Please Note: The present paper is a draft/web-site version. Although I do not intend to change the basic premise or format, there is considerably more that I might add. The basic ideas were refined and improved by my experience in postcommunist Bulgaria.
If you are already familiar with Confucius, read the last paragraph of the paper first.
The paper ends with some reflections (rather sketchy) on education and politics. One excellent resource on the problem of education is The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch.
Comments invited on the present draft.
For additional information on Chinese Philosophy, Confucius, and the text of The Great Learning,
see Keith Ammann's Confucius page.
REFLECTIONS ON THE GREAT LEARNING
Anthony D. Birch
Few individuals in world history have had as much impact as Confucius. His name is known world wide and he is traditionally ranked with Buddha, Jesus and Socrates as a great sage and founder of a long-lasting moral tradition. Yet for many Westerners (and presumably for "progressives" in China and the East), "Confucianism" has pejorative connotations. It implies an antiquated social system dominated by a primitive form of ancestor worship.
Clearly then, there is a nearly-universal reverence for Confucius which needs to be brought into
greater harmony with a contemporary assessment of his views and contributions to history. This can
be accomplished by clarifying the position of Confucian thought within the general history of
political and moral ideas. Since Confucianism is deeply embedded in Chinese culture, the way in
which Confucianism is interpreted will play a significant role in the future of China. I will explore a
contemporary interpretation by examining the structure and import of one of the central Confucian
documents: "The Great Learning." This will be compared and contrasted with moral and political
ideals of the West. I will then give some indications of how a contemporary assessment of
Confucian ideals may impact the current process of political and economic reform in China.
I. Systems and Individuals
One way to approach all of what may broadly be termed "political thinking" is to divide those who primarily promote systems solutions to man's problems from those who promote individual solutions. We can characterize systems thinkers as operating under the assumption that good systems make good men. Included as examples of the system solution approach one would place thinkers like Marx and Hegel. Although under Marx the state was to ultimately "wither away," it was a specific system of economic relations that were to guarantee this. Similarly, Hegel conceived that moral thought and the expression of freedom reached its fulfillment in the highly organized, impersonal, and bureaucratic state that synthesized human relations in a systematic form. Feudalism, laissez-faire capitalism, and "money-less" communes are also examples of formulaic social/political systems. In general, systems solutions prescribe some set relations (social, political, legal or economic) as a cure-all for human ills and the means to happiness.
There is a more or less standard set of criticisms against systems solutions: (1) they lead to intolerance because the system can not accommodate wide individual variations in personal goals; (2) they debilitate creative individuality; and (3) more often than not, they lead to fascism. Such critiques, however, overlook another aspect of human development embodied in systems thinking: the need for legal and moral structures in which human beings can grow and develop. Roman law, the Magna Carte, national constitutions and the U.N. charter are also manifestations of systems thinking. More than simply methods of imposing order, systems represent intellectual ideals, embodying a vision of the rights and responsibilities of man. As systems grow and develop, and are experimented upon, failures count as much as successes in accumulating knowledge of human possibilities.
At the other political extreme, we find thinkers and charismatic individuals who have lived in accord with a model of "one-at-a-time" salvation. Jesus and Buddha belong to the extremities of this tradition. While some might object to classifying these individuals as political thinkers, their teachings have had enormous political repercussions. Since, according to their teachings, the goal of life is to reflect the good that is to be found in every purified human soul, the fulfillment of this goal will ultimately infect every aspect of life, including political, social and economic arrangements. On the other hand, the promotion of any particular system of political and social relations is entirely secondary. Political arrangements, it is presumed, will fall into place once individual lives are properly directed. In this manner of thinking, the relationship between system and individual is reversed: good people will make good systems. The virtue of such an approach is that it provides hope even when political arrangements are degenerate, ill-functioning or actively at odds with spiritual ideals. By separating individual salvation from the need for social or political reform, it becomes possible for people to live under virtually any conditions with the hope for a better future. This separation between individual spiritual needs and the need for political reform is expressed in Jesus' famous dictum: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Luke, 20, 25). Socrates, the West's most important political martyr, had a similar view: human virtue was to be sought out in private; since most political systems were corrupt, those who entered public affairs could retain their virtues only at peril to their life.
Such a division between the hope of individual fulfillment and existing political structures, however, has obvious shortcomings: it can encourage fatalism, foster indifference to social ills, and allow ossified bureaucracies to perpetuate themselves. At the same time, the idea of a spiritual quest that transcends all worldly concerns continues to have its attraction and is considered a pillar of Eastern and Western thought.
Hence, at one pole of the political spectrum, the thought is that some system will provide a means to happiness; at the other pole, this is purely an individual matter, essentially unrelated to any system. In many respects, Western political history is just the oscillation between these two poles -- and the failure to find a successful synthesis. From the early Greek experiments in various forms of the city-state, to the church-state synthesis in the middle ages, and finally the revolutions 18th and 19th centuries, thought on what constitutes the "best" life for man attempts to couple systems solutions (whether authoritarian or democratic) with the moral and spiritual solutions that are essentially private.
This tension is far from being resolved in the present stages of what Marx called "late capitalism."
One strand of modern political theory asserts human beings to be essentially self-interested and
therefore permanently at odds with each other. The problem of politics becomes one of setting up
rules for civilized conflict. Hence, the socialist critique of capitalism: it not only accepts the
basically evil nature of man as the groundwork from which political and social structures are built,
but it actively encourages human beings to retain their evil self-centeredness. Such a critique,
however, does not address the equally powerful strand of Western thought we have already
identified: the idea that individuals can be moral or immoral, saved or damned, regardless of the
social or political norms. Since the Christian moral system emphasized that self-centeredness, greed,
and harm to others were sufficient to cause permanent harm to the soul, individuals tended to apply
moral correctives to the excesses of capitalism. Because of this, Marx's predictions were never
fulfilled and capitalism never reached its "critical" (hyperbolically amoral) stage. This view, that
capitalism "succeeded" as a political arrangement despite that fact that it is an immoral or amoral
system, is of, course, a popular one. It misses, however, an important point we have already raised.
According to the "one-at-a-time" model of salvation, there is no political or economic system that
guarantees human happiness. The "success" of capitalism, if it can be called that, is a historical
coincidence brought about by the success of Christianity.
II. The Great Learning
The above considerations should help us gain a better perspective from which to view the moral universe of Confucian thought and the Great Learning. It is instructive to lay out the logical form of some of the central concepts employed. As Chai and Chai have noted, "a unique feature of the Ta Hsueh [Great Learning] is the connected logical reasoning it applies to a general thesis which has come to be called the three 'main cords' and 'eight minor wires'," or eight ethical-political items (Chai and Chai, 293). The ethical-political items are:
1. Manifest virtue throughout the world
2. Govern states well
3. Regulate families
4. Cultivate self
5. Rectify heart
6. Make thoughts sincere
7. Extend knowledge
8. Investigate things
In the first paragraph of the text explaining these goals, it is stated that in order to attain any goal, one must first attain the one below it. This has caused some commentators to believe that the "investigation of things" is crucial, since it lies at the "bottom" of the chain of goals. The presumed importance of this goal has led many to assume that the correct interpretation of "the investigation of things" is the key to the Great Learning. As Chai and Chai point out, the interpretation of the meaning of "the investigation of things" is one of the most famous controversies in Confucianism (Chai and Chai, 295-296).
The idea that the investigation of things should be regarded as the "bottom" or root goal, in the sense of being a final goal, can be challenged, however, on the basis of the text itself. As far as the logical dependence of the eight ethical-political items is concerned, it seems to me that one of the essential messages of The Great Learning is that there is no separate goal that is to be pursued independently. After listing the items as given above, the very next paragraph of the text lists the same items, reversing the order of presentation. Once things are investigated, knowledge is extended; once knowledge is extended, thought becomes sincere, etc. In terms of human motivation, these results can not be obtained simply by asking for machine-like behavior. The will needed to pursue any one ethical-political item is to be summoned on the basis of its likely results -- that is, one of the higher and more general principles that encompasses a greater degree of altruism. If any of the goals, separately considered, were assumed to have no consequences or no fulfillment outside of itself, it is unlikely that they could be dutifully, willfully, and even joyously pursued.
The text, therefore, gives us an image of interconnected goals in the form of a "ladder" analogy with the investigation of things at the "bottom" and manifesting virtue throughout the world at the "top." But this ladder has to be traversed in both directions. Each level or stage is dependent on the other, and knowledge of all the stages is required in order to successfully traverse the ladder. Thus, when there are social and political ills, leaders should be required to look at every rung of the ladder and adjust their attention and effort accordingly. To look for the source of problems as emanating from just the "bottom" or the "top" is not to understand how to traverse the ladder, to be unable to live dutifully and fruitfully in a structured society. It is clear that this is more than just a rhetorical device. It symbolizes a deeply entrenched supposition in Chinese humanism that human actions are never isolated and atomic; in the Confucian tradition, individuals can not be separated from systems.
But there is another analogy which immediately follows in the text: the "tree" analogy of the root and branches of the manifestation of virtue: "From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, all must consider the cultivation of the person as the root" (Chai and Chai, 295). In contrast to the ladder analogy, the tree analogy places something "first" or at the root: self-cultivation. In regard to this, it may again seem that the "investigation of things" is the ultimate prerequisite, but if we remember the ladder analogy we must acknowledge that family regulation and state government (those elements "above" the root) are equally important to self-cultivation.
The Great Learning, therefore, embodies both a systems approach (ladder analogy) and an individual approach (root analogy) in a unique way. We have seen that the Great Learning provides a picture of a moral universe in which the systems and the individual approaches to human relations are woven together in an ideal form. Of all political "solutions" in history, this is perhaps the most hopeful and idealistic. I have suggested that these approaches have stood in uneasy opposition throughout most of Western history. For this reason, the Confucian picture appears to be unique in history and all the more important for understanding both the past and the future of China.
Let us now turn to some general considerations of the advantages and disadvantages of such a moral
and political ideal. In order to do this, it will be helpful to compare and contrast at least one system
from the West with Confucianism. Let us consider the ideal moral/political relations exemplified in
Plato's famous image of the ideal city in the Republic. First, both Plato and Confucius employ the
concept of the causal power of exemplars in moral and political relations. Both Plato's philosopher
King and the Confucian ideal ruler are individual exemplars who have the power to create and
sustain moral order in virtue because they are themselves prime examples of knowledgeable, well-disciplined men whose thought and hearts are in order. This concept applies not only to individuals
but to systems. In the case of exemplars of ideal systems, however, the exemplars are set apart in
time from reality. Plato postulates his ideal city as something that might exist in the future, given
the proper circumstances. Confucius, on the other hand, did not want to be accused of being a
dreamer, so he located his ideal in the past and insisted on the actual existence at one time of an
ideal. (This reflects a fundamental difference between the East and the West that is often cited. The
Orient, and China in particular, is often described as "backward looking" rather than "forward
looking.") Secondly, both Plato's system of relations and the Confucian ideal seem to be closed
systems. By this I mean that it is belief in the system of relations itself which both motivates moral
aims. It is not, for example, a particular set of laws that are to be believed in, which will serve to
artificially link together separate individuals into a unified political entity. Nor is the system of
relations a mere matter of practical convenience, based on the supposition that fundamentally base
and completely self-interested individuals need to cooperate. Rather, the moral underpinning of
these systems is that all individuals ought to aspire toward an ideal. Moral action should be with the
intent of instructing by exemplifying virtue. Political systems should have the intent not of forcing
people to follow laws or to entice them to conform by appealing to their self interest, but of
strengthening the various elements (family relations, personal relations, educational objectives)
within a connected chain that constitutes the social/individual being of all citizens.
III. Problems for the Confucian Approach
This type of system also has several more or less standard types of criticisms that can be brought against it. First, it is difficult to communicate to those "outside" the structure what exactly constitutes moral and political life. In order to understand and appreciate it, one must live within the community in which the ideal is sought. Foreigners, by definition, can have no appreciation or understanding of this way of life. (It may be that China's long-standing xenophobia has its root in this attribute of an ideal systems approach.) It is worth mentioning that the very opposite requirement is considered to be the foundation for sound government within the modern Western tradition stemming from the enlightenment: political and moral thought was deemed to be transportable from culture to culture because it was based on universal reason. Second, in such a system it is possible (and frequent) to confuse social harmony with justice. In a system that places a great stake on harmony, individual rights can be sacrificed in favor of maintaining the greater benefit of all. This is criticism leveled against moral systems proposed in the West as well. The utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham have been frequently criticized on these grounds. Third, the ideal systems approach can easily lead to the codification of behavior and the adherence to tradition long after the moral content of such tradition has been lost or contemporary innovations have outrun the need for traditional forms. Such codification may take extreme forms when coupled with religious ideas; examples include requiring certain forms of dress (under Islamic fundamentalism) or expecting women to commit suicide after the death of their husbands out of reverence for tradition (India).
These critical perspectives are, more often than not, provided without reference to the corresponding virtues that are part of the Confucian vision. In the same way that critics of capitalism forget its many advances in systematic form, and the many possibilities it presents for moral development, the critics of Confucianism forget the moral ideals embodied in the system. One important benefit of the Confucian system is that political leadership is a distinctively moral conception, and not (as in the West) born entirely out of utility or administrative necessity. Both for Plato and for the Confucian, the King attains his right to lead by epitomizing moral virtue, not though stealth or power. The society bound together by such a living model thereby attains some objective measure of standards of excellence in personal as well as political life. A democracy, which quickly disintegrates into rule by the least qualified, as Plato often complained, provides no such model and may ultimately lead to moral chaos. Second, and more important, both the Confucian and Platonic systems support a view of education that makes it an integral part of the system. Education is aimed at facilitating the production of great leaders, and ultimately at manifesting virtue throughout the world.
In my view, however, both Plato and Confucius underestimated the power of mass, democratic education to sustain their moral vision. The systems solution aspect of their thinking was to make the educational system produce great leaders. But if no great leaders can be produced (a point which is extremely problematic in Plato) the entire system disintegrates. This, rather than any other fault, in my view, is the greatest danger in the Confucian/Platonic view. The history of the West is replete with the fall of kings -- and fall they should. No political leader is worthy of deification, quasi-deification, or even a great deal of public admiration. The implication that a single leader can exemplify for the masses the virtues that are to be the framework of an advanced, cohesive, and supremely moral civilization is too great a burden for anyone to bear. The fall-back belief, easily engendered in the masses, that the leader is virtuous simply due to the fact of holding a political office, is a destructive belief. It takes us away from the moral center that Jesus, Buddha, and, albeit via different routes, Confucius and Plato ultimately wanted. For this reason, then, I argue that while the Confucian system must be understood and respected, the central analogies of ladder and tree ought to be thought of in terms of horizontal or circular structures rather than a vertical analogy. From the Confucian perspective, it is not a question of whether good systems make good men or if good men make good systems, because both views are true. What form this truth will take as China comes to grips with the 20th century, attempting to balance individual liberty with a Confucian heritage, will be one of the most important issues of our age.