The Confucian Way 15: Mencius and The Mandate of Heaven

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The Zhou aristocracy’s belief in a supreme deity or Tian (“Heaven”) was passed down and adopted by Confucian elites through the Mandate of Heaven (tianming) doctrine. However, the precise meaning and understanding of Heaven in Confucian terms is unclear. For Mencius, who talks openly and extensively about the Mandate, the rule of Heaven seems to refer to both an internal moral guide that can be naturally cultivated by our innate capacity for goodness, and an ideal part of a country’s political culture where a despot can be justly removed by revolution.

The idea that the Mandate of Heaven can reflect a state of societal perfection bears some resemblance to the Platonic theory of forms, where reality is based on a world of perfect ideas above. But whereas the Platonic world of ideas informed the transcendental Christian heaven, Mencius’ description of the Mandate stays clear from referring to a personal god or world above, but still engages with the notion that fate or providence acts as an impersonal force that has the power to distribute good and evil randomly.

The transcendent quality of the Mandate, where the success of overthrowing a ruler ultimately comes down to fate, shows that although Confucianism was a philosophy based on humanism and material reality, it still preserved a kind of metaphysical religious consciousness when philosophers attempted to describe an ideal state of affairs.

A Neo-Confucian Quote of the Week

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Although Neo-Confucianism was not monolithic, what separated the new Confucian school from the classical Confucian writers was the belief in ultimate moral metaphysical truths. These were represented by the terms ‘heaven’ (tian), ‘principle’ (li), ‘the great ultimate’ (taiji), the basic element or energy (qi), and the way of things (dao), which explained the unfolding reality-principle of the way the universe functioned.

For Neo-Confucians, the foundation of human reality lies within each human’s psychological makeup. Here, Neo-Confucianism tends to ascribe to Mencian thought, which states that humans are different from other animals because they are born with the capacity to be moral. Morality is thus thought to be biological. As Liu (2017) writes in the book Neo-Confucianism: Metaphysics, Mind, and Morality:

“Humans alone are moral creatures. This is what defines the notion “human” (ren 人)”

What is unique about human beings is their ability to possess a moral sense of right and wrong and to express moral agency and refuse to do wrong things, whereas non-human creatures, such as birds, reptiles and even other primates, do not as they lack the capacity to comprehend what morality is (it should be noted that this view is now commonly contested, see, for example, Rowlands, 2012). It follows that if humans do engage in evil, they have appealed to a lower form of humanity by not cultivating their moral tendencies (referred to as “moral sprouts” by Mencius).

To accept the view that humans are special biologically moral creatures, Neo-Confucians dismissed Xunzi’s view that morality is the product of social conditioning, where rules, rituals, and education can teach and compel humans not to act badly. Xunzi believed that there is no such thing as “innate goodness,” but that institutions can appeal to human reason by showing why behaving morally is better for the individual and society, which can incentivize people to cultivate goodness.

For Neo-Confucians, however, the existence of a moral reality is an undisputable fact that is based on the universality of moral truths grounded in human biological psychology.

Ashoka and the Politics of Moral Governance

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Illustration based on the private collection/Dinodia/Bridgeman Images.

When the Emperor Bindusara died in 272 BCE, he was succeeded by his young son, Ashoka the Great (304-232 BCE), who infamously became an ambitious and aggressive monarch that crushed revolts and conquered nearby city-states. On accession to the Mauryan throne, Ashoka inherited both the imperial territory that extended from Assam in the East to Balochistan in the West, and the expansionist policies of his grandfather and founder of the dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya. Ashoka brought the empire to its apogee, conquering the land of the Kalingas in the Southeast (modern-day Orissa), and politically uniting the entire Indian subcontinent for the first time in history (Strong, 1989). Historical evidence consisting of the thirty-four edicts written by Ashoka do not reveal the motivation for the Mauryan empire engaging in warfare against the Kalingas, but the edicts do show that the Maurya victory was overwhelming and brutal:

“One hundred and fifty thousand persons were…carried away captive, one hundred thousand were…slain, and many times that number died…[I]f the hundredth part or the thousandth part were now to suffer the same fate, it would be a matter of regret.”

(Edict XIII, circa 257 BCE.)

The edicts, which were chiselled on hundreds of rock surfaces and pillars throughout the Indian subcontinent, were inscribed in India’s first written script, Ashoka Brahmi. Apart from Ashoka’s own edicts, other sources depict the emperor in his early years of rule as harsh and violent. For instance, the Sanskrit Divyāvadāna describes Ashoka as an ugly, grotesque leader that turned the Mauryan kingdom into a place of terror and oppression. It claims that Ashoka beheaded 500 of his ministers by sword and burned 500 court ladies to death. The Chinese Aśokāvadāna reinforces the wickedness of Ashoka’s character, but, as Guruge (1994) notes, there is a tendency among Buddhist writers to make Ashoka’s character out to be all the more malevolent in his early years of rule in order to show the dramatic change in his character after he converted to Buddhism.

The details around Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism are unclear. For the most part, sources tend to skip over the conversion process and emphasise the motivations for Ashoka’s change in character. The story goes that after witnessing the death and destruction that resulted from the Kalinga war, Ashoka was filled with “profound sorrow and regret” (Edict XIII). The lack of elations in the Edicts over the Kalinga defeat is interpreted by Draper (1995) to indicate a silent moral premise that all suffering and destruction of life, whether human or animal, is regrettable and to be avoided. Thus, the deep pain that came from witnessing the killing, dying and deportation of the conquered city caused Ashoka to renounce military conquest and all other forms of violence. This conversion story tends to follow the popular notion of psychological change as being cause by a particular occurrence in a person’s life, for instance, the sight of the sick, the old, the dead, and the ascetic, which caused Siddhartha Buddha to change and renounce his princely life. However, as James M. Macphail, author of the 1928 book Ashoka states:

“It is not easy to understand why Ashoka, the head of a great military empire that had been acquired in no very remote time by conquest, should have been so deeply affected and conscience stricken by his experience of what were in those days familiar horrors of war. There must surely have been some preparation for so great a change. Possibly the teaching of the followers of Gautama had impressed him more than he himself realized, and the experience of actual bloodshed on a large scale, merely to gratify ambition and enrich the State, served to crystallize into convictions impressions that had been slowly forming in his mind.”

In other words, Ashoka was probably exposed to Buddhist teachings before the Kalinga war, and the death and destruction that occurred during the military conquest would have prompted the Emperor to change his foreign policy from dig-vijaya or imperialist expansion to dharmavijaya, conquest through righteousness. In Ashoka’s own description of this transition, he states:

Now that the Kalingas have been conquered, the empire shall be devoted to the intense practice of the Dharma, especially among the people. This is because the Kingdom regrets having conquered the Kalinga territory (paraphrased).  

The syntactical form of this description, starting with “now that” or when such a thing has been done, implies that the annexation of Kalinga was a pre-requisite that had to be fulfilled before Ashoka could politically adopt Buddhism and the Dharma (Guruge, 1994). It is unclear whether this was because of Ashoka’s royal duties, the Mauryan tradition to conquer the furthermost lands, or because of national security reasons, but it seems that Ashoka strategically used the death and destruction of Kalinga to upset the status quo just enough to fundamentally redirect Mauryan foreign policy. It can be assumed that this would have been a challenging shift since a lot of power and influence lay in the hands of the Brahman priesthood, who were at the top of the Dharma-sanctioned caste pyramid and who served as Ashoka’s ministers and advisors. One of the first changes that Ashoka enacted was changing the traditional Brahman offerings and ceremonies, which he considered to be ostentatious and unprofitable. In the ninth edict, Ashoka wrote that “Now ceremonies should certainly be performed. But these bear little fruit. That, however, is productive of great fruit which is connected with Dharma.” In his opposition to animal slaughter and the killing and consumption of animals in the royal kitchens, Ashoka again clashed with Brahman ritual as he sought to replace these ceremonies with peaceful “spiritual revival” public events (Albinski, 1958).

Other changes that Ashoka decreed to establish a moral policy included, ordering banyan and mango trees to be planted around the imperial territory; building rest houses and ordering that wells be built every half-mile along the roads so that humans and animals have access to hydration; building medical facilities for humans and animals; and a very Confucian edict was ordering that people obey their parents, are generous towards priests and ascetics and practice frugality in their spending. All up, manpower was doubled to provide the necessary services to the needy, and major internal political reform took place when Ashoka entrusted officials with moral and political functions by commissioning officers to work for the welfare and happiness of the poor and aged.

Another controversial edict ordered by Ashoka was that people should honour men of all faiths. This message was likely perceived as a threat the Brahmanical priests and religious pundits who believed they alone had the authority to dictate what religious rules people should follow. Brahmanical hostility towards Ashoka came in the form of historical silence. As Allen (2012) notes, Emperor Ashoka was “all but erased from India’s history…by promoting Buddhist heresay throughout the land, Ashoka directly challenged the caste-based authority of the Brahman order. Indeed, by the post-Mauryan period Brahmanical intolerance of other religions was so prevalent that in the Mahabhashya of Patanjali, it states that Brahmans and Shramans (which include Jains, Buddhists and others) are ‘eternal enemies’ like the snake and the mongoose (Jha, 2016, p. 5). Despite the setback of Brahmanical opposition, Ashoka kept Maurya’s large and powerful army to maintain public order and expanded friendly relations with states across Asia and Europe through Buddhist missionary campaigns. As well as constructing stupas, Buddhist religious structures, across the empire, Ashoka delegated moral ministers to remote lands to promote his own version of “spiritual imperialism” or modern-day soft power.

According to scholars who traced the decline and fall of the Mauryan Empire, it was not long after Ashoka’s death that the political and religious edifices were weakened and eventually replaced since Ashoka’s rule was popularly interpreted as anti-Brahmanical. Other factors that contributed to the decline of the Maurya range from economic upheaval to the breakdown of expansive bureaucracy created by Ashoka, and decentralization of authority that is said to have brought about corrupt and wicked officials (Guruge, 1994). Ashoka’s moral principles of respecting all living beings and recognising different kinds of vulnerabilities and dependencies is important to note and it can be compared to the Confucian understanding of individuals existing in social relationships of various obligations towards parents, friends, acquaintances, and even towards slaves and servants. Ashoka argued that goodness cannot be done alone or by one without ethical discipline and care must be taken to avoid injustices and maintain control over oneself (Kachru, 2020). Such a communal approach to morality was a strategic way to unite a large and diverse empire, while slowly limiting the overwhelming power and influence of the Brahmanical elite. Although Ashoka’s mandates did not last long after his passing, Ashokan rule represents the pinnacle of ethical governance in India’s political history and should not be forgotten.

The Confucian Way 14: The Mandate of Heaven and Confucius

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Similar to the divine right of kings, a metaphysical doctrine of political legitimacy in Christianized Medieval Europe, the Mandate of Heaven (tianming, which is literally translated as “Heaven’s will”) predates Confucius and was set up in the Zhou Dynasty to justify the replacement of the previously overthrown Shang Dynasty. The Mandate provided a convenient creation myth, which gave the Emperor’s rule legitimacy and told the people that the transition from the previous dynasty was a fated blessing from heaven.

Although there is no such thing as a heaven in the Christian sense in the Chinese tradition, heaven is an appropriate word to describe this doctrine because of the association of heaven with height, a metaphor for superiority and high divinity. The idea of a fated Mandate, where the heavenly affects the earthly, does not seem compatible with Confucianism, which pragmatically seeks to look for harmony within nature and the social world, but Confucius and his followers did attempt to discover the deeper meaning of the Mandate and legitimate dynastic rule. In some interpretations, the Mandate takes on a metaphysical quality and is seen as equivalent to the way, which is difficult to understand and unclear. However, the inability to fully know the Mandate would have been a potentially dangerous idea in Confucius’ time, where the Mandate was used to support the political claim that there would always be only one righteous ruler of China.

Quote of the week from the Analects

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Since the early thirteenth century, ‘grief’ in the English language has referred to “suffering, pain, or bodily affliction,” coming from grever “afflict, burden, oppress” and the Latin gravare, “make heavy” or gravis, meaning “weighty”. In its modern context, grief is perhaps best understood as mental pain or sorrow for the death of a loved one, which is mostly a reactive expression to the immediate feeling of loss. Crying and feeling shocked and sad at a loss is an example of grief being carried out. Mourning, on the other hand, which comes from the Old English murning, means to long after or remember sorrowfully. It is a state where one mushc formalize the emotion of grief and begin to construct a post-death vocabulary for the loved one and recover from the feeling of disjunction. It is about accepting the reality with the loss and creating some stability in one’s emotive life after suffering from the initial shock and sadness.

In Confucianism, grief and mourning are considered natural and necessary parts of living out a humane life. Grief demonstrates a commitment to the loved one that passed away and to carry out grief appropriately serves three functions. The first is to honor the person that passed away. For example, Confucius suggested a three-year mourning period following the death of one’s parents. If one truly honored and cared about the loss, then the usual joys of life would no longer bring joy and ease but instead only increase anxiety and feelings of loss. The second function of grief and mourning is to remember one’s ancestors. There is a duty to reflect on one’s past and the death of a family member should cause one to both grieve and commit to carrying out their ancestors memories by continuing traditions and rituals. Finally, grieving properly allows one to move into the stage of mourning and adjust one’s sense of reality to no longer having the loved one around.

Monster or God? The Mao Zedong Legacy

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The sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought illuminates the road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966). Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House Propaganda Group (上海人民美术出版社宣传画组)

Chairman Mao remains an elusive figure in the West. Described as a “tragedy of a vision and a symbol” (Gupta, 1974, p. 19), he is often known through Chinese propaganda posters. These artworks often feature Mao’s face as the sun, providing light and direction for the land and people under the leadership of the Communist Party. With the Army being responsible for propaganda art during Mao’s leadership, he was often made into a God-like, muscular figure engaging in heroic deeds from the stories of his victories, all the while being surrounded by happy faces. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, even created the ‘three prominences’ which were to be featured in all artworks depicting Mao and the revolution. They included stressing positive characters, which were smiling hyper-realistic, ageless and large soldiers, workers, and educated youths. These figures symbolized the desirability of strong and healthy bodies as both men and women were masculinized by being dressed in colours such as army green and worker blue, with short-cropped hairstyles and large feet. Heroic themes also needed to be stressed to demonstrate the importance of proletarian ideology and communist revolutionary spirit. The colour red is prominent in most propaganda visuals and symbolises fiery revolutionary thought and the winning of good over evil. The final prominence was the centrality of the main characters, Mao and the people of the revolution, who were usually positioned in such a way that viewers of revolutionary propaganda always seemed to be looking upwards as if the image was taken upon a stage (Landsberger, 2019).

While these depictions turned Mao Zedong into a personality cult, after his death he was increasingly portrayed as a monstrous figure. For instance, in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s 2005 biographical book, Mao: The Unknown Story, they describe Mao as one of the greatest monsters in the 20th century, and they compare him to Hitler and Stalin by claiming that he sacrificed thousands of innocent lives in his quest to become the leader of China. Further, Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal physician, wrote a book called The Private Life of Chairman Mao, which described Mao as a “monstrous lecher” who was indifferent to the suffering of his people. Despite these dualistic depictions of Mao as a hero-God and callous monster, he was the first leader of the People’s Republic to initiate what was known as “grassroots socialism,” which aimed to create a modern, industrialised Chinese state. The ideological basis of the state was based on Mao’s official writings and was known as Mao Zedong Thought (MZT, Mao Zedong sixiang, 毛泽东思想), which took many of Mao’s texts and turned them into select writings to make certain ideas fit convenient circumstances. Over time, MZT existed in various forms that responded to various political issues that were of concern to the Communist Party at particular times. Although many Third World postcolonial revolutionaries would consider MZT a viable political model, Maoism is often viewed by commentators outside of China as ‘militant fanaticism’ (Tang, 1973), while China itself continues to struggle to produce and promote a viable Chinese Marxism as it deals with increased income inequality due to its “Factory to the World” economic model.

Mao Thought developed in the context of civil war: the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chang Kai-shek, represented the “revolutionary national bourgeoisie,” which aimed to create national liberation through a revolution led by the bourgeoisie in alliance with the workers and peasants (D’Mello, 2009). In an attempt to eradicate their primary opposition, the Chinese Communists, the KMT, who were supported by America, launched a civil war (1928-35) in which many Communists were murdered. Mao survived these attacks and with his adaptation of Marxism-Leninism to Chinese circumstances, a new “Maoist” ideology of the CCP was eventually formalized by 1945. After the Japanese were defeated, Mao Thought became the state policy of the Communist government on the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. In the ‘Report on the Revision of the Party Constitution’, Mao Thought was described as ‘Chinese Communism’, ‘Chinese Marxism’ and the ‘Sinicization of Marxism,’ and it was believed to represent “the hopes and aspirations of the millions of oppressed and exploited throughout the world” (The U.S. Leninist Core, 1978). Although Maoist Thought was formulated in many ways, it was original for a Communist Party to strategically gain power through peasant support, which Mao initiated right before the civil war in 1927. The use of a peasant movement as a class basis for revolution differed from the previous communist takeover in Russia, which based their movement for liberation on the proletariat (Wittfogel, 1960). Thus, by basing Marxist theory on the material reality of China’s underdevelopment, Mao created a Communist vanguard led by poor peasants, who initiated a peasant-cum-guerrilla movement in the countryside. This approach was summed up by Mao with the phrase “from the masses, to the masses”, and came with the democratisation of the Leninist vanguard party. Just like Lenin, Mao’s vanguard had a revolutionary elite drawn from intellectuals, workers and peasants, at its core, but the difference was that the workers and peasants in Mao’s vanguard were promised greater representation over time. Mao also applied Marx’s “materialist dialectics” to help understand and resolve the multiple “contradictions” that the Communist Party would face, including internal conflicts and opposition that sometimes resulted in disunity. According to Mao, the one basic law that underlies all motion, change or development is the unity of opposites (or yin-yang in Chinese traditional philosophy). Therefore, the process to get to a higher stage of Communism will be long, complex and tortuous, where the formal aspects of the tradition, such as state ownership of the means of production, are not necessarily guarantees that the bourgeoisie will not make repeated attempts to restore and promote the inequalities of Capitalism (Mao, 1935).

In 1940, Mao declared that the aim of the Communist Party’s efforts is to build a new nation-state with a new political organisation, a new economy and a new culture for the Chinese people. Eighteen years later, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ social experiment took place where, in an attempt to quickly industrialise the country, communities in China were assigned production of a single commodity, steel. It led to economic failure since uneducated farmers produced low quality steel that was useless for industry. Since harvest sizes declined, a famine occurred and millions of people, particularly in the poorer inland regions, died. Criticised for his role in this entirely avoidable catastrophe, Mao initiated the 10-year ‘Great Cultural Revolution’, a policy meant to enforce Communism by removing any traces of the capitalist, traditional and cultural elements of Chinese society through violent class struggle. Young student revolutionaries formed the Red Guards, a stormtrooper group that used torture, humiliation and destruction of property and historical-religious artefacts to punish “capitalist roaders” and other class enemies (Ho, 1978; Landsberger, 2019). Anti-Confucianism peaked during this period to the point where the Red guards raided and desecrated Confucius’s birthplace and burial ground. Mao also launched the ‘Anti-Lin Bao and Anti-Confucius Campaign’ in his last years as leader of China, attacking both his designated successor and China’s ancient Sage (Hu, 2007). These painful experiences continue to stain China’s history. As Brown (2016) states, the Chinese Communist Party likes to promote a simple historical narrative, with clear cut messages about the winners and losers of past struggles. By contrast, policies like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are a mess of awkward contradictions that are seldom mentioned nowadays.

Despite the issues with Mao’s political rule, hardly any Chinese politicians have come out to denounce the former Chairman. Since the Cultural Revolution, the only ‘critique’ that the Communist Party have put forward about past policies and leaders was the famous ‘Resolution on Certain Historical Questions of the CCP since the Establishment of the People’s Republic’ in 1981 under the supervision of Deng Xiaoping. However, the Resolution only concluded that Mao’s “contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweighed his shortcomings” and that “his contributions were primary, his mistakes secondary.” The Resolution noted that there may have been errors of judgment during the Cultural Revolution, but there is seldom mentioned about the increasingly authoritarianism that came under Mao’s rule. Deng Xiaoping even noted that “We must affirm the historical position of comrade Mao Zedong and uphold and develop Mao Thought. We must hoist high the flag of Mao Thought not only today but in the future.” In late-2003, fourth-Generation leader President Hu Jintao also declared Mao to be a “great proletarian revolutionary strategist and theorist”, while in 2011, a 32-metre Mao statue was erected in the middle of Xiangjiang River in Changsha, Hunan Province (Moore, 2009). In 2019, the ‘Mao fever’ continued: President Xi paid his respects to Mao ahead of celebrations to mark 70 years of Communist rule, by visiting Mao’s mausoleum and bowing three times to his statue (Aljazeera, 2019).

Mao Zedong Thought was distinctly original in its application to China’s material reality of underdevelopment. Although it failed to successfully industrialise China, as a military strategy, it allowed the Communists to apply guerrilla warfare to drive out the KMT, defeat the Japanese and establish an independent republic. While the West (and some Chinese) authors have made Mao to be evil, monstrous and Hitler-like, his legacy and continued presence in Chinese society allows him to remain as a respected father in people’s memories.  

The Confucian Way 13: Doing Nothing and the Nature of Water

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Humans and nature can resemble and learn from each other. In Confucianism, the fluid and reflective nature of water provides a model for the various ways of being. The way that water nourishes everything which is in it, fearlessly seeks out the lowest spots to fill them, and has the capacity to level itself no matter where it is found, are all lessons for humans in their ability to imitate water. The appropriate phrase to describe this relationship is “as if”. Humans are not water, but they are akin to it, which is why meditating on it draws us closer to balance and harmony. To be “as if” water is to embody the principle of wu-wei or doing nothing, in an effort to participate in a kind of creative emptiness. This interpretation of wu-wei differs in the later forms of Daoism, where non-action was hardened into a strategic doctrine for effective rule. In this way, the agenda of wu-wei was no longer about finding stillness and peace and to “be like”, but about calculatingly managing others as a way of indirectly exerting one’s power and influence.

Quote of the week from the Zhuangzi

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There are a few points to consider here: Zhuang Zhou is not a butterfly, dreaming is not awakening, and knowledge is not ignorance. Yet, these distinct situations interdepend and interchange to the point of where Zhuang Zhou is uncertain of where he is. The two contrasting moments correspond to the Confucian concept of li, ‘ritual’ and yue, ‘music’. The essense of li is control, and that of yue is ‘harmony’. Control holds back, while harmony blends. They correspond to Zhuang Zhou’s two moments in the dream of distinction then interchange, which also pervades our everyday life.

Authenticity and the Jennifer Dilemma

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Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (detail), 1897-98, oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The word authentic comes from the Medieval Latin authenticus and Greek authentikos, meaning “original, genuine, principal”, from authentes or “acting on one’s own authority”. It derives from the term autos or “self, of oneself (independently)” and hentes meaning “being”, and the modern use of authentic implies that to be authentic, the contents in question should correspond to facts. In other words, authenticity refers to trustworthiness, reliability and consistency. An authentic document, for example, is understood to be genuine and original, or not a fake or copy, while authentic words are understood to come from the heart. Feelings and words should be aligned if they are to be considered authentic. Thus, a thing is authentic if it is what it professes to be. However, the question of authenticity becomes more complicated when authenticity becomes a characteristic attributed to human beings. After all, what does it mean to be truly autos-hentes or one’s own being? And is it even possible to truly represent oneself genuinely?

According to Varga (2020), although being oneself is somewhat inescapable, since whenever you make a choice or act, it is you who is making that choice or act, many of our thoughts, decisions and actions are not really are own and so they cannot genuinely express who we are. The issue here is whether we can ever be authentic in our day-to-day life in spite of influences that come from our families, friends, government, education, ideological affiliations, and even the language that we speak, which can affect the way that we think. If we are simply made up of these amalgam of influences, it would mean that our sense of self could not have existed without society. This argument goes so far as to make the metaphysical claim that our expressive self is only real because we as a society have made it real. So once we imagine it and give it a name and role, we cause it to be real. Consider the following dilemma: as far as we know, ‘Jennifer’ is a daughter, student, and friend. She is a Christian, an Australian, and only speaks English. We know of Jennifer as a kind girl. She was taught to express herself politely and has never in our presence made a condescending mark towards anyone. Do all these things point to an authentic Jennifer (where an authentic Jennifer would be one who acts in a way that reinforces her status as a kind, Christian friend and daughter), or is an authentic Jennifer the Jennifer beyond the labels and concepts, that is, the human that people happen to refer to by ‘Jennifer’? We will return to the Jennifer dilemma later.

Studies of contemporary Western culture are informed by conceptions of human agency, which emphasize individuality as the principal theme of personhood. Although the prevailing myth of individualism is that in eighteenth-century Europe, a few courageous men of reason fought against religious repression to set the individual free to find and express his authentic self, the development of individualism was gradual and much more complex than this myth suggests. The Enlightenment movement’s demand for liberty re-defined human beings as individual entities rather than as role-bearers in the system of social relations. People slowly gained an increasing awareness of what Charles Taylor (1989) refers to as “inwardness” or “internal space”, where the authentic self can be separated from public performance and perception. Furthermore, the growth of commerce created an expanding middle class of merchants, well-off farmers and urban craftsmen who advocated for private property and individual wealth accumulation (Foley, 2017). Underlying these developments was Christianity’s revolutionary idea: “we are all equal because we are all brothers” (Puyol, 2019). Although this concept of fraternity promised that every individual human being (whether child, woman, foreigner, poor, disabled, non-Christian, etc.) was equal in the eyes of God, fraternity did not translate into political equality because Christian equality was about the equal worth of souls and not the equal rights of men on earth. By the nineteenth century, these commercial, intellectual and religious movements and ideas promoted individualism and led to the development of capitalist entrepreneurism and Romantic individualism, where in the latter, the quest to find an authentic self translated into rejecting materialism and society and living solitarily in nature. A similar albeit mass version of Romantic individualism occurred in the 1960s, which Taylor (1998) called “an individuating revolution”. 1960s global youth culture produced expressive individualism, which rejected conformity and authority in order to discover or find your ‘true self’. The revolution promoted self-expression, equality and sensuality, but rather than simply being an excuse for self-indulgent hippyism (which 1960s youth culture is usually accused of), it was a way of shifting from the systems and times that suppressed individuality and creativity, resulting in the emergence of the Age of Authenticity.

Critics argue that the pursuit of authenticity and individualism has resulted in cultural decline as the preoccupation on one’s own feelings and attitudes is anti-social and destroys altruism and compassion towards others and community. Christopher Lasch (1979) has claimed that there are similarities between authenticity and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which are both characterized by self-indulgence and a lack of empathy. For Bloom (1987), the preoccupation with authenticity has made the minds of the youth “narrower and flatter” (p. 61), while Bell (1976) argues that the traditional economic processes, “based on a moral system of reward rooted in Protestant sanctification of work” (p. 38), have lost their legitimacy and are replaced by hedonism and the search for extreme experience or “kicks” and “highs”. The obsession with authenticity has also led to a time where we are losing our sense of truth and reality. Criticism of public institutions has gone so far as to legitimize alternative ways of knowing, where conspiracy theories and alternative medicine, schooling and journalism are all part of the larger conversation that characterizes the era of post-truth that we currently live in. On the other hand, as Watts (2019) states, there is a kind of nobility in the pursuit of authenticity. It is now common to tell children to follow their dreams and pursue their passions rather than stick to a dreary job all their lives that we believe would at odds with their true selves. There is also a kind of desperation to have authenticity around us, from our expectations of honesty and transparency in our closest relationships to how our leaders present themselves, for there is “nothing more despicable than a person who isn’t genuine…who betrays their feelings in order to save face.” There is also a tendency in Western society to avoid the monotonous nature of ritual, “which keeps us chained to the past.” (Watts, 2019). Meanwhile, the romanticisation of romantic love has stayed with us because it feels spontaneous and unmediated, which shows how authenticity has turned into the new cultural currency.

The emphasis on authenticity and transparency in Western culture sits well with the philosophical school of Existentialism. Existentialism arose with the collapse of the idea that philosophy itself can provide substantive norms and rules for existing by specifying particular ways of living, while authenticity was advocated as the approach where I can engage in my life as my own (Crowell, 2020). The need to live an authentic life to live meaningfully adds another important layer in moral evaluations. For instance, by keeping my promise, I act in accordance to a duty to others, and if I keep acting so because it is my duty, than according to Kant, I am acting morally because I act for the sake of duty. But, from the existentialist perspective, by simply keeping my promise out of duty’s sake makes the moral act of promise keeping inauthentic because I am only keeping the promise because I believe it is required and expected of moral people to do so. To keep my promise authentically, I need to take ownership of this choice and commit myself to the act of keeping my promise because it is my own decision and action, and not because it is socially or morally required of me. Only then can I succeed in being myself authentically. By choosing to do things on my own account, I recover myself from being alienated and absorbed into the anonymous self that uncritically engages in the world. Thus, there is a kind of integrity in acting authentically: I can either occupy a role and time that was given to me by others and drift in and out of these roles while feeling separated from myself, or I can autonomously commit myself and become whatever I choose.

In classical China, there was a similar prevailing interest in how to live an authentic life. The Daoist school, for example, actively rejected the Confucian idea that the good life comes from embodying traditional social norms and rites and instead focused on taking care of one’s own interest. Harisson (2013) refers to this as the ethical egoist argument, where the right thing to do is to pursue one’s own interests and maximize one’s own good. Because, it is argued, we are naturally inclined to prioritize our own interests, it follows that following societal ethical recommendations about doing the right thing distorts our selfish nature and therefore compromises our authentic selves. But, whereas the Confucian scholar Xunzi, who also recognized human selfish nature, argued that it is up to moral education and rigorous practice of rites to correct human behavior, the Daoist Yang Zhu claimed that to live an ethical life, we must maintain what is genuine in our lives by avoiding artificial moral and social obligations. So, rather than finding the good life in appropriate social relationships and roles, we should actively retreat from our social life and get rid of material goods and power. Thus, the best life can be can be lived away from society and in harmony with the natural flow of Dao (the Way). An authentic life can be found in the natural world, beside rivers and mountains, which is more conducive to living authentically, that is, as our true selves stripped from others’ expectations and from our artificial social roles.

So, there are various ways of answering the Jennifer dilemma. For the Confucians, Jennifer’s authentic self comes from how others see her and the roles she is expected to play in her social relationships. Jennifer is only Jennifer because she is a daughter to her mother, an Australian national, and a Christian follower. She becomes more herself the more she honorably practices these roles and carries out the appropriate rites and rituals associated with her identity. Existentialists would argue that she is only truly Jennifer if she autonomously adopts her role as daughter, Christian, etc. as her own. If she is simply following these roles mindlessly because others expect her to, then she is harming her authentic self and will never find the satisfaction of taking control over her own existence. Finally, the ethical egoist Daoists would claim that an authentic Jennifer can only be found if she rejects her social roles and obligations as daughter, Australian citizen, Christian. Only once she retreats from the socially constructed ‘Jennifer’ can the real, authentic Jennifer live in harmony and simplicity.

The Confucian Way 12: Wu-wei, the Art of Doing Nothing

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The Confucian texts show us that we can learn from water, especially still water because the stillness of water provides us with a mirror to reflect on the nature of reality, and in this reflection, we have the opportunity to embody stillness and calmness of mind. The importance of water and stillness highlights the importance of wu-wei, the art of doing nothing. Translated as effortless action, skilled inactivity, or action through non-action, wu-wei calls for passivity, quietude, and the absence of contentiousness in order to smoothly accommodate the other. Such action takes discipline and strength, much like how a professional swimmer effortlessly glides across the water. Thus, rather than interpreting wu-wei as a strategy to control and influence others indirectly, wu-wei can literally mean doing nothing, waiting, and reflecting as still water.