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…

2 responses to “Analects 1.2

  1. Stephen C. Walker

    An interesting passage from the Chunqiu Fanlu which would make it (probably) agree with my interpretation: 繅者不過其正弗能直, i.e. if the rectifier does not go beyond the strictly correct in his teaching, he will not succeed in straightening the student. CQFL uses this to explain why the Chunqiu seems to inappropriately criticize certain people: if their hidden faults were not magnified, people might miss them and thus miss out on subtle moral lessons.

  2. Alexus McLeod

    Thanks again for your comments Stephen–this forces me to be more explicit and bring out more argument and text. I’m going to break my comments into two parts.

    First, I’ll respond to your second comment, on methodological considerations. I agree that there is some “expedient means” teaching going on in the Confucian literature (just as in Buddhist literature, and in some of the ancient Greek philosophers), but the problem with this is that we never really know when to take a passage as an honest statement of what the teacher believes or an “expedient means” teaching, meant to rectify a student but not give an accurate picture of what the teacher actually believes. In fact, how could we know which teachings are honest and which ones are expedient means? After all, the teacher is not going to tell us when he is being deceptive for pedagogical purposes. Thus given that we never really know (on the face of it) when a teacher is being honest or using expedient means, we ought to assume that at least a large chunk of any teachings (the Analects, for example) are general and represent the actual views of the teacher. If this were not so, teaching would become impossible, as no one would know the correct teaching. On the other hand, if we can know the correct teaching, we must be able to get it from the words of the teacher (along with practice, of course). So again, a great deal of one’s teachings must represent an “honest” view in order for them to survive. Pedagogy must teach us the truths known by the teacher. We must read between the lines, but we can’t (too often) read away the lines.

    There is a philosopher at my last university who uses the “expedient means” argument all the time in connection with Plato. When there are seemingly bad arguments contained in Plato’s texts, he claism that Plato actually knew the arguments were bad, but was using them for teaching purposes. Now this kind of argument for Plato is much weaker than for the Confucian texts, as there is no (as far as I know) explicit statement in Plato’s works that one could ever abrogate a duty to the truth in order to teach a lesson. But the difficulty in interpretation is similar. When do we have reason to think that a philosopher is using expedient means? Whenever the argument does not work? Maybe. But this is pretty shallow evidence, and it is certainly taking the principle of charity too far.

    Given that direct evidence of a teacher’s using expedient means is hard to come by, I believe the best method to use in appraising the teachings is to assume that they are honest and see if we can make sense out of them reading them as honest. If we find that no matter how hard we try they just won’t admit of an “honest” reading, then we can start interpreting these teaching as expedient means teachings. But I think that the “dao” passage in 1.2 and 15.29 do allow for an honest reading that doesn’t require us to reach for an expedient means interpretation. Not only does it allow for my interpretation, but my interpretation I will argue seems to be a snug fit with the text. If this is true, then we don’t need to take 15.29 as an expedient means teaching.

    Second, I’d like to give some further support for my interpretation of dao (in 1.2 and 15.29) as “right action.”

    The first part of 1.2 is basically a list of the actions that follow from (or accompany) filiality and brotherliness, which is what Confucius refers to as “the root”. 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。 That’s what this bit is about–just a list of actions that the filial and brotherly person will not engage in. So these actions (or non-actions) follow from being filial and brotherly. In the next section Confucius says that dao follows from an established root. Then he identifies the root with filiality and brotherliness. So the dao is what follows from filiality and brotherliness. Since the actions in the first part of the passage are shown as following from filiality and brotherliness, it seems that those actions are somehow associated with the dao (although they may not be identical to the dao). So it looks like the lesson of 1.2 is that the performance of right action follows from the establishment of the root. There is an identification of dao here with those right actions mentioned at the beginning of the passage. Those actions, then, are included in dao, included in the set of right actions. Either this is what Confucius meant, or that the root (filiality and brotherliness) is a necessary starting point for achievement of dao. However, what he says in the first part of 1.2 implies that the activities following from the root are incompatible with having an established root, not simply actions that will, given some other conditions, follow from the root. These actions follow from the root alone. This suggests that dao ought to be read here as “right action”.

    But maybe there’s another way. How do things if we read the root in 1.2 as a necessary but not sufficient condition of acting rightly? Then, if dao is born from the root, the root and dao together must create right action. But then it’s not clear that dao plays any role at all–it becomes just a mysterious, intangible thing. The root yields the dao effortlessly. The use of the term sheng 生 is a perfect metaphor for this effortlessness. It is simply born from the root. Birth is something uncontrolled, it happens without our willing it. This, I take it, is how the dao emerges from the root. But if one must have the root and the dao in order to act rightly, then this seems to collapse. They need only have the root in order to act rightly, because the dao spontaneously emerges from the root. The dao is not something extra that one has to pursue beyond the root then. So dao becomes empty, unless taken as right action in 1.2.

    I have to say–I agree with Hall and Ames that dao is not transcendent, partly because it’s not clear what dao could be apart from individual (or group) action, as I explain above in considering 1.2. There are different dao (for example, the dao of a 千乘之國,(state of a thousand chariots, from 1.5), or 父之道 (father’s dao, from 1.11)

    I also worry about reading dao in your way because even if we take 15.29 to be an “expedient means” teaching, it’s unclear how it could make sense to a student who took dao to be a goal rather than a means to a goal. How (as you suggest) can I make something grand which is transcendent and informs me? There is a pressing logical problem, and I think it’s one Confucius’s students would have seen and worried about. It’s the same problem many western monotheists worried about when they posited the transcendent God. How can anything we do glorify such a God? If anything, it can make us better than we are, but we can’t make it better than it is.

    The “specifics” of the dao then won’t have to do with differences in the dao (because how can something thus transcendent change based on what we do?), but will have to do with how the dao is realized in particular circumstances. But then how can 15.29 be true in any sense? The particular way in which I realize a transcendent dao is not itself dao, it is how my actions manifest dao. But that is not dao (if dao is thus transcendent). In addition, if it could somehow be possible that we change in minor detail some transcendent dao, then how do we know what we’re after? What are those properties of dao we’re trying to reach and attain? The properties dao has before you attain it (and thereby change it a bit), or when I attain it (and change it a little more?) Wouldn’t we need to be able to predict how dao would look before we came close to even begin pursuing it?

    I take it that part of what is going on in 1.2 is that Confucius is saying that doing the right thing shouldn’t really be that hard. It’s just a matter of establishing the root (though in practice people are continually failing at this). Also, I think you may have misunderstood my claims about li in the above post (although I admit I wasn’t very clear about it there). I think that for Confucius acting in accord with li is essential to dao, but is prior to it. Acting in accord with li is the establishment of the root (this is suggested by 3.15, 12.1 says 克己復禮為仁, suggesting that ren follows from li, seeming to mirror what is said in 1.2 about dao following from the root).

    Passages which I take to support the dao as “right action” view include 1.5, where Confucius speaks of the state’s dao, 1.11, the father’s dao, 3.24 (天下之無道也久矣), 4.5 (I think one of the more convincing passages, discussing gaining a certain goal through following one’s dao–the only thing that can lead one to gain wealth and fame are actions, so when Confucius says 富與貴,是人之所欲也;不以其道得之,不處也 (wealth and fame are what people desire, but if one does not use his dao to attain them, one should not retain them), it seems to be explicitly talking about right action. If one does not gain wealth and fame through right action, one should not have wealth and fame. 4.15 (even though it’s impenetrable), 7.6 (志於道), 11.20 (善人之道), and 13.25 (說之不以道,不說也).

    I have a couple of other things to add about this interpretation of dao (as well as why I don’t think a transcendent dao works), but I think I’ll let this be for now. More to come…

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