I’ll be mainly back to commenting on passages from the Analects and other texts here for a while on Unpolished Jade (along with book reviews and possibly some other stuff), as I focus on more generally interpretive and comparative posts on Warp, Weft, and Way. I’ve been thinking about community as person-making and the unique features of the human in the Analects recently (working on a number of papers on these topics), and so I’ve been focused on the Analects passages that have something to say about the uniquely human, especially as it concerns (and it usually does!) some feature of communal concern.
Analects 2.7 gives us a statement of what the Confucians take to be uniquely human features of connection with one’s parents that counts as filial conduct. This passage contains a number of interesting layers that can help us think about filiality specifically, and human community and virtue more generally.
Translation: Ziyou asked about filiality. The master said, “today people call filiality nourishing [one’s parents]. This is to be like the dogs and horses-even they are able to nourish [their parents]. Without reverence (jing), how can you tell the difference?
One reading of this passage is to focus on the internal features of the property of filiality, extending this to the Confucian virtues generally. Thus, the other virtues, like filiality, rely on one’s attitude and motivations, and the consequences of one’s actions are relatively less important. Reverence, in the case of filiality, is more important than the actual nourishment of parents, just as concern for others, in the case of ren (humanity) is more important than the success in securing the physical wellbeing of others. Analects 12.7, in which the trust of the people is deemed more important for governing than sufficient military might or even sufficient food, might be seen as supporting such a reading.
I wonder if 2.7 is a statement of this kind, however. Is it really claiming that reverence is more important than nourishment when it comes to filiality, or rather that it is equally important? I think the use of “dogs and horses” here raises an interesting question that brings us right into the Mencius/Xunzi “debate” on human nature. Confucius points out that even dogs and horses nourish their parents, and presumably they are not the kinds of things that can be filial. Filiality requires more than this–reverence must also play a role, and this is something that cannot be done by dogs and horses. This, of course, does not show that the ability to nourish is not part of filiality–we might expect that Confucius would fail to consider filial a man who has reverence for his parents but is underemployed and unable to sufficiently care for them (just as we would expect from Aristotle, situations outside one’s control can sometimes thwart virtue).
In a sense Analects 2.7 is like a Warring States Rorschach test. Whether we read 2.7 as claiming that only reverence is necessary for filiality or instead as claiming that both reverence and ability to nourish are necessary depends largely on whether we accept a Mencian or Xunzian view of 性 (human nature). Where Mencius sees human nature as containing only that which is unique to humans, thus ruling out those features we share with dogs and horses, Xunzi’s view (somewhat similar to Gaozi’s view in the Mencius) is that there is a certain amount of overlap between human nature and a dog’s nature. They will share certain features (like the desire for food and sex) and not others (like advanced social abilities). It seems to me a Xunzian (like myself) is more likely to read 2.7 as claiming that both reverence and ability to nourish are necessary for reverence, while the Mencian will likely read it as a claim that it is reverence, and not the ability to nourish, that is central to filiality. It seems we get little help from elsewhere in the Analects to settle this, like so many other issues in this text.