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Blogging the Analects 1

Blogging the Analects

Project Introduction

In a bald-faced imitation of David Plotz’ “blogging the Bible,” which culminated in the tome Good Book, I am going to “blog” every chapter of The Analects of Confucius.

Now, The Analects share very little with the Bible and the other holy texts. They are not a series of tales, myths, extensive parables, or allegories (nor is Confucianism a “religion” per se), and this would seem to make “blogging” the texts a relatively dry exercise. The chapters are mostly just pithy sayings attributed to Confucius or his moral heroes — sometimes wise, sometimes cryptic, and almost always self-righteous. There is only the narrowest space for traditional “literary criticism” and few recurring characters — like “God” in the Bible — to analyze.

And yet, I have decided to blog my re-reading of The Analects for a few reasons. First, Confucian ethics are deeply buried into the basic structure of Japanese society, even if no one goes around calling themselves a “Confucianist.” Confucian principles came to Japan with the major importation of Chinese civilization back in the first millennium, and for years and years, provided the core educational materials for the civil service exams. In the late 19th and early 20th century Confucian ethics formed much of the moral code for State Shinto and modern Imperial Japan. The Imperial Rescript on Education? Chock full of Confucianism. Although Japanese elites tweaked and adapted Confucian morality to fit their own state structure, anybody interested in Japan should probably be familiar with The Analects for deep background.

Second, anyone who hasn’t read The Analects most likely has a warped view of the material. Confucianism has been mostly condemned as patriarchal and slightly soulless orthopraxy. Or at worst, a collection of sayings on par with “Man who walks through airport security gate sideways is going to Bangkok.” Yet, reading the Analects is relatively enjoyable, and I want to encourage others to take a look.

This brings us to the third point: there are “universal” principles at work in Confucian thought. The Analects sometime feels like a self-help book, but that may be its greatest quality. Almost anyone can apply at least some of its lessons to their contemporary life. In this re-reading, I am especially interested in the question, what has modern society rejected from this most ancient of ethical guides and what remains an accepted ideal for social behavior?

So join me in blogging The Analects. I welcome hardcore Confucian scholars to challenge my thoughts on hermeneutical grounds, as I have not read the few thousand years of subsequent debate on what Confucius really meant. (Blogging Mencius coming soon!) And I hope newcomers will take this opportunity to read the chapter online (the James Legge translation is available for free on Gutenburg. Each chapter should only take about ten minutes to read.) I am reading the D.C. Lau translation (Penguin Classics). Numbers in brackets (#) refer to the stanza within that chapter.

Book One: Studying

Things that Confucius likes: modesty, patience, sociability, constant pursuit of learning. Hard to really challenge that list or what follows in the rest of the chapter. Like us modern and post-modern types, the ancient Confucian camp does not like the braggart (14), the hypocrite, the glutton (14), the stubborn-headed, or the narcissist. The gentleman always works for others, rather than himself. As Confucius states in (16), we should worry more about appreciating others rather than others appreciating us. The only self-indulgence Confucius allows for is going crazy with more learning and greater virtue — and if you have some time to kill, fixing past mistakes.

Being nice to others, however, is not always about self-discipline. Good behavior has its rewards: for example, in (10) Confucius’ politeness opens doors to better information when visiting a new state.

In just the simple guidelines of the first chapter, Confucius’ emphasis on social bonds and social ritual — rather than purely individual action — are immediately clear. This is not “democratic” social network building, however. Filial piety and hierarchical obedience — in other words, being subservient to those above — are both key parts of the philosophy. Yet today there is no word with more party-pooping connotation than “filial piety.” Modern society has absolutely thrown it out the window. Imagine the ratings difference between MTV and the Filial Piety Network (FPN) for the key 18-24 youth male demographic. Modern society has basically told kids, it’s totally fine to hate and disobey your parents.

But maybe for good reason. Confucius is a “conservative” in the most direct sense of the word: in (2) he rejects the validity of rebellion and in (11) he shows that filial piety is more about protecting an unbroken line of tradition than just pleasing parents for its own sake. The virtuous man does not just follow the way of the parents while they are alive, but always and forever. Western contemporary society has come to fear and loathe cultural inertia, while Confucius is pretty clear that constancy is the solution to our problems. In the United States, youth rebellion is not just tolerated but has become a major part of the post-industrial economic structure. This seems utterly irreconcilable with Confucian thought.

Some may try to wiggle out of the dilemma — thinking that parents can be obeyed and pleased while revolution is pursued. But Confucius saw all broad social virtue — and even statecraft (5) — starting with the correct individual performance of human relations. They are intractably linked.

Okay, so you can be a self-disciplined good guy but still have ragtag friends, right? Like the lawful good Paladin of an AD&D game hanging out with bards, thieves, and warriors. Doesn’t work that way for Confucius: “Do not accept as friend anyone who is not as good as you” (8). Being a true virtuous gentleman is a challenge. And possibly very lonely.

But really, this all comes down to the “Man in the Mirror” principle: global change starts with yourself and your own enactment of proper social relations. This makes a lot of sense. And yet, in our modern society, we have conceded that most of our cultural heroes and artistic legends were drunks, lechers, megalomaniacs, and otherwise horrible to their friends and family. Is our newfound allowance of personal foibles a more efficient way of letting creative geniuses do their work without prejudice? But who needs genius when everyone in society is working hard to make themselves smarter and treat their fellow brother/sister/father/mother/neighbor/ruler with civility and proper ritual?

But wait, how do we know that works? For all the talk about Confucianism being a “moral practice,” maybe we need faith to believe that such small actions will actually cause big social change?

W. David MARX
July 10, 2009

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

13 Responses

  1. Adamu Says:

    How am I not surprised that the teachings of Confucius are not relevant to the “revolutionary” US? Confucius has never been an important inspiration for Westerners. It seems to me that the question is not “what elements has the West rejected” because Confucius has been rejected and scorned by the West for centuries.

    Now in Japan as you note the ideas have a lot more weight. And I would say that some of these concepts that you label uncool are actually cool in Japan. Filial piety has a definite positive connotation and can be seen depicted favorably all over pop culture.

    What’s funny to me is how in the US, the dominant cultural themes idealize freedom and self-fulfillment but in practice people still must take care of their families and live within the constraints of a community. Whereas in Japan, the dominant theme stresses conservatism and responsibility, but in practice people still endlessly read self-help books, pursue new religions, go on drunken benders, and generally fail to live up to their supposed ideals.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Yes, good criticism. I think I am using American values as my own base assumptions, so this is “personal” in the sense that I can use Confucius — who has a sympathetic moral philosophy — as a way to check my own instilled values.

    I would argue though that the importation of American pop culture and capitalism has eroded away at things like filial piety. I think filial piety in a broad sense is still seen as “a good thing” but I think people do understand that they have to establish identity outside of their parents’ beliefs.

    Maybe this will come up later, but the question is — Confucius seems to believe that people should hold their moral values regardless of shame and pressure. And yet, in Japan, you see a lot of cases of morality being only practiced when in the context of social pressure. Not to say that this only happens in Japan, but what you are describing is when people are out of their social organization, all “ethnics” go out the window. Doesn’t seem like Confucius would approve.

  3. DB Says:

    Just wanna say I’ll be reading. I read this years ago and literally the only thing I remember is how hilariously *other* it gets at points. Have fun.

  4. Zenu Says:

    Sounds like quite an adventure. I will surely follow this.
    Did the Chinese have their own Macchiaveli? I am asking this because, if I remember history correctly, they have quite a few dynastic changes, which should never had happen given the filial piety & other Confucian virtues. True, some had been pushed from outside, but a several few were “made in China”. There goes the Maoist revolution too…

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    Perhaps you could say that legalism was a bit more “Machiavellian” but this is really getting outside of my sphere of knowledge…

  6. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > Things that Confucius likes: modesty, patience, sociability, constant pursuit of learning. Hard to really challenge that list

    Oooh, I challenge it already. If I try to picture a society made entirely out of 100% modest, patient, socially conscious people, the word that pops to mind is «boring». I see it as a matter of degree; in proper amounts, narcissism, gluttony, pride, bragging, hypocrisy, punk‐like rebellion— all are, I think, not only acceptable but *necessary* for a rich, interesting, Nietzschean-overflowing life. I don’t think old Greece or Florence or Edo Japan would have happened without these anti‐social attributes (nor, obviously, Woodstock). And I want a world with more Florences, not less.

    That said, I do bow with all respect to old Confucius for defending the importance of social values, and doubly so for doing it without employing easy paradise-and-hell carrot-stick supernatural promises. Will you blog Lao‐Tse next?

    Also I’m internally thrilled that Marxy apparently is or was a D&D player.

  7. M-Bone Says:

    Speaking of paladins, I’m way too into Dragon Quest IX right now to give too much thought to the Analects, but…

    “they have quite a few dynastic changes, which should never had happen given the filial piety & other Confucian virtues”

    Confucian values do not only stress one direction of obligation – either in a filial or a national sense. Fathers and rulers also have responsibilities to sons and subjects (for example, not arbitrarily murdering them or subjecting them to “too much” forced labor). In Mencius’ enlightening take on the Analects, he actually argues that it is the DUTY of subjects to overthrow rulers who are not keeping up their end of the bargain. It is actually the Confucian tradition that, out of major philosophies of government and morality, was the first to articulate a detailed basis for popular rebellion. Unsurprisingly, elites tended to de-emphasise this part in later history….

    To make a completely superficial comparison to what is going on in Japan now – people are getting pissed at the LDP because they are not holding up their side of the bargain, not protecting the mythologized “Japanese lifestyle” which has historical roots as vague and dubious as the time of the sages around which Confucius bases almost all of his thought. Hence the “kick the bums out” discourse. I don’t think that this is necessarily “inspired” by Confucian thought, but perhaps Confucius put his finger on something fundamental enough to social relations that it transcends time and place. You could, after all, place Obama’s “change” and a widespread assumption of Republican immorality and idea that they should “go back to what makes America great (once again, national mythology)”, into the discussion.

    It should be noted, however, that this principle of rebellion was not, to the best of my knowledge, applied to cultural rebellion. Confucius and Mencius both lamented the sorry state of the music that “kids listen to these days”. Of course, part of their interpretation of religion was based in an understanding of its semi-political religious function which has little to do with our tendency to get pissed off when 14 year olds say that Limp Bizkit were better than the Beatles.

    “Greece or Florence or Edo Japan”

    You mean townspeople culture of Edo Japan, right? The Tokugawa high culture doesn’t belong in that company.

  8. Aceface Says:

    “provided the core educational materials for the civil service exams”

    This scheme科挙 although it’s been imported briefly,didn’t last long enough to be an intellectual tradition.Japanese had rejected the idea of elites chosen by exam instead of blood inheritance still continuing til this day as we’ve seen in the case of Koizumi Junichiro.

    “Did the Chinese have their own Macchiaveli?”

    I’d assume Sun Tzu would fit the criteria.

    There’s long debate on Japanese acceptance of confucianism and frankly I don’t know much about them but that they exist.However,I read one time what Kure Tomofusa was referring that what everyone in Japan forget is Confucius was a dissident intellectual and has many critical idea on politics and possession of such idea too was stated as the virtue and obligation of intellectual.

    “Also I’m internally thrilled that Marxy apparently is or was a D&D player.”

    He still is a player.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    While waiting for my longer comment to be approved (does that happen when one quotes parts of other comments now?) – Marxy is indeed correct to identify Legalism as the Chinese “The Prince”. However, it should also be noted that some have argued that “The Prince” is actually a brilliantly subversive satire which, regardless of the status of academic debate on the issue, is a great way to read it as literature.

    Given the way that this discussion is developing, I think that it is also worth quoting the last words of Socrates – the essential “individual” in the Western tradition –

    ‘Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.’

    Right until the end, Socrates was deeply concerned with “the rites” (in the Confucian term) of the community and indeed saw collective belonging, adherence to the taboos, traditions, and values of the group as the background that made his brand of individual self-examination and expression worth it. There are many thought provoking things in the classical discussions of individualism that don’t seem to be making it into the modern, which is a good reason to be taking a deep look at Confucius and friends today.

  10. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    @M-Bone: re The Prince: I’m convinced (for no good reason) that it is both satire and not-satire. That is, Machiavelli really worked seriously on it and meant what he said, and at the same time he must have been conscious of how absurd it sounded. I like to think he deliberately created an optimal persona to discuss political intrigue —and that persona was so successful that the adjective «machiavellian» today works well outside the public who knows who Machiavelli is. I agree that in any case it’s great entertainment.

    re Edo: yes, town culture; when I think «Edo Japan» I think the floating world, Hokusai, craftsmanship, Bashō, the flowering of Rikyū and Zeami’s work, a surprisingly «sustainable» society (within elite boundaries), &c. Arguably such culture doesn’t measure up to Greece (but then, what does?) — Rexroth called Edo the bourgeois decadence of Japanese art — but I’m too much of a fanboy not to idolize it.

    re Asclepius’s cock: If I’m reading Niezsche correctly, he thinks that utterance was not simply out of respect for the law but it was a cynical, bitter comment on the futility of life— which he of course takes to be a sign of décadence and nihilism and sickness and goes all «et tu, Socrates».

  11. M-Bone Says:

    Has anybody read the recent manga versions of “The Prince” or… “Ulysses”?

    “such culture doesn’t measure up to Greece”

    The Greece that we should be idealizing is more or less only about 40 years of 5th century Athens. I think that Genroku holds its own. Maybe not on the “great human civilizations” scoreboard, but for fun.

    Niezsche – Is it at all surprising that Niezsche reads Socrates along the lines of his own philosophy? Let’s face it, none of that made Niezsche a particularly happy or well-adjusted guy. Didn’t Socrates also say that his proudest moment was serving Athens on the battlefield?

    To tie in one of Marxy’s points with something that I didn’t evoke very well in my earlier comment – “Confucius seems to believe that people should hold their moral values regardless of shame and pressure.” Confucian thought is a pure form of philosophical essentialism. He believes that there is a “good” original human way of doing things (the way of the sages) and that good people act/think/feel along the lines of this orignal character while bad people do not. There is no pluralism whatsoever in the idea of the Confucian “gentleman”. “Rebellion” in this context, is not “revolution” – it simply means trying to reset things to their original state by, for example, removing a leader who has strayed from the “one” path and making room for a leader who has a set of pure and good characteristics in line with the ancients. (Much American discourse on the Constitution – assumed to be a more or less unchanging ideal for humanity rather than something whose parts were read very differently at different times in history – follows this general pattern. Fundamentalist religion also has the same kind of revivalist streak that see in Confucius). In looking at what Confician thought can mean for us today, we really need to junk this aspect of it.

  12. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > Let’s face it, none of that made Niezsche a particularly happy or well-adjusted guy

    Heh, we are getting off-topic. But if the purpose of philosophy is to make one happy and well-adjusted, count me out. I don’t think philosophy is supposed to be self-help. Nietzsche’s thought might not have been healthy but it made him a hell of a writer IMO, and if I am to choose between happiness and interestingness, I’ll happily(?) choose the latter.

    But the point was not even that— my point was, Socrates’ famous «cock» note can be understood in more than one way. At least for me, the more I read on Socrates’s own philosophy (not Nietzsche’s), the more I’m convinced the Nietzschean interpretation is very plausible — that Socrates was expressing not just a Confucian respect for the law but a Platonic disdain for the reality of death.

    Speaking of Ulysses manga— am I the only one who thinks the plot structure of LoTR is suspiciously similar to the Odyssey? (Now that was even more off-topic.)

  13. M-Bone Says:

    “to choose between happiness and interestingness, I’ll happily(?) choose the latter.”

    Yeah, we love picking interestingness for other people and happiness for ourselves. Ha. Relating with Marxy’s last bit in the orignial entry – what does it say about us when we more or less demand that genius figures self-destruct for our entertainment?

    To continue to go even more off topic – I think that Nietzsche’s thought WAS about happiness – the idea that transcending limiting Christian values would open up a new direction for mankind that would be clearly superior. Socrates was also about transcending, or at least questioning, but in not junking the whole show, I think that he raised the important issue of balance. In any case, I would rather have a drink with Socrates than Nietzsche.

    “Platonic disdain” – we’re never going to figure out what Socrates meant since Plato re-wrote him to fit with his own ideas, but I think that if you take the bulk of Socratic dialogues that we have, the “community” explanation is the stronger one. Could the 5th century Athenians ever have considered it in other terms? The contemporary word for honor “time” (tee-may) more or less meant respect in the eyes of others and this is also a recurring theme in the Socratic dialogues.

    “am I the only one who thinks the plot structure of LoTR is suspiciously similar to the Odyssey?”

    The Odyssey follows a quest story that pops up in many cultures at many times. The influence on LoTR may be direct or it may be a matter of Jung/Levi-Strauss stuff.

    To bring things back on topic – Socrates could definitely have taken Confucius in arm-wrestling.

    Since I started off in this thread by mentioning my Dragon Questing, I thought that I would respond to one of Marxy’s twitters – the 1980s model is back in a big way, with all of these polished but Hollow Japanese blockbusters and whatnot, but in video games… Dragon Quest IX is an event, but there is also the one where you swing a sword, the monster collector one, no less than 4 manga, novels, etc. Final Fantasy is even more nuts – there have will be something like a dozen spin-offs, OVAs, etc. between FF12 and 13. In the 1980s, you have Dragon Quest I followed by Dragon Quest II, followed by…. I don’t think that much of the new stuff is great, but there really is a niche product for every gamer that fills the hole between the big releases and most of them will do in the 500,000 copies sold range (or just look at Eva – the anime, manga, pachi-slot, video game, inflatable doll, etc. that just won’t quit). Anyway, I have to go poison three more Magi Wyverns to unlock the Ranger class….