

So–the part of this passage that has struck me as the most interesting is the ben li er dao sheng bit, and it is just this bit that I have translated in a very interpretive way. A more literal translation of this would be “When the root is established, the way is born”, but I’ve translated it “when the root is established, right action grows therefrom.” Allow me to explain. I think that dao thought of as “right action” gives insight into Analects 15.29, which has to me always been one of the more problematic Analects passages (as it has been for some others), but which I now think is one of the more interesting and useful passages in the Analects, especially concerning the prospect of importing Confucian considerations to contemporary “western” ethics.

I suppose I ought to give a quick translation of 15.29, with my reading of dao. 人能 弘道,非道弘人。 (“The person has the ability to enrich right action; it is not right action that enriches the person.”)
The natural actions of the one who has established the root (ben) is what gives meaning and all significance to right action. One cannot adopt right action as a way to enrich oneself–that is, one cannot take a list of ethical rules and hope to be enriched in any significant way by following them (this I take as a disagreement with many western ethicists). Rather, right action will be defined by the natural action that flows from one’s character when one has established the root. This sounds very daoist, but we must remember that part of establishing the root is adhering to li (“ritual”, for lack of a better word)–as Confucius says in 1.2 that filiality and brotherhood constitute (at least in part) the root, and acting in accord with li is part of this. Right action follows from the establishment of the root–so we are going about ethical cultivation in the wrong way when we worry about what actions are right actions–Confucius seems to claim that right actions just are the actions of those who have successfully established the root. But these actions will be different depending on different character types. This is why the person can be said to enrich right action. The dao flows from one’s own character–it is the good character that determines right action, rather than the other way around. It is this that right action is dependent on the individual character, even though in each case right action will conduce to establishing the thriving society.

more to come…

Further Thoughts on Analects 1.1

I’ve been thinking about Analects 1.1 a bit more this morning, especially the final sentence, 人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?(“Having others not know [you], but not being angered, is this not like the junzi?)

Although I am convinced by the Brooks’ “accretion hypothesis”, and more than likely Book 1 is not the earliest of the texts in the Analects, I think it is a nice touch that the Analects as we have it today begins with such a statement. The final sentence of 1.1 is a warning against a kind of moral motivation many of us (especially scholars, I would guess) have. To be known, to be applauded and praised–this is unimportant for Confucius. The truly “exemplary” person (Ames and Rosemont’s translation of junzi is my favorite) is undeterred by the failure of others to recognize them. It is not recognition that is the goal of the junzi, rather, it is the bringing about of the thriving society, the good society.

This was especially important for Confucius to get across to an audience of scholars, who would likely (and still do today) feel slighted and disheartened by the fact that their hard work may go un-praised and ignored. It is a far more important lesson than may seem upon first reading 1.1, and one that has relevance today. I have seen the lust for position and praise as an enormous motivation of scholars today. I take it that one of the things we should learn from Confucius is that this is a dead end–that this motivation cannot help one to bring about the thriving society (and perhaps can’t even bring the individual to realize their own goals). Recognition is fickle and fleeting. To depend on this, then, is uneven. It’s not something that can keep us strong in our drive to bring about the thriving society. If one is motivated by recognition, when it is impossible, they no longer care. When it is attained, they no longer care. It is not conducive to the moral life. 1.1 here mirrors 4.14: 不患莫己知,求為可知也。 (“Don’t be afraid to have no one know [you], rather seek to do [what would be worthy of] being known.”)

This is a very appropriate way to begin the Analects, and a good lesson for all of us to learn. Maybe the Analects should be required reading for all scholars!

Analects 1.1

Starting at the beginning…

(1.1) 子曰:「學而時習之,不亦說乎?有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?」

The master said: “Studying and having time to practice what you study, is this not a happy thing? Having friends come from far away to see you, is this not joyful? Having others not know (you) but not being angered, is this not like the junzi 君子?

I italicize the final sentence because this is the meat of the passage. Here is, if not a partial definition, an attribution of certain properties to the junzi. The term is commonly translated “gentleman”; I prefer Ames and Rosemont’s “exemplary person”, but I will leave it untranslated, as it is a technical term, one which is important to the Confucian project in
general. The junzi is an attainable state, an exemplar of moral action. In the Confucian literature, emphasis is placed (as it is in Chinese ethics in general) on character types, rather than “virtues”. Virtues might be said to play a role, but the ultimate aspiration is to a character, rather than possession of a virtue. I believe, although this needs to be argued for, that there are not a set of necessary virtues that define the junzi (or any other of the exemplars of Confucianism, such as the sheng ren [“sage”]). Rather, there may be various sets of virtues possessed by different junzi, which have no single member in common. However, all junzi will of
neccessity possess multiple virtues. It the success of the virtues of the junzi in bringing about a kind of action that tends toward benefit of the state, the construction of “the thriving society” that determines one’s status as a junzi. You can clearly see from this how my thoughts from the
last post have developed about legalism being a development from this early Confucianism.

Anyway–here in 1.1 we have a description of one property of a junzi. The claim seems to be that one who is not angered at being unknown is a junzi. That is, having such a character is a sufficient condition for “junzi-ship.” But is it a necessary condition? This is a tricky question, and it depends on how we choose to read the final bit of the highlighted sentence of 1.1. The Chinese is 不亦君子乎 (literally, “not also junzi ?”). I’ve chosen in my translation to read it as marking the property of being unagitated by obscurity as a sufficient, but not necessary, condition for being a junzi. To read it as a necessary condition, one would be taking the bu yi junzi hu as marking a biconditional–one is only a junzi given such and such a condition. But given the parallel structure of the two sentences prior to the final sentence of 1.1, I think we should see the final sentence as having the same structure. The first two sentences are clearly giving sufficient but not necessary conditions. We can see that learning and practicing may
be a sufficient condition for happiness, but it seems odd that Confucius would have thought it a necessary condition. Likewise with having friends come from afar to visit. This could be a sufficient, but not a necessary condition for joyfulness. Surely one could be overjoyed at something other than friends coming from afar to visit. Given that the first two sentences
give us sufficient but non-necessary conditions, then, I believe the third also does.

The above considerations are more important for my program in general than they may first appear. It turns out that there will be very few necessary conditions for being a junzi (or another one of the Confucian exemplars), though there are many sufficient conditions. This does a number of things. First, it allows for people of very different character types to all aspire
to the height of morality. This is something I find unique about Chinese ethics, in opposition to much ethics in the western tradition, in which the exemplar will often be of a certain character type, which often seems to limit the “good life” to those who are naturally of such a character. Confucian ethics is more flexible than this, and this is a good example. I will point out this flexibility again in considerations of other passages. Second, it allows for variability in circumstance, and a way to tie morality to circumstance. More about this later.

Confucian Legalism

Is Han Feizi’s legalism really an “amoral” political system, designed with simply control and order of the state in mind? Or is a sophisticated form of a particular strand of Confucianism? More and more I am coming to think the latter. If one takes my earlier claims seriously, that the benefit of the state is the goal of the Confucian moral system, the “end in itself”, then it looks like the details of Confucius’s own program (as given in the Analects) are perhaps less important to Confucianism than the goal itself.

So there are a few questions we could ask of the Analects. Is ren necessary for the existence of the thriving society? Is li necessary? Or are these simply ways to bring about the thriving society from where Confucius himself sits? One might think that ren and li are sufficient to bring about the thriving society–Confucius may have thought they were sufficient to bring this about from his vantagepoint, but this does not mean that he held that ren and li were necessary conditions of a thriving society. Could he have thought that given a different vantagepoint, some other methods of achieving the thriving society might work better? That is, is Confucius really as rigid as daoists often made him out to be? Perhaps not. I suspect that Han Feizi’s legalism is not ruled out by Confucius, and that if Confucius was truly after the thriving society, as I argue, then he may have taken legalism to be a way of bringing this about. But I’m not sure of this, and at this stage, it’s mostly just speculation. I have yet to find evidence in the texts. But I’ll be looking, and if I find anything interesting, I’ll be sure to post it here.

The first question may be the simplest one: is there anything in either the Analects or in Han Feizi’s legalism that rules the other out?

Also: as the semester is finally over, and I’ve got some time now to really dig into this stuff, I’m going to be posting some commentary on the Analects, as well as translation. I’ve been wanting to get started on this project for some time, but things always kept coming up. What will follow is my translation of a passage of the Analects and commentary of it for each passage (or the ones I’m most interested in, at least), as well as some comparison with western political philosophy (which I’m also reading this summer).

Hope to hear what you think!

Axial Age Madness??

I’ve been looking through A.C. Graham’s “Disputers of the Tao” and found what I take to be a statement of why many philosophers find the Pre-Qin period so interesting but are quickly bored by the Han. Graham says, right on page one of his Introduction:

“China, like the other civilizations of the Old World, draws its basic ideas from that time of awakening between 800 and 200 B.C. which Karl Jaspers has called the Axial Period, the age of the Greek and Indian philosophers, the Hebrew prophets and Zarathustra. The creative thinking of that era seems everywhere to have sprung up amid the variety and instability of small competing states; in China it begins toward 500 B.C. in a time of political disunion, and may be judged to lose its impetus with the reunification of the empire in 221 B.C.”

There you have it–the “axial age” was more interesting than the surrounding times because of the philosophical and religious creativity sparked by political instability. There are a number of things that bother me about this apparently widely held belief.

First, I am suspicious of “axial age” claims in the first place. The religion of Zarathustra seems to be a somewhat arbitrary boundary line for the beginning of the age (around 1000 B.C), and even this religion was probably an amalgamation previous religious thought (as in many new religions). Also, the upper boundary of the age seems very arbitrary as well–there were certainly great innovations in both Greek, Middle eastern, Indian, (and yes, Chinese) philosophical and religious thought after 200 B.C. Messianic Judaism (including the Christian movement) comes to mind, as well as Hellenistic philosophy (Skeptics, Stoics, etc.), deep philosophical changes in Buddhism within the Mahayana tradition, the amalgamation of “modern” Hinduism…and these are just a few. It seems wrong to claim that innovations such as these were merely changes of pre-existent worldviews, whereas the innovations of the axial age were completely original. I simply see no evidence that the axial age innovations were any more original then the innovations in philosophy and religion that happened before and after the axial age. Of course, the axial age innovations certainly were striking new creations, but so were many other innovations throughout human history.

Another thing I take issue with is Graham’s claim (of course not his alone) that the cause of such axial age innovation was political instability. In axial age China, this was certainly the case, however in other areas, this was not true. If we take it for granted that political instability motivates creativity, we should expect (as we don’t find) that contemporary American society (for the last two hundred years or so) should be less creative than more war-ravaged societies. Even if this is true, it isn’t obviously the case. Surely there are some relatively stable societies in which innovation thrives, as well as the opposite. So I think Graham’s explanation here is lacking.

This kind of reasoning and viewing the axial age as a completely original period has led to some claims I find a bit dubious. I heard an interview with Karen Armstrong on NPR, on her new book “The Great Transformation” about axial age thought. I haven’t yet read the book (I think I’ll read it this summer), but she claimed on the show that there were certain common elements to axial age thinkers, such as an emphasis on compassion. In the case of axial age China, this is untrue. There were some thinkers who emphasized this (especially Mencius and Mozi), but there were others who either cared little for compassion in particular or openly rejected it (I’m thinking mainly of Zhuangzi in the first case, the legalists in the second). I see her search for a “common cause” as a symptom of the kind of sentiment revealed in the Graham quote above–the view that there was something unique in the axial age not to be found in other periods. I think this is untrue, and this is the reason such a “common cause” will not be found. (that said, I think Armstrong is an excellent writer, and highly recommend her work. I’m currently in the middle of “A History of God”. I also plan to check out her writings on Islam.)

Anyway–perhaps it is for reasons like Graham’s that many philosophers ignore Han dynasty philosophy. However, I think considerations such as those above justify a reappraisal of those reasons.

Zhi (智) in Confucian literature

Here are a few notes (from a few years back) on zhi 智(commonly translated as “wisdom”) in Confucian literature. I’ve argued that this should be translated as “of proper mind” rather than wisdom. Also, I’ve argued that this word is different from the other zhi (知) commonly used in the Analects (without the radical yue (曰) [“to speak”] attached). I haven’t thought about this much for a while, but I’ve recently been worrying a bit about the moral epistemology of the Analects, so I thought I’d go ahead and post some of this stuff. Let me know what you think!

The main argument I wish to make below for interpreting zhi as “of proper
mind” in Confucian literature is that some translations of the term seem to
neglect the link in Confucius between the epistemic and the moral. Western
philosophical tradition has commonly split the two into different realms.
For Confucius, however, no part of human life is free from the moral.
Everything is appraised in moral terms. Every facet of human life is engaged
with the moral enterprise Confucius sets out in the Analects. Too many translations
I’ve seen fail to translate zhi in a way which bridges the gap between the
epistemic and the moral.

The two parts of this character are zhi 知(to know, understand) and (Ames
and Hall say ri 日(sun), but I think there may be a case that it is yue
曰(to speak). One initial attempt to render the word, based on this, might
be “to speak knowledge” or “to speak knowingly.” This lends to the tendency
to translate zhi as “wisdom.” However, this term has implications in the
west which I think would make it seem more appropriate for other Chinese
terms. “Wisdom” seems to refer to a certain presence of mind, or a general
and practical knowledge of some type, which can be applied to real situations.

We think of someone who is wise as someone having a certain type of knowledge,
namely valuable knowledge. The term zhi does not, I think, refer to a
type of knowledge, in theway “wisdom” seems to, but rather to a certain
characteristic inherent in some of those who have knowledge, an ability
to “hit the mark”, or to speak in an appropriate and knowledgeable manner.

These meanings are also included in the term “wisdom.” The main difficulty
I find with “wisdom” is that it both has meanings definitely not a part of
zhi, and it is also not as wide a term as zhi, as is often the case when
we compare lean English vocabulary to much more elastic Chinese counterpart

Translations of zhi (in the Analects)
In their translation of the Analects, Ames and Hall translate zhi, in which
they consider 知and 智as one term, as “to realize.” (though they use “understanding”
and “wisdom” at various places in the text as well). This seems an appropriate
translation, especially for 知, rather than “to know.” However, I’m a little
worried about clumping the other character 智in with this, as it seems to
me to refer to a different aspect of the general term zhi. If we do what
Ames and Hall have done, zhi seems to become a general epistemic term. In
some texts this might be too broad. If both these epistemic terms are to
be bundled together to express one main idea, “realization” is probably
better than “knowledge,” for the reasons Ames and Hall mention, that “to
realize” recognizes the active sense of the term zhi, while “to know” denotes
a passive, post-reflective state we’re in once we’ve already made our epistemic
decisions. In this way, “to know” seems to describe a state, whereas “to
realize” describes a process. This is keeping with the general tendency
in Ames and Hall to read the Chinese vocabulary as processual rather than
concrete or “substantive.” I agree with this move.
Chan, in his Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, translates zhi as “knowledge”
and “wisdom” in the Analects.

Translation based on zhi, yue
“To speak knowingly” seems to indicate some kind of characteristic, rather
than stored information. I avoid the Ames and Hall “to realize” for the
知 part of this character, because “realize” might seem strange taken adverbally
(realizingly??) zhi might be read as “having the character to speak in
the right way”, posessing a sort of inner cultivation which allows one to
constantly “hit the mark.” Following Jullien’s concern with propensity,
we might even think of zhi as a kind of propensity to act in a certain type
of way, to properly speak, to be on the mark.

Consider a passage from Analects
4.2: “知(I’m reading this as 智here. Ames and Hall seem to do this also,
translating it as “wisdom”) 者利仁。 If we take zhi zhe as “those of proper
mind,” taking zhi to be “of proper mind”, this passage reads “those of proper
mind thrive in ren.” This sounds right to me– “of proper mind,” I think,
gets rid of some of the baggage of “wisdom” as applying a certain type of
knowledge, or simply having great knowledge. “of proper mind” seems to link
the epistemic with the ethical in a way I think Confucius’s thought demands.

We might, however, be somewhat careful to claim that there’s an ethical
sense to epistemic terms in Confucius, because part of the task of the Analects
is to show that all aspects of human life are part of the ethical. If we
build in such an ethical sense to epistemic terms, then why would Confucius
need to demonstrate that the epistemic terms do come under the scope of
the ethical? Why wouldn’t it be something everyone already knew, just by
the meaning of words?

The reason I advocate reading zhi as having an ethical sense is that I believe
Confucius’s teachings give the terms such meaning, regardless of what was
contained in them before. Many terms used in the Analects are terms which
Confucius reworked into his system of ethics based on ren. Terms such as
junzi, and even ren itself took on new meanings in Confucius, determined
by their place in his ethical system. I believe we should read zhi in this
way, as occupying a position with respect to ren. In this light, it would
not make sense to consider zhi in isolation from Confucius’s ethical system.
This shows the possible inadequacy of a translation of zhi as “wisdom”.

Finally, I will consider some relevant passages in Confucius, with the “wisdom”
zhi changed to “of proper mind”. Rather than retranslating the
passages, I’ll work from the Ames and Hall version of the Analects.

2.17– “The Master said: “Zilu, shall I teach you what it is to be of proper
mind? To know what you know, and know what you do not know–this then is
being of proper mind.”

4.1– “The Master said: “In taking up one’s residence, it is the presence
of ren that is the greatest attraction. How can anyone be called of proper
mind who, in having the choice, does not seek to dwell among authoritative

6.22– “Fan Chi inquired about being of proper mind. The Master replied,
‘to devote yourself to what is appropriate (yi 義) for the people, and to
show respect for the ghosts and spirits while keeping them at a distance
can be called being of proper mind.”

Especially in the final passage, I think the superiority of “of proper
mind” over “wisdom” becomes apparent.