Analects 2.7–More on the Uniquely Human

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.

2.7:  子游問孝。子曰:“今之孝者,是謂能養。至於犬馬,皆能有養;不敬,何以別乎?”

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.

4 responses to “Analects 2.7–More on the Uniquely Human

  1. Instead of overlap, how about logical inclusion?

    In teaching English in China, I say, the Mountain is grand, but can do little, except “be”: in the active voice it can not do other than be.

    The Tree is beautiful and it is, just like the Mountain. But the Tree can also grow.

    The Horse is noble and can be as can the mountain, and also grow as can the Tree. But the Horse can also run.

    Man and woman can be, can grow, can run, can speak and show filial respect to their ancestors.

    All the verbs can be done by human beings, some of them by animals, a smaller number by plants, and only a few by objects.

    Therefore, perhaps Confucius meant that “filial respect” includes physically caring for one’s parents, like animals seem to, AND showing filial love in words and actions;

  2. that sounds right to me, as a Xunzian reading (which is the way I’m inclined to read 2.7).
    Maybe another way to think about this is in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. It might be that all Analects 2.7 is saying is that ability to nourish one’s parents is not a sufficient condition for filiality, and reverence is a necessary condition. It could be saying only this (although that would be odd). The Xunzian and Mencian readings would then differ on whether or not ability to nourish parents is a necessary condition. Presumably they would both agree with the weakest possible reading of 2.7 that ability to nourish is not in itself a sufficient condition and reverence is a necessary condition. The Xunzian would hold, I take it, that ability to nourish is a necessary condition (along with reverence, similar to the way an Aristotelian would likely think about the virtue–even with reverence, if you’re too poor to provide for your elderly parents, you can’t have the virtue of filiality), while the Mencian would deny that ability to nourish is a necessary condition. For the Mencian, I would think, one can be filial if one reveres one’s parents, even absent the ability to provide for them (in cases of extreme poverty, for example).

  3. Hi Alexus. You write, “Maybe another way to think about this is in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. It might be that all Analects 2.7 is saying is that ability to nourish one’s parents is not a sufficient condition for filiality, and reverence is a necessary condition. It could be saying only this (although that would be odd).”

    I think that is what the passage seems on the surface to say, and I’m not sure what would be odd about saying only that. Why think that the passage is saying more than this — especially when, as you suggest, there doesn’t seem to be internal evidence in the passage about what further thing it would be saying?

  4. Oddly, reading this post calls to mind one of Christ’s answers to the devil in the desert wherein he replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”

    I think you are correct in that reverence alone is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for filiality. However, in 2.8 it seems that Confucius connects reverence with a person’s countenance, or outward expressions. What bothers me is that one can always fake the outward expressions, as most actions of etiquette are, and not be truly revering. If this is the case then what separates us from the dogs and horses are that we have learned to deceive. But maybe I am missing something important here.


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