Confucius’ remark at Analects 1.6 is often cited to show that he thought proper moral development begins with filial piety and then extends that attitude to ever-larger groups of people (ever less intensely). I shall argue that the remark does not display such a view. Confucius did not in general envision moral progress as extension.
Many hold that for Confucius the family is the model for organized political society in some sense; that Confucius regarded the norms for relations beyond the family as largely based on the norms for relations with kin. Here I follow Joseph Chan in challenging that view.
Someone said to Confucius, “Master, why don’t you engage in government?” The Master said, “The Book of Documents says, ‘Filial! But be filial, and a friend to your brothers, thus contributing to government.’ Why then do that other kind of ‘engaging in government’?”
I’ll suppose for the sake of argument that the reported exchange is authentic, and argue that it is not significant evidence of Confucius’ views. Confucius is not aiming to communicate his views here.
Here are some reasons to think that Youzi did not regard family as the root of humanity or of the Way. (I used to think he did.)
Most of my argument focuses on defending a view held by Soothill, Leys, Chin, and maybe Lau and Slingerland: that by 弟 in Analects 1.2, Youzi meant elder-respect, a virtue commonly associated specifically with life outside the family. It would follow that according to 1.2, only one of the two parts of the root of humanity is specifically a family virtue. If 孝 and 弟 have something relevantly in common for Youzi, family isn’t it.
Did Confucius think that if one of us has general virtue, or some particular virtue such as courage or filial piety, that general or particular virtue will have a substantial tendency to spread directly to the people around her, even if she holds no government position?
Here I’ll survey Confucius’ statements in the Analects and conclude that the answer is No. Confucius probably did not hold that view. (I gave the opposite reading in both my published papers on Chinese philosophy.)
James A. Flath, Traces of the Sage: Monument, Materiality, and the First Temple of Confucius, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2016.
Traces of the Sage is a comprehensive account of the history and material culture of the Temple of Confucius (Kong Temple) in Qufu, Shandong.
A writer from National Geographic has contacted me with a question, and I wonder if anyone out there has a better answer than I have so far come up with. She is working on an article that uses a quote widely attributed to Confucius, and wants to confirm the attribution. It is: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” One source that I found on-line suggests that this is based on Analects 16:19 (“孔子曰：「生而知之者，上也；學而知之者，次也；困而學之，又其次也。困而不學，民斯為下矣！」”; ctext here.). This is indeed a listing of three ways of acquiring understanding or wisdom, but the rest doesn’t match very well.
Does anyone have any ideas? There are tons of Confucius quotations in other texts, and maybe this is one of them? Or maybe a loose/early version of that Analects passage? The writer’s deadline is 2pm EST tomorrow! Thanks for any help, which I will pass on.
A new three-part series from BBC Four. The first two episodes, on Buddha and Socrates, are available online. Just from watching the first few minutes, it seems like there is a heavy influence of Jaspers’ “Axial Age” theory. If you’ve seen the full episodes already, let the rest of us know what you think!
Bryan W. Van Norden comments here.
Jim Peterman’s Whose Tradition? Which Dao?: Confucius and Wittgenstein on Moral Learning and Reflection has been published; check it out.