Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Why the Fascination with Confucius?"

After my recent post about “the rectification of names” a commenter who calls himself “Therapy Culture” asked an important question: “Why the fascination with Confucius?”

As China rises in importance, to the point where many savvy thinkers believe that the new century belongs to China, and as more and more people are doing business with the Chinese, we naturally want to know how the Chinese think. We want to understand their culture and their values. What makes them do what they do?

Beyond that, civilizations compete with other civilizations. For the past few centuries Western civilization, especially the Anglo-American version, has dominated the world. It has won the wars, grown the strongest economies, and set the cultural standards for the rest of the world.

When your culture, that is, your way of functioning in society and your way of solving problems, becomes dominant, you are more likely to fall into the trap of complacency.

You might start to think that, because you are an American, or because you belong to the strongest culture, whatever you do is the best. If yours is the best civilization, others will naturally want to emulate your example, regardless of whether it works, regardless of whether it is good or bad.

It feels like you can just do as you please and everyone will try to do the same. Culturally speaking, you cannot make a bigger mistake.

When you lose sight of what got you where you are, when you start thinking that you are naturally superior, you will contract a severe case of civilization hubris.

One day, another strong culture is going to come along and is going to refuse to follow your recent follies. If it succeeds by refusing to follow your example, you will discover that your new cultural values are in error.

Then you will need to reconcile yourself to a reduced status and will need to look elsewhere to recover your lost greatness.

You might look at what made you great. You might look at what is making another civilization greater than yours.

I would posit that China is rising in the world because it is not following the example set by contemporary America, but is following the ethic that once made China great.

As it happens, this same ethic once made America great. Call it the Protestant work ethic. Say that it derives from Aristotle.

For people in China, it derives from the few remaining thought fragments attributed to a great Sage who lived around 2600 years ago: Confucius.

It took an especially strong culture to break with the Anglo-American standard. And a strong culture requires a strong thinker, someone whose thought can show the way toward social success. And whose thought is universally recognized for its genius.

It is not just any culture that is going to compete for civilization dominance. A civilization without great thinkers is not going to have the principles to guide its cultural development.

So, our own American culture has been floundering in the morass of political correctness, therapy-speak, and what is called progressive philosophy. This has created certain habits of thought, certain characteristic ways we behave in society and conduct our lives. Our culture also shows us how to analyze challenges and how to try to solve them.

The symptoms of America’s civilization hubris are all around us. We have lost the sense of belonging to the same community. We are constantly at each others’ throats. We are happy to think about how we just can’t get along, but we no longer seem to know how.

And we are steeped in a culture that values decadent pursuits more than work. We want to feel good no matter what we do or do not achieve. We are convinced that we have an inalienable right to feel good. We idolize celebrity and act as though we can do as we please, when we please, as we please.

We need some lessons in how to produce social harmony. And there is no major philosopher whose name is more closely associated with such harmony than Confucius.

Despite what too many of us think the solution does not reside in a new insight, a great idea, or a glimpse at an ultimate truth.

It’s about the ethical principles that guide our behavior. Let’s be clear: ethics is not difficult to understand. You can write down the basic principles of Aristotle’s ethics on a single page.

Ethics becomes difficult when we start asking how we put it all into practice. It’s one thing to say that we should act with honor and dignity; quite another to know what does or does not constitute honorable and dignified behavior. It is one thing to say that we should find common ground. It is quite another to know how to find it when two sides are trying to destroy each other.

Yesterday, I posted about a novel response to the problem of childhood obesity. Most Americans are perfectly happy to recognize that there is a problem. Our culture has produced habits of thought that lead us to address the problem is several ways: through more government programs, by banning certain food products, and by more and better diets.

That is the Western way, a way that involves thinking that we are beings who are in an eternal struggle against our appetites. Since our willpower is too weak to control our appetites, we need an external power, like government, to do it for us.

If you address the issue through Confucius, the answer pops out at you. Eating is not an eternal struggle between your appetite and a refrigerator filled with Twinkies. Eating is a social ritual where people congregate and where they observe proper ritual behavior.

Thus, the solution to the problem is… family dinners.

For most people, that is not good news. To follow that principle, you will need to have the discipline and organizational skills to set out a family dinner just about every day.

If you don’t have a strong work ethic, you will never succeed at family dinners.

Could I have credited the idea to the influence of a strong Western thinker? Probably, I could have. Aristotle comes immediately to mind.

Yet, the first time I thought about the importance of family dinner, and wrote about it in my book on Saving Face, I had been thinking about Confucian thought.

Credit where credit is due.

Besides, the name of Confucius is treated with respect and near-reverence, even for those who are not Chinese. Why not allow the idea to command an extra level of respect for using the name of the Sage?

If we give an idea a serious provenance, it will become more serious, more worthy of our attention, and more respectable.

Thinking through Confucius allows us to challenge the assumptions of our own culture and to develop different solutions.

The same applies to that other great Confucian problem-solver, the Tiger Mom.

I do not need to remind anyone of the firestorm that erupted over the Tiger Mom’s claim that she forbid her daughters to go on play dates, and to engage in any one of a number of decadent Western practices.

Worse than that, she always expected them to do their best, and she was not going to hand out self-esteem points for making the best effort. She valued achievement over effort. Imagine that.

Aspire toward excellence, accept nothing less than the best… these are Confucian principles. But they are also, as I mentioned at the time, basic to Aristotle.

Prof. Amy Chua seems to have drawn them from her Confucian mother. The same principles are being practiced in schools across the Far East. The children who are being educated according to these techniques do far better in standardized tests than do ours.

While American children flounder in the world of fuzzy math and high self-esteem, children whose upbringing is based on Confucian principles, are getting ready to assume world leadership.

The nations that conduct their public lives according to these same principles seem to be imbued with a sense of optimism about the future. In America we worry about our decline.

Everyone knows that there is a crisis in American education. Yet, we tend, because of our culture and our habits of thought, to believe that we can solve it by throwing more money at the school systems, hiring more bureaucrats, having smaller classrooms, and wiring all the classrooms with Wi-Fi.

Until the Tiger Mom came along, we were all too willing to settle for mediocrity, as long as the poor dears felt good about themselves.

Could it be that our complacent attitude is responsible for the scholastic shortcomings of American children.

By we I mean both teachers and parents, to say nothing of the culture at large. We are afraid to push children; afraid to exercise authority; afraid to tell them that homework and piano practice come before play dates.

We are afraid to do all of these things because we are afraid we are going to harm their delicate psyches. And, besides, we all tend to believe that the meaning of life is: “fun.”

Trust me, Amy Chua did not invent strict parental discipline. Parents whose children attend private schools tend to have similar attitudes. If they cannot bring themselves to discipline their children, they leave the task to the schools and the tutors.

But why was America so upset, so indignant, so sorely offended by the Tiger Mom?

Actually, America continues to be horrified at the Tiger Mom. Take a gander at P. J. O’Rourke‘s satiric broadside here.

If you still find yourself wondering about the Tiger Mom, you might want to take a look at the open forum she recently did at the New York Public Library with her husband and daughter Sophia. Link here.

Americans were indignant, to the point of being defensive, because Tiger Mom was doing what they knew that they should be doing. The only thing is, because of her cultural heritage, she was able to buck the culture. Most American parents have not been able to do as much.

Witness the debate over Jennifer Moses’ article about how preteen girls are dressing like sluts and why their mothers are powerless to stop it. Link here.

Of course, we have our ways of dealing with the crisis in American public education. We want to show that we care; we want to tell children that they are great. And we expect that the schools will solve the problems.

Amazingly, precious few American parents see the problem as lying within the home, at the level of parental expectation. And very few would have the gumption to take the situation into their own hands.

The Tiger Mom asserted authority over her children; she did not respect their whims and wishes; she trained them in a strict work ethic. An American parent would have been denounced for being abusive.

Once the Tiger Mom’s daughters learned her strict Confucian ethic, she gave them the freedom to make their own decisions.

If you watch the remarks her daughter Sophia made at the Public Library you will be struck, not only at how poised and confident she is, but in how much autonomy her parents give her.

American parents are in a state of near-terminal anxiety over their children’s college applications and acceptances, to the point where they hire tutors and counselors, write or edit the essays, bit their nails to the quick waiting for the thick acceptance packets.

Compare this to the Tiger Mom, who did write the essays, fill out the applications, or shower the entire process with extreme anxiety. In truth, as Sophia said, Tiger Mom did not even know where her daughter was applying.

This must be the ultimate indignity. Tiger Mom brought up children who seem to have good independent judgment. Somehow or other, Sophia did not become a cog in anyone’s machine. Not even in her mother’s machine.


Therapy Culture said...

"I would posit that China is rising in the world because it is not following the example set by contemporary America, but is following the ethic that once made China great."


Wow. How come Soviet Russia was considered so bad and yet we now get Americans on the Right praising China?

Anyway, I think India is also going to be an up and coming star on the global stage and being the land that invented Philosphy, Religion, as well as the very concept of God - Indians have a plethora of ancient sages and philosophers that predate Confucious, Aristotle or practically any other that you can think of, and influenced them as well.

It will be interesting if in the near future we hear Americans qouting from Vedantic or Shankya texts.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

China abandoned Communist economic policies in the 1970s.

I do agree with you that India is going to be a star on the world economic scene. Perhaps one day we will all be quoting Indian texts.

But, it is fair to mention that the interest in Confucius does not date from yesterday.