Saturday, February 7, 2015

Confucianism as Antidote

I am certainly not alone in pointing out that the Asian economic resurgence is owed in no small part to a rediscovery of Confucian thought.

Robert Kaplan makes the case in the Wall Street Journal this morning:

One of the striking elements of “The Governance of China,” a book published this past fall in several languages (including English) by Chinese President Xi Jinping , was his reliance on the “brilliant insights” of Confucius to explain his own political and social philosophy. Mr. Xi quotes, for example, this pithy saying from the ancient master: “When we see men of virtue, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should examine ourselves.” And Mr. Xi is clearly channeling Confucius when he writes that the Chinese have always “developed their country through studying the nature of things, correcting thoughts with sincerity, cultivating the moral self, managing the family…and safeguarding peace under Heaven.”

He continues:

… there can be no doubt that the Confucian values he invokes have been the foundation of one of the great social, cultural and economic success stories of the last few decades. Despite Asia’s difficulties and imperfections (and the impressive achievements over the same period of such disparate places as Canada, Scandinavia and Israel), we have been living, since the closing years of the Cold War, in a Confucian moment. The rise of the Pacific “tigers” in the 1970s began a process that has made Asia the geographic organizing principle of the world economy. Countries like China and Vietnam couldn’t have discarded communism in all but name, switched to a riotous form of capitalism and remained as stable as they have been without the essential tolerance and respect for authority, hierarchy and social order embodied in Confucianism.

Kaplan correctly notes that Confucianism has many affinities with Burkean conservatism. The two shared a distrust for radical change, a respect for tradition and an emphasis on civic virtues. 

In Kaplan’s words:

Everyone else must be held to an equally high standard, all of it based on respect for the experience of previous generations. As the Master Kong [Confucius] says, “Being fond of the truth, I am an admirer of antiquity.”

In Confucianism, the past isn’t something to disparage as primitive or retrograde; it constitutes the very record of human experience, and the present depends on it. Particularly in times of profound technological and social change, Confucians find the best insurance against chaos in tradition, especially in the virtues of loyalty and filial piety.

Evidently, a culture based on filial piety can serve as an anecdote to a culture that worships youth. This does not, Kaplan adds, merely apply to our own “decadent” culture. It also applies to the China that President Xi is trying to reform:

Postmodern Western life, by contrast, is sometimes described as decadent because of its worship of youth. For someone like me, who has observed both cultures, it is hard to resist the thought that the West might benefit just now from a dose of Confucianism, as might China itself, whose one-child policy—only recently relaxed—has resulted in a generation of spoiled children.

Since Confucianism values social order and social harmony above all else, it strongly discourages insubordination and disrespect of authority.

Kaplan wants to say that we do better to pay some heed to the Confucian respect for tradition than to imagine that we can remake human nature and force it to conform to our ideals:

The world as a whole is in tumultuous transition, as traditional family structures and ways of life come undone on every continent. In this crucible, social and political survival will come most easily to cultures that can preserve a time-tested ethical foundation as a defense against destructive change. East Asia has been the undeniable success story of the last four decades, even as its dramatic growth phase now seems over. I would bet that the Confucian moment will live on for a while longer yet.

In our nation narcissism and arrogance have caused people to believe that they can achieve a moral transcendence by breaking with traditional family structures and ways of life.

More and more Westerners believe that human history is a vast conspiracy against—fill in the blank with your favorite oppressed group. They insist that only the most radical reform can cleanse the civilization of its ills. In the process they are tearing up the fabric of society and promoting social disorder. Kaplan is right to say that we are making a mistake by rejecting tradition and the civic virtues that produce social harmony.

Clearly, the Confucian antidote is perfectly consonant with free market capitalism. It does not, however, make the free market a free-for-all.


Ares Olympus said...

Its hard for me to take this seriously at any level of analysis.

When political leaders speak of any ancient tradition, you can be sure they are doing so because it contains a message that "sounds good", regardless of its actual practice in the actual economy and behavior of individuals.

So is Confucianism an ideology or a Philosophy or a religion? And does its expression as an ideology corrupt its purpose, i.e. replacing deep understanding with surface platitudes that say the right things, while allowing the wrong things to be done?

I don't know how you could judge, but how do we know whether it it more than a political slogan?
Following the official abandonment of Legalism in China after the Qin Dynasty, Confucianism became the official state ideology of the Han. Nonetheless, from the Han period onwards, most Chinese emperors have used a mix of Legalism and Confucianism as their ruling doctrine. The disintegration of the Han in the second century CE opened the way for the soteriological doctrines of Buddhism and Taoism to dominate intellectual life at that time.
The core of Confucianism is humanistic, or what the philosopher Herbert Fingarette calls "the secular as sacred". Confucianism focuses on the practical order inscribed in a this-worldly awareness of the Tian and a proper respect of the gods (shen), with particular emphasis on the importance of the family, rather than on a transcendent divine or a soteriology.

No one will complain about pragmatism, but its perhaps no different than the Aetheistic Humanitarism - saying idealistically that we humans have the knowledge and means to create our own world based on mutual cooperation and reasoned discourse.

Its hard to argue against that calm collected vision of a rationally ordered universe. Its 100% correct, until reality shows it contains something else too.

We could as well follow the orderly pragmatism of George W Bush, "If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier... as long as I'm the dictator."

Sam L. said...

Radical reform: i.e., we have no idea what the downsides might be and we are totally sure they don't exist. Trust us.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Evidently, a culture based on filial piety can serve as an anecdote to a culture that worships youth. This does not, Kaplan adds, merely apply to our own “decadent” culture.

Reading more about Confucianism I can see one contrast to "modern youth worship" is a deeper reverance to ones ancestors. The wiki article says:
Regarding gods (shen) enliving nature, in Analects 6.22 Confucius says that it is appropriate (yi) for people to worship (jing) them, though through proper rites (li), implying respect of positions and discretion. Confucius himself was a ritual and sacrificial master. In Analects 3.12 he explains that religious rituals produce meaningful experiences. Rites and sacrifices to the gods have an ethical importance: they generate good life, benevolence (jen), given that taking part in them implies an overcoming of the self. Analects 10.11 tells that Confucius always took a small part of his food and placed it on the sacrificial bowls as an offering to his ancestors.

I can see a weakness of the "progess myth" we follow is the assumption that our ancestors were backwards and ignorant compared to us, so we have nothing to learn from them.

And "worse" we might look at our ancestors and not just find "dirt poor farmers" but maybe successful "slave owners" or even "slaves", or from being illegitimate bastards of philanders, or if you really want to feel bad, you'll discover first cousins or closer marrying and understand your genes may be permanently flawed from inbreeding, or from bad characters.

So it easy to see why people would want to abandon a lowly or ugly past and put their self-worth based on objective science which says there's no limit to what we can be, if we just apply ourselves well.

But on the other side, maybe knowing the best and the worst of our ancestor is what motivates us accept our capacity for evil, and see we need to find something higher than ego to sustain us when we're misterable and hopeless.

So there may be some comfort, if you can't imagine a living relationship with Jesus Christ, you perhaps can imagine your parents or grand parents or their parents, and that they're still watching out for you, and are patient advocates for your better character?

Anyway, I guess I'm looking for a "model" of the conscience that is somewhat multifacted, containing judgments that go much deeper than your own bad deeds, but also a compassion that goes deeper too.

And whatever form we imagine the conscience, there apparently needs to be a sense of "being watched", and so our bad deeds that can be hidden from our public face can't be simply ignored, and we still have to face what we know of ourselves that we don't like.

So I wonder if Americans would benefit by setting aside small amounts of food into sacrificial bowls for the ancestors?

It doesn't fit within the world of objective science, but it would seem to serve a purpose to give "structure" to what's hidden of us, and all the vastness that brought us to this strange moment while we still have vast choices in our collective affluence and unlimited distractions.

Sam L. said...

Well, whatever works for them.

Anonymous said...

Neo-confucianism tries to blend the best of west with best of east.

But traditional confucianism became corrupt. A way of mindless dogma to gain status.