Saturday, November 15, 2008


Tenth in a Series of Dialogues on Chinese Philosophy

Thomas Riggins


“Well, Fred, are you ready to begin with the Doctrine of the Mean?”

“Yes, but what is its background?”

“It is one of the ‘Four Books’ (Analects, Mencius, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean) that Chu Hsi selected as the basis of Confucianism and was used in all the ‘civil service’ tests in China up to modern times. Chu was in the Sung (Song) Dynasty [960-1279 AD]. Just as the Great Learning it was originally part of the Book of Rites which, before Chu Hsi’s time was one of the ‘Five Books” which was the original canon of Confucianism (Spring and Autumn Annals, Book of Rites, Book of Changes, Book of History, Book of Odes.) Chenyang Li in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, says the four main points in this work are 1) heaven and man are one; 2) following our heaven endowed nature constitutes virtue; 3) sincerity is the way of Heaven and of human morality; 4) the way to exemplify the Mean is to become a ‘superior person’ by following the moral ideal. I hope this agrees with what Chan has to say!”

“Chan is basically in agreement with that. He says ‘The Great Learning deals with social and political matters, while the Doctrine of the Mean is a discourse on psychology and metaphysics. The Great Learning discusses the mind but not human nature, whereas with the Doctrine of the Mean the opposite is true. The Great Learning emphasizes method and procedure, whereas the Doctrine of the Mean concentrates on reality. The Great Learning is generally rational in tone, but the Doctrine of the Mean is religious and mystical.’”

“From my point of view that makes it less important for our age since we must stress the rational at the expense of the religious and mystical. It is the religious and mystical that is at the root of all the present social upheaval associated with religious conflict and justifications for war. That is to say, the real economic factors responsible for the sad conditions of the present world order are obfuscated and hidden because so many people are under the darkness of religious and mystical beliefs. Therefore, I think the Great Learning is a much more contemporary book.”

“Interesting comment Karl. Now back to Chan. This is how ‘human nature’ is portrayed in the Doctrine of the Mean : ‘Human nature, endowed by heaven, is revealed through the states of equilibrium and harmony, which are themselves the “condition of the world” and the “universal path.” The Way of Heaven transcends time, space, substance, and motion, and is at the same time unceasing, eternal, and evident.’ And maybe you should not be so critical of it as Chan also points out that it ‘is a philosophical work, perhaps the most philosophical in the whole body of ancient Con-
fucian literature.’”

“You’re right. I spoke too soon. I should give my views after the discussion not at the start!”

“Well, some modesty at last! Note the Chinese title of this work: chung yung or zhong yong. Chan says chung-yung together is translated a ‘mean’ and separately chung means ‘central’ and yung means ‘universal harmony’. “

“So, this book could just as well be called the Central Universal Harmony . In fact, it has been given other names in translation. Chenyang Li mentions some of them such as The Golden Mean, The Golden Medium, The Mean-in-action, The Central Harmony, and my favorite, used by Ezra Pound, The Unwobbling Pivot.”

“Anyway, Chan says that these terms ‘taken together [mean] that there is harmony in human nature and that this harmony underlies our moral being and prevails throughout the universe. In short, man and Nature form a unity. Here is an early expression of the theory that was to dominate Chinese thought throughout its history.’”

“A big problem. It is true that humanity is a part of Nature so we are law governed as is everything else in Nature--that is the ‘harmony’--but our moral systems do not seem to be something in Nature in quite the same way. It remains to be seen how a moral system can base itself on the laws of Nature and use this for its justification.”

“Finally, Chan says, ‘It is obvious that the Doctrine of the Mean represents an advance over Confucius. It and the Great Learning seem to embody two different ancient Confucian tendencies, just as later Mencius and Hsun Tzu represented two different schools of thought.’”

“Or at least two different styles of Confucianism Fred. “

“We begin the book with a comment of Chu Hsi: ‘Master Ch’eng I (Ch’eng I-ch’uan, 1033-1107) said, “By chung (central) is meant what is not one-sided, and by yung (ordinary) is meant what is unchangeable. Chung is the correct path of the world and yung is the definite principle of the world.” “This work represents the central way in which the doctrines of the Confucian school have been transmitted.”’

“This is the Neo-Confucian view at least. But I will still consult the Analects for what I think is the original Confucian view!”

“This is from Chapter One of the book: ‘What Heaven (T’ien, Nature {vide Spinoza}) imparts to man is called human nature. To follow our nature is called the Way (Tao). Cultivating the Way is called education. The Way cannot be separated from us for a moment. What can be separated from us is not the Way. Therefore the superior man is cautious over what he does not see and apprehensive over what he does not hear. There is nothing more visible than what is hidden and nothing more manifest than what is subtle. Therefore the superior man is watchful over himself when he is alone. Before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are aroused it is called equilibrium (chung, centrality, mean).’ Equilibrium is called the foundation of the world, and when the emotions are aroused they must be measured and kept in balance--this is called ‘harmony.’”

“This is just like Plato in the Republic, Fred. Only Plato calls it ‘justice’ rather than ‘harmony’, but the points are very similar.”

“The book goes on to show that these are the views of Confucius. ‘Chung-ni (Confucius) said, “The superior man [exemplifies] the Mean (chung-yung).”’ And, ‘the superior man maintains harmony [in his nature and conduct] and does not waver. How unflinching is his strength!’”

“This does not sound different from the Confucius we encountered in the Analects.” “Tzu-ssu, according to Chu Hsi, compared Heaven and the ‘superior man’ thusly, ‘Great as Heaven and earth are, men still find something in them with which to be dissatisfied. Thus with [the Way of] the superior man, if one speaks of its greatness, nothing in the world can contain it, and if one speaks of its smallness, nothing in the world can split it.’ This was from chapter 12, and Chu Hsi says this vein of thought (‘the Way cannot be departed from’) is the subject for the next eight chapters (through number 20).”

“So, read some of the highlights from these chapters and we will see if its so!”

“OK, from 13: ‘If we take an axe handle to hew another axe handle and look askance from the one to the other, we may still think the pattern is far away. Therefore the superior man governs men as men, in accordance with human nature, and as soon as they change [what is wrong], he stops. Conscientiousness (chung) and altruism (shu) are not far from the Way. What you do not wish others to do to you, do not do to them.’”

“I guess that is ‘the Way.’ Confucius’ version of the ‘Golden Rule’ must be followed not to depart from it!”

“This is said of the ‘superior man’ in chapter 14: ‘He rectifies himself and seeks nothing from others, hence he has no complaint to make. He does not complain against Heaven above or blame men below. Thus it is that the superior man lives peacefully and at ease and waits for his destiny (ming, Mandate of Heaven, fate), while the inferior man takes to dangerous courses and hopes for good luck.’”

“Actually, nothing ventured nothing gained. Who is this speaking anyway?”

“Tzu-ssu, the pupil of Confucius.”

“I thought so. He might be taking Confucius too literally. After all, Confucius did not live in Lu at peace and at ease but went off trekking all over China gathering students and teaching his doctrine!”

“A good point Karl. I would like to know what you say about this so called quote from Confucius given by Tzu-ssu.”

“Lets have it!”

“Its from chapter 17. Tzu-ssu quotes Confucius as saying, ‘he who possesses great virtue will certainly attain to corresponding position, to corresponding wealth, to corresponding fame, and to corresponding long life. For Heaven, in the production of things, is sure to be bountiful to them, according to their natural capacity.... Therefore he possesses great virtue will surely receive the appointment of Heaven.’”

“You can be sure, Fred, that whoever wrote this it was not Confucius but some boot licking functionary of the Court. After having been kicked around from feudal court to feudal court in his wanderings about China trying to find a position to put his social theories into practice, can you image his coming up with ‘great virtue’ leads to a ‘great position’? Or, after the premature death of his most beloved student, Yen Hui, would Confucius spout off about the rewards of ‘great virtue’ resulting in ‘long life?’ No! I am afraid that, as the Analects indicate, Confucius was all to familiar with the the tragic sense of life to have come up with this fabrication attributed to him by Tzu-ssu. And it is no good reflection on Chu Hsi that he passed over this without comment!”

“If it is the case Tzu-suu is actually the compiler of the Doctrine of the Mean then I agree."

“That is true too. I don’t want to suggest that this passage was fabricated by the grandson of Confucius! This issue will crop up again when we get into discussions of philosophers in the Han Dynasty and the consequences of all that book burning we mentioned under the Ch’in dictatorship.”

“Here is a quote from chapter 20. Confucius allegedly speaking: ‘[G]overnment is comparable to a fast growing plant. Therefore the conduct of the government depends upon the men.... Humanity (jen) is [the distinguishing characteristic of] man, and the greatest application of it is in being affectionate towards relatives. Righteousness (i) is the principle of setting things right and proper, and the greatest application of it is in honoring the worthy.’”

“I think if we refer back to Mo Tzu we will see the problem with this concept of jen/ren which should be a little more universal than indicated. Couldn’t this formulation be a justification for nepotism rather than merit? Again, I doubt it is really from Confucius.”

“Chan makes the following comment about this passage. ‘The sentence “Humanity is [the distinguishing characteristic of] man” is perhaps the most often quoted on the subject of humanity (jen). In Chinese it is ‘jen is jen,” the first jen meaning humanity and the second referring to man. It is not just a pun, but an important definition of the basic Confucian concept of humanity, for to Confucianism, the virtue of humanity is meaningless unless it is involved in actual human relationships.’”

“I don’t get the difference between ‘humanity’ and ‘man’ in ‘humanity is man.’ That is like ‘a small step for man a giant leap for mankind.’ Its the same as A = A. But Chan’s comment is still useful. It at least points out how the Chinese think about the concept of jen/ren.”

“There is more to this chapter A. Confucian formulae as it were. Here is one, ‘...the ruler must not fail to cultivate his personal life, he must not fail to serve his parents. Wishing to serve his parents, he must not fail to know man. Wishing to know man, he must not fail to know heaven.’ And: ‘There are five universal ways [in human relations], and the way by which they are practiced are three. The five are those governing the relationship between ruler and minister, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder and younger brothers, and those on the intercourse between friends. These five are universal paths in the world. Wisdom, humanity, and courage, these three are the universal virtues. The way by which they are practiced is one.’”

“These are certainly dated and show how Confucianism is embedded in the old feudal order. If we updated the ‘five’ to the modern capitalist order we would have the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, between employers and employees, between men and women, between family members, and between friends and strangers. Something like that I suppose. The three universal virtues would remain unchanged.”

“Very good. Now for something called ‘the Nine Standards’: ‘There are nine standards by which to administer the empire, its states, and the families [feudal lords]. They are: cultivating the personal life, honoring the worthy, being affectionate to relatives, being respectful toward the great ministers, identifying oneself with the welfare of the whole body of officers, treating the common people as one’s own children, attracting the various artisans, showing tenderness to strangers from far countries, and extending kindly and awesome influence on the feudal lords.’ And this position is further emphasized a few passages later: ‘There are nine standards by which to govern the empire, its states, and the families, but the way by which they are followed is one. In all matters if there is preparation they will succeed; if there is no preparation they will fail. If what is to be said is determined beforehand, there will be no stumbling. If the business to be done is determined beforehand there will be no difficulty. If action to be taken is determined beforehand, there will be no trouble. And if the way to be pursued is determined beforehand, there will be no difficulties.’ This can be summed up in the following five steps which Chan says ‘could have come from John Dewey.’ “Study it (the way to be sincere) extensively, inquire into it accurately, think it over carefully, sift it clearly, and practice it earnestly.’”

“It is interesting that Chan mentions Dewey the American pragmatist. Dewey was very popular in China in the early 20th Century. Let me read this passage from Reese [Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy] about Dewey’s five steps of inquiry and judge for yourself how these would apply to the study of how to be ‘sincere.’ ‘Inquiry, properly speaking, begins in situations which are indeterminate, disturbed, troubled, ambiguous, obscure, or full of conflict. It is the object of inquiry to transform the indeterminate situation into one which is determinate. Given such a situation, and such an outcome, the intervening steps outlined by Dewey are: (a) locating and defining the problem of the situation; insight is as important in stating the problem as in any subsequent step; (b) setting out the relevant possible solutions to this problem, an “either-or” stage; (c) developing the consequences of the possible solutions, an “if-then” stage; (d) relating these developed alternatives to further observation and experiment; (e) concluding with the alternative which unifies the situation.’[p.128]

“I can see how Chan might think Confucianism could follow these five steps except, perhaps, for experiment which doesn’t play much of a role in the Doctrine of the Mean.”

What’s next Fred?”

“This, from chapter 22, where we have the following sequence--being absolutely sincere = fully developing your nature = fully developing the nature of others = the same for the nature of things = if you can do those things, then you can help in the transformation and nourishing of Heaven and Earth--thus, ‘If they [they = those who became absolutely sincere et. seq.] can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.’ All of this, Chan comments, is ‘another way of saying the unity of man and Heaven or Nature, a doctrine which eventually assumed the greatest importance in Neo-Confucianism.’”

“Well, Neo-Confucianism is still a way off in our discussions. But this points out the central importance of ‘sincerity’ (cheng). Again the equivalence of Heaven = Nature reminds me of Spinoza. “

“Now these next views I know you will not want to accept as genuinely Confucian, neither do I, because when we discussed the Analects we found no trace of popular superstition or unbridled mysticism.”

“What are these views?”

“In chapter 24 we find ‘Tzu-ssu’ speaking of omens and divination and such which the ‘sincere’ man will be especially able to interpret. ‘When calamity or blessing is about to come [for nations and families], it can surely know beforehand if it is good, and it can surely know beforehand if it is evil. Therefore he who has absolute sincerity is like a spirit.’”

“A spirit! The very sort of thing Confucius refused to speculate about! This is further evidence that original Confu-cianism has been corrupted in this work. We have to very careful in discussing a work like this so that we can discern the layers of bogus from authentic Confucianism.”

“Perhaps you will accept chapter 25 as more genuine. ‘Sincerity means the completion of the self, and the Way is self-directing. Sincerity is the beginning and the end of things. Without sincerity there would be nothing. Therefore the superior man values sincerity. Sincerity is not only the completion of one’s own self, it is that by which all things are completed. The completion of the self means humanity. The completion of all things means wisdom. These are the character of the nature, and they are the way in which the internal and the external are united. Therefore whenever it is employed, it is done right.’”

“I don’t see a problem with this. Except to note that Fung [p.176] wonders if, in the passage you read, the terms ‘humanity’ [jen/ren] and ‘wisdom,’ ‘should not be interchanged.’”

“Here is Chan’s comment: ‘In no other Confucian work is the Way (Tao) given such a central position. This self-directing Way seems to be the same as the Tao in Taoism. But the difference is great. As Ch’ien Mu has pointed out [in his Ssu-shu shih-i (Explanation of the Meaning of the Four Books), 1953], when the Taoists talk about Tao as being natural, it means that Tao is void and empty, whereas when Confucianists talk about Tao as being natural, they describe it as sincerity. This, according to him, is a great contribution of the Doctrine of the Mean. It should be pointed out that with Confucianists, “The Way is not far from man.” Contrary to the Tao of Taoism, the Confucian Tao is strongly humanistic.’ And I will end this passage with the first sentence of chapter 26: ‘Therefore absolute sincerity is ceaseless. Being ceaseless, it is lasting.’”

“So then, lets forge on to chapter 27.”

“That chapter goes thusly: ‘Great is the Way of the sage!... It waits for the proper man before it can be put into practice. Therefore it is said, “Unless there is perfect virtue, the perfect way cannot be materialized.” Therefore man honors the moral nature and follows the path of study and inquiry.... He is earnest and deep and highly respects all propriety. Therefore when occupying a high position, he is not proud, and when serving in a low position, he is not insubordinate.”’

“This is certainly pro-sage! But I think we can ignore the idea ‘perfect virtue’ and the ‘perfect way’ are involved with real sages or there wouldn’t be any! Fawning second rate Confucianists may go around thinking of Confucius as a perfect sage but we know that he made error and mistakes and would be the first to admit as much.”

“Your theory that the sayings of Confucius in this work are sometimes bogus, as you earlier mentioned, gets a big boost from Chan in a footnote to Chapter 28.”

“What do you mean Fred? Let’s hear it.”

“Well, Confucius is quoted as saying something to the effect that the world has standard measurements and standard characters for writing, etc. Chan points out that this was not true in Confucius’ time but happened as a result of the Ch’in Dynasty [221-206 B.C.]. This means that parts of the Doctrine of the Mean are not older than that time.”

“Yes, that backs up my view about the Confucius quote in Chapter 17 that we discussed. Once you get a ‘feel’ for the Analects you can tell when some so-called Confucian quote doesn’t sound right. Even the Analects has some problems of authenticity, but it is the oldest layer of Confucian thought and I think the ‘real’ Confucius is to be located within its pages in so far as that is possible.”

“In chapter 29 we are told that in order to get rules and regulations, ceremonies, etc., adopted the person who puts them forth must not be of humble or common origin. ‘The position not being honored does not command credence, and not being credited, the people will not follow them. Therefore the Way of the true ruler is rooted in his own person-
al life and has its evidence [in the following] of the common people.’”

“That isn’t too clear Fred. If the Way is rooted in personal life then ‘low position’ doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

“It goes on, ‘Since it [the Way] can wait for a hundred generations for a sage without a doubt, it shows that he knows [the principles of man]. Therefore every move he makes becomes the way of the world, every act of his becomes the model of the world, and every word he utters becomes the pattern of the world.’”

“That is just nonsensical ‘sage worship’ and is not in the true spirit of Confucius. This is obviously an attempt to establish Confucianism as some sort of official ideology in a post Ch’in world.”

“If you think that then you will love this encomium to the sage from Chapter 31:
All embracing and extensive as heaven and deep and unceasingly springing as an abyss!
He appears and all people respect him, speaks and all people believe him, acts and all people
are pleased with him. Consequently his fame spreads overflowingly over the Middle Kingdom
(China, the civilized world), and extends to barbarous tribes. Wherever ships and carriages
reach, wherever the labor of man penetrates, wherever the heavens overshadow and the
earth sustains, wherever the sun and the moon shine, and wherever frosts and dew fall, all
who have blood and breath honor and love him. Therefore we say he is a counterpart of Heaven.

So there you have it Karl..”

“I see. This is the basis almost of a religion. There will be no sages like this. Maybe the Buddha would qualify but this work is too early for Buddhism to have influenced it.”

“I am going to finish up now with some quotes from Chapter 33. Get out your Book of Odes Karl, because there are some quotes from it in these passages.”

“I have it right here Fred.”

“'The Book of Odes says, "Over her brocaded robe, she wore a plain and simple dress, for she disliked the loudness of its color and patterns. Thus the way of the superior man is hidden but becomes more prominent every day, whereas the way of the inferior man is conspicuous but gradually disappears."’”

“This Ode (number 57) says just the opposite of what you read Fred, so some liberty was taken in this quote. Waley translates the passage as ‘A splendid woman and upstanding;/ Brocade she wore, over an unlined coat....’ It is reversed but this does not undermine the philosophical point.”

“’The Book of Odes says, “Although the fish dive and lie at the bottom it is still quite clearly seen.” Therefore the superior man examines his own heart and sees that there is nothing wrong there, and that he is not dissatisfied with himself.’”

“This is number 192 Fred:
The fishes are in the pond,
But they still cannot be happy,
For the deeper they dive,
The clearer they shine.
My grieved heart is deeply saddened
Thinking about the state’s vicious ways.
Maybe there is more here than meets the eye. Is this an indication that the Confucian philosopher is not really happy serving an unjust state but still tries to do his best to live up to Confucian ideals? But it would be better to withdraw--or would it. This is the problem of giving up your post to protest injustice, but then having no influence, or staying in the hopes of being able to do a little good that otherwise would never get done.”

“’The Book of Odes says, “Though the ceiling looks down upon you, be free from shame even in the recesses of your own house.” Therefore the superior man is reverent without any movement and truthful without any words.’”

“That ode, Fred, is No. 256. In itself it is not as good as the use to which it has been put in your quote. Waley has:
When receiving gentlemen of your acquaintance
Let your countenance be peaceful and mild;
Never for an instance be desolute.
You are seen in your house;
You do not escape even in the curtained alcove.
Do not say: ‘Of the glorious ones
None is looking at me.’
A visit from the spirits
Can never be forseen;
The better reason for not disgusting them.
The quote you gave suggests that the philosopher should be upright both in public and private. This is just the proper attitude to have. The ode suggests that you should be so because the ‘spirits’ may be watching! This is a very primitive view and would not be consistent with what we know about Confucius’ attitude toward such supernatural balderdash. There is another part of this long ode that I like so I will share it with you. It is good advice and for the right reason this time. ‘Be always mild and good tempered./ A scratch on a scepter of white jade/ Can be polished away;/
A slip of the tongue/ Cannot ever be repaired.’”

“’The Book of Odes says, “Throughout the sacrifice not a word is spoken, and yet [the worshipers are influenced and transformed] without the slightest contention.” Therefore the superior man does not resort to rewards and the people are encouraged to virtue.’”

“This is ode 302 Fred, and a la Waley the quote is ‘Because we come in silence/ Setting all quarrels aside,/ They [the ancestors] make safe for us a ripe old age....’ I can’t see anything in this ode that makes it relevant to your quote. It is all about ‘rewards’ and sacrifices to the ancestors to get them to do things for the people making the offerings. The conclusion regarding the behavior of the ‘superior man’ and the resulting ‘virtue’ of the people just doesn’t seem related to the subject matter of the ode!”

“It seems odes are quoted out of context just to make a point Karl. At any rate our last quote goes ‘The Book of Odes says, “He does not display his virtue, and yet all the princes follow him.” Therefore when the superior man is sincere and reverent, the world will be in order and peace.’”

“Again, Waley’s version is somewhat different. ‘None are strong save the men of Zhou,/ Every land obeys them./ Nothing so glorious as their power,/ All princes imitate them.’ The power or virtue is on display, else how could they be imitated? Anyway, we are not going to have world peace and order because of the imitation by others of some role model! Are you done with Chan?”


“OK, here is the closing quote from Chenyang Li on the work. ‘The Doctrine of the Mean presents a Confucian system of moral metaphysics and philosophy of moral practice. This work has helped shape Chinese civilization for more than two thousand years, and there is no doubt that it will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.’ But I hope people will be a little more critical of some of its views along the lines I have suggested in this discussion.”

“What should we turn to next Karl?”

“I think we should spend some time on I Ching [Yi Ching] or Book of Changes. I know Chan doesn’t devote a lot of space to this work but it is very popular and we should read and discuss it.”

“It is short. Lets go have dinner and come back and discuss it this evening.”

“Fine by me. Lets go!

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I am very interested in learning more about the Confucian system of moral metaphysics and philosophy. It would highly compliment Yuan-tsung Chen's, sweeping arc of history of the great Chinese 19th century. It is a topic I can really get into very easily.