Did Confucius think our virtues are contagious?

Did Confucius think that if one of us has general virtue, or some particular virtue such as courage or filial piety, that general or particular virtue will have a substantial tendency to spread directly to the people around her, even if she holds no government position?

Here I’ll survey Confucius’ statements in the Analects and conclude that the answer is No. Confucius probably did not hold that view.  (I gave the opposite reading in both my published papers on Chinese philosophy.)

I’ll make the argument in a series of top-level comments below this post, for the convenience of objectors. I’m not sure how quickly the Machines will let me post multiple comments; I’ll say when I’ve come to the end of my prepared comments.




23 replies on “Did Confucius think our virtues are contagious?”

  1. There are as many as eight passages in which Confucius might seem to endorse the general claim that virtue even out of office has a significant tendency to propagate by inspiring copying or reciprocation. Let’s have a look at them.

    First: 12.19

    Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governing, saying, “If I were to execute those who lacked the Way in order to advance those who possessed the Way, how would that be?”
    Confucius responded, “In your governing, Sir, what need is there for executions? If you desire goodness, then the common people will be good. The Virtue of a gentleman is like the wind, and the Virtue of a petty person is like the grass—when the wind moves over the grass, the grass is sure to bend.” (Slingerland)

    Here Confucius speaks of the influence of the junzi 君子; and the junzi is not necessarily in office.

    But Confucius would seem to mean the ruler here; he would seem to be elaborating on “子為政.” If he meant Ji Kangzi to understand that he was speaking of the power of the example of any virtuous person, he would have been inviting the reply, “Would you do that for me please?”

    Second: 8.2

    … If the gentleman is kind to his relatives, the common people will be inspired toward goodness; if he does not neglect his old acquaintances, the people will honor their obligations to others.” (Slingerland)

    Here too, although Confucius speaks simply of the junzi, the usual reading is that Confucius is talking of the effect of the governors’ virtue, not the effect of virtue merely. Either junzi means ruler here, or the remark is framed by a tacit background assumption that in talking about the virtues here we are talking about virtue for a ruler or influential official, not just virtue simpliciter. The background assumption is evidenced for us by the term “the people” (民), by common sense about what it would take for a person’s virtue to have such vast consequences, and by the fact that the people were not all honoring their obligations to others.

    The same tacit background assumption is evidenced in many other passages. Here are five:

    When Fan Chi asks about farming and gardening at 13.4, Confucius says the question is a petty one because the governors (上) don’t need to know about such things; their mere virtue is enough. The tacit assumption is that the question is for the sake of governing.

    When Fan Chi asks about wisdom at 12.22, Confucius says to promote the worthy. The shared tacit assumption seems to be that in asking about benevolence and wisdom, Fan Chi is asking about benevolence and wisdom in government.

    When Fan Chi asks about wisdom at 6.22, part of Confucius’ answer is: “Respect the rights of the people.”

    When Zhong Gong asks about benevolence at 12.2, Confucius answers in part, “Employ the people as though assisting at a great sacrifice.”

    At 13.6 Confucius says,

    When one’s personal conduct is correct, things go right without one’s issuing orders. If one’s personal conduct is not correct, even one’s orders will not be followed.” (Legge)

    Slingerland’s translation begins, “When the ruler is correct, ….” Surely Confucius is referring to people in government, rather than saying that government office is unnecessary (cf. 12.17). Does the use of 其 clearly indicate that he was referring to some unrecorded antecedent, so that the assumption that we are talking about governing officials was probably not tacit after all?

    Since the tacit background assumption is adequately evidenced in many passages, it is likely to be the tacit background of many more.

  2. Third: 14.42

    Zilu asked about the gentleman.
    The Master said, “He cultivates himself in order to achieve respectfulness.”
    “Is that all?”
    “He cultivates himself in order to bring peace to others.”
    “Is that all?”
    “He cultivates himself in order to bring peace to all people. Cultivating oneself and thereby bringing peace to all people is something even a Yao or a Shun would find difficult.”

    It is the last statement here, that the junzi trains himself in order to bring peace to the people at large, that could suggest a large effect, a public effect, from the character of one private individual. Confucius does not describe the effect as the spread of virtue, but that might be part of what he had in mind.

    Confucius is presumably trying to get Zilu to stop focusing pridefully on external enemies, and Zilu’s repeated question pushes Confucius to talk about large effects. But Confucius is silent here on how those effects would come about—silent about whether or not they would depend on the junzi’s attaining office (which seems to be Confucius’ idea of the usual aim of the kind of cultivation he teaches), and also about whether or not they would come about by contagion of virtue. The examples Confucius gave are of emperors. Slingerland comments that the junzi is “understood here as the gentleman-ruler”; but even if we don’t read the word that way, we may reasonably think that Confucius’ remarks here are informed by the background assumption that the purpose of self-cultivation is to become an effective government official.

    • I’m not sure I agree with the idea that the junzi should be understood as “gentleman-ruler.” Nor is it clear that *the* purpose of self-cultivation is to become an effective official. That might be one purpose among a few others, but the right relationship seems to me to be that junzis make better officials because of their virtues, not that they are instruments (Analects 2.13) created for officialdom.

    • Hi Manyul,

      Right. Thanks you.

      I too am not sure “junzi” should be understood here as “gentleman-ruler.”

      I should not have suggested that the conversants were assuming that the only purpose of self-cultivation is to be a good official; I fancy I only meant they were making that assumption about the ultimate achievement a junzi might aim for, the last and greatest of the ends Confucius gave, especially as relevant to Zilu.

      I don’t think having a proper ultimate aspiration would make a someone a “tool” in a sense Confucius would disparage!

    • I’m sorry! I expressed myself poorly yet again. What I’m trying to propose is that there was a general background understanding among Confucius and his disciples that their training with him was in the expectation of government position, so their self-cultivation that they were discussing with him was especially, normally, in contemplation of life as an official. Ideally a very high official. That this was understood, and didn’t have to be mentioned each time, is amply evidenced.) So when we read the third and highest aspiration Confucius gives to Zilu for a junzi’s self-cultivation, it is reasonable to think that he is thinking of conduct in high office as the main way the public-spirited aim would be achieved. We need not turn to a reading that strains charity, such as that by mere self-cultivation one could bring peace to the people.

      (It seems that in the Analects Confucius commonly answers “Smith asked about X” as though it were almost “Smith asked to be told what he needed to focus on at the time about X.”)

  3. Fourth: 12.1

    Yan Hui asked about Goodness.
    The Master said, “Restraining yourself and returning to the rites constitutes Goodness. If for one day you managed to restrain yourself and return to the rites, in this way you could lead the entire world back to Goodness. The key in achieving Goodness lies within yourself—how could it come from others?” … (Slingerland)

    “天下歸仁焉” seems to refer to some large and widespread effect. So Confucius may seem to be saying here that even a private person’s ren is powerfully contagious, or at least propagative of some kind of virtue.

    Waley takes Confucius to be talking here about the effect of a ruler’s ren.

    Yen Hui asked about Goodness.
    The Master said, “He who can himself submit to ritual is Good. If (a ruler) could for one day ‘himself submit to ritual,’ everyone under Heaven would respond to his Goodness. For Goodness is something that must have its source in the ruler himself: it cannot be got from others.” … (Waley)

    There is much to be said for this reading.

    Suppose (1) we take Confucius to be talking instead about the widespread effect of a private person’s ren.

    Then (1a) if we take “歸仁” to mean becoming ren, the implication seems to be that for almost everyone, being ren can be up to somebody else. Here are two problems with this reading. (i) Confucius’ question “Is being ren up to oneself, or up to others?” (為仁由己,而由人乎哉?) must then be read, not as a rhetorical question suggesting that being ren is up to oneself (as the beginning of Confucius’ remark might suggest), but rather as a thought-assignment with a complex answer. But he so often speaks by way of rhetorical question. (ii) If one person’s being ren for a day would make everyone ren, then nobody has ever been ren. (For not everyone now is ren.) But Confucius seems to think some people have been ren (7.15, 14.16; cf. 1.3, 1.6, 4.1).

    Or even if (1b) if we take people’s “歸仁焉” not to require their becoming ren, there are still serious problems. It seems radically implausible that the world would find out about a private person’s day of ren. Indeed, Confucius elsewhere notes that virtue can go unrecognized (1.1 etc.).

    (1ab) No matter how we take “歸仁”, so long as we take Confucius to be talking about the effect of a private person’s goodness, there is the problem that Confucius elsewhere says that the wish for ren brings ren directly (7.30), and that for three months at a stretch Yan Hui had in his mind nothing contrary to ren (6.7). Of course, arguably the remark at 7.30 must reflect a different conception of ren from the one Confucius is discussing at 12.1, because 7.30 seems to bypass the ritual discipline of 12.1, which might take time to bear fruit. But Confucius does not say at 12.1 that the only way to become ren is to follow the program he lays out there. And his thought may be that the ritual discipline is necessary in order to want ren.

    If on the other hand (2) we follow Waley’s reading, then all these problems and tensions disappear. On Waley’s reading, Confucius’ remark is not at war with the facts, not at war with Confucius’ statements elsewhere, and not at war with itself.

    Granted, another problem then arises: If a governing official were to be ren for a day, presumably the primary effect would be on that official’s own domain. But Confucius spoke here of the whole world. He did think that the effect of good government is felt outside the borders (13.4, 13.16), but would the effect reach the whole world? That is a problem of degree.

    On Waley’s reading Confucius is yet again making the point that the virtue of a ruler is as the wind to the grass of the people. There is no thought here of virtue’s being powerfully contagious without high office. The point is rather, we may say, the opposite.

    (Another reading might have Confucius saying only that if everyone were to return to ritual for a day, ren would fill the world. Whatever the merits of this reading, it does not involve the idea that the virtue of a private person tends to spread, which is our main concern here.)

  4. Fifth: 5.3

    The Master said of Zijian, “What a gentleman he is! If Lu were really without gentlemen, where did he learn how to be like that?” (Slingerland)

    But this need not be read as arguing from the tacit premise that virtue tends to be copied.

    For, first, perhaps we should read “斯焉取斯?” as: “Then this one [Zijian], where did we find him?!” or “Then where did he [the disciple who introduced Zijian] find him [Zijian]?” After all, there is no name of a virtue here to serve as an antecedent to the second ‘斯’. On these two parsings, the remark suggests nothing about any kind of transmission of virtue from one party to another.

    Second—setting the first point entirely aside—the rhetorical question “How could this man have acquired this character, if there were no other junzi in Lu?” does not presuppose that virtue positively tends to spread; but it certainly does presuppose that a nearby junzi is a necessary condition for the emergence of a new junzi. Thus Confucius’ assumption need only be that in order to become a junzi, one must find a model and emulate him. Confucius does often advise people to follow the good example of others, as a main or the main method of self-improvement (1.14, 2.18, 4.17, 7.22, 7.28). And indeed, the verb Confucius uses in his question “斯焉取斯” suggests active taking. Virtuous people constitute an opportunity for those who aspire, an opportunity to emulate virtue. That is not at all to say that virtue out of office tends to be emulated.

    The premise that a necessary condition of one’s becoming a junzi is to have a junzi nearby, tends to oppose the idea that particular virtues such as filiality or friendliness tend to be copied separately, or even can be copied separately from different sources, thus building a junzi from parts. (Incidentally, the premise would also strongly suggest that one cannot become a junzi simply by starting from a couple of root virtues and letting them grow.)

  5. Sixth: 4.25

    The Master said: “Virtue is never solitary; it always has neighbors.”

    The context is lost, but let us suppose that Confucius is speaking of the de 德 even of people not in government.

    Of course he could mean that a good person will seek out other good people (as Confucius certainly believes), and indeed find them, as they too are seeking good people. The passage is not evidence that he means anything beyond this.

    Or he could mean that acts of de 德 tend to inspire reciprocation by further acts of de 德. If I am kind toward those around me, I will be surrounded by people who are disposed to be kind toward me. That is, the passage need not mean that de 德 tends of itself to be copied by mere onlookers who are not beneficiaries. (Of course, people who are kind toward me might thereby become disposed to be kind toward third parties.)

    This reading would imply that some particular virtues tend to spread from one private party to others. But, arguably, general virtue cannot spread mainly by reciprocation. For there are certain virtues that cannot spread by reciprocation, or not far. Filial piety, service to elder brothers, and elder-respect are virtues that Confucius mentions, that cannot be reciprocated in kind. Nor can friendliness-toward-brothers (2.21, 13.28) spread beyond the nuclear family by reciprocation. Nor, perhaps, can courage be reciprocated exactly, because it isn’t essentially to someone; though of course being courageous on someone’s behalf could be reciprocated in kind.

  6. Seventh: 9.13

    The Master was wishing to go and live among the nine wild tribes of the east. Some one said, “They are rude. How can you do such a thing?” The Master said, “If a superior man dwelt among them, what rudeness would there be?” [Legge]

    Confucius does not say here that the virtue of a gentleman such as himself is significantly contagious in the civilized world, the world he usually has in mind. On the contrary, his wish to live among the wild tribes is presumably an expression of frustration that his work in the civilized world, even his example if he believes in the contagion of private virtue, is proving ineffectual.

    Still, in 9.13 his rhetorical question does seem to say that if he, or anyone with his degree of virtue, were to live among the barbarians, they would be instantly civilized. We might wonder why he would expect his presence to be so powerful among the wild tribes, at the very time when he is despairing of its effect in the civilized world. Is it possible he is imagining going to live among the barbarians as a governor? Or perhaps he imagines the wild tribes unrealistically, as being radically different from the society he was familiar with, so that different dynamics could hold among them. Or perhaps his rhetorical question suggesting that virtue is highly contagious among the wild tribes is like his initial expression of a desire to live among them: not meant seriously. He said on another occasion that he would like to give up speech, and followed that too by using a rhetorical question to suggest a theoretical defense that he cannot have meant seriously (17.19).

    In any case, again, what he does not say here is that the comprehensive virtue of a junzi such as himself is significantly contagious in ordinary society, the main society. His remark evidences the contrary view.

  7. Eighth: 2.21

    Someone said to Confucius, “Master, why don’t you engage in government?” The Master said, “The Book of Documents says, ‘Filial! But be filial, and a friend to your brothers, thus contributing to government. Why then do that other kind of ‘engaging in government’?”

    One might suppose the thought here is that these virtues would be copied. But that view is rarely mentioned in discussions of this passage. I hope to discuss this passage at length under a later post, arguing that it tells us little or nothing about Confucius’ views.


    In sum, we do not definitely see Confucius anywhere expressing or relying on the view that the general virtue or virtues of a private person will tend to spread by emulation or other copying. And we do not see him saying anywhere that a private person’s particular virtues tend to be emulated. He does not say this about any of the particular virtues. 4.25 may possibly reflect the view that some virtue tends to spread by reciprocation; but on that reading the passage would not say the virtue spreads far. Many particular virtues cannot spread in that way at all.

    Further, if Confucius had thought that virtue or virtues of a person in private life have a strong tendency to spread, he would presumably have emphasized the point in his teaching. We would presumably have ample record of the point in the Analects. We do not. That is a positive reason to think that he did not hold that view.

    Other positive reasons are his observation that virtue can go entirely overlooked, the importance he assigns to promoting the worthy, and the importance he assigns to government in general.

    • Bill, I have been mulling over your arguments, and a few things are bothering me. I wonder what you think about the following:

      (1) It is widely held that an important innovation of Confucius and/or the Analects is to re-interpret what had been words referring to socio-political elites and their characteristics (junzi, probably also ren) as ethical categories, applicable to anyone (or at least to a much broader field). Do you disagree, at least in part?

      (2) I am not sure about what seems like an overly dualistic way of carving up the options, between rulers/high officials, on the one hand, and “private persons” on the other. There are many ways in which people can be visible to different groups (family, clan, neighborhood, etc.) and I don’t understand why the “contagion” dynamic wouldn’t operate there.

      (3) Speaking of families, do you think that virtuous parents are not thought to have a contagious influence on their children? (Filial piety being the root of virtue, perhaps)?

      (4) I guess you’ll say more about 2:21 later, which is important because it seems to be the most explicit denial of your view. But I want to add that I don’t follow your effort to set aside 9:13, which also seems to me to be a quite straight-forward assertion of the dynamic you want to deny.

      (5) Finally, I am reminded of arguments I have heard from Hagop Sarkissian and others about the plausibility, when viewed from modern psychology, of the general idea that virtue is contagious. I guess that sounds to me like it undercuts some of the “a priori arguments” that follow.

      I realize that my putting all these comments here, I may have defeated your purpose in posting in individual chunks. Whoops.

  8. A priori argument

    We can supplement the textual argument with a consideration of the reasons why it makes much more sense to think that high office would be a key factor in making one’s virtue spread.


    The ruler is especially visible. (Of course ancient China had nothing remotely like our mutual visibility; but it might have had more sharply differential visibility.) When someone is the ruler, attention must be paid. The high officials pay immediate attention, and the pattern spreads from there. Also a virtuous person has sayings, and the ruler’s sayings will be known.

    Perhaps we have a general tendency to copy the character of what we attend to, as Plato said. Additionally, virtues may be inherently attractive, when seen, to those who have them less.

    Granted, any private person is visible to those who know her. If virtues look attractively desirable, her associates who lack them may want to have them, and may try to copy them.


    A ruler’s high office is inherently a representation that the ruler is admirable. There would seem to be a something like a standard presumption, among us humans, that a ruler is worthy of emulation. The basis for thinking so might be different in a democracy than in a hereditary feudal hierarchy that claims Heaven’s imprimatur; but the thought is perhaps a natural one in any case. Society has authority, and the ruler is society’s main representative. Society might underline the expressive point by putting bells on the king, marking that his is the example to focus on, his the lead to follow.

    If in fact the king is vicious, the authority of his office will help his vice spread.

    A private person can have some authority for some others. A mother has authority for her children—or do we say she is a very local official?


    When people have power over us, from self-interest we want to do what they would approve. Virtue or vice could spread in that way.

    Confucius might have thought it inappropriate for someone to have significant power outside official channels. Still, power in private life can certainly push us to copy the powerful person.


    Far more than what private persons do, what the governors do affects other people. So it often would make sense for the many to reciprocate, and they would be motivated to do so. Their reciprocating action would itself be virtuous. It might exemplify the same virtue, as when we repay good faith with good faith; or it might exemplify a different virtue, as when we repay beneficence with honor. Not every virtue can be reciprocated.

    Of course bad treatment is reciprocated as well.


    Good laws and policy can combine with the above factors to create a safe and encouraging environment for virtue. When all the channels are aligned, the rule of Heaven flows through us every one.

    Perhaps it is inappropriate to speak of good policy as a mechanism by which the ruler’s virtue is contagious. But people can take e.g. the ruler’s observable filial piety as a sign that she must be carrying out the special tasks of government in the right spirit, so that they have confidence that the political environment is safe and rewarding for virtue.

    And similarly for vice.

    Qua teacher, parent, or older sibling, we may do something like governing; but Confucius says virtually nothing about that. Only at 12.11 can he possibly be alluding to that idea.

  9. The Imperial Mustard Seed?

    Another possibility worth considering is that Confucius thought legitimate monarchical authority, properly employed, would have an almost magical or Heavenly kind of ritual power, a power that could not be explained by social psychology as we understand it. I don’t know what to think about this hypothesis. There are some passages that might tempt us toward it. With Slingerland’s translations:

    Someone asked for an explanation of the di sacrifice. The Master said, “I do not understand it. One who understood it could handle the world as if he had it right here,” and he pointed to the palm of his hand.

    The Master said, “How great was Yao as a ruler! So majestic! It is Heaven that is great, and it was Yao who modeled himself upon it. …”

    Confucius said, “When the Way prevails in the world, rituals, music, punitive expeditions, and attacks against foreign powers proceed from the Son of Heaven. When the Way does not prevail in the world, these things issue from the feudal lords. When they issue from the feudal lords, it is seldom more than ten generations before the lords lose control of them. When they issue from ministers, it is seldom more than five generations before the ministers lose control of them, and once household ministers seize control of state commands, it is seldom more than three generations before they lose control of them.
    “When the Way prevails in the world, control of the government does not reside with the ministers. When the Way prevails in the world, commoners do not debate matters of government.” (Slingerland)

    7.23 (cf. 9.5, 14.35, etc.)
    The Master said, “It is Heaven that has endowed me with virtue. What have I to fear from the likes of Huan Tui?

    9.9 (cf. 7.5)
    The Master said, “The Phoenix has not appeared, the [Yellow] River has not produced its chart—it is all over with me, is it not?”

    Unlike a belief in the substantial contagion of the virtue of private parties, a belief in the transformative power of virtue in office, especially in high legitimate office, could not have been refuted by easily observable facts.

    That’s the end of my prepared comments.

  10. To this:

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the great comments!

    To (5)

    Private virtue is a little contagious in fact, sure. Also, Confucius may have noticed that. I mean to be arguing that he probably did not hold a grandiose view about the great contagion of private virtue, such as might be suggested by most of the passages I discuss if you take them not to be about people in high position.

    I don’t think new scientific evidence about e.g. early childhood is reason to think Confucius had thought about that.

    To (1)

    I agree that “junzi” in the Analects is at least usually a moral term. It was reinterpreted. I don’t have a view about whether it was Confucius who initiated the change. (Also for “ren,” I don’t know how new the Analects usage is. It looks like somebody did some reinterpreting, because the term has a grandiose sense that suggests involvement by a philosopher.)

    I think using a term in a new way doesn’t imply never again using it in the old way; cf. English “noble.” (“Ren” too seems to have a range of senses in the Analects.)

    In the context of my argument, reinterpretation of “junzi” is an issue mainly about 12.19 and 8.2, the first two passages I discuss.

    It seems to me that in these passages Confucius is referring specifically to governors. For these passages Soothill and Legge translate the term basically as people in high positions. It is not so clear to me whether by “junzi” here he means “ruler” or instead he means, if the ruler is a junzi. I rather thought the proper word for ruler would have been jun rather than junzi; but on these matters I’m an ignoramus. Maybe junzi suggests high position but not necessarily the top position? Sometimes we use “prince” to mean king …

    Ames & Rosemont’s note points out that the wind/grass comparison appears also in the Mencius 3A2 (where again it is applied to a ruler).

    Slingerland translates junzi as “gentleman” for both passages, but his note on 12.19 seems to suppose the sense is “ruler.”

    Chin gives “a person in a ruling position” (8.2) and “those at the top” (12.19), and her note under the latter passage says,

    Usually when they appear in the Analects, junzi and xiaoren refer to “the gentleman” and “the petty man.” But here, as Qian Mu points out, they probably refer to their older meaning of “the ruler” and “the ruled”—which were purely designations of position, without any moral intimation. (p. 190)

    Charlene Tan takes Confucius to be talking about the ruler who is a gentleman.

    Beyond the reasons I gave earlier, another feather on the scale, at 8.2, is that Confucius seems to be saying “If a junzi does this and that” (yes?)– whereas if he meant a moral junzi, there would be no question about it. (Similarly at 17.4.)

    In 17.21, the bits I’ve reddened here seem to me to make more sense if the conversants assume that the junzi they are discussing is a ruler or high official—which is not of course to say that the word is morally neutral, nor even necessarily that the word itself implies rulership here. Confucius’ parting shot to Zai Wo needn’t presuppose that Zai Wo is a junzi in any sense. On the contrary, it might suggest that what Zai Wo does is of no interest from the point of view of the practice Confucius is defending.

    Confucius often speaks of junzi and xiaoren 小人 as a correlative pair. By xiaoren (outside 12.19) he sometimes seems probably not to mean simply someone who lacks virtue (14.6, 17.4, 17.25; possibly 17.12 and 17.23).

    But maybe it’s telling that so many of the passages I’m citing are from Book 17.

    To (2) and (3)

    Yes, my distinction between governors (dukes, Ji clan bosses, promoted worthies) and private parties is overly dualistic; it’s schematic. Presumably if Confucius thought such people’s virtue had a strong tendency to cause more virtue, he would have believed in a similar but lesser tendency from people in lesser but significant positions—depending on what mechanisms of propagation he had in mind. But he seems to have thought that legitimate government is a terribly important thing, and he doesn’t much contemplate powerful private organizations (except as quasi-governments).

    I’m not sure we have much of an indication of what Confucius thought would be the main mechanism whereby virtue in one person (e.g. a ruler) would tend to generate virtue in others. As for visibility, we know he thought private qualifications could be overlooked (in the absence of demand from the top). And as for the general visibility+attractiveness of virtue to people who don’t have it yet, he did say (regarding job applicants?) that someone is better if the bad people don’t like him (13.24; cf. 15.28). I don’t mean to say that he thought the private virtue of an ordinary schmo junzi had no tendency whatsoever to inspire emulation or reciprocation even among people who weren’t already on the lookout for examples to emulate.

    Confucius doesn’t say much about positions of minor authority and power. The position of master is not really relevant, because I’m not denying that he thinks aspirants should and do emulate their masters. We don’t see him showing any interest in parenting; the only things he says about what parents do between the infancy and death of their offspring is that they bring their children along if they emigrate (13.4), fathers cover up for their sons (13.18), and the fathering role is somehow relevant to governance, just as is the sonning role (12.11). Filial piety, for Confucius, seems to be mainly a moral responsibility of adult offspring, not a natural grassiness of children to parental wind; and he never suggests in the Analects that filial piety is the root of anything (I’ll make my argument about 1.6 on another day).

    To (4)

    Yes, I promise to talk about 2.21 on another day. There are a couple of other posts I want to put up first, so as not to post too humongous a thing all at once.

    On 9.13: I am strongly inclined to think that Confucius’ offstage mention of a wish to live among the wild tribes was an expression of frustration, like his talk of going to sea on a raft or giving up speech. He may have been expressing frustration with his students: “I should just kill myself and take my chances teaching the shades. They can’t be worse than you.” “If you don’t eat that I’m going to send it to the starving Armenians.” Or he might have been expressing frustration with recent history, with the actions of the governors of the States. Or he might have been expressing frustration at not finding the kind of position he wanted, in the civilized world.

    Again, I think it is not in fact true that he wanted to live among the wild tribes. For one thing, he would have anticipated some language problems. But if he really did want to live among the wild tribes, he might (presumably?) have been thinking of doing so as an invited counsellor, or as a representative of one of the States, with adequate military support; hence as some kind of participant in governing, not just as a locally rootless stranger.

    Similarly, assuming the passage is just the follow-up to an offstage expression of frustration in the form of a fantasy of departure, the fantasy might have involved going in some powerful position, not as a rootless stranger. Or part of the casual fantasy image may have been that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king—that he would be a sort of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, a caballero among the Aztecs, an adult among children. Being an educated junzi would make him a natural leader among the hillbillies, as it would not in the civilized world.

    Thus I think it is far from clear that even his fantasy involved the idea that any private junzi’s virtue would be powerfully contagious. But what his remark does show him noting is that no marvelous effect was forthcoming from the same person (himself) in the world he actually lived in. And yet it does not show that the hope or expectation that was frustrated was that one: that his virtue would catch on like wildfire.

    When he said he wanted to give up speech, at 17.19, his follow-up defense—Heaven doesn’t have to talk, so why should he?—is not meant seriously. How arrogant if it were! Which is not to say that it is entirely unrelated to anything he actually believed. But he didn’t give up speech. Similarly, I think that at 9.13, his follow-up defense of going to the wild tribes is not meant seriously. How arrogant if it were! (He elsewhere avoids calling himself a junzi; but the private exemplar whose mere presence would civilize the barbarians would have to be a moral junzi in the most kick-ass sense.) Which is not to say that the unserious defense is entirely unrelated to anything he actually believed. It is to say that we shouldn’t take the defense as “a quite straight-forward assertion of the dynamic.” He didn’t go to the tribes.

    Sure, like his unserious defense of giving up speech, his unserious defense of going to the wild tribes was probably a reflection of something he really believed. But that could have been the effect of virtue in high position—at least in part. Or his unserious defense here might have been leaning on some looseness of the word “junzi.”

    • Just one quick thing for now: apropos (5), I did not have in mind early childhood stuff, but rather experiments that show that at least occurrent states can be non-verbally transferred. (Roughly: happy person walks into room, and without anyone saying anything, everyone gets happier.) While acknowledging that there are important differences between states and dispositions, I was thinking of this is the kind of thing, which it seems to me (and, I take it, to Hagop) it is quite plausible that Confucius et al could have observed and built upon in their theorizing. Apologies but I cannot reconstruct right now in what paper Hagop discusses this….

    • Steve, when you said “…person walks into room,” for some reason it immediately reminded me of the local boss in Lu Xun’s “Medicine” who walks into the teahouse and dominates attitudes there. The sick boy’s parents don’t have the same impact.

      Maybe it will help if I say that my thesis is that Confucius didn’t have a far higher estimate of the contagion of private virtue (when the bystanders have no special aspiration to find and emulate virtue) than is correct or (among us) commonsensical (whichever is greater). AND he didn’t think the contagion of private virtue remotely approaches the contagion of virtue in office.

      Putting it that way makes new scientific evidence in social psychology potentially directly relevant to my thesis.

  11. A sort of general reply: “Contagion” is an interesting choice for framing this discussion since it should remind us that the medium through which the virtues might be transmitted could be, roughly speaking, physiologically construed. My hunch is that we’re tempted to think of a ruler or official’s position to be more effective in the transmission because it is a sociologically explicable means of producing broad influence, hence providing a familiar template onto which we can think about the “contagion.” Maybe we should at least consider that some ideas about qi and something more akin to the modern virus-model of contagion is lurking in the background assumptions, so that the necessity of the ruler or official’s sociological prominence might not be as pressing in providing the explanation for influence. Just a hunch — not sure how to make more hay out of this myself.

    • Interesting! I know basically nothing about what people might have thought about qi at that time (way before Mencius). A glance at Wikipedia suggests to me that if they had a view such as you describe, it might have gone under some other name. Can you or someone else recommend a better account of relevant ideas around Confucous’ time – ideally something on line or in a journal, and not too big?

      I did mean to suggest above the possibility that Confucius had in mind some mechanism of virtue’s spread other than what we’d recognize as plausible social psychology. But it seems to me that where there are potential signs of ritual “magic” in the Analects, they seem to focus on the importance of lines of legitimate government authority.

    • Maybe I’m starting to sound like Fingarette, but whether it’s qi-based or more like a magical action-at-a-distance based on ideas about the power of ritual, I was thinking about how “virtue” here, understood as de 德, has the feel of a concept that doesn’t necessarily draw on sociologically explicable mechanisms. As late as the Daodejing’s authorship, de seems to exhibit such a meaning — a more magical one. Maybe that’s worth something?

    • So, yes, we’re both saying all along that Confucius may have in mind something that cannot be explained by secular social psychology (as Fingarette thinks ritual magic basically can). And maybe not just de 德.

      And I may be wrong to think that Confucius needn’t be saying anything I wouldn’t go along with, when he says “Virtue is never solitary; it always has neighbors” 德不孤,必有鄰 (4.25). But that doesn’t sound to me like a grandiose statement. Not like the grandiose 2.1 and 2.3, about the power of the 德 of a ruler.

      Regarding super power, I was originally thinking of something possibly involving the power of Heaven, thinking that the positive signs of non-sociological force in the text mainly line up with my thesis. I imagine Confucius possibly thinking of legitimate lines of political authority as a long power cord whose end is plugged in to Heaven, a sluice for the juice – though heavenly power can still flow, weakly, through not-so-legitimate governments and imperfect rituals (16.2).

      In particular: the only ritual whose power Confucius pretty explicitly calls mysterious-but-real is the imperial sacrifice—but only in the right hands, I guess (3.11). “Only heaven is great, and only Yao managed to emulate it” (8.19)—it isn’t a coincidence that he was emperor. Some kind of virtue spreads to the other stars orbiting around, but it remains dependent on him, as the grass depends on the wind.

      Confucius may have thought he had a special individual line to Heaven, but he may also have thought that the intent or hope was that he would use it through government, to revive the Zhou or make a new dynasty.

      I’m ready to allow that Confucius could think great virtue of a private person has great power in the following sense. Its power arises when it is noticed, of course, not when it is not. And when excellence is noticed, insofar as the world isn’t all out of joint, the excellent person will be attractive to others as a counsellor and leader—that is, will be drawn into government, where the gem can really shine.

      Just how far out of joint is the world? Just how unrealistic is it to hope that virtue will find its place in the ritual panoply of organized society, i.e. government, without base effort or compromise? Confucius’ ideas about that presumably changed with experience.

      How about that?

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