Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Review: Nobility & Civility, by Wm. Theodore de Bary
By Thomas Riggins

At 85, Wm. Theodore de Bary is one the deans of Asian Studies in the United States. Operating out of Columbia University he has edited and overseen the publication of the ubiquitous series of readers Sources of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Traditions. We are eagerly awaiting a Sources of the Vietnamese Tradition.

In his new book, Nobility & Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good, published by Harvard, 2004, de Bary examines many Asian cultures to see what they may have to offer to the "humanizing" of the march towards globalization. "Nobility" refers to "leadership", "Civility" to "public morality."

By studying the foundational cultural values of the Asian peoples (de Bary primarily discusses China and Japan with a nod to India) he hopes to show the possibility of a civilizational synthesis of western and eastern thought with respect to the future development of globalization. Without knowledge as to how the people of the past have dealt with the political consequences of their value systems "it will be difficult," he writes, "to see how anyone could be expected to recognize and cope with similar problems in the present." Without the humanizing values found in the Asian tradition, especially in Confucianism, becoming a part of the world’s educational background, globalization may become [I would say it already is] "degrading, dehumanizing, and destructive of the earth, beyond anything seen in the past."

He discusses Confucius’ conception of the "noble person" in the first chapter. Of course one cannot mechanically apply the Confucianism of ancient China, developed in a feudal society, to the modern world dominated by monopoly capitalism. Nevertheless, Confucianism is still a living force in Asia. What is still relevant, regardless of economic system, is the Confucian belief that the duty of government is to serve the people and should be consensual.

The rulers have, according to Confucians "responsibilities towards the disadvantaged and uneducated.... noblesse oblige as it would be called in the West." De Bary quotes from a Confucian work from the 4th or 3rd century B.C. (Chronicle of Mr. Zuo) which talks about a ruler driven out by his people (a revolutionary act indeed) and concludes "if he exhausts the people’s livelihood... and betrays the hopes of the populace... what use is he? What can one do but expel him?"

This is a fundamental Confucian value and is certainly applicable today. I don’t think, however that it is congruent with the fundamental values of the globalization process which is driven by the principle that the welfare of the people is always secondary to the need for profit and the financial supremacy of corporations.

Confucianism might be used to try and mitigate the ravages of capitalism by well meaning (but ineffective) idealists, but more than likely it would be used to cover up and mask the social reality of exploitation and human enslavement, much as Christianity is used by the Bush administration in the United States.

This is not, of course, the fault of Confucianism. It is in its homeland China where it has the best chance to succeed. The basic values of socialism are not at odds with the Confucian ideal.

It should be noted that after initial hostility to Confucianism (more to how it was abused by the ruling classes than to its philosophical content), the Chinese party now has a more positive relationship with Confucians. Under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin de Bary notes that some in the leadership have been led to reevaluate the role of tradition (especially after the excesses of the "Cultural Revolution" under Mao) and he concludes that "it is understandable that the regime might favor a more civil tradition like Confucianism to provide the Chinese content for a Chinese socialism. Thus it has sanctioned a Confucian Association to promote scholarly discussion of the subject and traditional observances of rituals like the celebration of Confucius’ birthday."

Besides Confucianism in China, de Bary also traces the history of the Japanese reception of Confucianism. This is an interesting history and shows how the original pro-people content of this philosophy was corrupted by the ruling classes to justify their privileges and power. There are also chapters on the influence of Buddhism in both China and Japan.

In an epilogue de Bary points out that in a time when people are talking about a "clash of civilizations" and the incompatibility of other cultures with their own it is important that students be educated in the classics of other civilizations. "We owe it to ourselves," he writes, "to make another, more determined effort to understand how the... resources available within these traditions afford the means for a meaningful discourse to take place on each other’s terms."

One of the most important themes that de Bary thinks should be discussed is the Asian view of the status of the person. He attacks the chauvinist view that the value of the individual "is a peculiarly Western or Judeo-Christian idea and that people who do not recognize it cannot be expected to respect human rights."

De Bary maintains that the Asian cultural tradition has always been aware of the importance of the individual and his or her self-cultivation. He quotes the Japanese Confucianist, Nakamura Masanao (1832-1890) who said "As far as individual morality is concerned, regardless of past and present, East or West, the main principle is the one thing of self governance.... This is the central concern of the independent self and is the source and principle of freedom." If we link this with the duty of the government to provide the conditions that best promote the principle of freedom we will find that Confucianism has a natural ally in Marxism in combating the inhumane practices of the movement towards globalization.

This is an important book and should be read by anyone interested in Asian culture.

Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2004, 256pp.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs, and can be reached at

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