Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Emanuel L. Paparella - Confucius: The Sage of Compassion and Kindness

A nice article on Confucius as a teacher of compassion and kindness, from Emanuel L. Paparella at Ovi Magazine.
Confucius: The Sage of Compassion and Kindness

by Emanuel L. Paparella

2009-06-15 08:20:43

To practice five things under all circumstances constitutes perfect virtue; these five are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.”

--From the Analects

Confucius is the Latinized name for Master Kong Fuzi. He was born in 551 B.C. and died in 479 B.C., an era often referred by cultural anthropologists as the “Period of the Hundred Philosophers” which saw the development of many schools of thought world-wide. And in fact, Confucianism, more than a religion, is an ethical philosophy concerned with creating harmony between law and order and a peaceful society.

While Confucianism lacks the more mystical characteristics of Lao Tzu’s Daoism, its reasoned philosophy became just as influential on Chinese culture (and indeed that of Japan, Korea and Viet Nam too) as that of Daoism, providing it with its basic rational-ethical structure. It is no wonder that Mao saw it as a rival ideology to Marxism that needed to be liquidated together with any other religion, which he considered poison, to be replaced by “enlightened” Marxist-Communism. In this he was unfortunately almost successful, to the great detriment of traditional Chinese culture. But despite this vilification Confucian ideas have made a come back in post-Maoist China and are acknowledged as a great contribution to the study of ethics, to the great chagrin of those in the West who remain unfriendly to any system buttressed by ritual and therefore too redolent of religion.

Be that as it may, Confucius’ teachings spread far and wild in the Far East until they became an essential guide to both individual moral aspirations and the structure of a just society. Confucianism was adopted by the first Han emperor Wu as the official ideology (202 B.C.) to regulate his government ministers. Its principles were in fact used to maintain the bureaucracy that administered China’s vast empire for hundreds of years. As outrageous as that may sound to European and Western ears, had the bureaucracy of their empires, or even that of present day EU, been imbued with those same ethical principles the political results would have been quite different.

What exactly were those principles? As most great sages, Confucius meditated long and hard on the reasons why his times were so violent and unstable. He concluded that the reason was that people had lost the virtue that had been traditionally shown by China’s semi-legendary ancient empires which he considered a peaceful and prosperous “Golden Age,” a time when sovereigns ruled with benevolent justice and the people responded with appropriate behavior.

Confucius, not unlike Plato in his Republic, concludes that moral standards must be set by a ruler and that the state must be administered by ethically-trained officials. He failed to convince the then rulers of this necessity and so he eventually settled down to teaching and spent the last years of his life editing five classical books which, together with his own teachings and those of his followers, became the official Confucian canon. It included writings on history, poetry, rites, and what is known in the West as “I Ching,” a manual of divination. Those texts made him eventually the single most influential figure in Chinese history.

There is one aspect in which Confucianism is close to Daoism: in its belief that humans are born in harmony with the natural order but then allow themselves to indulge in selfish behavior that leads them away from natural harmony with their neighbors and their society. This is redolent of Rousseau later idea that we are all born innocent and in harmony with nature. Confucius calls this natural impulse toward harmony human kindness: the feeling of love, kindness, and respect that a person feels toward others. This is quite advanced even by Western moral standards. In the West we have to wait till the 19th century for great writers and philosophers to begin to consider kindness as a valid subject of serious philosophical investigation and concern. Confucius however, already knew five centuries before Christ that expressing this natural feeling for kindness in proper and compassionate behavior allows the individual to develop as a morally correct person, and that a good State is nothing more than the sum of those morally correct persons. A state with great ideological goals and ideals imposed by ideological fanatical purists and activists who love the ideals more than the people they claim to be concerned with, will eventually turn out to be a morally failed state. The bad means to the good end will eventually corrupt the end also. That is a lesson that assorted Machiavellians, Marxists and other ideologues have still to learn in the West.

One intriguing aspect of Confucian philosophy is the so called “rectification of names.” Confucius believed that every social position carries a natural responsibility to fulfill the duties of that role vis a vis other roles and positions. As far as Confucius is concerned, a superior role carries duties of firm but kind control, while those in inferior roles are responsible for immediate obedience. As he writes in the Analects: “Let the rule be ruler, the minister minister, the father father and son son.” Hence education in the proper customs of life and moral correctness had to be available to all. This seems strange to Western ears habituated, despite Kant’s moral imperative, to loudly claim rights and privileges while often deemphasizing responsibilities and duties.

Confucius was convinced that if everyone behaved in the morally appropriate manner that their position required, that is to say either obediently or with strong but kindly rule, society would function well in accordance with natural moral principles. A legal framework that was too strong was seen as a failure of sort, for morally correct individuals are self-regulating. This concept of self-regulation trumps the usual criticism of Confucianism, that it enslaves the individual to strict social rules and regulations. Self-regulation applies especially to the ruler who had to set a correct ethical example for other members of society to follow. As the Analects prescribe: “Your job is to govern, not to kill.”

Just as important as obedience and good manners is the practice of rites and ceremonies. That is the reason why Confucianism has been at times been mistaken for a religion. For Confucius, rituals expressed social cohesion and confirmed the natural order of heaven and earth. Which does not mean that Confucius readily accepts superstition and empty rites. It is enough to show proper traditional veneration for one’s family ancestors or simply sacrifice to the emperor of heaven and the universe. By behaving correctly anybody could potentially become a superior man or what Confucius calls a “sage.” A sage demonstrates his superiority in every facet of life: artistic tastes, respect and veneration of ancestors, example of virtue which spreads to others. Last but not least the family is seen by Confucius and his followers as the most important and basic social unit for all moral behavior. He held that if children were taught human kindness within the family circle they would be able to spread that feeling to wider human relationships.

Indeed, Mao believed that he had done away with all those anachronistic ideas expressed in Confucianism, but I dare say that he will be proven wrong by history. In the long run, Confucius will continue to be remembered for his kindness and the reasonableness of his social scheme, while Mao and his fellow-ideologues will be remembered for their Machiavellism, brutality and sheer cynicism.

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