‘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.
As opposed to dualism, Chinese philosophy is characterised by various systems of thought that synthesize opposing views to create a holistic way of thinking. However, this does not necessary have to align with the strong “holist” position, which argues that Chinese thought lacks any concept of dualism and is radically different from Western thought. For example, Roger Ames (1993) and François Jullien (2007) both adopt the strong holist view by claiming that the idea of the body as a material substance was foreign to the Chinese: “the body is a ‘process’ rather than a ‘thing,’ something ‘done’ rather than something one ‘has’” (Ames, 1993, p. 168). Put simply, there is no perfectly clear divide between mind and body: in classical Chinese, there is not even a single word that corresponds to ‘body’ or ‘mind’ alone. Instead, body and mind were understood by terms such as xin心 (the heart-mind) that suggest the physical body and mind are like two points on a spectrum, with some features potentially falling on one side of the line or the other, rather than being split apart as either mind or body. It should be noted, as Slingerland (2013) does, that the holistic perspective is not unique to China or the “East”. Aristotle, for instance, based his theory of ethics on ‘virtues’, a type of intelligent and emotional capacity that was linked to both the body and mind (Wiggins, 1975).
Generally, Chinese thought is known to accommodate contrasting views, especially with the emergence of the three schools of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This article specifically looks at the relationship between Confucianism and Daoism, and how Chinese thought manages to unite these two distinct philosophies.
Daoism (sometimes transliterated as ‘Taoism’) is an encompassing school of thought native to China that is based on a range of philosophical texts and thinkers, the most famous being the Dao De Jing (The Book of the Way and Its Power) – possibly from the 4th century BCE. Often linked with naturalistic or mystical religions, Daoist concepts are based on the teachings of Laozi (老子, meaning “Old Master”) who is said to have lived during the same time as Confucius. Laozi may have been the author of the Dao De Jing which is also known as the Laozi. While Daoism seems to contrast Confucianism by leaning towards mysticism, it is usually allied with Confucius’ thought compared to other philosophical traditions like Mohism and Legalism, for example. Fraser (2010) states that the Confucian idea that li (ritual propriety or ceremony), a traditional code specifying behaviour appropriate for individuals according to their social roles, was disputed by Mozi (the founder of Mohism) who did not identify with high culture and found ritual to be an unconvincing moral guide. The founder of Legalism, Shi Huangdi, also turned away from Confucian teachings by arguing that instead of obligations, people were driven by self-interest and it was the job of the state to control and punish those who did not abide by its laws (Eno, 2010).
Daoism emerged when people began protesting the growing despotism and rigidity of rules during Confucius’s time, and arguably shared some emphasis with Confucianism on applying principles to this world rather than on speculating abstract thought. But, instead of being an “ally” to Confucianism, as Schipper (1993) argues, Daoism largely represented an alternative, critical perspective that diverged from Confucian thought.
One example is in relation to concepts of identity and selfhood. The self in Confucianism is described by Ho (1995) as a ‘subdued self’ as individuals are not encouraged to pursue their own ambitions and desires, but to respond to social requirements and obligations. In The Analects, this is expressed by the term ‘loyalty’ (zhong, 忠) in passage 1.4 when Master Zeng says,
Each day I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?
Loyalty here means not only being faithful to one’s superiors and peers, but to align one’s interests with the social group as a whole. Ritual and patterns of conduct are forms of behaviour that allow each person to form a perfect social communion with others, reinforcing social order and harmony. This idea of selfhood is said to be present in many Confucian societies like Japan where the self is ideally directed towards more immediate social purposes rather than being distinct or individual as in the West (DeVos, 1985). In China, during the May 4th Movement (the 1919 revolution against imperialism and feudalism), intellectuals criticised Confucianism and its ideas of selfhood as being paternalistic, conservative, and even oppressive. Restricting one’s conduct for ‘social harmony’ was said to leave little room for openly expressing emotions, feelings, and individuality that may counter social norms and expectations. According to Ho (1995), such restriction even in father-son relationships, which is said to be largely marked by distance, tension, and even antagonism as each person sticks to their assigned roles (for a critique of this view, see the ‘son-covering-father’ story in the Confucian Weekly Bulletin), suggests that the Confucian ideal of selfhood is flawed in reality.
In that case, whereas Confucians stated that individuals should conform to social norms, Daoism became popular by emphasising the independence of individuals. Instead of social conventions, hierarchical organisation, and government rule, people should live their lives simply, spontaneously, and in harmony with nature. In the Dao De Jing, many passages use the term “self-so” (ziran, 自然) to describe a self that simply is, without any intention to be so. To live in a way that conforms to the Dao, human beings need to refrain from planning, striving, and purposeful action, returning to an animal-like responsiveness of acting without plans or effort (Eno, 2010). The best way to do this is through selflessness, which means to “exhibit the plainness of undyed cloth; embrace the uncarved block. Be little self-regarding and make your desires few.” (passage 19). By getting rid of social regulation and desires for status, beauty, and wealth, more room is made for simply being: existing in a detached tranquillity that joins the harmonious rhythms of Nature and the Dao.
Confucianism sets up a system where human beings are active moral agents. People plan, educate, develop, and theorise about what is the correct way of behaving and interacting with others to set up a harmonious way of being. Daoism, on the other hand, opposes this view. As another famous Daoist text, the Zhuangzi (chapter 8), states: while Confucians think they can understand, name, and control reality, Daoists find such endeavours to be a source of frustration. The Dao is the unnameable reality that cannot be grasped by the mind, though people should aim to set one’s actions in accordance with the transcendental unity that is all.
Despite having such vibrant philosophical and religious traditions like Confucianism and Daoism, which often contradict each other, there has never been a war of religions in China. One of the reasons why is because of the holistic perspective found in most of Chinese thought. One of the benefits of this is that unlike in Europe, political leaders in East Asia were for the most part unable to appropriate or justify violence based on religious difference since people were able to incorporate a range of opposing views. While not unique to China or the “East”, there are lessons to be learnt from inclusivism and alternative knowledge, especially in the globalising world.
This video shows a talk held by the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University in 2010. Featuring Tu Weiming, Harvard-Yenching Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy and of Confucian Studies at Harvard University, and Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, the subject of discussion is Confucian-Islamic cooperation in a globalising world.
Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
The meaning of the word ‘humanism’ refers to the significance of human beings in society. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1949) stated, humanism “not only states the question of the human person but also that of society…of the relations between men” (p. 23). Thus, Humanism is about the development of the individual, and about maintaining good relations between people. The emphasis on society is shown in educational thought. For instance, in nineteenth century Germany, teachers of Greek and Latin were called umanista as they taught studia humanitatis or humanistic studies, including literature and history (Kristeller, 1955). Humanities faculties in today’s universities have kept this namesake as most areas of study in these fields are concerned with human nature, behaviour, and action. Subjects like philosophy and politics, for example, reflect on the meaning of humanity and the potential for human beings to achieve dignity, freedom, and significance (Manzo, 1997). However, while these traditions in the West are well-explored in the literature, Eastern philosophies such as Daoism and Sufism are often thought to focus on the supernatural and mystical. This article examines rational humanism from an Eastern perspective by focusing on Islamic and Confucian thought.
The humanist tradition of prioritising the human being’s existence, duties, and potentials is found throughout classical Islam (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). For instance, human beings are thought to be filled with God-consciousness, living to fulfil the task of serving God in their lifetimes. The Qur’an says that God “(is) the One Who (has) made you successors (of) the earth and raised some of you above others (in) ranks, so that He may test you in what He has given you.” (Surah Al-An’am, 6:165). A human’s task is to serve God and take responsibility for their reason. So even though humans are not the absolute rulers of the world, as agents of God, they are responsible for establishing good relations with God, other humans, and the earth. This involves setting up societies based on human values of freedom, peace, and tolerance.
Tan and Ibrahim (2017) also point out that Islam’s ideology of humanism gives people the hope of achieving moral perfection when guided by religion. However, the religious aspect of this statement should not be overemphasised. Although God plays a central role in Islam, the way to God and moral perfection involves cultivating human skills, including reason, empathy for others, and knowledge. Adab is an important Islamic concept here. Abi-Mershed (2009) states that adab originally meant rules of conduct in social and political relationships, but later by the eighth and eleventh century referred to ethical ways of learning and engaging in the world. Through adab, humans can achieve self-actualisation, develop peace in the world, and be closer to the moral perfection of God.
In the Confucian tradition, human relationships and right education are central to harmony and order. As the Analects states, Confucius’s son, Boyu (伯魚), said that his father taught no secret doctrine. He only asked if his son had learnt poetry and the rites (16.13). In that case, learning poetry, music, and rites among a community of friends are important rituals for attaining humanity. Throughout the Analects, it describes how Confucius tried to apply the right pronunciation to the reading of poetry, and order sections of songs in the right order (Analects, sections 7 and 9, for example). Like Islam, the potential to develop moral perfection comes from organising society according to the correct principles, and developing human character through knowledge.
The spiritual side of Confucianism is debated. For instance, some scholars note that central to Confucianism is the concept of tian or Heaven. In the Analects 7.23, Confucius states that Heaven is the author of his virtue, and only Heaven understands him (14.35). Tu Wei-ming (2001) even introduced the idea of an ‘anthropocosmic’ system to describe a worldview where the human relationship to the world is one where tian is in perfect harmony with ren (persons), forming the greater triad of tian–ren-earth relations. By existing in such a system, human beings are able to achieve moral goodness through the practice of “praiseworthy behaviours, thoughts, and actions of sage-kings” (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017, p. 5). In other words, attaining harmony with tian and human beings is an ongoing and dynamic process where culturally, socially, and cosmically, human beings can be transformed.
On the other hand, while this cosmological aspect of Confucian humanism is discussed, Kato (2016) states that Confucius avoided discussing themes such as human nature and tian in detail. Confucius’s original vision was in the practical and present, while later Confucian scholars extended his doctrines to the metaphysical and spiritual. What this means is that the original Confucian teachings can be understood in ideas about teaching and learning or for Confucius, the here and now.
Western humanism developed from the practice of rhetoric of speech in ancient Athens. In a similar way, Confucianism uses li or private and public ritual to develop social harmony and self-cultivation. Li can be thought of as a system of language and body that communicates with others. Rituals express complex emotions towards ancestors, parents, colleagues, etc., that, accompanied by sincere feelings and intentions, send messages that words alone are unable to express. For example, taking part in tea and coffee ceremonies in Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, and Serbian cultures, sends messages of respect, hospitality, and willingness to take part in social engagement.
Teaching ritual practices is a key part of Confucian education, and it places humanist values of social relationships and human capabilities at its centre. Rather than attain moral perfection through divine intervention or luck, human actions through li are what leads to learning. The Great Learning uses the analogy of “carving and grinding” when discussing moral cultivation (section 3). In general, learning is about repeating, internalising, and applying knowledge. In moral cultivation, a similar process takes place, where self-reflection, correction, and interaction with the teacher places ritual and learning within a communitarian framework (Tu, 1985; Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). With a sincere heart-mind, one can begin to understand what is to be learnt by expressing themselves with the right words. This contrasts ideas about learning that are passive and require constant repetition and remembering. Learning in Confucianism involves investigating things, imagination, and rationality. The Great Learning highlights that students, “encountering anything at all in the world…must build on what they already know of principle and probe still deeper, until they reach its limit” (cited in Gardner, 2007, p. 7-8). The student is required to dedicate themselves to questioning, problem-solving, and in Confucius’s case, learning from the old: to “review what is old as to know what is new” (Doctrine of the Mean, section 27).
Aside from the Islamic emphasis on God-consciousness, Confucianism and classical Islam both situate human beings as central agents that are required to perform moral duties in their lives. Perfection is possible if humans take part in moral education that encourages people to use their faculties of reasoning to achieve adab and li, which involves self-actualisation and building dynamic relationships with others. Such principles are increasingly relevant in the West as higher education learning and teaching becomes commercialised through vocational workplace training.
In this audio clip, The Philosopher’s Zone podcast interviews professor in philosophy Roger Ames on his thoughts on Confucian role ethics. Ames discusses the Western idea of individualism versus the Chinese relationally-constituted self, and what it means to be a person today.
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