A Matter of Efficacy

Well–I’m finally on my way back to the good old USA, and thought: “what could be a better way of spending my last few hours in India than doing some writing on early Confucianism?”

So–I’ve been thinking recently about a question that seems to continually arise when I present my work on Confucianism to philosophers working outside of Chinese philosophy. The question is: to what extent for Confucians (as represented by the Analects, at least) is the use of force acceptable as a means of ensuring communal agreement and the correct ordering of the social hierarchy? Variations of this question, I have noticed, always come up when I present to non-specialists, and hardly ever come up when I present to specialists. In fact, when I was first confronted with this question, I had to respond that I hadn’t given it much thought myself, even though I spend a whole lot of time thinking about early Confucianism.

So, two questions occur to me now: 1) why do non-specialists tend to worry about the issue mentioned above more than specialists? 2) what is Confucius’ view on the use of force? I think that both of these questions can be answered by looking not to the Analects, however, but to the Daodejing, which shares certain features with Confucian literature (even the Analects!), and offers better explanations of some processes discussed in the Confucian as well as the Daoist literature.

The passage of the DDJ that seems relevant here (as well as my favorite DDJ passage) is DDJ 17 (Lau trans.):

“The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. Next comes the ruler they love and praise; next comes the one they fear; next comes the one with whom they take liberties. When there is not enough faith, there is lack of good faith. Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say, ‘it happened to us naturally.'”

For the daoist, like the Confucian, the use of force to attain order (or one’s goals, whatever they are) is acceptable, but a sign that one is doing something wrong. A ruler who needs to resort to force has failed in a fundamental way. This, of course, is not because it is somehow wrong to use force–arguably the classical Chinese tradition in general did not see violence as intrinsically an evil, as does (for the most part) the post-Christianity western tradition. Rather, the reason using force is not as good as other methods is, as DDJ 17 suggests, a matter of efficacy, with which the Chinese tradition is deeply concerned.

DDJ 17 suggests that the “shadowy presence” is the best kind of ruler because this ruler is the one who will be able to impose his will on the people without their even knowing it. Why, we might ask, is this situation the best one for a ruler to be in? To take a strictly Machiavellian (or Legalist, for that matter) line here, the “shadowy presence” will be, of the four types of ruler, the one whose power is most secure. Think of this in terms of likelihood of rebellion and overthrow. The “shadowy presence” cannot be rebelled against or overthrown, because his will is invisible. The people do his will seemingly of their own will, so the only ones they have to rebel against if they disapprove of what they must do is themselves! The ruler who is loved is not quite as stable in his power. He has some stability, however, because the people are unlikely to rebel against and overthrow this ruler. Their love for him keeps him in power, and the people will not go against their ruler even when the opportunity arises. The ruler who is feared and imposes his will by force (this is where the “justifiability of force” question comes to play) is less secure than either the “shadowy presence” or the ruler who is loved, because even though he can keep order while he has strength, if the opportunity arises or if the ruler’s strength diminishes, the people will quickly rebel and overthrow this ruler. Thus, his power is based on volatile external situations–there is much that is simply out of his control, and thus his hold on power is less secure. The ruler with whom the people take liberties, of course, is doomed, because he does not even have the fear of the people to rely on. They do not respect his will, and are likely to subvert it whenever they feel like it. This kind of ruler is a ruler in name only, and has no control over his people.

It is not only in terms of holding power that we can read DDJ 17, however. It will also be true that the better types of rulers will be more effective at making a virtuous society, etc. Just like much of the DDJ, 17 does not offer us normative claims about ends, but about means. The DDJ offers us a method, whereas the Confucian and Mohist texts give us a picture of the ends we ought to be aiming to achieve. The Daoist concern with method rather than ends, however, does not mean that its methods are all that different from those of the Confucian, and on this issue (rulership), they seem to line up nicely. What is the “shadowy presence” of DDJ 17, after all, if not the sagely ruler of Analects 2.1 who, like the pole star, simply “facing south” creates virtue through the de around which the people gravitate?

So, this is the beginning of an answer to question 2 above, I think. What about question 1? That is–why do non-specialists focus on the question of whether force is justified in Confucianism as a way to realize the goals of the community? I suspect that one of the reasons for this is that the notion of the rulership in the western tradition has developed in a somewhat different way than in the Chinese tradition. The “shadowy presence” has not been seen as the ideal of rulership in much of western history (there are, of course, exceptions, including Machiavelli). Rather, the “loved and praised” ruler whose power is on full display has been the ideal for much of western history (Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, etc.). The benevolent and powerful king whose commands are direct and clear for the world to see but who is well loved–this has been the western ideal. The noble Homeric warrior, storming the front lines of the enemy’s army, rather than the ninja in the shadows or the sniper blending in with concrete and raining silent death from above, has been the western ideal. Thus, perhaps resorting to force to control a community is seen as a “plan B” in this tradition, whereas it is less justified in the Chinese tradition, being a measly “plan C”. This, along with the fact that violence in itself is not seen as intrinsically evil in Chinese thought, as it is in much of western (post-Christian) thought, may help to explain why the “force question” arises more among non-specialists in Chinese philosophy than it does among specialists. Of course, I’m not completely comfortable with this answer, but I’ll need to reflect on this some more to come up with something better. Any thoughts?

One response to “A Matter of Efficacy

  1. I like the notion of invisibility as invincibility. Chapter 17 of the DDJ reminds of chapter 74 from the same.

    It’s always nice when the Daoists and Confucians occasionally walk the same paths. Statecraft seens to be the place where this happens most often.

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