I have been thinking about ritual lately, and wanted to try out an idea on one and all. It seems to me that one way to read certain passages from classical Confucianism is as encouraging a maximal view of ritual (roughly, what I mean by this is that ritual exhausts the norms: ritual is all there is, all that matters. Ren is a name for ritual perfection). Think of Analects 12:1. On the other hand, there are passages that encourage a more minimalist view of ritual: something that anybody, or most anybody, can do; it is significant but hardly all that one should aim at. Analects 2:3 stands out for me here. The common people can be guided, and modestly transformed (coming to have a sense of shame), by ritual. This is not the stuff of sages or perfection.
The later tradition gives us examples of both maximal and minimal approaches, too. For example, Zhu Xi saw ritual as useful, an important part of Lesser Learning, but perhaps not strictly speaking even necessary for moral improvement. In contrast, Ling Tingkan (Qing; see Kai-wing Chow’s very useful The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China) argued for a rigorist and authoritarian ethics that demands scrupulous adherence to the rituals recorded in the ancient classics, at least as these often-obscure texts were interpreted by Ling. Examples of each approach could be multiplied, even if there are also significant differences among instances of each approach.
It seems to me that there are also examples of each approach within 20th and 21st century Confucian or Confucian-influenced writings. Notwithstanding their many differences from Ling Tingkan, I might suggest that the approach to ritual and “role ethics” that one sees in the work of Roger Ames, David Hall (esp. Democracy of the Dead) and Henry Rosemont has some of the problematic characteristics of a maximal approach. So does that approach to ritual found in Seligman, Weller, Puett, and Simon’s Ritual and Its Consequences. I find this book to be very provocative, but cannot agree that ren “is perhaps best understood as simply the way that one acts ritually when there is no ritual to tell one what to do” .
Now to be clear, I’m not arguing that the one and only, best interpretation of Analects 12:1 and 2:3 shows them to be irreconcilable with one another. But I do think that there at least exist prima facie cases for the distinct views I’m finding there, and each of these approaches seems to have had its subsequent supporters. My own instincts lie with the minimalists, and I’m working out some arguments to that effect. But I thought that, for starters, it might make sense to see whether something like this distinction makes sense to others.