One of the more arresting claims Aristotle makes in his famous exploration of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics is that you can’t be friends with god. His reasoning is that friendship requires equality, and the gods are vastly superior to us. The argument is a plausible one: it seems difficult or impossible to be friends with a boss, mentor, or teacher in quite the way that one is friends with one’s peers and equals. Indeed we might say that friendship is distinctive precisely in being non-hierarchical. If I am truly your friend, what I am to you is exactly what you are to me.
This thought has been supposed to cause trouble for the followers of Confucius. Confucianism was China’s most influential philosophical tradition for well over two millennia. Its ethical teaching has at its center several hierarchical relationships that were intrinsically bound up with forms of propriety, including rituals. The second most famous Confucian thinker Mencius (372-289 BC) identifies five ‘cardinal relations’, four of which are clearly hierarchical: ruler and subject, father and son, old and young, and husband and wife (Aristotle too sees the latter as an unequal relationship). The odd relationship out is friendship. Friendship seems to fit badly with the Confucian idea of modeling human relationships on family bonds. One possible comparison, which sees friends as having a bond like that between older and younger brother, would not secure the symmetry we’re looking for. Friendship is also anomalous among the cardinal relations in lacking ritual prescriptions, and in being voluntary. You don’t choose your father or (at least in ancient China) your ruler, but you do choose your friends.
Confucius (551-479 BC) would also have had some reason to think that friendships should be unequal. For him the purpose of friendship is the cultivation of virtue. It seems a natural thought that we should therefore befriend those more excellent than us, so as to learn from them. Yet like Aristotle, Confucius insists on symmetry in true friendship, advising, “do not have as a friend anyone who is not as good as you are.”
It’s been argued that in light of this latter rule, Confucius himself could never have made friends at all. His disciples were certainly dear to him, as we see from a passage in his Analects, when he openly grieves for one of them who has died. But does that mean he was this disciple’s friend? David Hall and Roger Ames would say not. In their book Thinking Through Confucius, they asserted, “Confucius is peerless and hence, friendless. To assert that Confucius had friends would diminish him.” His relation with his students was arguably more akin to a hierarchical, familial one, as shown by the fact that he referred to them as his xiaozi, meaning ‘little masters’, or ‘sons’.
In keeping with the equality of friendship, Confucius identifies trust (xin) as its distinctive attitude, whereas a familial relationship would be characterized by an asymmetrical virtue such as filial piety (xiao). Confucius would thus discourage parents from trying to befriend their children, a common trend in modern-day family life. Just as a father cannot be the teacher of his son because their relation is too intimate, so being overly familiar is no way to be familial.
But how exactly do I cultivate excellence by befriending someone who is equal to me? After all it would seem that I have nothing to learn from my moral peer, at least not in the way Confucius describes in this passage from the Analects: “in strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.” Instead, it must somehow be that sharing with equal others in the excellent moral life, or at least in the pursuit of virtue, is itself a spur to the good life, or even a constitutive part of it.
Confucius seems to have been convinced that this is so. For one thing, no less than other relationships, friendship gives us an opportunity to exercise virtue. Confucius himself aimed “to bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young,” and in advising us on examining our own character he speaks of reflecting on whether we have always kept our word with our friends. Friendship is also a source of delight, as is made clear in this line from the opening passage of the Analects: “to have friends [peng] come from distant quarters: is this not a source of enjoyment?” Yanguo He informs us that the word peng has a strong implication of ‘like-mindedness’, and may especially indicate the bonds between the students gathered around one master.
This is a hint towards a deeper importance of friends, namely that they are embarked with us upon a joint project of self-cultivation. We do not improve morally by looking to friends as a model for imitation, as we might with a superior. Rather, our affection for them is based on a recognition that they share with us our greatest pursuit. To illustrate this idea, the scholar Xiufen Lu gave the example of the tale of Bo Ya, a musician whose mastery was fully appreciated only by his friend Zhong Ziqi. When Zhong died, Bo Ya smashed his instrument, on the grounds that playing without being understood is pointless.
Likewise, Confucius occasionally complained about being unappreciated by the morally inept. This may come as a surprise, but is simply the counterpart of the joy he took in associating with those who shared his values. Birds of a feather really do flock together, ideally by taking wing towards the heights of virtue.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.
*This original article can be found here.
The shape and meaning given to physical bodies constitutes the primary way that Western societies organize themselves socially. Although in Western thought, one may understand the body to be inessential compared to the importance placed on the rational, disembodied subject; physical bodies, as Nigerian feminist philosopher Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) says, “are always social bodies” (p. xii). What she means by this phrase is that society in the West tends to be organized by a hierarchy that differentiates between the kind of bodies present so that biology is thought to equal social destiny. Difference from the standard male subject is expressed as degeneration or “a deviation from the original type” (p. 1) because women/females are defined as the Other: the antithesis to men/males who represent the norm. In this self/other distinction, which is central to Western metaphysics, there is a lack of space for women to articulate themselves as subjects. Luce Irigaray (1985), for example, stated that “I am a being sexualized as feminine” (p. 148) is not able to be articulated because women are socialized to accept the subordinate positions offered to them within patriarchal discourse.
A key aspect to this system of organization is the emphasis placed on Cartesian dualism or the mind/body difference, which categorically separates material and mental substances as two separate things. Certain valuational schemas are encouraged by this difference, namely, that the body, often linked to the female/maternal/natural, is thought to be inferior to reason and the mind, a domain that has been traditionally reserved for males. One outcome from such a schema is that gender becomes an oppressive hierarchical dichotomy in which women cannot be anything other than the material negative to the rational man (Coetzee & Halsema, 2018). Another outcome is that with the body devalued and associated with death and deception, patriarchy is cut off from nature so that the universe of language and symbols “has no roots in the flesh” (Irigaray, 1993, p. 16). With humans (man) sitting at the top of the natural hierarchy, nature and the environment have long been considered to be outside of moral consideration. The result has been an unsustainable relationship with nature as environmental destruction from Western-centric development policies are accepted as inevitable for the price of progress and modernity, even if this has meant excessive exploitation of natural resources, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, freshwater shortages, and damage to the ozone layer.
Examples of Alternative Value Systems
For Confucian scholar Tu Wei-Ming (1992), the dialectic of Enlightenment that started with the celebration of rationality before moving to the Faustian drive to seek total dominion over nature and other human beings is what eventually led to our current situation, impelling us to “raise the agonizing question: Are human beings a viable species?” (p. 88). However, it should be noted that gender and body as a system based on division and hierarchy between man/reason and woman/nature is not a concept that is indigenous to many cultures and was generally imposed on societies through Western colonial rule. In Nigeria, for instance, bodily differences were not hierarchical in precolonial Yoruba culture (Oyewumi, 1997; Dogo, 2014). Instead of putting women in a single group characterized by shared interests, desires, and social positions, people were classified into social groups depending on the roles they chose and the kind of people they were. Thus, a subject in Yorubaland was not primarily thought of as a man or a woman, but rather a trader, hunter, cook, farmer, or ruler—all of which were equally accessible to every citizen. Oyewumi (2002) further describes the traditional Yoruba family as non-gendered since power within the family was diffused and not gender-specific. The main organizing principle within the family was seniority. Unlike sex, seniority as an organizing principle is context-dependent as “no one is permanently in a senior or junior position; it all depends on who is present in any given situation” (Oyewumi, 1997, p. 42). As a result, identity in Yoruba culture was understood as fluid, relational, contextual, and shifting. Seniority is only comprehensible as part of relationships and is not “rigidly fixated on the body nor dichotomized” (p. 42), whereas gender as it is featured in Western culture fixes power relations by confining certain categories of people (women) to limited roles and spaces.
Although there are many different interpretations concerning the status of women in China depending on which aspect of Chinese culture one is studying (see Ortner, 1974), the differentiation between reason and nature is not indigenous to the Chinese-world view. Without simplifying Chinese ideas of non-dualistic thinking and dynamic processes, Chinese cultural heritage has a lot to say about physical nature. For instance, self-cultivation as a form of mental and physical catering that involves exercises such as rhythmic bodily movements and breathing techniques in the form of Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese art form. Chinese medicine is also not only concerned with curing diseases and preventing sickness, but with restoring vital energy (qi) that is essential for maintaining the body in a healthy state. As Tu (1992) notes, because the level of qi required for each individual is dependent on sex, age, weight, height, occupation, time, and circumstances, the wholeness of the body is a situational and dynamic process rather than a static structure.
Values about undifferentiated wholeness and completeness are foundational to Chinese philosophy. On the surface, philosophy in China seems to be exclusively concerned with issues of correct behaviour, familial obedience, political order, and world peace, but as Wing-tsit Chan (1963) suggests, a more comprehensive characterization of Chinese philosophy and humanism is “not the humanism that denies or slights a Supreme Power, but one that professes the unity of man and Heaven” (p. 3). In contrast to Western humanism, which is based on secularism and devalues things that are associated with nature, the spiritual and naturalist dimensions in Chinese thought are incorporated into a comprehensive vision of the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Even the aesthetic components of music and dance that Confucius included in his curriculum are intimately linked with the ritualised aspect of human-nature relatedness. Kim (2006) highlights that the noble person (junzi) is one that is awakened to the beauty of humanness and the universe, and “it is because of this awareness that he ‘sets his mind on the Way [dao, 到], depends on virtue [de, 德], relies on ren [人] and enjoys the arts [you yu yi]’” (p. 111; Analects, 7.6).
Moreover, the Confucian and Daoist emphasis on spontaneity and living in harmony and natural ease is highlighted by both the life story of Confucius, who at seventy followed his heart’s desire without overstepping his bounds (Analects, 2.4), and the Daoist notion of following the Way. In chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing, it states that “Human follows the way of the earth; the earth follows the way of the heaven; the heaven follows Dao; Dao follows the way of nature” (translation by Wang, 2013, p. 70). Spontaneity and following the way of nature means to seek the growth of the whole and cultivate one’s relationship with animate and inanimate things. To do so is to maintain the underlying harmony that interfuses between man and man, and between man and things (Chang, 1963). For modern Confucianism, attempts to revitalise the tradition of human-nature relatedness can be seen through the concept of ‘heart-mind compassion’ (buren ren zhixin, 不忍人之 心) and ‘unity with all things under Heaven’ (yu wanwu yiti, 與萬物一體). Just like one’s responsibility towards filial relationships and society, humans are believed to have a moral duty to recognise the independent value of nourishing the Heaven and Earth in order to maintain nature, an essential component to living in a healthy human community. Thus, rather than domination, caring for ‘all things under Heaven’ is a moral demand that humans are required to respond to.
The Problem with ‘Sustainability’
However, applying these theories to contemporary life is difficult. The concept of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ is subject to many interpretations and takes on different meanings depending on the interest group and society involved. Traditionally, the definition provided by the United Nations, which states that sustainability is the ability to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, is used without critically examining the meaning of ‘needs’. For instance, it is unclear if needs refer to maintaining quality harvests over time or improving human living standards in which case protecting natural resources and the environment is only part of the story. From an anthropological point of view, sustainability should concern maintaining social and cultural systems (aboriginal skills and knowledges) and applying these skills to solve real world problems.
Combining all of these under the term ‘intergenerational equity’, American lawyer Edith Brown Weiss (1989) argued that sustainability should be understood as a holistic term that involves the human species passing on the natural and cultural environment in an at least comparable condition to that in which it was received. But with short-term thinking that characterises political and development decision-making, there has been a widening gap between necessary measures to protect the natural and cultural environment and policy. International law has struggled to respond effectively as most environmental agreements either fall into non-binding declarations or preambles of multilateral environmental agreements. Governments like the United States have shown how easy it is for states to pull out of such agreements without any serious ramifications. Furthermore, the idea of passing on the current environment in ‘an at least comparable condition’ has been interpreted by some to mean that all that matters in the end is that the aggregate gains outweigh the aggregate losses. So, if a project generates more wealth than the monetary costs of environmental damage, then the project should be able to go ahead since the loss of the environmental is made up for by the wealth that is generated (Beder, 2000). For utilitarian philosopher David Pearce (1991), the equivalent of this principle in practice would be to allow the Amazon forest to be removed so long as the proceeds from removing it “are reinvested to build up some other form of capital” (p. 2).
These are not equitable solutions for local communities or the environment. Such ‘sustainable’ development policies are strongly influenced by economists of the neoclassical school and only reinforce existing inequalities. Robert Bullard (1993), professor of sociology at the University of California, claims that people of colour in the United States “are disproportionately affected by industrial toxins, dirty air and drinking water, and the location of noxious facilities” (p. 25) since polluting facilities are often placed in working class areas. Women and girls are also disproportionately impacted by climate change. By constituting two-thirds of the world’s poor, women are more reliant on natural resources which means that the scarcity of these resources makes it more difficult for women to support their families and communities. The estimation that in Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring water home puts this considerable toll into perspective (Zoloth, 2017). Despite being disproportionately affected, government programs and financing mechanisms that are aimed at environmental sustainability are often not gender-informed. A 2012 assessment of the Climate Development Mechanism found that only five of 3,864 projects had gender considerations within their programming, which shows that there is a clear inconsistency between the ethic of sustainable development put forward by intergovernmental agreements, and the way that economists and policy-makers are achieving these goals.
Western religious and cultural discourses have been pointed to as a reason for current environmental problems. Oyewumi’s writings point out that the reason over nature hierarchy and the repression of the female/maternal is neither inevitable nor universal. The fact that development policies that are directed at environmental sustainability continue to negatively impact the lower class, women, and people of colour highlights that what is needed is a cross-continental dialogue between scholars and philosophers who can put forward alternative perspectives to Western culture’s oppositional logic in order to produce enriching and original insights. There is also a need to put these principles into action through enforceable policies by both communities and states. In part two of this article series, sustainability from a Confucian perspective will be discussed as well as a critical overview of China’s recent environmental projects.
‘The Enlightenment’ broadly refers to the intellectual and scientific progress in eighteenth century Europe that was inspired by the Scientific Revolution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period, many intellectuals started to develop a worldview that was critical of religious authority. Belief in miracles and faith were no longer accepted as adequate ways of explaining how the world functioned and came to be. This undermined not only the geocentric understanding of the cosmos as Galileo proved that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but also marked a shift in the way mainstream academia thought about human evolution, from the goal-directed explanation of Lamarck to Darwin’s natural selection theory.
In his essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), Immanuel Kant wrote that this social and spiritual development of society (Aufklärung) symbolised the rational coming of humankind and a release from self-enforced immaturity. Immaturity here refers to the inability to use independent thought without the guidance of another. There were many factors that contributed to the culture of rationality and individualism in Europe, including the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) during which people started to question religion and warfare, as well as The Age of Exploration, in which discoveries in the New World exposed Europe to other philosophies and cultures. However, one of the less discussed influences on Europe’s intellectual history is contact with 17th century China. As Franklin Perkins (2004) notes, by disregarding this aspect of the development of secularism in Europe,
We strengthen the illusion that European thought is a causa sui, growing up of itself, without interaction with the rest of the world. This illusion of an independent Europe allows for easy distinctions between “us” and “them”, “East” and “West,” at the same time that it obscures the historicity of those distinctions (p. x).
By the end of the sixteenth century, interaction between Europe and China was already underway as Jesuit missionaries engaged in cultural and scientific exchange: one of the earlier examples of public diplomacy. For Roman Catholic missionary, Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the journey to China was considered “the dream of Jerusalem” after many were unable to make the long sea journey around the Indian ocean. As a distant place that explorers considered as ‘waiting’ to be discovered, China became the ‘Jerusalem of Asia’, a place that would provide a new map of spiritual progress that would unite the world.
One of the main developments from these visits though was not so much the expansion of biblical thought, but the development of the pre-Adamism movement. In short, this was the belief that humans existed before Adam. By studying Chinese chronology, which showed that China was ruled by emperor Fu Xi (around 2950 BCE) long before the biblical flood (2349 BCE), many writers asserted alternative theories to the biblical version of world history. Dutch scholar Isaac Vossius, for instance, claimed that Chinese chronology, covering more than 4,000 years, was an accurate source for showing that the dates of the Hebrew Bible could have been wrong. Biblical events like the flood were increasingly considered local events that only happened to the Jews and no longer as universally valid or applicable.
Writers like Voltaire expressed similar thoughts. In his encyclopaedic entry on ‘history’, Voltaire pointed to Chinese historiography as a primeval and reliable source that recorded events that he thought probably did take place. Without mention of gods or miracles, China stood as a model for secular universal history, and even managed to feature notable characters like Confucius, who Voltaire described as a sage transmitting “the purest ideas that human nature unassisted by revelation can form of the supreme being” (1759, p. 23). The discovery of Chinese chronology ultimately provoked many authors to question the credibility of Biblical authority, starting a conversation on the role of the supernatural in historical inquiry, and whether there should be a division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ history.
It should be noted that in many cases the Jesuit and missionary writings that attempted to describe China in theory and practice either over-exaggerated praise for China or interpreted Chinese history and ethics from a Christian point of view. Vossius’s writings are a prime example. Demonstrating his strong interest and admination of China, he regarded China as a real life Platonic republic ruled by philosopher kings such as Confucius. For Vossius, not only was it a place free from war, the Chinese were one of the most advanced and productive people, writing in one the oldest languages and accomplishing in areas like medicine, architecture, and music long before any other nation advanced in these fields (see Vossius, 1685, p. 57-58).
Study of Confucianism led many to believe that Chinese philosophy also represented a universal morality. While failing to mention God as the supreme origin of moral law, Confucianism was still considered a superior way of being that could align with many Christian beliefs. Jesuit Alvarez Semedo (1585-1658) considered Confucian virtues such as ren to be equal to the Christian virtues of piety (piedad) and humanity (humanidad). Unlike the pagans, Semedo (1642) argued that Confucianists still worshiped some supreme force (Tao – the Way; also Tian – Heaven as the moral universe) without comparing it with other beings. Translations of major works such as the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong) and the Analects (Lunyu) were interpreted in ways where the authors highlighted similarities between Christianity and Confucianism. The common phrase ‘who offends against Heaven’ in Chinese texts was changed to ‘who sins against Heaven’, as ‘sin’ was more appropriate to Christian understandings of transgression and lawlessness.
It could be said that this encounter with Chinese philosophy and history by the early Jesuits and later writers who would publish books about their experiences in China partly contributed to ideas of progress, rationalism, and history in the West. Very much like the Confucian revivalist movement today, Confucian morality was considered to be the equivalent to Christianity in its emphasis on virtues, order, and harmony. Although these understandings of China would have been a consideration in the development of Enlightenment theories, the exchange had little to do with dialogue. The one-sided explanations of China show how authors are in positions of power to communicate ideas, many of which are based on interests that align with the dominant ideology and political climate. For centuries, writings about China from these encounters would have shaped popular imaginations about the Far East as both ‘exciting’, ‘advanced’, ‘entertaining’, but also as ‘frightening’ and ‘uncivilised’. The paradoxical views of the Chinese and China’s rise continue to impact perceptions of what China is and how it is influencing the world, and so it is important to be aware that these views and depictions never exist in isolation. Theories about the world not only develop within a society, but from contact with the outside world and the perspectives of individuals who write about these engagements.
“Confucian Modernity: The Japanese Experience” World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures, Kyoto, November 3-4 2017
It was in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, in the season when maple trees were turning elegantly red, at the time when the once-a-year exhibition of imperial treasures from Shōsō-in (正倉院) was open, that the 2017 conference of the “World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures” took place. As this Conference focused on “Confucian Modernity: The Japanese Experience in an East Asian context”, scholars from all over the world shared views and visions on the potential and challenges of Confucian Philosophy. Seen as a model for our contemporary world, the conference itself eloquently manifested the Confucian key value “harmony in differences” (hé ér bù tóng 和而不同).
Discussing topics on “Confucian Cultures” in this context certainly acquired a subtle “Japanese” flavor. Kizou Ogura 小倉紀藏 (Kyoto University) presented a brief history of 1,300 years of Japanese Philosophy, from which he deduced a Japanese national spirit as neither materialistic, nor purely spiritual, but what he referred to as “animistic” (more precisely, a kind of “humanistic animism”), constructing an “in-between” world that is both sensuous, and aesthetically ethical. It was Motoori Norinaga本居宣長 (1730-1801) who first appealed for an awareness of Japanese Philosophy that would not simply adopt Chinese Neo-Confucianism. Based on his critical work on The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari源氏物語), Norinaga developed his idea of “mono no aware” (物の哀れ, pathos of things) through a sensuous and sensible touch and feeling towards nature and surroundings, which completely ran against the abstract concept of lǐ 理 (principle) of the Chinese Neo-Confucian tradition. According to Ogura, when Japan adopted Neo-Confucianism as a national agenda in the progress of modernization, which did not truly speak to the Japanese spirit, it was “turmoil and covered with blood”. This perspective was echoed by the presentation on Ōkawa Shūmei’s大川周明(1886-1957) commentary on the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhōng Yōng中庸), by Viren Murthy (University of Wisconsin-Madison). Shūmei was condemned as “Class-A” war criminal in his Tokyo trial in 1945, the only convicted war-criminal who was not a military official.
However, the hybridization of Chinese and Japanese ideas was not always disastrous. As Thomas Kasulis (Ohio State University) addressed in his keynote speech, like combining raspberry and blackberry can produce loganberry, and combining loganberry again with raspberry can produce the most delicious boysenberry, in Japanese history, the philosophy of Inoue Tetsujirō井上哲次郎(1855-1944), for example, is such a “boysenberry”. Tetsujirō did not only adopt the Confucian ideal of “accomplished person” (jūn zǐ 君子), but also transplanted this ideal into the context of Japanese culture, such as “Shintō-based reverence”. The result was a moral system that could be loosely called “Confucian”, but in reality was a uniquely interesting hybrid that has been partially accepted and partially lost.
Contrary to the Japanese reaction to Confucianism, which manifested the necessity of renovation, the Korean experience of Neo-Confucianism was one of cultural reinforcement, which was even used to develop anti-Japanese attitudes in colonial times. For example, the second keynote speaker, Kim Tae-Chang金泰昌 (Tonyang Forum/Tongyang Newspaper Co.), argued from his personal experience of being brought up in a Confucian cultural environment, to promote the “public” dimension of learning and education. According to Kim, a Confucian is, first of all, a learning person, and learning is not simply a private matter, but tends to transform the domain of “heart” (xīn 心) to that of “spirit” (líng 靈).
The official language of this Conference was English but there was a panel that was exclusively for presentations in Chinese with on-spot English translation, which included Lǐ Cún Shān 李存山 (Chinese Academy of Social Science) and Kǒng Dé Lì 孔德立 (Bei Jing Jiao Tong University), who is in fact the 77th descendent of Confucius. Quoting from the Analects and other canons, both talks supported the Confucian moral values that are based upon self-cultivation and human-heartedness especially manifested in loyalty (zhōng 忠) and forgiveness (shù 恕), the conditions upon which “harmony in differences” can truly be realized.
Confucian ideology is, however, strongly challenged by the feminist point of view. Wu Shiu-Ching (National Chung-Cheng University, Taiwan) argued against Confucian misogynistic tendencies, not only in the words of Confucian canons, but also in the etymology of Chinese characters. For example, when one adds the “woman” (女) glyph to rén 仁 (human-heartedness), it becomes nìng 佞, which means “hypocritical” and “flattering”. The President of the Consortium, Roger Ames (Bei Jing University), confirmed that the 2020 conference will be held at Ewha Womans University in Korea, in order to confront and address specifically these questions from a perspective of contemporary Confucian Philosophy.
After the conference, the committee performed a small but sincere “ritual”, on occasion of the birthday of Takahiro Nakajima 中島隆博 (University of Tokyo), featuring sake that was secretly bought from Nakajima’s wife’s brewery! What an amazing surprise for him!
Perhaps, such a little “not-knowing” surprise, a contemporary play on ritual-propriety (lǐ 禮) is indeed an example and celebration of the immediacy and intimacy expressed in “mono no aware”, where we find a thread of convergence with the Confucian key concept rén 仁 (human-heartedness). Etymologically, rén could also mean “kernel”– the innermost part of life which inheres all potential of growth, most vulnerable, yet open and in anticipation of encounters. In this sense, the Japanese tradition does not proscribe, but describes and illuminates Confucian concepts through its subtle reflections of everyday life, i.e. through establishing an aesthetic ethics that focuses on the simple and often overlooked gestures of this life and at this very moment.
A good point to depart from, for our next Confucian journey…
Written by Yi Chen
Assistant Professor of Confucian Philosophy, Bond University
Painting by Zhang Hongnian (张红年). Retrieved from here.
Most humans experience intense emotions throughout their lives, such as love, lust, anger, and grief. In its most general sense, the nature of grief is about feeling pain and sadness. First used in 13th century France, grief is defined as the feeling of injustice, misfortune, and calamity, and derives from grever, which means to “afflict, burden, oppress” (Harper, 2017). In Latin, gravare is something which makes heavy or causes grief, coming from gravis– that which is weighty or heavy. While the expression ‘good grief’ has been used since the 1900s to express surprise or dismay, grief is a deep emotional response or a mental state when reacting to the death of someone or loss of something. Bereavement or mourning, on the other hand, indicates the process of grieving. Although there is no timeframe for grieving, mourning is meant to signify a period when grieving can properly take place.
There are many examples of how grieving takes place, and the expression of grief is culturally specific. In other words, how we experience sadness and pain is influenced by our culture’s rituals, customs, and beliefs. Generally, sobbing at the news of the death of a loved one and the experience of shock and sadness is an example of grief. From the Euro-American view, such an experience can be harmful as it destroys an individual’s assumptive world: the condition of one’s reality is altered as the loss of a loved one disrupts one’s social network and emotional health. Thus, Shear and Smith-Caroff (2002) calls the act of grieving a ‘syndrome’ as grieving often induces a person to be shocked, cry, decline to eat, neglect basic responsibilities, and so on. The extent of which grief can affect one’s life was criticised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), who argued that grief is entirely self-centred and misguided. Since, Epicurus believed that being dead was harmless and we cannot stop death from occurring, the fear of death and sadness for someone’s death is irrational and only harms the griever.
In Chinese philosophy, Zhuang Zhou (370-287 B.C.) had a similar opinion. In the ancient text, the Zhuangzi 莊子, which was written during the late Warring States period, the chapter ‘Perfect Enjoyment’ (至樂) particularly deals with this theme. The story goes that one day, Zhuang Zhou meets with his friend Hui Shi just after Zhuang Zhou’s wife had died. Hui Shi found that Zhuang Zhou was singing joyously and beating on a drum. Astonished, Hui Shi remarked:
“When a wife has lived with her husband, and brought up children, and then dies in her old age, not to wail for her is enough. When you go on to drum on this basin and sing, is it not an excessive (and strange) demonstration?”
Zhang Zhou replied that it is not. Initially, he had been very upset. But after reflecting on the circumstances of her being, and how she came to be through changes in the cosmos- through the intermingling of waste and dark chaos that resulted in change, breath, change again, bodily form, birth, and life- he realised that death represented just another aspect of this cycle. Just as the seasons change, his wife had simply taken part in the process of life. Understanding this, Zhuang Zhou restrained himself and his grief disappeared.
For Confucius, however, grief is not only natural and expected, it is necessary. Although Confucius also suggested looking positively at the transformative stages of life and death, where people should be more concerned about life and care less about the uncertainty of death (Qin & Xia, 2015), ritual and respect were noted to be important factors to consider when reacting to death. As Confucius states in The Analects passage 3.4, “In rites in general, rather than extravagance, better frugality. In funeral rites, rather than thoroughness, better real grief.” Put simply, in following ritual and carrying out the correct mourning practices, one should not be afraid to feel sorrow and confront loss.
In traditional China, ancestor worship was one of the ways which many people could express their grief and sorrow while receiving guidance from those who had passed. The rituals in ancestor worship acted as narratives that connected the family to individuals, their social status, and the land which they once occupied. Researchers from Webster University, Klass and Goss (2003), note that funeral rituals actually developed from Daoism as they were meant to ensure the deceased received what they needed before passing on to the other world. But once Confucianism was popularised in the following dynasties, funeral rites were re-interpreted to fit within a Confucian social framework that represented hierarchy in the family and community. Since the most important family relationship was that of the father and son, and filial piety (xiao, 孝) or respect and obligation was one of the highest regarded virtues, funeral rituals were primarily designed for sons to mourn their fathers. For instance, only the death of a father who had a son merited a full funeral ritual, while all other deaths had only part funerals. Parents whose children had died merited no ritual at all.
Although grieving is culturally monitored in that individuals, families, and communities have rules for how to display and handle emotions of grief, grieving intensively and in ways that transgress ritual was not necessarily prohibited. There is not much information in the Analects on how to respond to those grieving over the death of a loved one, so the passages that describe Confucius’s grief over the death of Yan Hui顏回 are significant. Hui or Yan Hui was one of Confucius’s most celebrated disciples, often portrayed as someone who was wise and dutiful. In passage 6.3, when Duke Ai asked which of Confucius’s disciples loved learning, Confucius replied that it was Yan Hui who never repeated his errors or became agitated. From passages 9.20-9.22, Confucius also describes Yan Hui as never lazy and observant. In that case, when Yan Hui dies Confucius chooses not to hold back on his grief lamenting, “Oh! Tian destroys me! Tian destroys me!” (11.9). When Confucius’s followers state that the Master wails beyond proper bounds, Confucius replies: “Have I? If I do not wail beyond proper bounds for this man, then for whom?” (11.10).
If grief is to be understood as a necessary precondition for the process and ritual of mourning, it is only natural that one expresses emotions that signify sadness, sorrow, or despair. However, to explain Confucius’s expression of grief which went beyond the ‘proper bounds’, it is important to not only consider the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui, but also the attitude towards death that Confucius demonstrates when losing Hui. As Ivanhoe (2002) and Olberding (2004) highlight, the sorrow of Confucius at the death of his disciple was partly attributable to the way in which Hui’s death was wasteful: Hui was a young person who lived in accordance with the Dao, but did not get to live life to his maximum potential. In addition to this, we can understand the relationship of Confucius and Hui by what the David Hall and Roger Ames (1987) call an “actualization of a mode of being” (p. 178), where a superior person realises or creates ritual through personal signification. Put simply, the “mode of being” for Confucius on the death of Yan Hui does not, and cannot, serve as instruction for all but rather shows Confucius reacting to the moment rather than prescribing action for all.
For Confucius, Yan Hui’s death signified not only the loss of a good student and friend, but the closing of developmental avenues for Confucius himself. With the “dramatic and final rupture in the relationship between him and his treasured disciple, Confucius laments over “the Confucius who never was” (Olberding, 2004, p. 294). To understand the phrase “the Confucius who never was”, it should be noted that the Chinese concept of self is inextricably linked to communal relationships. As a result, when one member of a community is lost, other members of the community are affected in ways where their own sense of selves are altered because of the self’s relational nature. Confucius sense of self was altered in that Hui’s death signified the loss of a friend and the loss of a Confucius who could never be as Confucius could no longer learn by interacting with Hui.
Contrasting the traditional view of Confucianism as a mode of philosophy that suppresses individuality and emotions (see Ho, 1995), the practice of grieving in passage 11.9 Analects highlights that there is flexibility in mourning practices. Sometimes it may be appropriate to transgress ritual if it is useful to help one deal with emotional pain and bereavement. Because we live through others just as others influence, shape, and live through us, grief cannot be a matter of theoretical instruction, but an immediate reality.