Series on the History of Chinese Philosophy, Pt. 7: The Legacy of Confucius
Carving and Polishing the Moral Character — or “Leveling up, the Confucian Way!”
If this is your first time here, you can find all previous installments here:
In this seventh part of the series, we’re continuing with our look at the Confucian virtues presented in a collection of his sayings called the Lún Yǔ (a.k.a. the Analects), which we started in Part 6.
One way to contrast Confucianism with other schools of thought might be to pay close attention to the practical advice each school gave about cultivating one’s moral character. If we think back to Part 1 of the series, we might even consider how this links up with thinking about philosophy as a form of gong fu.
Each of the major schools of thought offered a path, or dào, for making one’s way through the tumultuous world of Warring States China (475–221BCE). The idea was to become so adept at living excellently that one could effortlessly adjust to whatever life threw at you. In other words, early Chinese philosophy wanted everyone to level-up in real life.
Confucius thought the best way to cultivate that sort of mastery was to study diligently and practice continuously, until the virtues of the master became second nature. Like a jade stone that needs to be carved and polished to see the real beauty within, so too should people be continuously shaped… until they possess the properly wrought character. As one of the disciples puts it: “In the Shijing [Book of Odes] it says, As though cut, as though chiseled, As though carved, as though polished.” [Analects 1:15]
We saw in Part 6 how Confucius tied together family reverence, benevolence, and study. His goal was to turn the youth into the kind of teachers that might be worthy advisors to a feudal lord. These jūnzĭ, or “noble sons,” were traditionally the ones called “sons of the prince” under Zhou feudalism, but Confucius redirected that designation toward moral, rather than political ends. Simply put, the best way to attain benevolence, according to Confucianism, is through years of dedicated study. In fact, the Confucian way of cultivating the self was eventually incorporated into a common Chinese expression: xiū xīn yǎng xìng [修心养性], which means something like, “cultivating the heart-mind and elevating one’s inner nature.”
For Confucius, the basis of self-cultivation was a formal education that started early and bolstered a commitment to life-long learning:
At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free from doubts; at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven; at sixty my ear was attuned; at seventy I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line. [Analects 2:4]
Confucius believed this sort of broad education made it possible to discover what was appropriate for ANY circumstance and provided the sort of knowledge essential to becoming a gong fu master of ethical living.
Of course, there were some in Confucius’ day that were extremely critical of the Confucian program. The early Daoists basically saw it as training in professional sycophancy, the kind of education that didn’t make someone particularly GOOD… just good at kissing a**es.
In a later passage from the Analects we see Confucius’ students encounter two hermits who were of just such an opinion. The translation of their names — “Forever Mucky” and “the King of Piss” — gives some contextual clues about how the Confucians must have viewed such criticism. The hermits claim:
The world is as if engulfed in a flood. Who can change it? Why do you bother following someone who keeps running from one ruler to another? Wouldn’t it be better to follow someone who’s given up this world altogether?
When the students reported these statements back to Confucius, he sighed and said:
If only the Way [dào] prevailed in the world, I would not have to try to change it! [Analects 18:6]
In the last installment of this series, we built a pretty sizable laundry list of virtues/concepts that Confucius promoted in his philosophy of moral education. Let’s add just a few more here:
脩 (xiū) cultivation; repair; teacher’s pay
心 (xīn) heart-mind
質 (zhì) substance; character; stuff one is made of
文 (wén) culture; eloquence; gentility
恕 (shù) reciprocity; deference
But, if you’re feeling anxious about trying to commit all these ideas to memory, don’t sweat it! Confucius wanted ALL of his students — even the ones with bad memories — to be able to practice this kind of cultivation. In fact, he identified himself with those absent-minded types:
The Master said, “Si! Do you take me for one who studies a great deal and remembers it?” Zigong replied, “Yes. Is it not so?” Confucius answered, “It is not. I link all on a single thread.” [Analects 15:3]
What’s this “single thread” to which Confucius refers?
We find out from another student…
The Master said, “Zan! There is one single thread binding my way together.” Zengzi assented. After the Master had gone out, the other disciples asked, “What did he mean?” Zengzi said, “The way of the Master consists in doing one’s best and in using oneself as a measure to gauge others. That is all.” [Analects 4:15]
As Confucius saw it, people are irreducibly social. That’s why the method for accomplishing benevolence starts with what’s closest — perhaps one’s family… or even one’s self. According to Confucius, we should “take what is familiar as an example” when dealing with others. He referred to this principle as shù [恕], which is often translated as “deference” or “reciprocity.” Confucius suggests it’s all you REALLY need to remember to cultivate your moral character.
Etymologically, the symbol for Confucian shù is comprised of two parts. The upper portion is rú, which means “resemblance”, while the lower is “heart-mind,” or xīn. In a celebrated passage of the Analects, Confucius is asked, “Is there a rule which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” and he responds, “Is not reciprocity [shù] such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
This, of course, dovetails nicely with two moral principles in the West, viz. the “Golden Rule” and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Just like Confucius, Kant believed thoughtfully approaching one’s own ends would lead to an understanding of the ends of others. And, like Confucius, he believed once this understanding was developed, one would inevitably recognize the moral import of living by such a rule.
However, it’s important to note that Confucius did not intend this directive as a strict, absolute rule (as Kant did). Instead, Confucius advocated maintaining flexibility when following his principle of moral deference. Simply put, shù is more of a guide to benevolence (rén), than a rule to instill it.
So, if we wanted to recapitulate a definition of rén — that most all-encompassing Confucian virtue — in a way that simplifies it according to shù, we might say it’s the benevolence which is produced in a person when they internalize the practice of recognizing and respecting those around them.
THAT’S the kind of carving and polishing Confucius REALLY advocated, and although it may be easy to remember, it’s actually not so easy to put into practice — especially in a society where instant gratification or political divisiveness tend to block that path.
When Zigong (the student with whom we just saw Confucius admit to memory lapses) later states: “What I do not wish others to impose on me, I also wish not to impose on others.” But, we see Confucius reply: “Si, that is quite beyond you.” [Analects 5:11]
Looks like even Confucius’ best students had to work on this kind of deference!
To flesh out this brand of carving and polishing a little further, let’s consider another pair of terms familiar to Confucianism — zhì 質 (substance) and wén 文 (culture). As D.C. Lau pointed out in the introduction to his 1979 translation of the Analects, the concept of zhì, understood as the basic stuff one is made of, is pretty straightforward. When applied to human action, zhì simply refers to heartiness or sincerity. Wén, on the other hand, can be more complicated, as it may refer either to any pattern, such as that of stars or that of a tiger’s stripes, or to the cadre of skills and virtues that the jūnzi acquires through a civilized education, so the best way to understand wén, in the way Confucius used it, might be as a type of civility.
The difference between these two concepts can be found in Book VI, where Confucius says, “Valuing heartiness over civility is rustic. Valuing civility over heartiness is officious. When civility and heartiness are blended perfectly, this gives rise to the jūnzi.” [Analects 6:18]
In other words, it seems self-cultivation, for Confucius, meant learning how to control one’s impulses through arduous study until the desire to prioritize the welfare of others becomes second nature.
You can click on the clip below to see a scene from the 2010 film Kongzi, in which Confucius shows how to balance respect for traditions with a caring, sincere heart by appealing to the deference of shù.
Delving further into the sayings of Confucius, it becomes obvious just how important community was to him. On the Confucian view, community is a sort of web, wherein individuals participate in various connections with family, neighbors, and the wider kingdom. And, just like the web of a spider, the social web is a collection of single threads depending on one another for structural integrity. If we consider rén to be a kind of concern for the whole web, then shù means doing one’s part to hold up the web by ensuring one’s thread is strong as can be.
If anything, our modern world is even MORE connected than the one which Confucius inhabited. Our physical web includes families, schools, churches, community organizations, work organizations, political affiliations, neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, and nations. And, our virtual web encompasses the entire globe! That which affects our web, affects the self… and the “oughts” of ethics are really just the outcomes of such conjoined communicative experience.
Confucius advocated for this kind of bigger-picture view by likening the one who can adopt it to the highest kind of sage, even greater than the legendary sage-emperors Yao and Shun!
Zigong said, “If there were a man who gave extensively to the common people and brought help to the multitude, what would you think of him? Could he be called benevolent?’ The Master said, ‘It is no longer a matter of benevolence with such a man. If you must describe him, “sage” is, perhaps, the right word. Even Yao and Shun would have found it difficult to accomplish as much. Now, on the other hand, a benevolent man helps others to take their stand in so far as he himself wishes to take his stand, and gets others there in so far as he himself wishes to get there. The ability to take as analogy what is near at hand can be called the method of benevolence.” [Analects 6:30]
And, to see how the one thread of shù also connects to ritual and wisdom, consider this passage from book XII:
Chung-kung asked about benevolence. The Master said, “When abroad behave as though you were receiving an important guest. When employing the services of the common people behave as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” [Analects 12:2]
In the Confucian system, “ritual ceremony” is an outward extension of “benevolence,” borne out of “deference,” and properly applied with “civility” and a “hearty character.” In other words, only when we are proficient in exercising lǐ, will rén be manifest.
The upshot of this is that rén and lǐ are one and the same virtue, expressed in different ways — one internally, the other externally. This can be seen in another passage in Book XII where one of Confucius’ disciples says, “Civility is just as important as the stuff one is made of, and the stuff one is made of is just as important as civility. The skin of a tiger or leopard is no different than the skin of a dog or a sheep.”[Analects 12:8]
The relationship between the carving and polishing of civility (wén) and the moral fiber of character (zhí) makes two more things explicit: 1) ritual propriety and benevolence cannot exist independently of one another, and 2) it’s only through the proper application of ritual that human-heartedness and social roles are learned and communicated.
All of this comes together in a passage from Book VI. Take a look at the Chinese characters and you’ll see many of the terms we’ve just explored:
子 曰, 君 子 博 學 於 文, 約 之 以 禮, 亦 可 以 弗 畔 矣 夫.
The Master said, “The superior man (jūnzi), extensively studying (xué) all civility (wén), and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety (lĭ), may thus likewise not overstep what is right.” [Analects 6:25]
That pretty much sums it up. So we’ll leave it there for this installment. In Part 8 we’ll take a look at how ritual and social harmony were further combined in two other works from the Four Books of Confucianism — viz. the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean.