The Human Nature Debate of Analects Book 18, Part One

For anyone who’s interested: here is an outline of (most of) the presentation I gave last month in NY at the APA on the Confucian/Proto-Daoist cage match in Analects 18:5-7 (in which fortunately no one was knocked out with a suplex or blindsided with a folding chair…although rumor has it that Zilu’s feelings were hurt).

Any comments, criticisms, or incredulous stares are welcome!

The Human Nature Debate of Analects 18:5-7 and the Renjianshi Chapter of the Zhuangzi—Alexus McLeod, University of Dayton

I attempt to reconstruct the debate between Confucians and what I call “Proto-Daoists” running through Analects 18.5-7, and isolate a particular argument made by the Confucians which seems to be based on something like human nature (xing), even while this term is not explicitly used in the text.  I then connect this position to a response made in the Renjianshi chapter of the Zhuangzi.  (Below I give an outline of the exchange in the Analects–I’ll talk a bit about the Zhuangzi portion in a later post.  Lots of good stuff there).

The debate, as I argue in the presentation, runs roughly as follows:

(1)  Proto-Daoist: The “feng bird” passage.  The Proto-Daoist position as represented (accurately or not) in 18.5 basically amounts to what sounds like a Yangist viewpoint:  the reason we should not get involved with government and in attempting to reform corrupt rulers and bring de (in the Confucian sense) to ascendance is that (a) it is not possible, the transformation of things takes place whether the Confucians like it or not, and to attempt to bring back what is gone in this way is as impossible as trying to reverse one’s aging process (b) since it is impossible to bring back what is thus gone, it is foolish to try, since all one can possibly gain is the enmity of corrupt rulers and a swift execution. Zhuangzi makes this very point in the Renjianshi chapter, and we can see him there elaborating on this theme from 18.5, although in doing it using de in the sense more proper to the daoist as well as in the Confucian sense.

(2)  Confucian: The Proto-Daoist is rejecting community.  This is the heart of the Confucian response.   Association with the right kind of community, one obtaining through ritual and political contextualization, is a necessary feature of personhood for the Confucian.  I argue elsewhere that the conception of the person itself in the Analects is that of a communal entity. At the end of 18.5, we see the beginnings of the Confucian response to the Proto-Daoist’s first contention.  In attempting to confront Jieyu, the so called “Madman of Chu”, Confucius finds his advance thwarted by Jieyu’s flight away from the area.  Where Confucius wanted to engage (and presumably argue), Jieyu was unwilling and instead opted to flee.  This suggests that the Confucian response here is twofold: (a) Jieyu knew his position was weak and his words would not hold up to Confucius’ scrutiny and so cleared out before Confucius could question him, and more importantly (b) Jieyu (and the Proto-Daoist in general) is missing something crucial to being a person, the engagement with others without which community is impossible.

(3)  Proto-Daoist: Confucius, they point out, also evades people, just as Jieyu evaded him in 18.5. A particularly passive aggressive example of this is Analects 17.20, where Confucius avoids Ru Bei but plays his qin as he’s leaving to let Ru Bei know he’s being snubbed).

(4)  Confucian: Confucius defers in 18.6 to what he considers facts about persons (ren), suggesting that it is outside the nature of persons to distance oneself from the path of the person (although this might be construed as having to do with “humans” as a species rather than a moral concept of “person”–there is an ambiguity inherent in the use of ren in this passage).  Not being able to “group together” (tong qun同群) with the birds and beasts is a reference to the view of personhood advanced in the Analects.  One cannot come to full personhood by integrating themselves into a community via ritual with non-humans.  The ritual contextualization of the ji 己(individual) into a broader community which creates ren (humanity—note that the broad communal “virtue” is both representative of moral personhood and human sociality) cannot take place outside of the context of human society, so that attempting to integrate oneself into the “community” of birds and beasts is fruitless.  It is as pointless as it would be to try to have a conversation in Chinese with a marmoset.  It is thwarted by nature.

(5)  Proto-Daoist: The implicit claim in 18.7, when the old man asks 四體不勤,五穀不分。孰為夫子? is that Zilu is a soft Ru scholar who knows nothing about the natural world and can’t even keep his body in good enough shape to keep up with his master on the road.  The implicit challenge here is that it is surely the Confucian, such as Zilu himself, who is missing something about being a human.  Is it not human to know how to cultivate the fields in order to feed oneself and one’s family, and to be able to adequately use one’s very body to do simple things like keep up on the road and thrive in the wilds?  This, we can thus see, is the first part of a response to Confucius’ claim that the Proto-Daoists attempt to abandon the human dao.  Unfortunately, the second part of a response is not explicitly offered here in these Book 18 passages of the Analects, and we have to look to the Zhuangzi to fill out the argument offered in short form here.

(6)  Confucian: When Zilu says toward the end of 18.7 欲潔其身,而亂大倫, he suggests that what is holding the Proto-Daoists back from conforming to their nature as humans is a kind of selfishness, a concern for protecting their shen.  Serving in government and integrating oneself into the community via ritual, according to Zilu, should not be thought of as instrumental.  Although returning tianxia to the dao is a goal of the Confucian, the Confucian does not do what he does for that reason alone.  Rather, the Confucian does what he does in order to create personhood (which is communal, as a person is for Confucius a communal entity), and it is the need to make the attempt itself which is manifest in our nature.  This is why he speaks in terms of seeking yi, and why he says, in the final words of 18.7, and the argument as a whole: 道之不行,已知之矣 The dao is not traveled—this much we already know.  Zilu here is offering the final response to the Proto-Daoist claims that attempting to correct the ways of the world is fruitless.  “We already know that,” Zilu appears to claim here, but the exemplary person, the junzi, attempts to transform the world through ritual (li) even while he knows he will fail (a trait belonging to Confucius himself, according to Analects 14.38).

Zhuangzi, of course, provides a response to this in the Renjianshi chapter.  Will Zhuangzi ultimately save the day for the Yangist/Proto-Daoist?  Stay tuned…

7 responses to “The Human Nature Debate of Analects Book 18, Part One

  1. Alexus, you write, “I argue elsewhere that the conception of the person itself in the Analects is that of a communal entity.” Is that on your blog somewhere? I’d like to see the argument, partly because it sounds interesting in itself and partly because your reading of 18.5-7 seems to rely pretty heavily on it.

  2. I think I have a few things on here about it. I’m also doing some revisions on a paper right now on this topic, and it was a big part of my dissertation as well. I can send you some of that stuff if you’re interested–be great to hear what you think!

  3. I’m interested, if it’s not more than article-length! Thanks.

  4. OK, how about the length of two articles?

  5. Longer?

  6. I’ll send some stuff to you. I’ve got to fish some of it out of the dissertation, and I’ll send you the article I just finished on this stuff also. Send me your email address to my new UD account–I had your address on my old UConn account and they shut that down back in October.

  7. Pingback: The Confucian Gita? « Unpolished Jade: A Chinese Philosophy Blog

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