New Book: Erin Cline’s Families of Virtue

Erin Cline of Georgetown University has published a new book with Columbia University Press, Families of Virtue: Confucian and Western Views on Childhood Development. Congratulations, Erin! The Columbia U. P. website is here; read on for a description.

Families of Virtue articulates the critical role of the parent-child relationship in the moral development of infants and children. Building on thinkers and scientists across time and disciplines, from ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers to contemporary feminist ethicists and attachment theorists, this book takes an effective approach for strengthening families and the character of children.

Early Confucian philosophers argue that the general ethical sensibilities we develop during infancy and early childhood form the basis for nearly every virtue and that the parent-child relationship is the primary context within which this growth occurs. Joining these views with scientific work on early childhood, Families of Virtue shows how Western psychology can reinforce and renew the theoretical underpinnings of Confucian thought and how Confucian philosophers can affect positive social and political change in our time, particularly in such areas as paid parental leave, breastfeeding initiatives, marriage counseling, and family therapy.


Part I. What Did Early Confucian Philosophers Think About Parent-Child Relationships, Early Childhood, and Moral Cultivation?
1. Moral Cultivation, Filial Piety, and the Good Society in Classical Confucian Philosophy
2. Infants, Children, and Early Confucian Moral Cultivation
II. How Are Early Confucian Views of Parent-Child Relationships, Early Childhood, and Moral Cultivation Distinctive, Compared with Views in the History of Western Philosophy?
3. Parents, Children, and Moral Cultivation in Traditional Western Philosophy
4. Feminist and Confucian Perspectives on Parents, Children, and Moral Cultivation
III. Why Do Confucian Views of the Relationship Between Parent-Child Relationships, Early Childhood, and Moral Cultivation Warrant Serious Consideration, and What Can They Contribute to Our Understanding of These Areas?
5. Early Childhood Development and Evidence-Based Approaches to Parents, Children, and Moral Cultivation
6. The Humanities at Work: Confucian Resources for Social and Policy Change


Erin M. Cline is associate professor of comparative ethics in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University, where she teaches Chinese and comparative philosophy and religion. She is also the author of Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice.

3 replies on “New Book: Erin Cline’s Families of Virtue”

  1. The Analects on Childhood ?

    I have some comments on Cline’s new book Families of Virtue. I’ve seen the book only through Amazon and Google Books, but that material seems to cover my concerns—which need have no implications for any of the rest of the book’s argument.

    From what I can see, the book puts heavy weight on Youzi’s statement at Analects 1.2 as evidence of Kongzi’s views about childhood (even the earliest years: see pp. xi, xii, xviii). I don’t think 1.2 is about childhood. Nor do I think the other Analects passages Cline appeals to have identifiable implications about childhood.

    Once I published a paper on Youzi, “The Purloined Philosopher” (PEW 58.4). I argued there that Kongzi did not hold Youzi’s view that filial piety and brotherly respect are the root of humaneness. But Youzi was influential in the Confucian group when he joined it after Kongzi’s death; so insofar as by “Kongzi” Cline means the Confucian group, 1.2 is certainly relevant. Toward deciding what 1.2 means, however, authorship may be relevant.

    In presenting “What Kongzi … [has] to say on the moral education and cultivation of children and youth,” Cline writes,

    Perhaps the most obvious passage from the Analects to make clear the importance of early moral cultivation is 1.2; [Cline quotes it]. The recognition of the absolute importance of filial piety and its role as the foundation of ethical sense is perhaps the clearest indicator of how important the early Confucians considered childhood education to be. (43)

    I don’t think 1.2 is any indicator of that at all.

    An American reader today might assume that 1.2 is mainly about childhood or youth, for an American reader today may think of relations with parents and big brothers as concerns primarily or especially of childhood. But Kongzi and his contemporaries seems not to have thought that way. For example, Kongzi complained, “These days when people speak of filial piety, they mean supporting one’s parents” (in 2.8: 今之孝者,是謂能養); and he said, “If for three years a son does not depart from the way of his father, he may be called filial” (4.20); cf. 2.21, etc.

    the point of 1.2

    The point of 1.2, I argued in “Purloined,” is to address a particular practical problem: the tension between Ru vocational aspirations and family obligations. This is a tension that arises for adults between two concurrent moral claims. The argument of 1.2 is that your current filiality and fraternity are currently essential to your grander moral projects. So you are trying to be a junzi 君子? Well, thejunzi (not just the junzi-to-be) attends to his filiality and brotherly respect. You can’t ever neglect those virtues.

    Rather than sketching my own arguments in “Purloined,” here I’ll just try to answer Cline’s arguments.

    argument from comprehensiveness

    Cline seems to argue from the comprehensiveness of ren 仁 (humaneness) to the conclusion that 1.2 is talking about very early roots:

    As we saw in the previous chapter, humaneness is a quality possessed by those who have mastered the full range of Confucian virtues. This allows us to appreciate the full force of the claim: filial piety and brotherly respect are the roots of the other virtues; they provide the foundation for the entire course of a person’s moral development. (43)

    Filial piety and brotherly respect make it possible and perhaps even likely for an individual to develop the other virtues and moral sensibilities that are a part of the Way. Accordingly, among the virtues that are a part of the Way, those that are unique to the family have a privileged place, because, the text maintains, other virtues and moral capacities stem from the feelings and capacities a person develops in response to his parents and older siblings. (8)

    Cline thus seems to be appealing more or less to the following argument:

    1. The passage says filiality&fraternity is the root of ren 仁.
    2. Ren 仁 is understood to encompass all the particular virtues.
    3. The passage envisions filiality&fraternity as the root of each of the other virtues.
    4. It envisions filiality&fraternity as the first of all the virtues; so it is talking about childhood.

    The inference within 4 may be problematic. Aristotle, for one, held that children cannot have real virtues. I wonder whether 1.2’s “其为人” is a phrase one could easily use of children.

    The inference to 3 commits the fallacy of division (or ascribes the fallacy to the passage). Being a necessary preliminary to full X is not the same as being a necessary preliminary to each part of X. You can’t grow a complete human body without a spine, but you can grow some kinds of human tissue and organ without a spine. For another example of the logical point, there is no inconsistency involved in holding that most of the particular virtues are necessary preliminaries to the development of filiality, and that filiality is the final stage before ren 仁, the great comprehensive virtue. On that view filiality would be the root of ren 仁, but not a necessary preliminary to most of the particular virtues.

    Now, at the time of the Analects, the term ren 仁 is vague or ambiguous as between a comprehensive virtue and a somewhat narrower virtue, and I gather speakers and writers sometimes just leave matters open as between the two—quite understandably, in the genre of pithy sayings.

    On my reading of Youzi, elsewhere in Book 1 of the Analects he makes closely parallel claims about other roots of other quasi-comprehensive virtues of individuals and communities. Trustworthiness is the root of justice/righteousness, and respectful demeanor is the root of ritual propriety (1.13); a community’s right ritual is the root of its harmony (1.12). Youzi is alive to the way that virtues of immediate interaction offer psychological and cognitive grounding to grander virtues for societal action, and argues (in each case) that therefore one should cling to the humble virtues even where they seem to stand in the way of the grander ones. Sacrificing the humble virtues in the interest of the grand ones just won’t work. Thus, according to the author of 1.2, filiality&fraternity is not unique in playing this kind of role.

    arguments from the root metaphor and from occasions

    Cline stresses the “root” metaphor as showing that 1.2 has beginnings in mind, hence childhood (8, 44). The line “本立而道生,” which might be translated “when the root is established, the Way grows,” suggests a chronological process. But there is plenty of room for chronological process during adulthood; the Way is not something one fully realizes on attaining majority. Indeed, the members of the early Confucian group seem to have been deeply occupied with their own moral progress; for them, the idea of “moral development” or “moral growth” would not have implied childhood, and I submit that it would not have suggested childhood.

    Cline argues,

    … While the passage does not specify when we begin to cultivate filial piety and brotherly respect, it is important to attend to the developmental metaphors expressed in the claim that the roots need to be established in order for the Way to grow and flourish. The development of roots is part of the earliest stage of a plant’s growth, and as roots continue to grow, they also enable the rest of the plant to grow and flourish. These developmental metaphors suggest that the development of filial piety and respect for elders begins during the earliest stages of an individual’s moral education. Given how early our relations with our parents and elder siblings begin, it seems reasonable to assume that these virtues are initially cultivated during childhood. (43f)

    We might add that roots are mainly underground, so the image of a “root” suggests bottom-level origins, hence first beginnings.

    But is that the kind of root that ben 本 here suggests? Youzi’s phrase ben li 本立 suggests that the operative image is not an underground root, but rather a trunk or a main stem—the core of the plant. And li 立 may also suggest having attained a stable adult character, a certain settled basic virtue (by analogy with having an official position). Compare Kongzi at 2.4: “At thirty, I stood firm” (三十而立).

    Granted, the plant metaphor strongly suggests a chronological process. But the Confucian group was all about making progress in adulthood. And while the non-metaphorical statements in 1.2 may have implications about development, they are not directly about development. They are about concurrent conditions. If you are filial, you are unlikely to be more generally rebellious. Whatever the history, you need the conditions on hand now—as a plant needs its root and trunk today.

    And although it is true that our occasions for filial or unfilial action begin early on, filiality does not differ in that respect from most other ordinary virtues such as trustworthiness, kindness, respectful demeanor, ritual propriety, etc.

    textual roots?

    Within 1.2, Cline frames the string ‘Once the root is established, the Way will flourish’ in quotation marks, and comments,

    The quotation from the Book of Odes in this passage indicates a connection between the cultivation of filial piety (as the “root” of a person’s character) and the ability to follow the Way throughout one’s life.
    (8; also in Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice: 126)

    The suggestion seems to be that the Book of Odes in some way supports Cline’s reading? In fact nothing like that string appears in the Book of Odes. Slingerland too marks the string in 1.2 as a quote, and comments under 1.2,

    The line enclosed in quotation marks is probably a traditional saying. A comment upon this passage found in the Garden of Persuasion reads, “If the roots are not straight then the branches will necessarily be crooked, and if the beginning does not flourish, then the end will necessarily wither. An ode says, “The highlands and lowlands have been pacified/The springs and streams have been made clear/Once the roots are firmly established, the Way will grow.’” The quoted ode is a variant of the extant Ode 227. …

    But is Slingerland right? For whatever it’s worth, in the Chinese Text Project’s presentation of the Garden discussion , what is marked as a quotation from an Ode is limited to “The highlands and lowlands have been pacified/The springs and streams have been made clear,” — which we find in the extant 227 — while the string found in Youzi’s 1.2 is presented as the beginning of the commentator’s next remark, apparently elaborating the relevance of the quote from 227. Indeed the extant Ode 227 would seem to need significant reworking, structurally and thematically, to accommodate the string from 1.2.

    In any case, I don’t see that anybody is alleging a connection between the line in 1.2 and any other available ode lines that seem to elaborate it or illuminate it as relevant to our questions, unless we count the point that (as far as I can see) nothing in the extant 227 alludes to childhood or to moral development.

    other Analects passages

    Cline offers “other passages in the Analects that give us some indication of how Kongzi views childhood education,” and perhaps we are to take these as supplementary reasons to think that 1.2 reflects views about childhood. I think none of them offers any significant indication of how Kongzi or his followers view childhood education.

    The first passage is 7.29. Kongzi is willing to speak with a youth (19 or under) who has purified himself for the occasion. Cline says this shows the youth had made real moral progress. If it does, that is a point about the youth rather than about Kongzi’s views. Cline suggests that the sign of reverence may have indicated to Kongzi that the youth was morally malleable. But Kongzi articulates his reason for seeing the boy, and the reason he gives does not allude in any way to the person’s age. If anything, it disavows concern for what can be made of the youth.

    The second passage is 9.23, where Kongzi says the scope for moral improvement is small in someone who by 40 or 50 has not done much. Cline infers that Kongzi thinks “personal change is more likely early in life.” But it seems to me that’s what pretty much everybody thinks, at least about adults?

    The third passage is 19.12, in which two of Kongzi’s students disagree on the point in question, which is whether doctrinal fundamentals should be taught to disciples right away or only after a few years.

    Whether the passage has anything to do with the age of the students depends on how we read Ziyou’s charge against Zixia.

    The disciples of Zixia OR: The younger among the disciples of Zixia [子夏之門人小子] are competent at sprinkling and sweeping, … but these are details [末]. The students can’t ground them in basics [本之則無]. How is that OK?”

    Regarding the opening phrase, Cline prefers the second reading, following at least Slingerland. Translators are divided.

    Some thoughts leaning against Slingerland’s reading: (a) I find “小子” often used elsewhere as an intimate form of address for one’s own adult disciples; perhaps Ziyou was addressing Zixia’s disciples from the position of an intellectual uncle? (b) Since Ziyou has some experience of Confucian teaching, he cannot be surprised or scandalized that beginners are not taught doctrines in logical order, or are not taught everything. He may, however, be surprised or scandalized if the general run of Zixia’s disciples share an important deficiency.

    Possibly leaning in favor of Slingerland’s reading is Zixia’s reply (which I won’t quote here), though people read it in many different ways. It seems to appeal to the point that students differ. Zixia may be saying that students differ as plant species differ, and that the students he has found so far are not as talented as sages. Or, fitting Slinglerland’s reading, he may be saying that one should teach the little things first.

    In any case it seems offhand that if Ziyou and Zixia are distinguishing among Zixia’s disciples, it seems to me very likely that the distinction is on the basis of time spent in discipleship rather than chronological age.

    Cline comments,

    This passage thus emphasizes the importance of age-appropriate moral cultivation as well as the value of tasks that may appear insignificant but in fact have an important impact on the development of moral character. It also confirms the view expressed in Analects 1.2: one grows up to follow the Way only if the proper “roots” are established, “starting at the beginning and working through to the end.”

    The point of concern for me about 1.2 is the phrase “grows up” taken as suggesting the importance specifically of childhood. But even Cline says that 19.12 refers to youths rather than to children. (What Cline is quoting at the end here is not 1.2 as her presentation seems to say, nor is it 19.12; there is a distant similarity with a remark from Slingerland quoted on the previous page.)

    The fourth passage is 18.7, in which a Daoist recluse is said to introduce Zilu to his sons — 見其二子焉 — and Zilu later makes a remark that may suggest that Zilu inferred or observed that the recluse accepted the proposition that “proper relations between old(er) and and young(er) are not to be discarded” (長幼之節、不可廢也。). Cline takes the sons to be children. The passage is silent about their ages, but it calls their father an old man (丈人).

    Cline comments,

    This shows that child-rearing practices were widely agreed upon and valued, even in the midst of political disagreement. It also helps to make clear that for Kongzi and his students, the Confucian way constituted a comprehensive way of life. … [Zilu’s view that the recluse accepted] certain standards about relations between children and their elders [so that the recluse ought to accept analogous political standards] … arises from the fact that the customs regarding the proper upbringing of children were important to Kongzi’s followers and were, for them, an integral part of the Confucian Way. Like the other passages we have examined, this passage shows that the Analects affirms the importance of the moral cultivation of the young. (47)

    What the passage indirectly suggests is that the recluse accepts some standards for relations between a father and his adult sons that Zilu approves—that the recluse regards his sons as having some special relation to him, though he has withdrawn from the rest of society. By introducing his sons, the father shows either that he cares about his sons, or that he respects his guest and has some influence over his sons. Perhaps Zilu has observed the relationship in detail and is generally satisfied with it. But the passage does not indirectly suggest anything about how, when, or even whether the sons might have come to be as they are—it does not suggest anything about development or childrearing. We may have our own views about what it would take, but the passage has no implications or suggestions of its own.

    That is the final positive passage Cline offers; she then answers a counterargument based on 16.13, in which Chen Kang, probably a minor follower, has a conversation with the late Kongzi’s son Bo Yu, and afterward claims to have learned something new—that the gentleman keeps “distance” from his son (遠其子).

    Chen Kang asked Bo Yu, saying, “Have you heard any lessons from your father different from what we have all heard?” Bo Yu replied, “No. He was standing alone once, when I passed below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the Odes?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, ‘If you do not learn the Odes, you will not be fit to converse with.’ I retired and studied the Odes. Another day, he was in the same way standing alone, when I passed by below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the rules of Propriety?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, ‘If you do not learn the rules of Propriety, your character cannot be established.’ I then retired, and learned the rules of Propriety. I have heard only these two things from him.” Chen Kang retired, and, quite delighted, said, “I asked one thing, and I have got three things. I have heard about the Odes. I have heard about the rules of Propriety. I have also heard that the superior man maintains a distant reserve towards his son.” (Legge at CTP)

    Cline’s main argument about the passage is that the term “distance” need not imply cold lack of involvement, as it might suggest to us; rather it is likely to indicate a ritually proper respectfulness on Kongzi’s part, a relationship quality held to be important to childrearing.

    How should we understand Chen Kang’s inquiry as to whether Bo Yu, the son, has heard anything “different” (有異聞)? At one extreme, perhaps (A) Chen Kang is collecting sayings for the Analects and is asking if Bo Yu has anything to add beyond what has already been collected. At the other extreme, perhaps (B) Chen Kang is seeking esoteric doctrines and hopes Kongzi has given them to his own son.

    If Chen Kang is asking for distinctive contributions to the Analects, then concluding comment “聞斯二者” means “I’ve heard these two things (that I think you don’t have yet).” But on this reading Chen Kang’s concluding comment about distance seems to show that up to this point Chen Kang had supposed that a son would have been told much more than the disciples were told. And then, IF the “distance” point is, as Cline maintains, a major point about childrearing, then the passage seems to show that even among Kongzi’s followers, childrearing practices are not “widely agreed” as Cline had said in connection with 18.7.

    If Chen Kang is asking for esoteric doctrines, then perhaps we are meant to take Bo Yu as offering two bits of esoterica—which the two points could hardly be? — — — Or perhaps instead we are meant to take him as offering two things that he does not regard as esoterica, in which case his concluding comment “聞斯二者” means “Those are the only doctrinal things I ever heard from him. Hence nothing esoteric.” And Chen Kang’s “distance” point would then articulate either a respect in which Kongzi’s relation to his son is, surprisingly, just like his relation to others (that he has revealed nothing esoteric), or a respect in which Kongzi taught his son far less than he taught many others. Cline does not speak to either of these possibilities.

    In any case it would seem that Bo Yu was not a child at the time of the events, so we cannot suppose Chen Kang’s final statement is about a father’s relation to his sons when they are children. For this reason the passage has little potential to hurt Cline’s case.

  2. I’m amazed to see such a detailed reply from someone who hasn’t even read the book! Quite remarkable!

    Keep up the good work, Bill.

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