Rethinking Confucian Sovereignty

Starting next week, I’m going to be giving a series of lectures, collectively titled “Contemporary Confucian Virtue Politics,” at the University of Michigan. In case any reader might be in Ann Arbor, you’re more than welcome to come; information is here. I thought I would sketch out one of the ideas here and see what y’all think.

One of the thoughts motivating the third lecture (with the same title as this post) is that there is a tension within one prominent way in which sovereignty is articulated in classical Confucianism. My eventual claim is that resolving this tension requires making some significant changes to Confucianism, but that these changes have the effect of allowing the revised system to better realize its core commitments than did the original configuration. In other words, the argument that I end up making for what we can loosely call Confucian democracy is not a claim that democracy is compatible with Confucianism, but rather than it is required by Confucian commitments themselves. In making this argument, I take myself to be building on ideas of Mou Zongsan, and at certain points draw explicitly on some of his arguments.

For now, I wanted to see what folks thought about the “tension” claim. I am focused on Mencius. Roughly, the idea is this:

  • The people (min 民) play a critical role in manifesting Tian’s acceptance of a proposed ruler. It is not the case that one can know independently of the people’s actions — say, via divination — what Tian decrees. (This is a change from Shang and early Zhou.) Treating the people well is not just a responsibility of the ruler, but a necessary condition for earning sovereignty in the first place. Still, the people are not the source of sovereignty, but only its sign. Mencius is not offering a theory of popular sovereignty. The people are reliable indicators of good or bad rule, but they are not themselves in a position to exercise choice or agency, much less are they the source of sovereignty. The people are like thermometers, measuring the quality of rule and thereby indicating the presence or absence of legitimate authority. (I can elaborate on evidence for these views in the text if anyone questions them.)
  • However, Mencius famously argues that “all people (ren ren 人人)” have the rudimentary, spontaneous moral reactions that justify his claim that people’s natures are good. He also says in one place that the great sages Yao and Shun “were the same as other people (與人同耳),” and that affirms that “everyone can become a Yao or a Shun.” In addition, as Irene Bloom in particular has argued, we can find passages in the text that articulate something like a common human dignity. It is put in terms like the “nobility of Heaven,” as opposed to the more prosaic nobility of man; and the “honorable” quality that all people have within themselves, which is different from “the honor that derives from men.”

One way of trying to resolve this tension comes from Hall and Ames, who nicely articulate some of the semantic differences between min (which they render as “masses”) and ren (which they render as “person(s)”). Even if this distinction helps us to understand how Mencius could say all the things he does, though, it does not dissolve the tension. Few mechanisms seem to be considered for systematically moving people from the category of min to ren. Furthermore, we might well find the characterization of the “ignorant masses” as hopelessly condescending and deeply out of touch with these people’s lives. One does not have to be a radical individualist to think that there is something missing in Mencius’s ability to conceptualize life from the perspective of a given peasant farmer. (I say this even though Mencius certainly demonstrates empathy for the plight of the poor and the powerless: he is sometimes quite graphic in his descriptions of their suffering as he tries to draw the attention of rulers to issues of their collective well-being.) His universalist talk about ren calls for such an “extension” of perspectives and of caring, but his political ideals seem far too restricted to allow for taking the people’s distinct perspectives seriously. He sometimes analogizes the ruler to a parent, but should not a parent treat children as distinct — as making unique demands on the parent-child relationship — rather than as a mass with set needs?

That’s the tension I’m concerned with. I look forward to hearing what you think!

33 replies on “Rethinking Confucian Sovereignty”

  1. Hi Steve. What a terrific topic! Thank you.

    I think the tension you have in mind is roughly the following (assuming as I do that Mencius thinks pretty much everyone has the heart of goodness):

    (1) Mencius holds that (a) everyone has the same basic potential to rule and to judge well, and that (b) an essential task of government is to benefit the people, and that (c) popular willingness to obey is at least a reliable sign of sovereignty. Therefore it would seem that (2) Mencius ought also to grant one or more of the following propositions, though he doesn’t:
    DET: The actions of the people determine who is legitimately sovereign.
    NOS: No individual is ever really “sovereign.”
    DEM: There should be institutions whereby the popular acceptance that is a sign of sovereignty is regularly clearly expressed without violence.

    Here’s a basis on which a secular Mencian might feel she has to concede (2):

    What is it for Heaven to choose a sovereign? We can sort of accept the idea that our good hearts are from Heaven if we take “Heaven” here to be an image of “Reason” or the basic tools of good judgment. But we have no such way to make sense of the idea that Heaven chooses a sovereign in some sense radically distinct from popular acceptance of that person. We can, however, make sense of the idea that institutions can be set up to harness the people’s Reason and weed out their (other) passions (as Aristotle might almost put it) so that the public choice of a ruler is as reasonably done as possible, and on that basis understand the idea of a sovereign’s being chosen by “Heaven.”

    In this line of thought, (1b) plays no role, and the insistence that special institutions are needed seems to conflict with (1c).

    One way in which (1c) might play a role in some other argument for (2) is that (1c) suggests that the people’s good potential isn’t just a bare potential far from realization.

  2. Or maybe instead what you mean is that Mencius thinks mainly in terms of care rather than respect, though in places he seems to see the importance of respect.

    Care v. respect seems to me related to the issue of institutionalized democracy v. occasional revolution, but quite separate from the issue of whether popular acceptance is a sign or a determinant. Signs can be respected. I respect the readings on my speedometer, and aim at certain readings for the sake of driving at certain speeds; but I think the readings are signs, not determinants of my speed. Similarly, central bankers and other economic policymakers respect various economic indicators, and aim at certain levels of those indicators for the sake of stable economic growth; but they take the indicators as indicators, not determinants, of stable growth. If Bentham kicked his dog, and the dog yelped and bit him, Bentham might respect that reaction, thinking it’s a sign rather than a determinant of how the dog should be treated.

    When Mencius describes the popular acceptance of a sovereign, he seems to be describing an exercise of choice and agency, which is in turn a sign. He doesn’t seem to be describing the popular reading of a sign.

    As you say, Mencius does describe only “few mechanisms” for helping the many realize or recover their hearts of goodness; but those few are education and secure livelihood. They’re not small mechanisms.

  3. You may have read it already, but the paper “UNDERSTANDING ANCIENT CHINESE SOCIETY: APPROACHES TO REN AND MIN” by Robert H. Gassmann; The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 120, 2000, might be helpful. He cites the Mengzi is numerous places. I don’t entirely agree with all his conclusions about the difference between Ren and Min, though.

    • Thanks Scott — I didn’t know of this essay, but have now downloaded it. I hope that actually reading it, and responding to other comments here, will follow in short order!

    • To Scott and others: I’ve now had a chance to read Gassman’s article, and I have to say I found it almost wholly unpersuasive. The key moves in his argument are: (1) that we can tell that Ren and Min are parallel with and symmetrical to one another, because both are qualified with terms like shu 庶 and zhong 眾; and (2) that this cam be explained if Ren refers to the clan in power, and Min refers to clans different from that of the ruler. From these two points, he goes on to offer readings of a variety of passages. Sometimes his readings make sense, at least on their own; sometimes they struck me as very forced. But the real weakness for me was the shaky foundations for inferring (1) and (2). (1), in particular, seems to ignore all sorts of evidence for disanalogies between Ren and Min — including the much higher propensity (I think, though more detail here would be helpful) of qualifying Min with group terms. I’d be interested to know if others found the argument more convincing!

  4. Steve,

    Really interesting stuff. One might try to ratchet up the tension by noting that everyone–all the 人–have a 是非 capacity, which seems to be, at the very least, a rudimentary ability to judge appropriateness/correctness in moral matters. So, when someone comes along who can rule correctly, on Mencius’s view, that particular ability will develop fully in all the people. So it should result in a society that can, in principle at least, self-govern thru some form of democracy.

    But actually, I’m not sure whether there really is a tension, and what this has to do with democracy — note: I say all this with ignorance of Mou’s arguments.

    Take democracy: The fact that in Mencian ideal society, democratic governance is in principle achievable, doesn’t make democracy necessary for the Mencian ideal society to be sustained. Specialization is an important point of emphasis in Mencius’s arguments against the Agriculturalist-Communitarian-Syndicalists (for lack of a better term?), the followers of Shennong in 3A4. Does that then move us to consider a representative democracy? Maybe. But by hypothesis, any one person is (morally) capable of correct governance, so why should a democracy of any sort be preferable to virtuous autocracy?

    Now back to the tension. I can imagine someone at Michigan asking this (not thinking of anyone in particular): I’m not sure what the initial prima facie tension is supposed to be. The people’s attitudes are a sign of good or bad rule. But that’s actually explained by the fact that each person is, at least at some rudimentary level, capable of recognizing things like good or bad rule. So, there’s no tension — the second bullet point explains the first.

    I hope that’s more helpful than not.

    • Manyul: Do we have sufficient grounds for claiming that the people’s attitudes reflect their recognition of the quality of rule, or merely whether they are materially better/worse off?

    • Chris, my impression is that Mencius’ idea of good policy is so simple that there isn’t much of a distinction here for him.

      Confucius says people will recognize what the qualities of their rulers are; but when he says the people will imitate their rulers’ vice, it’s not clear to me whether that is partly because he thinks the people will mistake a ruler’s vice for virtue. He does seem to think one can keep the people’s trust without ensuring that they have enough food (12.7).

  5. Hi Steve: Thanks for a stimulating post. Since I can’t make it to Michigan, I’ll comment on a few points here. (I enjoyed Bill’s discussion, but I’m going to approach the issues from a different direction.)

    On your main point, I doubt that there’s a tension in Mencius between the political role of the people and the supposedly universal capacity to become virtuous or worthy of respect. Of course, I agree that for us 21st-century readers, the “thermometer” view of the people is hard to square with Mencian claims about a universal capacity for moral agency. That’s because related views of agency have a prominent place in our ideas about the source of political authority (and the limits of state power). But they don’t have a similar place for classical Confucians. Hence I don’t think there’s a tension here for Confucianism, considered on its own terms.

    Accordingly, I’m skeptical of the claim that “democracy…is required by Confucian commitments themselves.” The core commitments of classical Confucianism seem to me anti-democratic (for instance, the commitment to hierarchical social roles in which the sovereign/subject relation parallels the father/child relation and the general lack of emphasis on relations between equals). I think the revised, democratic system you envision might retain certain values endorsed by Confucianism, but it could not accurately be called a “Confucian” system. There is a limit to how much we can change while still calling the result “Confucian.”

    The reason I don’t find a tension in the Mencian view is that for Mencius, as for the Analects and Xunzi, the typical person’s capacity for moral agency, or potential to become virtuous, just doesn’t seem politically relevant, at least not to the justification of political authority or to legislative or decision-making processes. (Of course, it’s relevant to an individual’s fitness for office, and it’s relevant to the measures needed to preserve social order.) The people don’t need to exercise virtue to play their role as thermometer of the quality of a particular ruler’s performance. Nor is restricting their political role to that of a thermometer disrespectful to them, by Confucian lights.

    To better understand early Confucian political thought, I think it’s important to clarify precisely what the “thermometer” function of the people is. You describe the people as “measuring the quality of rule and thereby indicating the presence or absence of legitimate authority.” But “legitimate authority” here is ambiguous. It could refer to (1) the legitimacy of the state and its political authority, or (2) the legitimacy of the possession and exercise of that political authority by a particular person or group. If (2) is what’s at issue, then for Mencius the people’s approval needn’t have anything to do with (1). But usually when we refer to a democratic theory of political authority or political obligation, we’re referring to (1). So for Mencius the people need not play any role at all in indicating that the existence of the state and its political authority is legitimate.

    I suggest that for Mencius the people in fact function as a thermometer of (2), not (1). That is, their responses indicate whether a particular ruler is governing well, a necessary condition for maintaining (not establishing) the legitimacy of his rule. Why (2), not (1)? Because if a ruler is governing badly, only the ruler, not the state as a whole, loses legitimacy. Legitimacy can be recovered simply by replacing the ruler, even if all state institutions remain unchanged. That would not be the case if the issue were (1). (It’s not clear to me whether Mencius has any theory about (1).)

    Moreover, even as a thermometer of (2), the people don’t play an essential role. In other words, I think that for Mencius, one can know independently of the people’s approval whether a particular ruler’s status is legitimate. The substantive feature that constitutes “ruling well” is that the ruler “protects the people” (保民). (He ensures their welfare, sees to their moral education, etc.) This is what actually maintains his legitimacy. So aside from the people’s approval, probably facts such as “the elderly wearing silk and eating meat and the masses not being cold or hungry” are also indicators of legitimacy. Mencius seems to apply a consequentialist theory concerning (2), so we can evaluate a particular ruler’s legitimacy by examining whether he brings about the relevant consequences.

    (I don’t think there’s enough textual evidence to attribute to Mencius the view that Tiān 天 is the source of political authority, for either the state or the individual ruler. Of course, I could be wrong about this.)

    To sum up, I question whether the proposed tension obtains, and I suspect that the people’s role in the justification of political authority, whether (1) or (2), is so minor that there isn’t much basis for a comparison or link to democracy.

  6. Break a leg, Steve. I’m a little far away but with you in spirit. I mean mirror neurons working away, not that I’m likely to theorize about how to make Confucianism democratic, sovereign or anything like that. I’ll leave that to those so dedicated and consecrated . . . . 😉

    But for thoughts for your reflection: I’m thrown a little by the reference to a “way in which sovereignty is articulated in classical Confucianism”—should sovereignty have a translation or definition there? Or are you referring to Mou’s attempt to make Confucianism “national?” I usually volunteer that classical Confucianism had no concept of sovereignty—though they did one of natural leadership hierarchies. Are you conflating them? Or is the project that of updating the conception to make it fit the nation-state linked idea of sovereignty. I think their classical focus in social organization was on tian-xia, not nation-states. The warring states were not nation states but a manifestation of the current condition of disorder “under heaven.”

    I’d also flag “role in manifesting Tian’s acceptance of a proposed ruler” leaving aside the larger question of民 v 人. I thought the mechanism was supposed to be that Tian appoints, not it confirms or approves X’s proposal/nomination of some ruler. That’s of course the crucial issue in Confucian democracy—it’s a version of theocracy or legal positivism (legitimacy limited by effectiveness) depending on how you explicate 天. I suspect we both tend to the latter but then—and this is a more central issue—the role of the people is not merely a sign but part of the mechanism. The people flocking to your side increases the population, agriculture production, wealth, size of your army and their commitment to your worthy benevolence makes them braver and more resilient in battle and the positive (natural) effect is, you win more battles—legitimacy follows effectiveness. So I’d be interested in your elaboration of your argument that their role is only to register 天’s selection. It seems to require tilting more than I thought you were toward the religious authority reading where, like European kings, 天 confers a right to rule.

    So, like others, I find the “however” paragraph more like a “moreover” than a tension. The capacity of the people to make moral 是非 judgments includes their capacity to recognize and judge your benevolence as greater than your rivals—triggering the rest of the naturalistic mechanism. I do agree with Irene that there’s a whiff of Kantian dignity in this aspect of Mencius. I think it can be inflated to squeeze in equal respect (as an originating source of moral judgments) alongside the equal concern Mencius inherits from the Mohists. But as we both learned from Don, the implicit commitment to egalitarianism was probably shared by everyone in the classical period, and of the “hundred schools” we know much about, Confucianism was probably the most shaky about its commitment to moral equality. Implicitly, the claim that we’re “as good as” the “sage kings” hints they have some obvious special authority or de jure status. The endless talk of “superior v small” men seems as often de jure as de facto. So if among their core commitments, you include normative status equality, then while I’d agree they’re committed to it (by their doctrine that all can be sages as well as the paradoxes that follow if they try to spell out sage king authority, rectifying names, the value of ritual, of benevolence etc. without it). But I would call that moral egalitarianism a presupposition shared by all the schools — manifested first and most dramatically in the Mohists—the first quasi-democrats in that tradition. (Daoists probably don’t count because to be a democrat you have to believe in the rule of something.) Legalists, by the way, do count, since they think the Ruler’s moral merit is a sham to bolster the naturalistic tendency to cower and obey, not a real moral superiority.

    I’d charitably read Hall and Ames “masses” not as “unwashed” but as “a people” (Rawls sense in Law of People’s) in contrast to a collection of persons/humans. But I agree it doesn’t have much to do with the thrust of your argument. The key is moral status equality of persons and the crucial conflict is with those aspects of Confucianism that resist the dominant trend of the period toward that – like the persistent paternalism you mention and the whole idea of the ruler as a “teacher” of values to other adults and even the core idea of a social value hierarchy-even of merit. I think Mencius gives you the best case toward your goal but I suspect it has to lead there through a Wang Yang-ming reading.

  7. Wow, brilliant topic.

    Manyul said something I’d like to build off: “So, when someone comes along who can rule correctly, on Mencius’s view, that particular ability [是非 capacity] will develop fully in all the people.”

    I wonder if the problem for Confucian democracy is that democracy is not stable, not self-correcting. Steve is suspicious of the “set needs” of the min, but Confucian thinking has a fair whiff of essentialism about it. The worry would be that if a ruler comes to power who is not sufficiently ren, then society will deteriorate, leading to a deterioration in the ability of the people to know 是非; if we insist on democratic institutions, under those conditions they may choose progressively worse rulers until everything is chaos.

  8. Terrific comments everyone – thanks. I’m going to pick and choose a little what I respond to for now, though I hope to get to everything eventually.

    (1) Confucianism’s core commitments are anti-democratic. I think I agree with this, in the sense you mean – namely, the core political commitments of early Confucianism are anti-democratic – but I want to look at the notion of “core commitments” differently. As the tradition develops, some commitments remain or are enhanced, and others fall into the background. It seems to me that by the time of Neo-Confucianism, at least, one can’t find a more central Confucian commitment than “all people should strive for sagehood.” To be sure, the ideas of differential moral development and hierarchy are also important, and they continue to play roles in how I understand contemporary Confucian political ideals. This leads me to:

    (2) Equality. Chad’s comments are helpful here, but let me clarify that I am not arguing that Confucians are (or should be) committed to an equality of voice in political decision-making. When I said in the original post that I was talking about something we could “loosely call Confucian democracy,” I really meant the “loosely.” (Just trying to save space, really.) What matters, I think, is a way to make sure that everyone’s perspectives are taken seriously (i.e., not simply discounted or ignored), and this means various protections for political participation are important. But this is different from most understandings of democracy.

    (3) Is there a notion of “sovereignty” in ancient China? It’s true that some (Western) scholars argue that it emerges in early-modern Europe. If it’s defined in such a way as to make national identity central, then this may be correct. My definition is “supreme authority within a territory,” which I believe is pretty standard, and I’d argue that it does apply in early China. The king’s authority is supreme: there are no religious or other authorities to challenge him, and he does not rely on coercion or persuasion to exert authority. Furthermore, we can see that the authority is territorial in both abstract and functional ways. Mencius 5A:4, citing a line from the Book of Odes, declares that there is “no territory under heaven which is not the king’s.” Political scientist Victoria Hui writes that “In the multistate era, [states or] guo waged wars against one another, made and broke alliances as they saw fit, and set up diplomatic offices to handle matters of war and peace. In this environment, ancient China developed the art of war and the markers of territorial sovereignty light years before Western practices”

    (4) Chris says that the people-as-thermometer is not needed; what “actually” maintains legitimacy is that the ruler “protects the people.” I would agree that the people are not a black box whose approval is difficult to predict, but I don’t see the justification for the stronger claim you’re making here. As I understand Mencius, it is important that Tian is playing a role in the system. It is not simply a utilitarian justification. By keeping Tian in play, we get source of value independent of one or another ruler’s articulation of state objectives. If this is right, then the people are critical (as signs), since divination is no longer accepted in this context. (So I guess I don’t think this is either “theological” or “legal positivist,” to use categories Chad suggested.)

    (5) I agree with Chris’s statement that people don’t need virtue to be thermometers. I’m not even sure they need to exercise their 是非之心, depending on how exactly we understand this. They move towards and support rulers who provide the conditions for their material well-being, and reject those who do not. (Admittedly, things get more complicated; e.g., Bill mentions LY 12:7 on “trust (信).”) Does this mean, though, that (as Chris says) moral agency is not politically relevant? Since this is moving toward discussion of the “tension,” let me address it explicitly:

    (6) Manyul suggested – and others agreed in various ways – that there is no tension, because “the second bullet point explains the first.” I’ve just said that I don’t think the second bullet point is even needed to explain the first. The tension comes from the fact that although all individuals are conceptualized as (1) capable of ethical development, and (2) subject to criticism (as “petty”) if they do not so develop, nonetheless the min are not allowed to play roles in society that are crucial to their actual development. I believe that the various insights into early Chinese conceptions of agency of Fingarette, Hansen, and Fraser are compatible and even support this idea. To offer just one hint of how, development of the perceptive capacity/skill necessary to react spontaneously like a sage requires that we get a sense of what is at stake, at various levels of analysis, in a given situation. This means being able to see others’ perspectives on the situation, including being able to see how distant as well as local issues may be implicated in our decisions. But this is just impossible without various forms of political participation. In some ways, politics just is this kind of engagement.

    That’s all I have time for this morning! Thanks again, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

  9. Here are three different questions:
    What does it mean to be a “core commitment” of Confucianism?
    What does it mean to be a “core commitment” of classical Confucianism?
    What defines the limits “to how much we can change while still calling the result ‘Confucian’” (Chris)?

    The third question, more than the others, is partly about preserving a distinction between Confucianism and other items in the relevant major discussions, such as Mao and Rawls or Zhuangzi and Mozi.

    One standard that would tend to make X count as more “core” than Y might be that X is supposed to be an essential reason for Y – for if it is, then in case circumstances arise in which X and Y are in conflict (or in case one realizes that X and Y are in conflict, or in case one finds out that sociological truth is such that X and Y conflict), one keeps X and dumps Y. We might then ask whether, in Confucianism, the value of feudal monarchy and other hierarchical social relations is supposed to be grounded in general points about human nature and morality, or vice versa, or neither.

    That standard might be especially important in any large conversation in which “Confucianism” is not taken to include feudal monarchy as an essential feature, which I gather include the largest current mainland discussions (Yu Dan, Hu Jintao, …?).
    Chris, you seem to argue as follows: democratic theories of authority are about the legitimacy of a state (I guess you mean a form of government and/or, say, Qi v. Yue), not a particular ruler, therefore even if we say Mencius ought to resolve a tension by advocating the popular election of emperors, that still doesn’t count as proposing what we call a democratic theory of authority.

    But democratic theories of the legitimacy of forms of government usually demand not that the forms be chosen by the people, but that the forms be democratic forms, yes? So that if Steve can tweak Mencius into demanding elective monarchy, they’d have arrived at a democratic theory addressing your (1), yes?

    Further in the same vein, you write, “The reason I don’t find a tension in the Mencian view is that for Mencius, as for the Analects and Xunzi, the typical person’s capacity for moral agency, or potential to become virtuous, just doesn’t seem politically relevant … to legislative or decision-making processes.

    In the dialogues with rulers in Book 1, we see the people attending (directly or indirectly) to how the ruler decides, and responding accordingly. In 1A they copy his maxims (li 利 or ren yi 仁義). In 1A7 they make judgments about his miserliness. In 1B4 Mencius says “The people will delight in the joy of him who delights in their joy, and will worry over the troubles of him who worries over their troubles.” The picture here, I think, is of a personal response to the ruler’s attitudes. Such attitudes are about the closest thing we have in Mencius to “legislative or decision-making processes.”

    In 5A6, the people follow the late emperor’s son because he was the emperor’s son, rather than the successor the emperor had recommended, for they had enjoyed the bounty of the latter’s government (under the old emperor) for only a few years. If we take this passage as anything beyond a desperate apology it seems to suggest that the people are partly concerned with forms of government, succession rules in particular. (Hereditary monarchy isn’t democratic, but arguably in this case it’s one small step toward a government of laws and not of men.)
    I’m inclined to agree with Chad that “sovereignty” isn’t the best word for your project, Steve. In Western thought, “ownership” seems to be a key model of “sovereignty.” That’s not very Confucian. But Confucianism does saliently stress the distinction between illegitimate and legitimate power. The term “sovereignty” in Western thought is often used to push the silly idea that authority must be complete or it is nothing. Confucianism, and especially Mencian Confucianism, saliently rejects that idea. There are different kinds of authority, says Mencius; and the authority of virtue should be recognized as superior, in various practical ways, to the authority of office. Thus in a way I disagree with Steve’s view that Confucianism holds that “the king’s authority is supreme.”
    Chad writes, “I thought the mechanism was supposed to be that Tian appoints, not it confirms or approves X’s proposal/nomination of some ruler.” Chris is not sure “there’s enough textual evidence to attribute to Mencius the view that Tiān 天 is the source of political authority, for either the state or the individual ruler.”

    In 5A5 Mencius says Heaven gave Shun the empire. And

    “The Emperor can recommend a man to Heaven but he cannot make Heaven give this man the Empire; just as a feudal lord can recommend a man to the Emperor but he cannot make the Emperor bestow a fief on him. … Yao recommended Shun to Heaven and Heaven accepted him. … ‘Heaven sees with the eyes of its people; Heaven hears with the ears of its people.’ …”

    And in 5A6:

    “A common man who comes to possess the Empire must not only have the virtue of a Shun or a Yu, but also the recommendation of an Emperor. That is why Confucius never possessed the Empire.”

    That’s an interesting statement. If it’s not just bs, then it suggests that Heaven is in some way essentially bound up with political order (as suggested by my comment #1 above). That’s a picture of Heaven in between Chad’s Scylla and Charybdis of theocracy and positivism.
    Phil, I thought classical Confucians never thought of democracy. And doesn’t democracy seem to be the most stably self-corrrecting form of government? (Maybe not the American form.) I the think the biggest and most glaring tension in Confucian political theory is this: a ren ruler means ren everybody else, and there were ren rulers, but things still went south.
    Steve, does “all people should strive for sagehood (and can achieve it)” survive on the mainland as a popularly recognized core commitment of “Confucianism”?

    It seems to me offhand that the availability of sagehood can count in favor of monarchy. If I have the ten thousand things with me and I’ve got them actually in view, maybe I don’t need other people’s perspectives.

  10. Lots of interesting posts since I last checked in. A few comments.


    – Your distinction between a notion of state sovereignty and a leadership hierarchy is helpful. It corresponds roughly to the distinction I was drawing between a theory about the legitimacy of the state and one about the legitimacy of the ruler’s status as ruler, but I think your way of putting it better reflects the ideas in the texts. The subtext is that early Chinese political thought doesn’t really have a notion of “the state” comparable to that of post-Enlightenment Western political thought.

    – On the people as “part of the mechanism” by which “legitimacy follows effectiveness,” I’m not so sure. In passages where Mencius is explaining the “kingly way” or what it is to wàng (be a legitimate king), I think it’s clear that legitimacy lies in practicing “benevolent government” and “protecting the people.” The people’s approval and cooperation is a reliable consequence of “benevolent government,” but it’s not the feature that makes one a legitimate king.


    – On Confucianism’s “core commitments”: Your remarks seem to suggest that we can pick out the “core” commitments of classical Ruist texts by looking to what Song and Ming dynasty thinkers picked out as salient. I don’t think you really believe this—unlike Mou and others who probably do—and I hope we can all resist the tendency to collapse the differences between two very different philosophical discourses. The Neo-Con ideal that “All people should strive for sagehood” may be influenced more by Buddhism than by Mencius.

    – I’m curious to hear your grounds for claiming that Tian/Heaven is the source of political authority in Mencius. The main candidate passage that comes to my mind is 1B:10, about Qi’s annexing Yan, but the reference to Tian/Heaven there is the king’s, not Mencius’s. In the entire discussion about the “kingly way” and what it is to be a legitimate king, is there any reference to Tian? All I see is repeated appeals to “benevolent government.” Tian isn’t needed to ground an independent or objective source of value, as “benevolent government” does that.

    – “Development of the perceptive capacity/skill necessary to react spontaneously like a sage requires that we get a sense of what is at stake, at various levels of analysis, in a given situation. This means being able to see others’ perspectives.” I couldn’t agree more. But I don’t find a genuine concern with seeing others’ perspectives in Mencius. As I see it, the early Chinese text in which such concern is prominent is Zhuangzi. (Perhaps, as I’ve long suspected, Steve, you might be a Daoist in Confucian clothing.) A legitimate Mencian king must ensure the people’s welfare and share some of his wealth with them. In order to drive home that point, Mencius himself does take the people’s standpoint, when he imagines what they might say about a king who treats them well or badly. But I don’t think the underlying lesson is that a ruler must develop the habit of taking their perspective, let alone their values or opinions, into consideration.

    Maybe I’m just not being charitable enough in interpreting, say, the notion of “sharing enjoyment” with the people. Perhaps you could argue that for Mencius, a ruler’s authority is legitimate if he fulfills the job description for “king,” and the job description is that he must protect the people and “share enjoyment” with them, and to that extent he sees their perspective. But I doubt that Mencius’s notion of kingly “sharing enjoyment” requires much in the way of seeing others’ perspective.


    – About varieties of democracy, I was gesturing toward the differences between democratic theories of political obligation (my issue #1) and of who should exercise political authority (my issue #2). We might also want to bring the issue of justified political decision-making into the mix. These are all separate issues. What I had in mind on the first issue was, say, a democratic theory of political obligation according to which obedience to the state is justified on the grounds that the state’s policies are the product of democratic institutions and processes embodying fairness and equal respect for all. (On such theories, it’s wrong to disobey the law because in doing so you’re disrespecting your fellow citizens.) So, in answer to your question, on such a theory, a democratically elected absolute monarch would not have legitimate political authority, because absolute monarchy isn’t a democratic system. By contrast, on a democratic theory of ruler-selection, a democratically elected monarch could be a legitimate monarch.

    – On whether the people’s capacity for virtue is politically relevant, I had in mind the discussions of the “kingly way” throughout Books 1A and 1B. The only role for the people I see there is just responding positively or negatively to the ruler’s benevolence or lack thereof. When they respond to his miserliness, for instance (1B1), I don’t think they make any moral judgment. They’re just unhappy and dissatisfied.

    • re: I’m curious to hear your grounds for claiming that Tian/Heaven is the source of political authority in Mencius. The main candidate passage that comes to my mind is 1B:10, about Qi’s annexing Yan, but the reference to Tian/Heaven there is the king’s, not Mencius’s.

      Chris, I would have thought 4A:7 and 5A:5-6 are the places for Steve to look. We could reasonably infer from them that Heaven’s role is at least significant, for Mencius, in determining who comes into and remains in power, couldn’t we? (I’m not really sure whether that translates into “political authority” since that means more than de facto coming-into-and-staying-in-power. It implies legitimacy of authority, right?)

    • 4A7 is pretty tricky. It might just be saying that Tian is the source of the political power of good and bad rulers. If it asserts that Tian is the source of political authority, it seems to argue on the egoistic premise that if you go against heaven you don’t last long.

      5A5-6 (as shown in the quotes in comment #9 above) clearly conceives Tian’s role as at least that of a legitimate feudal superior to the Emperor, as the proximate source of the authority of particular rulers.

      Chris, you write, “The substantive feature that constitutes “ruling well” is that the ruler “protects the people” (保民). (He ensures their welfare, sees to their moral education, etc.) This is what actually maintains his legitimacy.

      But there’s the question of the legitimacy of someone beginning to rule, such as the son of Yu in 5A6. (The mere capacity to protect the people isn’t enough, as shown by the quote from 5A6 about Confucius above.) If the basis of legitimacy were popular acceptance, and popular acceptance (especially in the absence of a legitimate feudal team) were predictably or even essentially dependent on the ruler’s being expected to succeed in protecting the people better than any available alternative ruler (perhaps partly because a stable succession rule points to him), then Mencius’ statements about the importance of protecting the people would still be apt.

      Mencius holds that Tian has implanted the people with the capacity for evaluative judgment (all four hearts), and in the context of approving rulers Mencius says Tian judges through its people’s judgments (5A5, quoted earlier). More generally, insofar as the authority of our hearts of goodness is cast as the fact that they are from Tian (e.g. 7A1), the authority of Tian underlies all our good judgments.

    • I agree, benevolence is Mencius’ approved virtue and the moral origination of the status, but I’m prepared to stick to my view that the mechanism by which it works is the effect on the people and their attitudes and consequent actions—in other words effective benevolent policies. The status does not follow on the achievement of the virtue, but on the actual achievement of that effect.

      Such passages as 1A3-7, 2A7, 2B10, 4B9 and so on are much more interesting and detailed accounts of a more plausible link from effectiveness to legitimacy than are the one sentence summaries or claims about “if you sympathize with them, they will sympathize with you” and doesn’t leave Mencius with the absurd commitment to a view that kind people do routinely become king. It’s only when you have the power and effectively use it to produce benefit to people that a virtue like benevolence can plausibly have anything to do with “achieving kingly status.”

      Then when asked specifically in 5A5 if there was some actual endowment mechanism or action of “giving” the social world to a ruler, Mencius denies it. Nature doesn’t speak and so can’t engage in an authoritative speech act like conferring—it just naturally brings it about that. The only candidate for that I remember seeing is the latter part of 5A5 where acceptance of heaven being shown by the spirits “accepting the sacrifice.” Impressive! Spirits accept my sacrifices all the time and I’m not king yet!!!! As a mechanism of status, this pales in detail and plausibility against the more numerous and richly elaborated accounts of the natural effect that benevolent policies actually bring about. People’s allegiance, non-belligerance, and support—and repeatedly he stresses the more the better—is the effective mechanism. Bigger populations supporting you, dissatisfied populations in your enemy’s camp, the absence of opposition etc. are what make you “get the fate/destiny/mandate” not some kind of religious personified version of nature pronouncing a cosmic speech act or gesture.

      All these and later examples seem to make the status depend on the effect on people and their subsequent natural behavior of support/approval/work/flowing not from the merit itself considered apart from its actual effect. And notice that the people are not necessarily responding to their appreciation of your virtue, but their appreciation of not being killed, having enough to eat, nice clothes and places to live and shelter etc. In other words, the mechanism does not appear to rely on people’s ability to make moral as opposed to prudential judgment. The theory of the moral heart-mind is not crucial to the account.

      So Steve can indeed use this line of argument to justify a kind of Confucian “positivist” democratic view—like H. L. A. Hart’s conception of the “internal” point of view in determining a valid rule of law. The fact of the people’s approval and de facto affiliation is what determines the legitimacy of the ruler/regime/dynasty. Legitimacy is limited by utilitarian effectiveness. The link to the traditional mandate of heaven, like the Western link to divine right/appointment, is left-over, historical dross, to be interpreted away into a gruel that is watery enough to fit in with a realistically natural social history. So tian shows its approval by. . . you in fact become king!

    • I suppose there are four possible ways to take Mencius’ talk of Tian, on the whole:

      1. It means a transcendent person.
      2. It just means power, or whatever’s most powerful. (positivism)
      3. It’s rhetorical smoke and mirrors.
      4. It’s a name for whatever is most dominantly worthy of respect or awe (and in some ways person-like?) in major things that happen that are not determined by one’s own choice. Something like that.

      I tend to forget about the possibility of readings 1 and 2, as I don’t find them very plausible.

      One example of the kind of thing that can fit the description in 4 is the attitudes and values of a community, or a culture, or “society,” or one’s gut feelings obscurely rooted in nature or experience: the sorts of things that the “still small voice” speaks for. Another is overwhelming force (one needn’t be a positivist to think discretion is the better part of valor). Another example is sketched in my comment #1. The details of reading 4 could be worked out in various ways, and part of the function of the term ‘Tian’ might be to avoid getting bogged down in such specifics.

      The main difference between readings 3 and 4 is that there are other grounds for respect than power, and that Mencius stresses that people’s moral potential is (from) Tian. That difference shrinks insofar as Mencius believes in the effective power of people’s moral potential.

      In a post-Darwin world where belief in nature’s providence is no longer reasonable, it is less obvious that a word for something like 4 is valuable.

      Chad, you write, “Such passages as 1A3-7, 2A7, 2B10, 4B9 and so on are much more interesting and detailed accounts of a more plausible link from effectiveness to legitimacy than are the one sentence summaries or claims about “if you sympathize with them, they will sympathize with you” and doesn’t leave Mencius with the absurd commitment to a view that kind people do routinely become king

      Mencius seems to interact with most of his king contemporaries as though they are currently legitimate rulers of their states. Among his contemporaries he seems to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate rulers (2B8). He argues as though in connection with contemporary rulers he regards himself and others as beholden to rules of yi and li about relations with rulers (e.g. 3B7).

      In 2B13, Mencius says a wàngzhe arises every 500 years. I’m not sure we should assume that for Mencius there’s no distinction between being a a “true king,” as they say, and a legitimate one, or between an ideal and a legitimate ruler.

      Even if there is no distinction for Mencius between an ideal and a legitimate ruler, still there seems to be room for a difference between (a) his idea of what it takes to be a true or legitimate ruler, and his idea of what it takes to be one in the special case that one is neither the son nor the chosen successor of the previous legitimate holder of the same office. In Mencius’ day that special case is the current case for the office of Emperor.

      The passages that seem most clearly to identify legitimacy with the ideal case, such as 4A2 and part of 4A1, maybe should be read as applying to the special case of political disorder. And when in 4A3 Mencius says “An Emperor cannot keep the Empire … unless he is benevolent … a commoner cannot preserve his four limbs unless he is benevolent,” he seems to mean only that one must not depart too far from benevolence (cf 4A6).

      Of the passages you cite, 1A3-7 are explicitly about that special case, or the more special subcase where all the rival candidates are nasty pieces of work. The passages from 2 seem a little off-point, and I am not sure they are the ones you mean. That leaves 4B9. I think you mean 4A9, which says that rulers who succeed in the standard way to legitimate rulers can be or become illegitimate by being very maleficent: driving the people to alternative leaders as a predator drives its prey to seek shelter. The view would seem to be that someone who enters office by standard succession is legitimate unless very maleficent (cf. 1B8). If he’s very maleficent, someone who is already a (legitimate?) ruler of some smaller territory can legitimately snatch the greater office by way of the effective beneficence of his local rule. If 4A9 didn’t begin that way, then other parts of 4A9 would strongly support the reading that the only or at least the usual way to be a legitimate ruler is by the outstanding beneficence of one’s previous rule. Except that that would imply that nobody could be a legitimate ruler who hadn’t ruled before.

      None of that directly touches your larger point that there’s no Zeus nor quasi-Zeus going on here. But it might help reduce the impression that 5A5-6 are to be dismissed as significant departures from Mencius’ usual view.

      If there is a difference for Mencius between ideal and legitimate rulership, my use of the sympathy sentence in connection with legitimacy of processes was too much of a stretch. But I do think there’s plenty of reason to think that in Mencius’ ideal case there is a kind of moral reciprocity between ruler and ruled, approaching the quality of a personal relationship, so that Heaven’s approval through the people is a moral response to the ruler’s attitudes, not just a prudential choice.

      That Mencius often omits to mention the aspects of the relation that go beyond mere prudence, especially in talking to the kind of person who is prone to think of things in that light, doesn’t settle the matter. When Mommy tells me that I can’t expect people to be friends with me unless I’m nice to them, share my toys with them, don’t hit them etc., her words allow the reading that she thinks of friendship as mere prudential cooperation and discounts the expressive aspects of sharing and hitting. Still that reading is implausible. Of course, if Mommy were talking about political authority the prudential reading would be more plausible. But Mencius explains political morality as an extended application of attitudes that one initially has toward close ones.

      For example, he compares rulership to parenthood (except that one can lose the status of ruler by great maleficence). “No benevolent man ever abandons his parents, and no dutiful man ever puts his prince last” (1A1); “If one … cannot, in ruling, avoid showing animals the way to devour man, wherein is he father and mother to the people?” (1A4). “If you can truly execute these five measures, the people of the neighboring states will look up to you as to their father and mother; and since man came into this world no one ever succeeded in inciting children against their parents” (3A5).

      Mencius also compares benevolent ruling to friendly social interaction between ruler and people (enjoying a show more by enjoying it together); and he tries to draw the ruler’s attention to the warm feelings the people would have toward him if he treated them well. (The sympathy sentence captures well the whole argument of 1B1 and 1B4, so we should probably read 1A2 and 1B5 similarly.)

      Governing better makes for a better relationship, going well beyond prudence. “Practice benevolent government and the people will be sure to qin 親 their superiors and die for them” (1B12). The willingness to die is an important part of the loyalty that Mencius stresses (1B13, cf 1B15), and he attributes it to a sense of rightness or duty (2A2, 2A3).

      When Mencius says killing with government is like killing with a knife, or that a big off-limits park is like setting a trap for the people, or that poor government is like mistreating a friend’s wife and children when he has entrusted them to one’s care, the images suggest not just harm, but also offense. A good ruler will feel offended when his people are attacked. “If there was one bully in the empire, King Wu felt this to be a personal affront. This was the valor of King Wu” (1B3).

      Hence when Mencius speaks of the people’s being drawn to benevolence (4A9), I think he means being drawn to benevolence.

  11. Steve states that “all individuals are conceptualized as (1) capable of ethical development, and (2) subject to criticism (as “petty”) if they do not so develop”. Xiaoren is of course generally a term of moral disapproval in early Confucian texts; if it is the case that the writers think “All people should strive for sagehood”, then we should expect them to envision a sociopolitical ideal wherein xiaoren do not exist. There are several passages in Mengzi, however, where it seems clear that xiaoren must exist, in large numbers, in any functioning society that Mengzi envisions.

    Consider 3b5, where the xiaoren who follow the victorious King Wu are greeted and provided with food and drink by the xiaoren formerly subject to Tyrant Zhou. King Wu’s junzis, by contrast, are given rich silks by their junzi counterparts. Here both terms seem to indicate primarily social class, as they did before becoming terms of art in moral discourse. In 3a4 Mengzi declares government (by the heart) the task of great men (daren), and physical toil the task of xiaoren; xiaoren provide the food and material goods that compensate great men for their administrative toils. To be sure, in the majority of instances “xiaoren” does indicate a person who is, if not contemptible, then at least limited in moral development and perspective. This means that, according to Mengzi, a considerable majority of people must be morally sub-optimal for the division of labor to work properly. Among the tasks to which xiaoren are suited by their inferior moral development is slaughtering and butchering animals (1a7), which activities a junzi approves of but could never do himself.

    I think that this might be another way in which society is like a family for Mengzi. Every family includes multiple generations: there are always parents and children. Xiaoren are moral children, and the elite are moral parents. (The analogy is not exact, since the xiaoren greatly outnumber the junzi and do all of the physical labor.) Children are not to be given deliberative authority, but they are certainly to be loved and cared for. If we were all sages, then we would all be parents, and I think Mengzi would find that kind of society unintelligible.

    In Mengzi, discussions about universal moral capacity are not directly related to any claims about the common people. They are usually aimed at rebutting the claim that particularly crass or brutal individuals, like most kings at the time, could never be made moral. The concern is explicit and repeated throughout the text that it might be futile to attempt reforming one’s lord; King Xuan is popularly suspected of being incorrigible in 2b2. Mengzi spends far more time trying to reform lords than he does interacting in any capacity with the common people. And when he does talk about individuals who raise themselves up from commoner status to become advisers to princes, the focus is precisely on those individuals’ fitness for inclusion in an exclusive moral and intellectual elite.

  12. As I think about it, the “core commitment” question points toward an interesting methodological issue. Chris writes:

    Your remarks seem to suggest that we can pick out the “core” commitments of classical Ruist texts by looking to what Song and Ming dynasty thinkers picked out as salient. I don’t think you really believe this—unlike Mou and others who probably do—and I hope we can all resist the tendency to collapse the differences between two very different philosophical discourses. The Neo-Con ideal that “All people should strive for sagehood” may be influenced more by Buddhism than by Mencius.

    As Bill noticed, though, what I’ve been referring to isn’t the core commitments of Mencius or of classical Confucianism, but of Confucianism. That does not mean that I am unaware of the differences between Classical- and Neo-Confucianism. They are real and important. (One of the reasons Chris likes me so much is that my Neo-Confucians were partly influenced by his Daoists ;-)) So I definitely part company with Mou and those who think that Neo-Confucianism was already at least implicit in early Confucianism, and pretty much explicit by the time of the Yi Jing’s “Great Commentary.” What I was trying to say in #8 (1) was that as traditions evolve, so do their core commitments, although if there’s not some significant continuity, advocates of novelty are going to have a hard time convincing their peers that these are indeed the core commitments of an on-going tradition. Given what Mencius says about everyone able to become a Yao or Shun, though, I think that Zhu Xi et al can be forgiven for thinking of “all people can and should strive for sagehood” as an on-going, core commitment of their tradition. My view is that the best way to judge what counts as a continuation of, or core commitment of, a given tradition is to see what those committed to the tradition in question themselves think. (Bill – I like this better than an abstract “X is an essential reason for Y” approach, although adherents might use analyses like that to clarify things to themselves.)

    I agree with Stephen that there are moments of ambiguity between moral evaluation and social distinction in the uses of junzi and xiaoren (not to mention “shi 士” in 1A7), and am willing to go along with some of his story, but feel that this is just grist for my mill: it explains why Mencius might not have been bothered by the tension in his account — that is, Stephen’s discussion serves a role akin to Ames and Hall on min versus ren — but it does not make the tension go away.

    • (That was “X is supposed to be an essential reason for Y,” sc. supposed by the Confucians.)

  13. My view is that the best way to judge what counts as a continuation of, or core commitment of, a given tradition is to see what those committed to the tradition in question themselves think.

    You must mean not “what commitments they have,” because the issue is how to select among those. I’m guessing you don’t mean “what commitments the majority of people in the tradition hold.” Maybe you mean “what commitments they regard as core” – but that would preserve the question “what do we mean here by ‘core’?” Or maybe you mean “what commitments they hold more strongly,” i.e. which ones they they are least ready to drop. Then one wants to ask “in the face of what kind of pressure?” If the pressure we have in mind is appropriate pressure, i.e. the pressure of reason, that seems to bring us back to my X and Y. But not so fast: for we can distinguish two kinds of pressure of reason: pressure from lines of thought the Confucians are relatively likely to think of on their own, and pressure from lines of thought that might be suggested to them by anyone. Only the latter brings us back to my X and Y.

    I suppose there are various reasons for being interested in the first place in whether the Mencius or Confucianism at its core argues for democracy. (1) One might be looking for wisdom about democracy, or about the implications of certain Confucian views. In that case it doesn’t matter what commitments are core. (2) One might be interested in sussing out what Mencius was actually trying to accomplish in his complicated dancing with rulers – maybe he was trying to work toward something like democracy. (3) One might be interested in evaluating the proper relative prestige of Confucianism as opposed to other kinds of old Chinese philosophy. (4) One might be interested in engaging, directly or indirectly, in current ideological battles in which some people identify themselves as Confucians, or tend to like a view (other things equal) insofar as they can identify it as Confucian and therefore Chinese.

    What have I left out?

    If the reason is (4), then maybe the relevant conception of “core commitments” is the commitments of Confucians who are having lines of thought presented to them by non-Confucians (and who therefore find themselves rejecting e.g. commitments to feudalism). That conception would bring us back to my X and Y.

    I think the fact that, as you say, adherents might use my rational-order criterion to evaluate things for themselves explains why this standard is a respectful one to use in working toward contributing to current ideological debates.

  14. Hi Steve,

    I continue to have fundamental doubts about both methodological and substantive issues. I’m sure we’ll all carry on debating these for a long time, in a playful Daoist spirit, since that’s what makes us such happy fish.

    1. You propose that “the best way to judge what counts as a continuation of, or core commitment of, a given tradition is to see what those committed to the tradition in question themselves think.” But we agree that those committed to the tradition may not be reliable interpreters of the earlier texts and thinkers with which they identify. That they’re committed to the tradition doesn’t bestow a privileged status on their interpretations of it, including their views of its “core” commitments. So let me make a methodological counterproposal: to be justified, generalizations about a tradition as a whole must capture features, or at least tendencies, shared by most of the major texts or figures in the tradition. In the Confucian tradition, the claim that “all people can and should strive for sagehood” might be such a feature.

    2. But there’s an important ambiguity in that claim. Is it stating only that it’s possible for anyone to be a sage, or that every healthy person has the ability to be one, much as we all have the ability to walk or talk? This is the same ambiguity that Xúnzǐ unpacks in explaining why, given that “the man in the street can be a Yǔ 禹,” there aren’t more sages among us. Although it’s possible (可以為) for anyone to be a sage, he says, that doesn’t entail that everyone is able (能) to be one. In principle, anyone could develop the ability to be a sage; in practice, it’s so difficult that few people do.

    So, in the early Confucian tradition, at least, the commitment to equality of potential goes hand-in-hand with an expectation of inequality in actual ability. This is one reason I think the doctrine that “anyone can be a sage” can’t easily be extended into a doctrine of political equality, which in turn might motivate some form of democracy. Contrast, for instance, Locke’s view that men are by nature free, equal, and independent. He isn’t referring to people’s potential. He means all actual normal adults (the males, anyway).

    3. Your major thesis is that claims such as “all people can be sages” commit Confucians to some form of democracy. I think this thesis will be hard to sustain, because a commitment to “all people can be sages” seems compatible with commitments to a range of non-democratic political systems. First, Confucians can consistently argue—as in fact some of them do—that people who have yet to achieve sagehood should be ruled by others who have, or who are at least morally more advanced. Second, I doubt there’s a conceptual link between equality of moral potential and democracy (or political equality), or between actual moral sagehood and democracy (or political equality). Several of the actual purported sages were subjects of absolute monarchs. There doesn’t seem to be a conceptual tension in this. (Of course, whether there’s a tension or not will depend on our substantive account of sagehood.)

    An analogy: I contend that parts of the Zhuāngzǐ are committed to a form of political liberalism, on which all individuals should be allowed to live, without government interference, in a way that comes naturally to and pleases them, provided they allow others to do so as well. But I don’t see a direct line from that commitment to democracy. One might argue that, by our lights, a democratic system is most compatible with that commitment. But I don’t think the commitment to liberalism requires democracy. These seem to me separate issues.

  15. I’d like to respond to Chris’s three points in #14. I agree that those committed to a tradition may not be reliable interpreters. One partial remedy for this is further debate among those committed to working within and extending the tradition: no consensus among current interpreters could ever fix, for all time, the meaning of the tradition. The criterion you offer, “…must capture features, or at least tendencies, shared by most of the major texts,” might well be one relevant consideration. Making it central, though, renders this type of debate in too narrowly descriptive terms, though. There are strengths and weaknesses to the ways in which the idea of daotong 道統 has been used by Confucian thinkers, but one strength is its enabling thinkers to distinguish something like truth from something like general acceptance. It doesn’t matter that 1000 years of Confucian scholars (Han through Tang) took the tradition to be focused on X and Y; in fact, the Way we should follow is A and B. In short, if the goal is articulating the Way, debates about the meaning of traditions will always be normative and the criteria will always be part of the debate. In a tradition like the Confucian one, making a case that one’s reading of the tradition grasps what is core to earlier texts and insights will indeed be important, but again, not in as descriptive a fashion as I felt you were putting forward.

    The distinction you (and Xunzi) make in point 2 is a fine one, and you’re absolutely right about the expectation of inequality, which brings me to your point #3. The main points I need to make here are that: (1) I haven’t said much, in this post and the comments, about the political form I’m arguing follows from Confucian commitments. I hint in point 2 of my response in #8 that “democracy” is an awkward fit for what I’m after. Inclusive political participation (though not necessarily equal) and guarantees of civil and political rights are two keys. (2) More importantly, I’ve really said almost nothing about the argument I use to get to my claims about what a contemporary Confucian polity should look like. My limited goal in this post was to address the tension I see in the Mencius. The arguments for the larger goal do not look like a Lockean account. (Maybe I’ll have time to post about some of these other arguments, but not right now. For what it’s worth, one of the main arguments appears in Ch. 11 of Sagehood.)

    Thanks again to all for your stimulating comments. I wish I were able to reply to every point, but if I made sure to reply to every point, I would find it necessary to invest so much time in blogging that I would then be disinclined to blog! My sense is that the etiquette of blogs allows me to reply in the sporadic fashion I have without generating any hard feelings. I hope this is true; it should be, I think!

    • Good luck with the talks, Steve.

      A crucial point you make here (#15) is that, for your present purposes, your construal of “Confucianism” is normative, not descriptive. This distinction deserves emphasis, as it fundamentally shapes the nature of the discussion. Many issues that are prominent on a descriptive construal of Confucianism may be less significant on a normative construal.

      (Of course, a particular normative brand of Confucianism must still have enough in common descriptively with earlier brands for us to defensibly call it “Confucian.”)

  16. Absolutely, Steve! Sorry, I …

    Chris, I think that for Mencius, legitimate (even ideal) monarchy is in an important sense not absolute monarchy. The moral authority of the ruler to command has moral limits reflecting the authority of other parties. To put the point another way, even the Emperor is not at the top of the feudal moral hierarchy, not absolutely sovereign, even if all the land and people fall under his fiefdom.

    –“You were … about to go to court, but on being summoned by the King you changed your mind. This would seem to be contrary to the rites.”
    –“… There are three things which are acknowledged by the world to be exalted: rank, age, and virtue. At court, rank is supreme; in the village, age; but for giving help to the world and ruling over the people it is virtue. How can a man, on the strength of the possession of one of these, treat the other two with arrogance? Hence a prince who is to achieve great things must have subjects he does not summon. …”

    “What was it that Confucius found praiseworthy in the gamekeeper? His refusal to answer to a form of summons to which he was not entitled.” (3B1)

    –“[If Emperor Shun’s father killed someone and the officer Gao Yao arrested him], would Shun not try to stop it?”
    –“How could Shun stop it? Gao Yao had authority for what he did.” (7A35)

    In these cases Mencius does not argue that the ruler is not a ruler; he argues that this or that particular order is outside the ruler’s authority.

    (Aristotle argues for mixed government partly on the grounds of the authority of virtue. Virtue justifies absolute kingship (basilea) only in case one person’s virtue outweighs the sum of everyone else’s.)

  17. I am coming in rather late here but thought I would chime in briefly to suggest that perhaps any tension would be based on how firmly legitimacy is rooted in the concept of 天命。As bloodlines are not fundamentally involved in establishing legitimacy but rather if poliical legitimacy and (sovereignity) are based on an abstract philosophical concept of the will of Heaven, then I do not see any tension in the way you describe. (On the other hand, if Mencius did not base his concept of sovreignity in 天 as I think CF suggested below, then perhaps such a tension does comes to the surface). However, as it was my understanding that Confucius did, in fact, root his ideas of political legitimacy in 天命 then not only do I not see the tension but I don’t think you can make the democracy claim…Here’s why:

    Basic stuff but packed right into the concept of 天命 is the concept of 革命. “Revolution” being a poor translation; problematic because 革命 is not “revolution” but in Japanese is : 天命を革むこと。 “Mandate of heaven is altered:” Or to make a more precise translation, Heaven alters Mandate of Heaven.
    Hence, even where there was no human involvement, no “revolution” to speak of, when dynasties changed in ancient China, the word 革命 was used.

    The human thermometer/barometer is just one of several symptoms to show heaven’s favor or disfavor with the ruler. But, in the same way that natural disasters or auspicious sightings were used to express the virture or lack of virtue of any given ruler, so too was a general contentedness of the people– as was also the control of certain works of art which also conferred legitimacy (ie, 鼎).

    And, therefore, it should come as no surprise that ancient rulers would have been well aware that– in theory– at least– their days were numbered, And so it was always in their interest to put forth proof of heaven’s favor as well as displays of their own moral virtue. ( It should also, I suppose, come as no surprise that the hexagram following “kakumei” (49: 革命) is “bronze tripod” (50: 鼎))

    As a resulting symptom of heaven’s favor and a ruler’s virtue, “the people” here just has to be viewed in the collective, I think, as a feeling or not of general satisfaction of the population. This is very different from legitimacy conferred in democracy where individual agency is a central issue in the conferring of political legitimacy.

    This is not to say that Confucian thought categorically denies human agency… I don’t think this this is so and I agree that in theory any man could become great, virtuous and rule– by will of his moral agency. But when it comes the provision of political legitimacy, I think we are talking apples and oranges in trying to make claims for Confucian democracy… you would be required, I think to swap 天 for 人 (not 民)…?

    Very much enjoyed reading through this thread. And I also wish the lecture was on podcast. Cheers.

  18. PS:

    I guess this was my roundabout way of saying that if legitimacy is not necessarily based on bloodlines OR political Will of the people but rather is based in definition on a concept of the will of heaven, then I cannot see the tension or the requirement as you were suggesting… hope that was somewhat clear or understandable. There is a difference, I am suggesting, between political will (true political agency) and general dis-contentedness of a population (symptomatic expression like a natural calamity)

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