Yi (義) Can’t Make a Junzi–Analects 17.23

Here’s an argument from Jiyuan Yu:
“for Confucius, being virtuous must involve an intellectual aspect, which he calls yi (義) a term which is etymologically related to yi (宜, ‘what is fitting’ or ‘what is appropriate’) and which I choose to translate as ‘appropriateness.’  Appropriateness is even said to be the most important factor for being an excellent person.  In addition to Analects 4.10 […] Confucius also says: ‘for the excellent man it is appropriateness (yi) that is supreme.’ (17.23).”
(Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle, p. 140)
I’ve got to call Yu out on this one.  There is absolutely no way one can justifiably read 17.23 as showing that yi is “the most important factor for being an excellent person” (I assume he means junzi).  Why is this?  Well, let’s look at the key bit of 17.23 being considered here:
君 子 義 以 為 上 , 君 子 有 勇 而 無 義 為 亂 , 小 人 有 勇 而 無 義 為 盜 。
(trans:  The junzi should take yi as of greatest importance.  The junzi who is brave but lacks yi will be disorderly.  The petty person (xiao ren) who is brave by lacks yi will be a thief.)
I am unsure how anyone can use this to show that yi is a necessary condition for being a junzi.  Not only does Confucius say that there can be a junzi without yi, “the junzi who is brave but lacks yi…”, but he compares such a person with a petty person who lacks yi, and finds that each type of person has different qualities–the junzi without yi will be disordered, the xiao ren without yi will be a thief.  So it simply cannot be the case that being in line with yi is necessary or sufficient for being a junzi.  If it’s necessary, then one cannot be a junzi without it, which 17.33 denies (as clearly as the bright noon sky).  If it’s sufficient, then one with yi should qualify as a junzi, which seems inconsistent with 17.33 (the xiao ren who is brave but lacks yi is a thief, but one who is brave and has yi is not a xiao ren at all??)
Yu seems to be reading Confucius in this way in order to make him closer to Aristotle than he actually is.  The above quote from Yu comes from a chapter in which Yu is arguing that Aristotle’s phronesis (practical wisdom) is similar to Confucius’ yi, in that they are both intellectual aspects of cultivation of virtue the possession of which are necessary for one to be virtuous.  This is true for Aristotle’s phronesis, but it makes a joke out of 17.33–it seems to me that the only reason one would ever consider reading 17.33 the way Yu seems is because they have Aristotle glasses on.  And even then, one has to deny that Confucius meant what he said in order to make it support the Aristotelian reading. 

7 responses to “Yi (義) Can’t Make a Junzi–Analects 17.23

  1. Hi Alexus,

    I’ve lent out my Yu before reading it, so I’m not sure this response is on-target, but I’ll shoot it off anyway to see what you think.

    It seems to me that the term ‘junzi’ in the Analects is not perfectly precise. Insofar as it means ‘excellent person’ the degree of excellence meant might vary with the occasion. Also the term might sometimes lean toward meaning something like ‘member of the sociopolitical elite’.

    It seems clear that 17.23 is not using ‘junzi’ 君子 to mean ‘excellent person’ by the strictest standards. Rather it is using the term to mean either (A) ‘at-least-moderately-excellent person’ or (B) something like ‘member of the sociopolitical elite’.

    On reading (A), 17.23 says that an at-least-moderately-excellent person “should take yi as of greatest importance.” That seems to imply that every perfectly excellent person does take yi 義 as of greatest importance. And that’s approximately Yu’s claim (aside from what Yu takes yi 義 to consist in). To make it exactly Yu’s claim, we have to add that the perfectly excellent person does not fail in pursuit of yi 義. Is that a problematic addition?

    On reading (B), to arrive at Yu’s reading we have to add that no perfectly excellent person is a small person (xiao ren 小人). Is that a problem?

  2. Hi Bill–
    thanks for your comments. Hopefully my response is coherent—it’s really late and I ran out of coffee hours ago. So here goes–

    I think there’s still a problem with Yu’s reading if we take ‘junzi’ in either sense (A) or sense (B).
    Here’s why:

    If we take sense (A), “at-least-moderately-excellent person”, then 17.23 tells us that such a person should take yi as of the greatest importance, and those of them who are brave but without yi will be disordered. So, the implication here is that if such an at-least-moderately-excellent person has yi and is brave, then they will not be disordered, it will order their bravery. But this does not say that yi is either a necessary or sufficient condition for becoming a “perfectly-excellent” person, although we would expect that such a person would also have yi. But this would also be the case with the “perfectly kind” person. We would expect such a person to be patient (even though it may not be a necessary condition of kindness), but we could not claim from this that patience would be the most important factor for being a kind person, like Yu’s claim about yi based on 17.23. Perhaps Confucius does hold that yi has such importance (although I don’t think this is the view in the Analects), but 17.23 can’t show it, if we read ‘junzi’ here in sense (A).

    If we take sense (B), “member of the sociopolitical elite”, Yu’s reading is even harder to justify. 17.23 then tells us that a member of the sociopolitical elite will be disordered without yi, while a lower class person without yi will be a thief. But this is even further from giving us any evidence that yi is a necessary or sufficient condition for becoming a perfectly-excellent person (or even a moderately-excellent person) than the first reading,

    It seems that Yu depends on a reading of the first instance of junzi in 17.23 as “perfectly-excellent person”, because he takes this first bit of 17.23 to show that yi establishes one as a junzi in this strong sense. Otherwise, Yu’s use of “being virtuous” or “excellent person” itself would have to be read in the weaker sense you suggest junzi in 17.23 might be read—and if this were the case, his claim that “appropriateness is said to be the most important factor for being an excellent person” would be either unimportant for Yu’s purposes (where Yu’s “excellent person” is read in sense (A) or (B) of junzi), or unsupported by 17.23 (where Yu’s “excellent person” is read how he seems to mean it, as “fully excellent person”). The parallel to Aristotle’s phronesis (which Yu argues for) can only be maintained if Yu thinks that ‘junzi’ here (and his own translation ‘excellent person’) is “fully excellent person”. And this reading cannot be sustained by 17.23.

    One last thing–I’m not sure I follow your reasoning in the last part of your comments, when you say:
    “On reading (B), to arrive at Yu’s reading we have to add that no perfectly excellent person is a small person (xiao ren 小人).” So I can’t respond to that one directly, but I must be missing something. Are you taking reading (B) as ‘member of the sociopolitical elite’?

  3. I was too brief and, as usual, unclear.

    My thought based on (A) is really simple and has nothing to do with the part about bravery. Here’s the argument in full detail, beginning with some abbreviations:

    SY = take yi as of greatest importance.
    AP = at least moderately excellent person
    PP = perfectly excellent person

    1. Every AP should SY. (17.23)
    2. Every PP is an AP.
    3. Every PP should SY, if she doesn’t. (1,2)
    4. Every PP does whatever she should do.
    5. Every PP does SY. (3,4)
    6. Every PP accomplishes her main aims regarding virtue.
    7. Every PP does or has yi. (5,6)

    The inferences are valid. Premise 1 comes from 17.23, premise 2 is analytic, premise 4 is close to analytic, and premise 6 is reasonable. Therefore nothing in the argument is unreasonable. Therefore 7 can be derived from 17.23 by a reasonable path – on reading (A) of the term ‘junzi’.

    The only way bravery comes in to this line of thought is that 17.23’s comment about bravery rules out the reading of ‘junzi’ in 17.23 as PP, and therefore makes (A) an important candidate reading of ‘junzi’ in 17.23.

    Yu can derive 7 above in a similar way from reading (B) of the term ‘junzi’ in 17.23, if he can attribute to Confucius the view that no nonmember of the sociopolitical elite is a perfect person. Maybe that’s a more problematic attribution than I was thinking. Here’s an argument for it:

    According to C, a solid education in ritual and literature is hardly possible if one is poor, and more or less qualifies one as being a member of the sociopolitical elite. But such knowledge is a necessary condition for being a PP. Therefore nobody not in the elite is a PP.

    And then the argument goes as above, but replacing AP with EP for “elite person.” What I’ve argued for just above is premise 2-prime, that every PP is an EP (according to Confucius).

    How’s that?

    I think you’re saying toward the end of your latest comment that the above line of thought can’t have been Yu’s. So I guess all I can claim is that Yu could have got his point fairly from 17.23 (if backed up by other passages), not that he did!

  4. Here’s a simpler approach that doesn’t worry about (A) versus (B) and doesn’t involve the “should” shuffle:

    17.23 says that every “junzi” values yi most highly, and that anyone who is a “junzi” and also is brave but not yi is a troublemaker. Presumably the “junzi” of 17.23 (or at least in the last appearance of the term in 17.23) is someone who meets some standard (we don’t know what it is) that all excellent people meet. Therefore, 17.23 implies that every excellent person values yi most highly.

    The use of ‘junzi’ in 1.2 is also interesting. 君子務本。本立而道生。“The junzi attends to the root. When the root is established, the Way grows.” The puzzle is that one might suppose that someone gets to be Junzi only if her Way has already grown, so to speak.

  5. Concerning 1.2, I think this shows something important about the junzi-namely that the junzi is one who is able to do what it takes, but not necessarily the perfect person. Also, the ‘ben li er dao sheng’ bit could refer to a dao which is not a personal dao but that of the state, for example. The dao of the thriving community is born from the root attended to by the junzi (or in that case the sage). I’ve always taken 1.2 this way. Of course, on my social reading of ren I’m pretty much forced to take 1.2 this way, as xiao is here called the root of ren,

    On your argument on 17.23–
    this seems right, but my worry about Yu’s position isn’t resolved by it. This is mainly because Yu takes 17.23 to show that yi, like phronesis, is the intellectual feature of the virtuous person which makes a person virtuous, and without which one cannot be virtuous in any capacity. Although (as you show) the perfectly excellent person might have to have yi, this does not show that it plays the role Yu claims it does. Rather, it may be similar to the role patience plays in my example of the perfectly kind person. If we concede that the perfectly kind person must be patient, on pain of being not perfectly kind, this does not show that patience is the key feature which makes someone kind, rather than a peripheral feature which every perfectly kind person will have to have.

    Of course, the situation in 17.23 is not exactly similar to this, since Confucius does say that the junzi should (or does, depending on how we read the construction here) take yi as of the highest importance. However, I think this can be explained in terms of the example Confucius is giving in 17.23. In other places, he seems to think ren is the most important thing for one to focus on, but here he mentions yi as of the greatest importance to the junzi. Perhaps this is due to the context of the passage. Zilu asks Confucius at the beginning of the passage:
    君 子 尚 勇 乎 ?(Does the junzi prize bravery?)
    Confucius’ words in 17.23 come as a response to this. So, when he says that the junzi takes yi as of greatest importance, it could mean that the junzi in this realm of action, concerning such traits like bravery, takes yi as most important (more important than bravery). Of course, Confucius could be making the broader point that the junzi takes yi as of greatest importance in general, but this seems to clash with the ren supremacy passages, which there are more of (such as 4.4; 7.6; ) and those which seem to link the being of a junzi more closely with ren (such as 1.2).

    Of course, this leaves open the possibility of linking ren to yi, in a similar way as phronesis is linked to arete in Aristotle (and this is indeed what Yu tries to, but the textual evidence for this is weak.

  6. Yes, that seems right: 17.23 is weak evidence for any kind of primacy of yi, since it can be read simply as a comparison between yi and courage.

    “Yu takes 17.23 to show that yi, like phronesis, is the intellectual feature of the virtuous person which makes a person virtuous, and without which one cannot be virtuous in any capacity.” Maybe he doesn’t think it shows that all by itself?

    I agree with you and Yu that there can be different kinds of supremacy, hence multiple supremes, as apparently in 7.6 and similar passages.

    I was hoping you’d join the discussion of your collective ren proposal on Manyul’s blog that began with Manyul’s comment #30 under the April 6 posting “The good, good for….” There’s still time!

  7. Hi Alexus,

    Sorry to be late to this party. I’ve put up some quick thoughts on this at my place. Apologies in advance for the formatting problems inside the post itself, I can’t seem to get the paragraphs to correctly separate!

    Hopefully the two of you are enjoying the summer.

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