Jun 13 2007

The essence of Confucianism

In the previous post, I briefly described the political and social crisis that China faced in Confucius’ time due to the gradual breakdown in social order due to the erosion of a sense of tradition and custom and sense of propriety. Confucius was dissatisfied with the two opposite responses that were being suggested to deal with the problem. The Realists approach was to use force to create order, exploiting the ability of the ruler to deal out rewards and punishments. The Mohists said that you had to teach people to love all equally. Confucius felt that to ignore the special affection that one felt for one’s own family was unrealistic. In this he was prescient in that modern evolutionary theory argues that natural selection does indeed result in one having special feelings to those to whom one is related, with the feelings getting stronger the closer the people are related.

The different approaches can be seen in response to the question: “Should one love one’s enemy, those who do us harm?” The Mohists might simply respond: “Yes.” The Realists might answer that you should punish severely those who harm you and put in place laws that severely deter such actions. Confucius’s response was: “By no means. Answer hatred with justice, and love with benevolence. Otherwise, you would waste your benevolence.”

Confucius’s key idea was to bring back the power of tradition to govern human behavior, where the impetus for good behavior was not on laws and force (the Realist’s approach) or depend on the good intentions of people (the Mohists’ approach). He recognized that most of our behavior is determined by traditions. This is still true to a large extent. The way we dress for work, for example, is not governed by law but by the power of traditions and expectations. Anyone who went to their corporate offices in shorts or sweatpants would be looked at askance by their co-workers and that is sufficient to deter such behavior. In fact, such traditions have stronger force than laws.

Confucius recognized that the old traditions, which had been created unconsciously, had crumbled in China under the pressure of modernity and what he tried to do was to consciously create a new set of traditions that was more suitable to his day. But in order to do so, a society “must first decide what values are important to their collective well-being; this is why among the Confucians the study of the correct attitudes was a matter of prime importance.” (The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, p. 170). Once these attitudes were decided, they were articulated by Confucius into a coherent philosophy around five key principles: Jen, that dealt with the importance of good human-human relations; Chun tzu, that emphasizes the importance of developing the qualities of a mature person; Li, the proper way things should be done; Te, which deals with the proper use of state power and emphasizes that no state, however powerful and coercive, can exist for long without the consent and approval of the governed, for “if the people have no confidence in their government, it cannot stand.”; and Wen, that deals with the arts of peace, such as music, poetry, art, and culture.

The basic philosophy was then formulated as a set of easily digestible aphorisms and sayings and were propagated by every possible means on every possible occasion, both formal and informal, until they became internalized and became second nature. For example, the first sentence a child learned to read was not of the “See Dick run” type that we are familiar with nowadays but “Human beings are by nature good.”

As far as I can tell, Confucianism is atheist in that there is no personal god, but it is not entirely devoid of supernatural elements. There is a concept of heaven that is occupied by all of one’s ancestors ruled by a single supreme ancestor. (One can see how that idea of a ruler of heaven can get easily extrapolated to the idea of god.) Life was seen as a continuum and death was merely a point at which one was ‘promoted’ to the higher state. Since all the ancestors were together, they knew the entire past history and thus were good at calculating the future. Since they had good feelings towards their descendants still on Earth, they desired to communicate this knowledge to them. But since they had no vocal cords, they were believed to send signs through those events that seemed out of the control of humans, such as weather or the actions of animals or even involuntary acts like sneezing. Hence the art of divination, or reading signs, was important.

Similarly, the people on Earth communicated to the ancestors by offering sacrifices, as a means of sharing their goods with them.

An interesting feature of Confucianism is its non-exclusivity. You could be a Confucian while at the same time being a Taoist or Buddhist or anything else.

In 130 BCE the Confucian texts became the basic training manual for government officials, and thus was the de facto state religion of China and remained so until 1905 AD. Since knowledge of Confucian philosophy was the stepping stone to administrative and political advancement, it elevated the scholar to the highest status in government, a highly unusual situation. So successful was Confucius in having his nation adopt this philosophy that it survived for nearly 2,000 years and, though formally displaced by the Chinese communist revolution of 1949, it still remains a powerful informal force.

Confucianism was imported into Japan, Korea and much of south East Asia and became the basis for their social structures and ethical behavior. If we multiply the number of people who followed this religion by the number of years that they did so, the Chinese Empire built on Confucianism was the most durable social institution ever created, dwarfing the much-heralded empires of Alexander or Caesar or Napoleon. (The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, p. 188).

POST SCRIPT: Creationist entertainment

If you are not inclined to go to Kentucky to spend $20 to visit the creation museum but are curious about what it is like, here is a CNN report, a brief overview, and another review.

And if the creationist museum isn’t enough to satisfy your religious needs, now there’s a ‘Bible Park’ proposed to be built in Murfreesboro, Tennessee:

The park, described in promotional material as “edutainment,” would cost $150 million to $200 million. With a Galilean village as its centerpiece, one side of the park would present Old Testament stories like the Exodus; the other side would have New Testament stories like Jesus’ birth and crucifixion. The only displays in writing would be excerpts from Scripture, and parts of the park would be reserved for Bible study.

Here are Jackie and Dunlap at Red State Update discussing all the pleasures that await the true believers.

The fun just never ends.

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