Notes Toward a Confucian Politics
As I get older, I find myself, really against my will, struck much more often by how far standards of decorum have fallen into desuetude. My usual evening walk will include at least a few passersby in “wife beater” shirts, roughly my age, intoxicated and dimly angry, sitting outside of the local 7-11, with whom it is wise not to make eye contact. The short-temper, ugly clothes, barked obscenities (ever notice how people generally speak the “f-word” in a voice evoking violence and not sex?), vulgar showboating, misogyny, gay bashing, and ever-present “attitude” becomes wearying and depressing over time and I find myself increasingly on bad terms with the society around me and its race to replace everything valuable and enduring with ever-louder inarticulateness. “It’s all about me” as the tee-shirt says.
The problem is it’s impossible to express such sentiments in a liberal society without the specter of unfreedom looming large. Voice repulsion towards certain cultural artifacts or behaviors and many respond, “Well I don’t believe in censorship.” Or, perhaps, you’ll be reminded that our grandparents were once shocked by Elvis, who now seems banal; a somewhat useless point when you’re expressing offense at rape porn or torture. Or, maybe, you’ll be called a “prig”, “politically correct”, an illiberal aspiring busybody. Polite society dare not raise its voice to impolite society.
Of course, one can defend freedom of expression- and, let’s be clear, the state cannot and should not legislate taste or expression- while still recognizing garbage for garbage. Liberals, and libertarians for that matter, are terrified of seeming “judgmental” because they fear negative judgments might encourage state intrusion into culture. But the opposite is true: since the state has no business making distinctions of taste, we do, and we should embrace our ability to make distinctions of our own. Incidentally, conservatives are also limited in their critique of cultural coarsening, since much of our culture is now produced by corporations and they fear sounding too “anti-business”, which I suspect is why their books often highlight cultural dilapidation, while attributing it to bizarre causes, such as liberal professors assigning too much Heidegger.
The real quandary is caused by the fact that, in liberal democracies, we tend to address problems through collective crusades aimed at laws or political goals. In terms of culture, such crusades are irritating and offensive. And yet, I think there is another path that many of us take, that’s perhaps just as political but much more individual; which is simply to eschew coarseness and conduct ourselves in the way we’d like others to, but without so much as urging them to. The left coined the saying, “the personal is political”, but as I get older, I think I tend much more towards political liberalism and personal conservatism. Because, after all, I have no place to tell others what they can say, think, read, watch, or otherwise expose themselves to; and yet, I recognize that it’s probably better for your psyche to spend your time with poetry than rape porn.
All of which brings us to Confucius (Kongzi), who certainly believed that we improve our societies à la longue by the example we set in our personal life. He had much reason to despair. Recently, in the comments, T. Greer explained:
Confucius lived in a very tumultuous time subject to numerous transformations in the make up of ancient Chinese society. You will remember that the Chinese states of the Chunqiu begin as outposts of the defunct Zhou dynasty’s ruling house. Everybody had a place in this elaborate feudal structure. But by the end of the period (30 years or so after Confucius’ death), the feudal hierarchy had been completely replaced by bureaucratic states not unlike those found in Early Modern Europe (thus the name of the next period – Zhanguo, or “warring states”.)
Kongzi lives in the midst of this great transformation and utterly detests it. In this context his disdain for the Lord of She’s noble peasant makes sense – for Kongzi and the Confucians who followed him, authority came not from the state, but through filial lines. The child willing to turn in his father is not just being a disrespectful child – he is turning the source of moral order itself onto its head.
Thus, as I read it, Kongzi is taking a clear position on one of, if not the, central questions of his day: where should the loyalties of a gentleman lie? Should he dedicate himself to his state, or his family? In replying that true virtue can only be expressed through a lineal framework, Kongzi launches an attack on his fellow aristocrats anxiously implanting themselves in the new order. This also helps make clear Kongzi’s philosophy of politics-as-self. Think about it for a moment- in feudal societies, every action of a prince, duke, or earl is a political action. Absent the state, the distinction between private and political life is a tenuous one. Kongzi says that living an individual life of virtue is political virtue, because he believes that the distinction between the two does not (or should not) exist.
This is very well said. In other words, “the personal is political” for Confucius. His main emphases: filial bonds, personal cultivation, the revival of the Rites, all seem to me to come down to two ideas: 1. Things have declined greatly from a highpoint under the Duke of Zhou (the founder of Chinese feudalism who lived about 500 years before Confucius) , and 2. As individuals, we can only address this cultural and societal decline through our behavior.
Confucian philosophy deals mostly with ethics. But, instead of indicts and edicts, the Analects of Confucius record observations the Master made and his behaviors in hopes we’ll emulate them. In fact, what is known as Book Ten includes several observations about the Master’s behavior, including: “Even when there was plenty of meat, he avoided eating more meat than rice.” One of my favorites, and I’m not being cute here, is X: 12- “He did not sit unless his mat was straight.” What I love about this is that it’s something most of us would be indifferent about, and yet it matters. In fact, it matters enough that we still know this is a significant fact about the Master’s life.
And that’s the point about behavior: we should care. Confucian time, let me suggest, is segmented and divided into finite ritualized events, all of which matter. This, I think, is what’s worst about the indifferent- their behavior stems from a belief that life and how it’s lived matters not a whit.
The master’s behaviors are for us to emulate. Emulation has receded in importance in the West, partly thanks to the Romantic stress on originality, instinct and creativity. But emulation directs much of our behavior and is, for Confucius, a guiding force in human societies. In one passage, the Master is asked why he wants to settle among the uncouth barbarian tribes to the east and responds: “Once a gentleman settles among them, what uncouthness could there be?” He’s dead serious about this. Simply by carrying ourselves in an upright manner, we effect a positive change over the entire community. Even if we are vastly outnumbered by vulgarians, it is worth casting our pearls to the swine. While Confucius clearly sees distinctions of excellence among individuals- the most obvious being between the gentleman and the small man- he believes that the common man can be brought up to the level of the gentleman by example.
Conversely, men cannot be made better through legislation: “Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble, but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves.” In the end, this is true- you can’t legislate taste or decency. The best you can do is live as you’d like others to live and hope they’ll follow suit. It’s probably a loser’s game, but at least you do less damage this way. And someone’s got to wear a fedora to the market.
1. Provided this post didn’t infect the League either, I’d like to post soon on learning and family bonds in Confucius. Also about Plato’s Sophist and Statesman. And probably return to Buddhism and start on the Old Testament before long. Ah, the work is never done!