Part 1: Introduction, and Examination of Basic Confucius Thought and Influence
Section 1: An Introduction
It is perhaps not surprising that, as China becomes an increasingly visible global power, many in the west are viewing it's rise with fear and apprehension. This is perhaps because, unlike, say, the UK and the US, and even Germany, which share common ethical and political ancestry, China is very different. From a cultural, religious, and political perspective, it's norms and mores have been established without overwhelming influence from the likes of ancient Greece and Rome, and the religious practices tend to be more entwined with each other and esoteric, to an extent. America, and the west, in their cultural exportation, has influenced this in recent decades, but Chinese philosophy still has numerous stances and thoughts of incommensurability with common western philosophy. In this essay, these differences will be explored, as well as similarities, and the religious and cultural roots of China will be examined, as we look into the Far East nation that is poised to be the world's largest economic power within our lifetimes.
The depth and breadth of comparative philosophy between China and the west is increasing in recent times, as the two global political spheres clash and combine. There are many different thoughts that attempt to reconcile the two major ethical fundamentals of each sphere, and there are also many who prescribe to a sort of radical incommensurability; that is, the philosophical inquiries, answers, and statements, are too different in one tradition as to have meaninglessness with regards to the other. A case of, to put it simply, apples to oranges. Some take the stance of more moderate incommensurability; a case of both understanding and incompatibility. There are even some who believe that the common roots between both Chinese and western philosophy are similar, often based upon the precept that we are all living, afterall, in the same world.
Any discussion of Chinese ethics and philosophy must include the major religious and/or belief systems of both the nation of China and those with Chinese ancestry. These include Buddhism (of the Mahayana school), Taoism, Confucianism, Ancestor Worship, and Chinese Folk Religious beliefs. Some of these have influenced politics and daily life more than others.
Religion in China, like most countries, has a complicated history. The communist revolution and rise to power in 1949 established a government that, much like Stalin before it, manhandled religion out of daily life, creating a militantly secular state. The remnants of this remain to this day, with approximately 40-60 percent of the Chinese population claiming to be agnostic, atheist, or non-religious. Of the remaining population, traditional Chinese folk religious beliefs and Buddhism happen to be the most common religious inclinations, but like many East Asian countries, these beliefs mix and encompass both each other, and other belief systems and religions, most notably the aforementioned Taoism and Confucianism.
Section 2: Introduction to Confucianism and its Role in Chinese Society
Traditional Chinese ethics, which have seeped into modern times, focus on the cultivation of a worthwhile life, responsibility to family, particularly parents, as compared to strangers, if humans are naturally good or evil, the necessary participation in attempting to reform and cultivate socio-political structure, and proper actions when in a position of power.
Filial piety; a respect for parents and ancestors, is one of the most valued mores of Chinese ethics. In Confucianism, it is a virtue to be held above all the others. In The Analects, Confucius says that "uprightness lies in fathers and sons covering up for each other." In many ways, it is almost a reverse nepotism; nepotism being a human universal. This respect towards parents is often extended, partially, to larger manifestations. In many ways, although not to the extent of family, the state is seen as a parental unit. More on this, in part, later.
Also at the center of Confucianism is the idea of compassion, and loving others. “Simple in manner and slow of speech,” was seen as a positive. Even self-deprecation could be seen as necessary in order to avoid bragging or self-idolization. However, perhaps Confucianism is most famous for the Golden Rule; “what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."
Other Confucian virtues include the promotion of traditionalist conduct, and the ability to make judgment calls that result in determining what is the "right" course of action. With this in mind, center to Confucian thought is the idea that all people have the ability to cultivate themselves correctly, and be "good" people. However, Confucian thought has often been utilized by the state in contrasting ways with its values, with numerous Chinese governments wielding it as a state religion demanding legitimism and submission to authority, by way of the Confucian emphasis on meritocracy. This stands in contrast, however, to an idea central to Confucianism that essentially states that good governance is done by example, and by first governing oneself. This is similar to the Taoist "wu wei" aptly described as; "the less the king does, the more gets done." This strange contradiction seems to have been excused by many academics and politicians, perhaps because of fear of punishment from the state at large.
As stated, central to Confucian thought is the belief that all people can become a person of, essentially, perfect morality and virtue. Where Confucian thought differs from Aristotelian thought is in how this is done. While Aristotle did espouse cultivation of character being in part a result of habituation, Confucius placed a supreme importance on ritual and expressing already established cultural norms in a way to show respect, something Aristotle did not do. “A man who is not Good—what has he to do with ritual?” says Analects 3.3. This central tenant has perhaps fanned the flames of a large Confucian resurgence in modern China, with mainstream essays and articles offering support in making Confucianism a state religion; a far cry from mere decades ago, when the idea of a state religion was not only alien, but categorizing Confucianism as a religion was contentious enough.
This assumption of all men being capable of perfect morality is perhaps used presumptuously in support of rulers. If; then. They have the capability to rule, we must respect their senior status, thus, their rule is legit.
With regards to ritual, Confucian thought, perhaps contentiously, holds that ethically significant and morally positive forms of respect are often taught to us through cultural norms and behavior, thus providing reason to respect traditional societal norms via ritual. Whether this is a correct belief is, of course, debatable. For example, children are (presumably) taught to answer questions, perform greetings and farewells, by both parents and the society around them. This manifests itself as a sort of support for the communitarian thought that we group more heavily with East Asian societies. This behavior is seen as almost aesthetically pleasing; that is, a community working perfectly together and harmoniously through established modes of respect and virtue is almost a "dance." Infact, while generalizations are to be avoided, there is a sense of communal conformism - not consumerist conformism - that permeates Chinese society. Perhaps this is an effect of the proclaimed "communist" government, but the rugged individualism that is so valued in the west tends to be less important in China, and other nearby countries. This can be argued to have been a result of the various religious and philosophical thought espoused by fundamental Chinese belief systems, particularly Confucianism.
This dichotomy is espoused in other ways. Confucian ethics places importance on inter-personal relationships and development, as opposed to individual autonomy. That is not to say that Confucian ethics absolves us of individual autonomy, just that it is seen as a sort of living in a way that one sees as "right," in contrast to rabid self-interest, even at the expense of others, we see espoused by the free market frontiersmen in the western world.
The Analects do place value, however, on doing what is right even if it is unrecognized or praised by others, or conventionally disapproved. Remember; we all have the ability to be "right," afterall. That said, Confucian ethics are generally regarded as rejecting the idea that there are infinite ways to live. There is a "right" way. However, Confucius adamantly opposed heavy state influence and legally backed and presented morality, instead proposing that example is the best way to lead, and that people must be allowed to make mistakes in order to learn the right way.
Confucian ethics is seen also as de-emphasizing personal gain at the expense of a group. However, this is not to say that individual gain is to be subjugated by the community; rather, we are lead to believe that there is a relationship between the individual and community, and that "good" for one is not always good for the other, whereas we should strive to do good for both. An individual's interests often rely on a group, and a group's interests often rely on each individual of the group. This idea of group and individual interests having a symbiotic relationship is relatively distinct from western thought, which separates the two frequently.
In the political realm, Confucius emphasized shame over punishment, believing that pervasive punishment would lead to attempts to escape it. Confucius believed that virtuous rulers were just that; virtuous, and said virtue would help to cultivate civility and positive ethical behavior from the populace at large.
Confucius also was known for his emphasis on education. His rebuke of intuition - "gut feelings" -- as opposed to study, seems ahead of it's time. It should be noted, however, that Confucius saw study as a sort of emulation of a teacher who, essentially, knew what he or she was doing, and was familiar with all important ritual. Morality was seen as the ultimate teaching to be had, and Confucius was willing to teach anyone, no matter class standing, as long as they were eager to learn.
Mencius, a later Confucian scholar and the most revered after Confucius himself, further established the idea that human nature is inherently good. However, whether this is fulfilled by everyone is a matter of their exercise in virtue, like ritual. Mencius also emphasized compassion and empathy, while simultaneously admitting to rulers having certain "mandates" to rule by way of the virtue. This seemed to suggest a slightly more supportive ideal of the state and rulers, as opposed to Confucius, who grew up a bit of a political cynic with regards to the system at the time.
Mencius also firmly supported being steadfast, and accepting, essentially, what life throws at you, without dwelling on what is out of a person's control. In effect, one should not relax proper moral cultivation in an effort to change what can not be changed.
Even though Mencius thought humans were good, essentially, he believed that not everyone had the proper predispositions. Like Confucius before him, Mencius emphasized ideals like reverence, filial piety, and correct morality. Mencius also established that example is the best form of governance, but further stated that societal order takes it's roots in familial relationships. Allegiance, in turn, is a result of the support of the individuals and the families they make up. Mencius also emphasized the idea of avoiding shame. He established that shame, or disgrace, was not just a reflection of social standards, but of ethical ones. He also established the importance of certain behavioral necessities; respect for elders, humility in groups, while still allowing for emergency changes.
The final prominent Confucian scholar we will examine is Xunzi, seen as a bit of a "rival" to Mencius in many circles due to his contrasting opinions. While his influence is not as accepted or widespread, he still is one of the most well known Confucian figures.
Like others before him, Xunzi placed supreme importance on ritual, and also duty. However, he also espoused a much more hierarchal view of society, in that people had their roles, and they should stick to them. These roles were traditionalist duties and rites, to avoid immoral desire, and would have to be overseen by those of higher educational and social standing. A sort of meritocratic oligarchy, in effect. He believed that a strong state could limit the harmful desires of the populace. There is a bit of a coincidental relationship with Buddhism and Xunzi, knowing that. Xunzi believed that desire lead to much of the ills of society, much like Buddhism holds that desire leads to suffering. His staunch belief in removing unkempt and immoral desire drove much of his personal morality. This idea of a stronger state is perhaps more influential than some give him credit for, considering past Chinese political systems, and even the current one.
Some of Xunzi's biggest detractors were Taoists, who had a much more free flowing view of morality, and perceived it as more spontaneous and not necessarily some firm, artificial human construct. Their political differences were varied; some Taoists were supporters of a strong state, others of near anarchy. This complex response contrasted with Xunzi's essentially "one size fits all" view. Infact, the Taoist's, along with many earlier Chinese academics, placed action in the realm of spontaneous thought as opposed to direct reasoning that was more common in western philosophy. Xuzin was a bit of a Chinese outlier, in this regard.
Xunzi believed that tradition established modes of behavior, and that these modes, if established, would help create social order. Xunzi seemed to value social structure and order more than previous Confucianism scholars. The elite class that would rule over the workers would do so because they knew how to apply the workers creations and work. This stands in stark, stark contrast to later Maoist and communist thought that valued the proletariat, at least in theory, and that became the predominant political establishment of China through much of the 20th century. Whether that theory was actually practiced or not is highly debatable.
One of Xunzi's most controversial stances is his outright rejection of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." Xunzi believed that military strategy and technique were not the most important facets to achieving victory, but was instead winning over the people in support of the war. While this belief may have seemed strange and absurd in pre-mass media centuries, many nowadays would contend that his conclusion is spot on, citing media coverage and ensuing population exhaustion in conflicts like the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.
Like many Confucian scholars, Xunzi placed extreme emphasis on learning and never ceasing to learn throughout one's lifetime. He emphasized the requirements of long work and dedication in reaping the rewards of education. Xunzi was a bit more pessimistic with regards to human nature; establishing his idea that not only were humans not inherently good, but that human nature was a barrier to positive cultivation. However, he did attest to the belief that humans could, through hard work, achieve the sort of moral perfection envisioned by Confucius.
Xunzi's reflections on punishment are much more intune to the current Chinese government's stance, noting that China executes more people, for example, than the rest of the world combined. The importance Xunzi placed on punishment separated him from his peers, and he advocated severe punishment to keep people in line. This idea has perhaps influenced criminal punishment in modern China.
Xunzi's meritocratic view extended to both society and the individual, in that goodness or badness was not something to be "born" with, but instead resulted in one's output.
Much like other Chinese thinkers, Xunzi viewed normative arguments largely as fruitless, and tended to avoid them when possible. This ties in with the sort of communal conformity touched on earlier, executed by avoiding potential conflict.
Of the three major "religions" in China; Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, it is easily assumed that Confucianism has had the most profound political influence. Even though surveys demonstrate that more Chinese consider themselves Buddhist, the fact that Confucianism has largely been accepted by intellectuals, and that it originated in China, perhaps explains it's large influence on Chinese thought through the centuries, and it's apparent renaissance in current times.
Thank you for reading part 1 of my essay on Chinese ethics and their formation through the major Chinese religions, and comparing Chinese ethics and philosophy with western ethics and philosophy. The following is a brief list of the next parts I hope to write:
Part 2: Examining Basic Taoist Thought and Influence
Part 3: Examining Basic Buddhist Thought and Influence
Part 4: The Metaphysics of Chinese Religions and Their Effect on Chinese Society: Theism and Afterlife
Part 5: Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and the West, and Revisiting the Differences Between Major Chinese thought and Western Thought