Minimal versus Maximal Ritual

I have been thinking about ritual lately, and wanted to try out an idea on one and all. It seems to me that one way to read certain passages from classical Confucianism is as encouraging a maximal view of ritual (roughly, what I mean by this is that ritual exhausts the norms: ritual is all there is, all that matters. Ren is a name for ritual perfection). Think of Analects 12:1. On the other hand, there are passages that encourage a more minimalist view of ritual: something that anybody, or most anybody, can do; it is significant but hardly all that one should aim at. Analects 2:3 stands out for me here. The common people can be guided, and modestly transformed (coming to have a sense of shame), by ritual. This is not the stuff of sages or perfection.

The later tradition gives us examples of both maximal and minimal approaches, too. For example, Zhu Xi saw ritual as useful, an important part of Lesser Learning, but perhaps not strictly speaking even necessary for moral improvement. In contrast, Ling Tingkan (Qing; see Kai-wing Chow’s very useful The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China) argued for a rigorist and authoritarian ethics that demands scrupulous adherence to the rituals recorded in the ancient classics, at least as these often-obscure texts were interpreted by Ling. Examples of each approach could be multiplied, even if there are also significant differences among instances of each approach.

It seems to me that there are also examples of each approach within 20th and 21st century Confucian or Confucian-influenced writings. Notwithstanding their many differences from Ling Tingkan, I might suggest that the approach to ritual and “role ethics” that one sees in the work of Roger Ames, David Hall (esp. Democracy of the Dead) and Henry Rosemont has some of the problematic characteristics of a maximal approach. So does that approach to ritual found in Seligman, Weller, Puett, and Simon’s Ritual and Its Consequences. I find this book to be very provocative, but cannot agree that ren “is perhaps best understood as simply the way that one acts ritually when there is no ritual to tell one what to do” [35].

Now to be clear, I’m not arguing that the one and only, best interpretation of Analects 12:1 and 2:3 shows them to be irreconcilable with one another. But I do think that there at least exist prima facie cases for the distinct views I’m finding there, and each of these approaches seems to have had its subsequent supporters. My own instincts lie with the minimalists, and I’m working out some arguments to that effect. But I thought that, for starters, it might make sense to see whether something like this distinction makes sense to others.

12 thoughts on “Minimal versus Maximal Ritual

  1. Terrific question! When I started writing an answer I thought it did make sense, but now I’m puzzled. I guess it doesn’t help that I haven’t read those two recent books.

    My sense is that the word “ritual” (li 禮)is pretty flexible, sometimes meaning something narrow and sometimes meaning something pretty broad, without necessarily implying a substantive difference in views. I think you do have in mind a distinction between views. But the flexibility of the word makes it hard to spell out substantive distinctions clearly (and complicates textual interpretation).

    Toward drawing a clear distinction, I suppose the trick is in how to conceive li 禮 in a relevant narrow sense that does not make the broad view — that li 禮 narrowly understood is the whole of excellence — too obviously or analytically false.

    One approach is to take li 禮 as a name for a particular body of practices, identified as those encoded in a certain collection of texts. But can this be how the Analects understands the term? And on this account there’s a puzzle: if the texts happen to include very broad passages enjoining e.g. care and respect in general, then how does this approach leave room for the narrower of the two substantive views we want to distinguish?

    Another approach is to take li 禮 as meaning something like “right practices that can be described clearly enough in words that mediocre character is not an intellectual obstacle to knowing exactly how to do what the words say.” Here the idea of codifying ritual in words plays an important role. That approach troubles or at least interests me, because I think what’s specially interesting about ritual is that it is a kind of mainly non-linguistic sign system.

    Another approach is to take li 禮 as meaning something like “practices grounded primarily in the authority of past official practice.” And within this account one could distinguish whether what’s meant does or doesn’t include the practitioner’s own structure of reasons. On this approach, the broad view would seem to amount to the view that there is no justification for any practice aside from the authority of past official practice.

    (Analects 2.3 doesn’t strike me as supporting a narrow view of ritual. 2.3 is a pair of pairs, and within each small pair the parts of each half may be meant to be largely synonymous. If indeed there is not much difference between “government” and “punishment” in the first pair, perhaps there is also not much difference intended between “virtue” and “ritual” in the second pair. (In ancient texts far more than modern, saying a thing twice in different words is a standard trope.) If in the second pair we do see a distinction reminiscent of that between character and rules, or aspiration and duty, we should be able to see the same distinction in the first pair. Can we?)

  2. I suppose yet another approach is to try to define a narrow sense of li 禮 not so formally as in my first three sketches above, but rather more substantively. For example, if we think the whole of excellence is practices of care + respect, and if we define ritual as practices of respect, we might reasonably differ over whether those automatically include practices of care.

  3. … Oh, and there’s this further difficulty for the clear grasp of distinctions that might fit the initial description. Among people who agree on a narrow definition of ritual as X, which may at first glance seem not to encompass comprehensive excellence because it misses Y, there can be two different ways of thinking ritual = comprehensive excellence. One might think X turns out to entail Y, or one might think comprehensive excellence turns out not to include Y.

  4. Bill — thanks, as always, for all these stimulating questions and comments. For now, I will try to reply to the question of whether Analects 2:3 supports a narrow or minimal view. (I hope to have a chance to reply to other aspects of your comments later!)

    One thought I have is about the two phrases “齊之以刑” and “齊之以禮.” In both cases — in possible distinction to the two phrases that begins with “道之,” though see below — the people play a participatory role. Their reaction isn’t simply a passive or magical one. In the former case, they participate by being punished, and/or by understanding what behaviors are punishable and then avoiding being seen or caught doing those things. In the latter case, I take it that the people enact ritual. They don’t just watch the ruler do it — why would just watching lead to 齊? Of course, the ruler is also enacting ritual; he is doing things that would be inapt for mere 民; and he may be doing it in a superlative, consummate way that is beyond the 民. But still, what is being asked of the min is something they can do without becoming 君子.

    Second, maybe 德 is also participatory. (I.e., the people are doing de in their own lesser way, not just passively or magically reacting.) After all, in the end the character of the 民 is changed (sense of shame developing), and this should count as their 德 developing. With respect to de, I believe we sould imagine a continuum from lesser to greater. Cf. 12:19 and its reference to the de of the people (in this case, called xiaoren: 君子之德風,小人之德草。草上之風,必偃.

  5. That’s a marvelous argument, Steve. Without thinking I’m proving any case, and without expecting you to have time to reply, I’ll set out my reply about 2.3.

    I think 2.3 is simply noncommittal as between broad and narrow substantive views. For 2.3 to support a narrow view, we have to read its “禮” in a narrow sense, though of course using 禮 in a narrow sense doesn’t mean holding a narrow view. I think reading it in a narrow sense here is indeed more natural than reading it in the broadest sense, though reading it indeterminately may be more natural still. That’s still enough to allow 2.3 to support the narrow view. If I understand you, you’re proposing two distinct reasons to read the passage as supporting the narrow view:

    (1) At least prima facie, 禮 differs from 德 in being fundamentally collective or mutual in conception. (For the ruler to be engaging in 禮 is for her to be participating, along with the ruled, in a dramatic enactment of mutual respect.) We can see a parallel distinction within the first half of 2.3, between 刑 and 政. That suggests that the trope structuring the halves of 2.3 isn’t that of rough synonymy. That in turn suggests that the real form of the piece involves significant difference between the parts of each half. That in turn suggests that the passage means to highlight a distinction between 德 and 禮. That in turn suggests that the passage assumes the falsehood of the broad view (either because 德 suggests comprehensive excellence, or because one just doesn’t list comprehensive excellence alongside something else).

    (2) Ritual is fundamentally collective or mutual in conception, and it would be very odd to think of the people reacting to the ruler’s solitary playing of her own role in禮. Therefore 2.3 is pointing to the people as participants in 禮. But in Confucius’ view, the people don’t all have the whole of excellence. So according to 2.3, it has to be possible to engage in 禮 without being wholly excellent. Therefore again, the passage assumes the falsehood of the broad view.

    A few points in reply …

    I’m not seeing any prima facie distinction between 政 and 刑 that can run alongside a distinction between 德 and 禮 to support reason (2). In what way would 刑 but not 政 be a collective activity? (Playing a string quartet is essentially collective. An activity doesn’t become essentially collective by there being natural ways to react to it; nor by essentially having a patient, as killing does; nor even by essentially requiring companion activities. Playing the viola part is not essentially collective.)

    Granted, it is a little silly to envision a ruler’s using 禮as e.g. her walking into the street and shaking hands with the air near Smith in hopes that Smith will stick a shaking hand into hers. Fingarette’s “magical” picture isn’t silly though, and arguably it differs from this one only in fine points of choreography (cf. 15.5). Speaking of choreography, we can distinguish rulers from people without thinking of rulers as solitary individuals. The officials or court dancers can put on a pageant (and/or be otherwise excellent), thus displaying (among other things) the ruler’s love of 禮, to which the people will then respond (13.3: “上好禮,則民莫敢不敬”). The officials can invite the people to a sacrificial feast, and play their part in it. (See also 3.19 and 12.5.)

    I don’t see that in the Analects one has to read 禮 always as having a collective subject, though there may usually be a background assumption that one’s ritually proper behavior will have a suitable context or response.

    Regarding the 民 more generally: I think perhaps the Analects may occasionally commit the fallacy of Henry Higgins: “Everybody ought to have a maid.” Anyway it seems clear that the broad substantive view can easily accommodate the idea that the full lower-class ritual role of the lower classes amounts only to the lower-class sort of comprehensive excellence that is accessible to them. (Maybe at the end you’re arguing against this point by arguing that there’s just too salient a difference between (a) differences of role and (b) differences of degree?)

    • Erratum: when I wrote “I’m not seeing any prima facie distinction between 政 and 刑 that can run alongside a distinction between 德 and 禮 to support reason (2),” I meant reason (1).

    • Oops, Steve, sorry, you didn’t mean 禮 is collective, like playing a string quartet (essentially having a plural or collective subject); you said it was participatory, and by “participatory” maybe you meant that one isn’t doing the thing (a) unless others are doing it too, or at least (b) unless others are engaging in certain complementary activities: like playing the viola part in (not just of) a string quartet. The (a) version of this idea of a “participatory” activity seems much clearer than the (b) version. I guess 刑 might be participatory in the broadest possible reading of the (b) version; but I don’t see how it would be more participatory than 政.

      (Alexus is working on the idea that 仁 is primarily collective like playing a string quartet.)

  6. Hi again, Bill! You ask how, exactly, I conceive of li in a relevantly narrow sense. In my original post I offered a functional desideratum: something that most anybody can do. So it can’t require refined judgment or highly-developed sensibilities. You first comments suggest some possible ways to further specify the relevant sense of li. I guess what I have in mind is something like this: a body of socially normative practices governing key aspects of inter-personal behavior, partially codified in authoritative compendia, partly historically relative (i.e., the rites of the Zhou differ appropriately, but only partially, from those of earlier peoples, since all descended from Yao and Shun). I give pride of place to the body of practices, though they must be readily teachable and are typically amenable to codification. The practices do function, as you suggest, as (among other things) “a kind of non-linguistic sign-system,” but for my (“minimal”) purposes, it is important that we not think of them as highly particularist and context-dependent, but rather as general rules that apply to typical situations.

    That’s one way to think about li. Another way is as the virtue of propriety: roughly, the disposition to respond excellently along the propriety dimension to situations one encounters. This seems to me to be partly distinct from the body of practices—one’s sense of propriety can guide one when there is no explicit practice, it can guide one with respect to details or adjustments to circumstance on which the practices are silent, it can even be one source (among others) of critique of the existing practices—while also being obviously tightly related to the practices. One source of re-authorization of the practices is their success at cultivating and meshing with our incipient/developing senses of propriety. So the virtue of propriety seems to me to offer a partial link between the full-fledged, particularist, all-things-considered ethical response, on the one hand, and the socially normative li practices, on the other. It has one foot in each camp, as it were.

    Let me also throw in a few more thoughts on Analects 2:3. Your comments here are very helpful, and maybe the first of my arguments in #4 doesn’t work, because 刑 isn’t “participatory” in the way that I want 禮 to be. One tricky issue here is what, after all, 政 means here, since it is used positively elsewhere. But let me try this idea out: perhaps the relevant parallelism is that A1 and A2 are both different from B1 and B2 in the same way, namely, the people respond to the B pair (de and li) with (suitably adjusted to their station) de and li, while the people respond to the first (“A”) pair with suitable reactions (avoiding punishment) but not with zheng and xing. This picks up on the idea in the second of my #4 arguments that even the people have a kind of de.

    At any rate, I’m not at all sure what line I want to put forward as the best interpretation of 2:3 right now, but I take some solace in the facts that: (1) it seems there are multiple possible readings that fit with a minimal/narrow idea of li, and (2) some subsequent thinkers in the tradition did indeed seem to take it (and li more generally) that way.

  7. Hi Steve!

    Your first complex account of the narrow sense of 禮 – I take it your view is that 禮 so described is not the whole of moral excellence. That is, the description does not fit the whole of moral excellence. Is the main difference, in your view, this: that you think moral excellence has parts that not everyone is able to carry off? Ought doesn’t imply can?

    When you say 禮 is something virtually everyone can do, I suppose you mean that each person can fully carry out her own role in 禮; you’re allowing that what’s 禮 for others, such as the royal dancers or trumpeters, or a Korean daughter in Seoul, is currently beyond my ability. (I don’t speak Korean!)

    I’m not sure what you see as the significance of the point that even the people have a kind of 德.

    Again, I agree that 禮 in 2.3 is naturally read in (at least) the narrow sense. I think, though, that a certain flexibility or inflatability of terms is part of the genre of the pithy saying.

  8. That reply of mine was off-target; I want to try again.

    The two accounts you give sound like accounts of two things people can mean by “morality” – so together they sound like the sort of story a partisan of the broad view might tell. I’m not sure whether you mean them as two rival narrow accounts of 禮 or as a narrow and the broadest account.

    The narrowest possible reading of 禮 would be something like memorial sacrifices, yes?

    For your purposes in this string the important narrow conception would be, I suppose, that used by partisans of the broad view. That’s the conception that fixes the outlines of the view you want to challenge. I wonder whether the Chinese friends of the broad view have shared your conception of ritual as practices “…not requiring refined judgment…” (cf. 3.11).

    (On the other hand, there’s some reason to think the ruler’s ritual, even her family ritual, should be intelligible to the ruled: see 8.2. South is the direction to face to be best lit.)

    I think I have an idea of your point about 徳: let’s see if this fits. You want to say that in 2.3 B2, the thought is that the 民 can do 禮 (sc. fully), so that 禮 must be easy to do. One way to support that is to show that something analogous is going on in B1. That works at least if we take徳 in B1 not as specifically focused on making the first risky move toward amicable relations, but rather as meaning something like benevolence, beneficence, or virtue generally.

    I don’t think it’s an especially natural reading of 2.3B. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that it’s natural enough. One problem, as you’ve noted, is that it invites reading 2.3 in terms of the synonymy trope, which in turn suggests that 2.3 is at least very roughly associating 禮 with 徳 in the sense of general goodness.

    Another and bigger problem is that this approach seems to forfeit the idea that being doable-by-the-masses is a mark that distinguishes 禮 from general goodness, which idea seemed to be your main quarry. I want to elaborate on this point some more. (I think you mention the grassiness of the people’s 徳 partly to address this objection.)

    Ritual has roles. Often the ritual is that different kinds of people do different kinds of thing – especially if we’re talking about rituals relevant to relations between small and great, ruled and ruler. So when in 2.3 B2 小大由之, their concrete practices may be – indeed presumably are – very different (cf. Ode 209 and, again, 15.5 about facing south). B2 shows at most that what the 民 can do is play the民 role. But perhaps even the 民 role involves specialization, as farmers provide grain for festivals, etc.

    You might take that general point about difference as supporting the narrow view, on this argument: the whole of virtue must be the same for everyone, but ritual propriety can’t be the same for everyone, so ritual can’t be the same as virtue. On the other hand, you don’t think the whole of virtue is really accessible for everyone, and perhaps you’d say it’s not really accessible for those whose leisure and education have been too limited, or even whose opportunities for political action are too narrowly limited. (Similarly, again, the Analects regards popular virtue as grassy.) And duties do differ depending on position. Can a Confucianist defend the broad view on the grounds that only a ruler can attain the completeness of 禮, as of excellence generally?

    • “But perhaps even the 民 role involves specialization, as farmers provide grain for festivals, etc.” — I mean, even ritual for the people might involve arcane knowledge and specialized sensibility.

  9. Steve, I think your first account of 禮 is roughly this: 禮 is a body of general social rules (or socially normative practices) governing key aspects of typical social relations. You point out that general doesn’t imply “universal”; and that social norms must be readily teachable.

    Given that account (or necessary condition), the narrow or minimalist view seems to come to this: that not all of morality can be reflected in readily teachable general social norms, for some of morality is not readily teachable to people of mediocre upbringing or character.

    Now, the better the norms are, the better-raised the next generation will be, so the more of morality becomes readily teachable to the actual people at hand and can come to be reflected in social norms.

    The minimalist view seems to say there is a limit to such progress, and that’s an interesting proposition. I want to ask: if this is true, what are the main reasons? That natural talent varies? That good norms bring freedom, which brings not only bad upbringing and atypical situations, but also change and thereby new general problems? Something else? If the main reason is that natural talent varies, then I wonder how much heavy weather should be made of it on a theoretical level.


    It seems to me that imagery and metaphor are core mechanisms of moral understanding and teaching, and that a great strength of Confucianism is its appreciation and use of this fact. Much advanced or refined moral understanding comes from applying the assumption that simple norms for simple face-to-face relations have a broader (hence metaphorical) application to other kinds of case. I think of e.g. the image of the contract; and Mencius’ way of teaching; and Youzi (as I read him); and 禮 as a system of imagistic signs. Literally walking behind someone signifies metaphorically walking behind someone. Full grasp of the signs, excellent use of 禮, may involve very refined sensibility.

    Granted, concrete social mores don’t exactly exhaust morality and probably never will. But we can say so without the term 禮. And maybe we shouldn’t stress such a wall in our basic account of 禮, because it can tend to obscure the point of 禮?

    On the other hand, maybe these worries have no application to maximalists who are thinking of 禮 as masses of little rules in old books.

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