I’ve been recently thinking about an issue that comes up in both the Daodejing and the Analects. DDJ 63, specifically, is commented on in Analects 14.34. In the two texts, we see different positions concerning how one should respond to enmity 怨 yuan. DDJ 63 reads:
Act without acting, attend to affairs without attending to them, taste without tasting. Take the large as small and the many as few, respond to enmity with excellence. Plan for the difficult when it is easy, perform the [tasks] that are large when they are tiny. The difficult affairs of the world are necessarily composed from the easy, the great affairs of the world are necessarily composed from the tiny. Therefore the sage in the end doesn’t perform [tasks] that are large, and is thereby able to complete the large [tasks]…(my own translation—criticisms and suggestions welcome!)
In Analects 14.34, Confucius rejects this. His response is:
Then how can you reply to excellence? Use uprightness to reply to enmity, and use excellence to respond to excellence.
My first thought was to wonder whether both authors understand bao yuan yi de (respond to enmity with excellence) in the same way. What does DDJ 63 mean by this, and what does the author of Analects 14.34 think the DDJ 63 formulation means?
My own reading of bao yuan yi de in DDJ 63 is that it is a tactic for diffusing conflict. This ties it together well with the rest of the chapter (barring the last sentence or two, which I didn’t include above, and I’m not sure I understand). It might be meant as a particular instance of a general strategy of accomplishing goals by preventing the construction of obstacles. We might thus read the line da xiao duo shao as “deal with the large when small and the many when few,” which would connect it well with bao yuan yi de and the rest of the chapter. The sagely person thus accomplishes what for others are difficult tasks by tackling things when they are easy. Thus, we might read DDJ 63 as making the claim that overcoming one who has enmity toward you can be done more easily by transforming that enmity through (moral?) excellence. This is part of the idea behind historical movements like Gandhi’s nonviolence campaign and doctrines such as the Christian notion of “turning the other cheek.”
Is this the right way to read DDJ 63? And is this how the author of Analects 14.34 reads it? Assuming the Analects author does read it this way, what does this say about the response of Confucius? It would not necessarily show that Confucius does not think such a method can be effective to undermine conflict, but it does seem to show that he thinks following such a method would not be proper. Of course, this leaves open the interesting (to my mind, at least) question: would Confucius find something improper even if it would have the result of leading to greater social harmony? We would have to conclude this if the view of Analects 14.34 is that bao yuan yi de is effective in undermining conflict but nonetheless not proper. Is there any evidence that this is the view expressed in 14.34? What might make such a response to enmity improper even if socially efficacious?
Also, how should we read the alternative Analects 14.34 offers to DDJ 63, to repay enmity with uprightness (zhi)? Perhaps part of what is going on here is that if one repays enmity with excellence in the way DDJ 63 suggests, people will lose their motivation to act with excellence, because people will (if they’ve taken the message of DDJ 63 to heart) respond with excellence no matter how one acts. If this is what is going on in Analects 14.34, it suggests a view that conflicts with Analects 2.3 (that the best way to order people is through excellence, as it creates a sense of shame that leads people to order themselves), because it suggests that people will generally not act with excellence absent external motivating forces, such as the reward of others responding to them with excellence.
However, this reading suggests that the bao yuan yi de of DDJ 63 is ultimately not efficacious in the way DDJ 63 claims (if my reading of the DDJ passage is correct), and so Confucius objects to the efficacy of bao yuan yi de rather than objecting that it is not proper (although it may be both inefficacious and improper). How might one understand Confucius’ response if we take it that he accepts the efficacy of responding to enmity with excellence but thinks that it should be avoided because it is (ritually?) improper?
There are passages elsewhere in the Analects that suggest that actions with positive consequences can nonetheless be improper and thus avoided by the morally exemplary person (junzi). Most clearly we see this in the case of ritually improper actions. Social order in general may be aided by the willingness of sons to turn in their criminal fathers, as in the case of the “upright” people of She in Analects 13.18, but ritual calls for sons to protect their fathers and thus turning one’s father in is improper. Analects 3.25 also might support such a view, as Confucius draws a distinction between music that is beautiful but not good. Is social harmony here like the “wealth and honor” of Analects 4.5, in that it is good only if gained in a ritually proper manner? It could be that Confucius sees the social harmony to be attained by something like bao yuan yi de as a positive thing, but something outweighed by the ritual requirement of responding in kind. If so, however, then social harmony can’t be used to justify ritual (a justification that a number of people, including myself, find in the Analects, based on passages like 1.2). So do we face a dilemma here, either 1) holding that Analects 14.34 rejects the efficacy of DDJ 63’s bao yuan yi de, and thus advances the view that responding to excellence with excellence is necessary in order to create motivation for acting properly, but thereby creating a tension with the views of Analects 2.3; or 2) holding that Analects 14.34 accepts the efficacy of bao yuan yi de for creating social harmony, but rejects it as ritually improper, thus undermining the social harmony justification for ritual?
Or perhaps my initial reading of DDJ 63 is wrong. That is, the earlier part of the chapter, including bao yuan yi de, could be making a different point than the later parts. What then might it mean?