Monthly Archives: November 2006

What Kind of Ru Are You, Anyway?

Analects 6.13 reads:
子 謂 子 夏 曰 :「 女 為 君 子 儒 !無 為 小 人 儒 ! 」

TRANSLATION: The master said to Zigong: “Act as a junzi-like scholar, not as a petty scholar.”

This is a very interesting passage for the interpretation of ru (scholar). Nicholas Zufferey’s monograph “To the Origins of Confucianism” on the subject of the early ru scholars is a very useful study on this topic. We see here from 6.13 that the ru, although a class of scholars Confucius and his students belonged to, was not unified in virtue. In Confucius’s day, the ru were scholars of many types, generally instructing the sons of rulers and other nobles in wen, which of course included literature and knowledge of ritual. Ru was not at that time equated with “Confucian”, as it later came to be (Confucianism was classified as the ru jia). Confucius is here exhorting Zigong to be a ru with a mind for cultivation of virtue. This assumes that there were ru who cared nothing about virtue (or very little about it). Such ru were probably most concerned with the money to be made in instructing the sons of rulers, and possibly the power one might gain as an advisor to a ruler. One example of such power, quite a bit after Confucius’s time, is that gained by Li Si under Qin Shi Huang. The “legalist” scholars such as Li Si and Han Feizi could be classified as ru (and probably were), although their philosophical views clearly show no concern with Confucian virtue, at least as it is usually understood (I have some reason to think the legalists were much more Confucian than they seem–more on this later).

Confucius seems to say in 6.13 that what distinguishes one as a junzi is not simply high scholarship (though this may be a necessary condition, I’m not sure), but a moral quality that the scholar can cultivate. This leaves open the interesting question as to whether non-ru can cultivate the necessary moral qualities to be a junzi–a topic that requires much more attention than I can give it here. There’s actually a great deal that hangs on this for our understanding of Confucian ethics. If only the ru can be junzi, or only people whose level of education comes near that of the ru (perhaps people taught as youth by ru) can be junzi, than we have an aristocratic ethics that looks much like what Aristotle proposed in his Nicomachean Ethics. Alternatively, if a non-ru or uneducated person can become a junzi, than it seems that there is something more “egalitarian” going on here. I imagine some interpreters might want to press the more egalitarian interpretation of Confucius (as did H.G. Creel in his Confucius: The Man and the Myth), but I suspect something more like Aristotelian elitism is going on here. Of course, in Aristotle’s case, this ethical elite are of necessity affluent Greeks of good families. For Confucius, to be a junzi does not require accident of birth, but education, adherence to ritual, and concern for the social project. Thus Confucius’s elite (who he thinks ought to govern the state) takes the form of a “meritocracy”. However, Confucius does not, I think, believe that everyone has the ability to become a junzi–nor does everyone have the ability to become educated. He might even claim that not everyone who is educated, or is a ru, has the ability to become a junzi. Perhaps some ru by their very nature are barred from the ability to cultivate virtue in the way Confucius suggests. Of course, this is starting to go beyond anything one glean from the text of the Analects alone.

Confucius’s challenge in 6.13 is an interesting one, anyway–especially for those of us who, much like the ancient ru, make our living by studying, thinking, and teaching the youth. We ought to go beyond just this and cultivate virtue as well. You won’t get any grants for doing it, and it won’t really improve the CV. But we ought to strive to be junzi-like ru, rather than petty ru, and this way we might ultimately be more successful in our pursuits, as well as playing a role in bringing about a thriving society.

Interpretation–Historical or Creative?

John Makeham, in his 2003 Transmitters and Creators, argues that the attempt by some scholars to make Confucius relevant to contemporary concerns without study of the main Chinese commentaries and commentarial traditions on the Analects is a mistake. Although I am certainly in agreement that we should worry about the historical context of the Analects in Chinese society after the 5th century BCE, I disagree with Makeham that the project of bypassing the commentarial tradition and working directly from the Analects for interpretation is not useful. It seems to me that both projects would be desirable in the ideal situation (if every academic were a sinologist or philosopher). Granted, the ideal situation does not hold, and thus we might have a healthy discussion over which project (the historical project or the creative project) should take precedence–but it still seems that the creative project is not prima facie undesirable. One could argue that the Chinese commentarial traditions have affected our own interpretations of the Analects, whether we’re aware of it or not (infecting us through our teachers, who got it from their teachers, and so forth…), but this situation is not essentially different from that of Zhu Xi, He Yan, or any of the other Chinese commentators (ancient or modern), many of whom attempted to give their own interpretations of the Analects free of close analysis of the commentarial tradition as it existed at their time. We can’t avoid the fact that each commentator on the Analects attempted to interpret the text so as to make it relevant to their social and political situation, and these considerations were often separate from historical concerns. This fact is part of what makes the commentarial literature so interesting, as it is far from uniform. If this is so, however, then such projects should be as important today, as we ourselves may become part of the living Confucian tradition. If we see the Analects and the Confucian tradition(s) in general as historians, we may end up looking at it as antiquarians. This is certainly important (especially in academia), but there is also a central place (also in academia) for creative and approaches to interpretation of the Analects and other important ancient texts.