These themes seem to have come up in a few different posts, so I thought we might try to tie together some of the strands. I know it’s asking for a lot, but is there any way to get some clarity on how these concepts operate within the history of Confucianism?
I’m assuming there is some close network of meaning within which each of these can be used to understand each of the others–e.g. “the sacred” is something that calls for reverence; reverence is to be distinguished from a purely socially understood concept of respect because reverence is tied to value of a spiritual sort; and so forth.
[Brief digression: I’m sure many of you know more about Durkheim than I, but it seems like “the sacred” is some sort of indefinable, basic concept on his view; I’ve never found that very helpful (someone correct me, please, if I’m totally misreading Durkheim). I only bring Durkheim up because of Fingarette’s clear use of Durkheim’s template in allowing that “the secular” (as opposed to “the profane”) could be part of the sacred–Fingarette’s book on Confucius is called Confucius: the Secular as Sacred, for those who might not know.]
I think if we look at the instances of jing 敬 in the Analects, Mencius, Liji, and other pre-Buddhist texts, it seems to me like it could easily be translated as “respectfulness” rather than “reverence.” I think the main question, whether it is about translating jing or understanding the junzi’s pursuits as in some sense spiritual, is going to be about what the larger template of analysis is that makes the texts “speak to” spiritual or sacred concerns. I think I can see what that template is for understanding the neo-Confucians in that way: reaction to and partial assimilation of Buddhist concerns that are more clearly driven by soteriological goals. I’m not sure what the template should be for the early Confucians–despite having read Fingarette more than a few times. And I don’t know as much as I should about the New Confucians to understand how they would see themselves addressing issues of reverence, the spiritual, or the sacred.
Well, that’s what I’ll start with. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from responses to this post.
I read Durkheim years ago and had a “meh” reaction, too. The contemporary philosopher (and translator of Levinas) Alphonso Lingis somewhere characterizes sacredness in a way I’ve found useful: “The sacred is that which repels our advance.” I think if the term means anything in comparative religion, it must refer to some such sense of apartness, of radical otherness – anything to which taboos are applied, or concerns about ritual purity/impurity (“Take off your shoes!” commands the voice in the burning bush).
Don’t know if that helps or not. I’m anxious to hear what the real scholars have to say, and will now return to my usual lurker mode.
From a sentimentalist/structuralist standpoint, I don’t think it is too hard to divide the world into activities that are “clean” and activities that are “dirty”. The “dirty” activities have to be ritualized in order to make them “clean”. There is admittedly a certain amount of circular logic to this because how can we know which activities are “dirty”? Why, by looking at different cultures and seeing which activities have been ritualized in all/most of them. Things like eating, sex, ect. I admit this taps into the life-denying aspects of many traditions that tend to view anything corporeal as “dirty” and more spiritual/abstracted things as “clean”, which could suggest a strong unconscious bias on my part, but (again) given the pan-cultural appeal of that sort of thinking, I’m not sure it isn’t part of the human condition (even if we don’t much care for it when we recognize it).
Given that, I think we can divide “religion” and “religiosity” from each other, with “religion” being the system of how to deal with the “dirty” aspects of existence whereas “religiosity” is the mindset of how we go about and sanitize behaviors. Keeping in mind the intersubjective notion of selfhood that marks Confucian thought throughout its existence, I don’t think that we can separate “respectfulness” and “reverence”, since “respectfulness” would involve our relation to the unclean thing from the standpoint of the intersubjective interlocutor whereas “reverence” would deal with my own relationship to the behavior in question. Those aren’t separable from a Confucian standpoint, IMHO.
Paul Woodruff (Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, Oxford 2001) offers this spare definition of reverence: “Reverence is the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have” [p. 8]. The “awe” dimension of reverence connects to Dave’s comment about the sacred: objects of reverence are in some fundamental way beyond us — beyond our complete understanding, control, etc. Rituals are thus well-suited to express reverence: they help us to express that there is something more at stake than just a calculation of what action makes the most sense or will yield the best result. Woodruff (a scholar of ancient Greece) finds the early Confucians to be particularly insightful on this connection, and draws on them significantly in his book.
For better or worse, it’s hard to make every thing said on these subjects in any one of the Confucian texts line up with Woodruff schema. (One reason for this is that these texts evolved internally over time.) Be this as it may, there’s definitely a similar set of inter-related ideas, for instance in the Mencius. Li and yi, jing and gong 恭, as well as ideas of deference and shame, are all inter-related and sometimes inter-defined. I suggest that when, following Mencius, one obeys an elder brother or defers to a parent, one is expressing respect that is rooted in reverence for the somewhat mysterious, awe-inspiring, and/or sacred notion of ancestors.
The only clarity I’ll aim for here is the extent to which the Confucian worldview might be properly characterized as a “religious” or “spiritual” one. I’m not out to defend Fingarette’s take on matters, even if, in some sense, I’m inspired by his approach, nor will I attempt to clarify the meaning of “the holy” or “the sacred,” etc.
It seems the character li, for Confucius, carried over its spiritual or religious connotations from its original or earlier reference to “rites of sacrifice.” The ceremonial or ritualistic character of acts of propriety or li performance is thought to originate in the first place with tian, as the sage-kings of old (not for nothing does Eno write that the ‘Ruist vision of Sagehood appears, in the final analysis, to be the bedrock of Ruist certainty’) were said to have imitated archetypal patterns or rhythms intrinsic to tian (which does not appear to be equivalent to the natural world but in some sense transcends it, although the rhythms and patterns of nature are a ‘part’ of tian), which constitutes or is emblematic of cosmic order and harmony (and thus reminiscent of rta in Vedic religion). Hence li connects with a metaphysical conception of the holy or sacred, and this by extension or implication reverberates throughout all proper li performance. For one example of how this is intrinsically related to jen, we might consider Kwong-loi Shun’s discussion in Van Norden, ed., Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, 2002:
“…[I]magine that, along with the expansion of the scope of li, the kind of emotional dispositions and attitudes associated with li have also broadened to include not just the attitude of indebtedness and reverence toward ancestors, but also various emotional dispositions and attitudes (such as respect for elders) directed toward other people with whom one’s relations are governed by traditional norms in the same kind of relation in which the attitude of indebtedness and reverence originally stood to sacrificial rites. Ren comprises this cluster of emotional dispositions and attitudes, and li, in the expanded sense, comprises the various norms that govern human conduct.”
The prior “otherworldly” orientation of the holy or sacred involving reverence toward ancestors becomes, in the first place, a “this-worldly” orientation, although no less holy or sacred for all that. And Confucius effectively democratizes the holy or sacred by making it accessible in principle to anyone who masters li.
Next we might, with Robert B. Louden (also in the volume edited by Van Norden above), examine what Confucius has to say about tian. Louden argues (against Fingarette) that “the tian passages do form a consistent whole, one from which we can reliably infer both that Confucius was a strong religious believer in a noncontroversial sense, and that his moral orientations was itself dependent upon his religious outlook.” Louden cites the passages in which “Confucius asserts that [tian] is the source of the moral power within him and that [tian] has entrusted him with a sacred mission” (see 7.23, 9.5, 9.6, and 3.24). Louden then lists “a group of darker statements in which Confucius despairs of achieving his goals of moral reform, but in which the overriding intention to follow [tian] is nevertheless present” (see 14.35, 11.9, and 6.28). Yet another group of tian passages “repeat Confucius’ underlying conviction that a good man must always try to model himself on, and seek moral guidance from, [tian]” (see 3.13, 8.19, 9.12, 16.8, and 2.4). As Louden notes, “in both 16.8 and 2.4 the underlying message is that tian ming is a fundamental moral imperative to which individuals are subject.” Of course Louden, rightly I think, does not see tian as a naturalistic concept, nor does he think it should be understood along the lines of a personal deity, hence it is not to be rendered in theistic terms. Louden proceeds to elaborate upon this metaphysical conception of tian:
“Confucius’ point here [in reference to 17.19] is not simply that tian is ‘the source of all phenomena and of the processes of natural change’ [Hall and Ames]. Or even that the ‘spirit of [tian] is still very much present in the regularities, routines, and generative processes of nature, even though [tian] does not speak’ [Schwartz]. Rather, he is implying that through the harmony, beauty, and sublimity of its natural processes [tian] communicates a great deal about how human beings ought to live and act, at least to those who have learned to listen carefully to it.”
Confucius, it seems (cf. 5.13), was very much like Socrates (or Plato) when it comes to the Good or the Daoists when it comes to Dao inasmuch as he was reticent about the “dao of tian,” not surprising if we understand the “knowledge” of tian in nonpropositional terms, representing some sort of para- or non-rational kind of “knowing,” a non-Russellian (because not sensual) “knowledge by acquaintance” or Islamic Illuminationist-like “knowledge by presence.” (If this makes Confucius out to be something of a mystic, so be it; in other words, I think Eno is onto something when he notes that “we encounter ostensibly reportative passages in the Ruists texts so vivid in their descriptions of what we might call ‘heightened states of consciousness’ that it would require doltish insensitivity to ignore them.”). Again with Louden, I do not think that we should infer from Confucius’ reluctance to engage in metaphysical speculation or philosophizing that he was therefore agnostic or not religious. Confucius emphasized the primacy of spiritual praxis, not religious beliefs, and Ruism, as Eno emphasizes, was a “way of life,” not simply or only an ideology or philosophy.
As Louden concludes, Confucius “holds that moral standards are dependent on something outside of us, something bigger than human nature—or culture—that is much more than a human or even a rational construction.”
And now to birefly if not dogmatically tie the “dao of tian” to other Confucian concepts: “It is true that I and only I can will my will but it may be that what I will is called for by the li, or by ren or zhong, or shu, or yi, or—to put it more generally—by the dao, and that my reason for so willing is precisely that this is what the dao calls for. [….] My personal existence is contingent; not so the dao. The dao is not only intelligible independently of such reference, its moral authority is surely independent of reference to me as the unique existent that I am” (Fingarette).
I understand “spiritual praxis” along the lines spelled out by John Cottingham in The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy, and Human Values (2005):
“There is, to be sure, a cognitive core to religious belief [on this, I would recommend James Kellenberger’s The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives, 1985], a central set of truth claims to which the religious adherent is committed; but it can be extremely unproductive to try to evaluate these in isolation. There are rich and complex connections that link religious belief with ethical commitment and individual self-awareness, with the attempt to understand the cosmos and the struggle to find meaning in our lives; and only when these connections are revealed, only when we come to have a broader sense of the ‘spiritual dimension’ within which religion lives and moves, can we begin to see fully what is involved in accepting or rejecting a religious view of reality.”
“Even the most convinced atheist may be prepared to avow an interest in the ‘spiritual’ dimension of human existence, if that dimension is taken to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and to the natural world.” [I suppose Owen Flanagan’s ‘naturalistic spirituality’ fits here]
“In the history of philosophy, the epithet ‘spiritual’ is most commonly coupled not with the term ‘beliefs’ but with the term ‘exercises.’ [….] There were many Stoic treatises entitled ‘On Exercises,’ and the central notion of askesis, found for example in Epictetus, implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern sense as a practical programme of training concerned with the ‘art of living.’ Fundamental to such programmes—was learning the technique of prosoche—attention, a continuous vigilance and presence of mind (a notion, incidentally, that calls to mind certain Buddhist spiritual techniques [and, I would add, what Eno terms the ‘Ruist syllabus’]). Crucial also was the mastery of methods for ordering the passions [see Nylan’s discussion of this with regard to Confucius and the Odes]—what has been called the therapy of desire [of course Cottingham is here referencing the title of Nussbaum’s work on Hellenistic philosophies]. The general aim of such programmes was not merely intellectual enlightenment, or the imparting of abstract theory, but a transformation of the whole person, including our patterns of emotional response. Metanoia, a fundamental conversion or change of heart, is the Greek term; in the Roman Stoic Seneca it is ‘changing’ (mutatio) of the self. ‘I feel, my dear Lucilius,’ says Seneca, ‘that I am being not only reformed but transformed (non tantum emendari sed transfigurari).’”
“There are certain kinds of truth such that to try to grasp them purely intellectually is to avoid them.”
“Spiritual praxis is prior to metaphysical doctrine in various important respects. In the first place, it is temporally prior, because as with any process of acculturation, we characteristically begin with the long process of learning and adaptation before we are in a position to scrutinize the theoretical basis of what we are taught [cf. Aristotle on the habituation to virtue, Plato on music and dance in the Laws, or Greek paideia generally]. In the second place, it is heuristically prior, prior in the order of discovery, because religion is one of many important areas of human experience where personal involvement scores over impersonal detachment in the way it facilitates understanding: just as the detached scrutiny that is appropriate for science will not work in personal relationships, so in the religious domain we can often be blocked from grasping the salient features unless a certain degree of openness is already present [cf. Pascal]. In the third place, spiritual praxis is psychologically (one might also say ‘psychoanalytically’) prior to theory: embarking on a path of guided self-transformation cannot wait upon an explicit understanding of what is meant by true self-awareness and spiritual maturity, since these later goals are the destination of the journey, not its starting point. And in the fourth place, praxis is morally prior, since we develop moral understanding and virtue not, or not principally, by the intellectual analysis of moral theories, but through the disciplined patterns of habituation [hence the Confucian focus on li and training in wen], which progressively foster our powers of moral and spiritual discernment and resolution until they start to become second nature [see Joel Kupperman on this]; it is only at a later stage, if all goes well, that praxis and theory become interfused, and our daily patterns of behaviour become incorporated into an ever fuller and more explicit grasp of the meaning and moral significance of our lives.”
In short, I would say the Confucian worldview is a religious or spiritual one in which, among other things, praxis, symbols, narratives, beliefs, and moral commitments are mutually reinforcing or illuminating.
Steve and Patrick,
Having digested your posts, I think (a) that Woodruff and Patrick would agree, or at least have lots of overlapping views. But I also sense (b) there is some tension within this template. Let me see if I can summarize a bit and explain the tension:
The Template: There is an attitude or virtue regarding one’s contemporary elders that is analogous, and even continuous, with the attitude one has toward “the somewhat mysterious, awe-inspiring, and/or sacred notion of ancestors.” Part of Woodruff’s idea is that an important part of filial piety is informed by something that goes beyond justification by social order arguments (a la Xunzi or Mozi). There is some measure of awe–which maybe we could also describe using Bernard Williams’ idea of “one question too many”: to ask for justification of filial piety at some fundamental level is to ask one question too many. That leaves the ethical value “beyond us” in a significant sense.
This source of value that lies “beyond” is akin to Plato’s idea that what makes things in this changing, imperfect world remotely valuable (in a very literal sense of “remote”) is their relationship to something that we can’t quite comprehend (the Forms, the Good, etc.). Further, possessing knowledge of the transcendently valuable is not like the pedestrian knowledge of propositions, but something that involves a mystical sense of awe at the “otherness” of that value. In early Confucianism, the thing that takes the place of Forms is the relationship of ancestry to progeny that transcends particular lineages though it gives value to the latter.
The tension I see in this template as applied to Confucianism lies between (1) the idea of a *continuity* that the current, living community has with the deceased ancestry and (2) the idea of a transcendence or radical “otherness” of the ancestral that inspires awe and makes it sacred. Is there a way to resolve that tension or are we saying two very opposing things in the template? Is there a tension at all?
Manyul, a complication: the Mohists’ social order arguments regularly cite the value of filial piety, and if they took filial piety to involve a sort of reverence (they don’t say so, but I don’t think they rule it out), then that informs their social order arguments.
(It’s a nice irony that the Mohists’ arguments place much more explicit weight on filial piety, and on maintaining proper family relations in general, than do Xunzi’s.)
Speaking of which, Dan, what do you make of the Mohist arguments for belief in ghosts and spirits? The arguments are “pragmatic belief” arguments; they would, presumably, argue for the pragmatic value of reverential feelings as well. If so, the only way those feelings could still “work”–invoking awe and so forth–is if the pragmatic value were justificatory but “hidden” at the same time–in the model of consequentialist arguments for the value of having non-consequentialist attitudes.
I think that they believe that ghosts exist, and also that it’s really important that people believe that ghosts exist as a sort of secret police. That part brings in the pragmatic arguments. But they also have (what I think are) non-pragmatic arguments, so they’re not telling people to fear ghosts just because it’s beneficial to society if (bad) people fear ghosts.
I also think they treat sacrificing to ancestors as a normal part of how people deal with the loss of loved ones (they say it’s an expression of filial piety), and I expect they take it for granted that this will involve something like reverence. This part doesn’t get argued out at all; they seem to treat it as something that goes on in on orderly society, not as anything that needs defending. (What needs defending is their claim that fancy funerals and extended mourning periods aren’t necessary, not that sacrifices are.)
I don’t think the Mohists want to hide anything. In fact, there’s that argument against Wumazi in Book 46 (“Geng Zhu”) that only works on the assumption that one’s views are public. But recognising that a belief serves a useful social function is not by itself a reason to think it’s wrong, especially given that there are also non-pragmatic reasons for accepting it, so I also don’t think they have to hide anything.
I’m not sure why one would speak of any sort of “radical otherness” by way of inspiring religious feelings or sentiment, as that sounds too much like Rudolf Otto’s theory of the numinous which, as I understand it, is more applicable in a Judaic or Christian or Islamic (hence theistic) context. Thus in the Chinese setting we can speak of both immanence and transcendence with regard to the holy or sacred, be it in reference to tian or dao. In any case, “radical otherness” is not something I think applies to the metaphysical backdrop or assumptions of classical Chinese worldviews.
I’m not quite certain what you mean by saying Xunzi provides us, *by way of contrast*, with an instrumentalist “justification by social order argument.” For even with Xunzi the Dao that guides the actions of humankind represents an attempt to emulate or follow the Dao of tianxing and the patterns of nature, at least on the part of the sage(s). They embody, as it were, an appropriate response to Heaven and Earth. This means that Dao, in human hands, can flourish or decline, but the patterns and rhythms or cosmic order of Heaven and Earth remain unaffected. And yet there is also a sense in which we might say, with T.C. Kline III, that “In general, fully realized human beings, as best represented by the sages [Xunzi provides here a missing premise in the Burkean argument for the veneration of tradition.], bring the work of Heaven and Earth to completion:”
“Xunzi recognizes that within this process of completion humans play a vital role. Humans are not simply placed in a helpless and subordinate relationship to Heaven and Earth. Rather, at their best, humans embody the Dao through full ritual participation, taking part in a cooperative relationship with Heaven and Earth. As Xunzi understands this relationship, ‘Heaven has its seasons; Earth has its riches; man has his governing (zhi). Hence, this is what it means for these three to form a triad’ (Knoblock 17.2a; 17/80/2-3). By forming a triad with Heaven and Earth, we can be said to be participating in the numinous qualities of the ritual order. Being part of this triad does not, however, mean that we are capable of the same feats as Heaven and Earth. As humans, we must restrict ourselves to those activities properly within our own power….”
Thus the sages could be said to see “the results” of the workings of the cosmos but lack an understanding of the forces themselves.
“Xunzi believes we should not attempt to use ritual activity to influence the workings of Heaven, since Heaven will not respond to such attempts at manipulation. Heaven’s unresponsiveness reveals the extent to which [Although not a naturalist or physicalist in the modern sense], Xunzi has naturalized his conception of the cosmos. [….] Human beings respond to Heaven; Heaven does not respond to them.” There is, then, it seems to me, no less awe or mystery on this account.
Maybe I was taking some liberty with the idea of something being, as Steve puts Woodruff’s view, “in some fundamental way beyond us — beyond our complete understanding, control, etc.” by calling it the radically other. But I’m not so sure; the idea of something’s transcendence *along with* its immanence has always seemed incoherent to me–maybe one person’s incoherence is another’s mystery. Or to put it less contentiously, the tension I see is something that you might collapse into a mystery rather than (or perhaps, in addition to) a conceptual tension?
On Xunzi: I think I completely agree with Kline; but again, Xunzi’s “naturalization” of Heaven–making Heaven “unresponsive”–doesn’t seem to me to make Heaven a more appropriate object of awe. There seem to me to be two responses to unresponsiveness. The first is awe, though I confess awe seems less about unresponsiveness itself than about what we surmise to be the reason for something’s unresponsiveness–is it perhaps too far above our concerns? have we offended it in some way (maybe Jehovah inspires awe for this reason)? and so on. The second, however, is not awe but some kind of resignation. Here, what we surmise about the reason for Heaven’s unresponsiveness is also apt. Heaven has its constancy, Xunzi says, what we do can’t change IT in any way so we should resign ourselves to worrying about what we CAN change–our responses to the constancies we can detect. So, I guess I don’t see Xunzi as being in the awe camp.
I think Xunzi aestheticizes what in Confucius’s view might be sacred. The appropriate response to the rites for Xunzi I think is appreciation of its refinement and beauty, but it isn’t some transcendent beauty, but the beauty that is recognizable because of its external reflection of an ordered internal state–the desires receive their best satisfaction in the refinement of ritual (and music, poetry, historical-moral narrative, etc.).
You’re probably right about Xunzi: I really don’t know enough here (nor have I thought too deeply about what little I do know) to feel strongly one way or the other, although I thought I’d cite Kline by way of an interpretation I like (and in part to be a little provocative).
I think “radically other” is indeed stronger than reverence requires. In fact “transcendence” (in any strong sense) is not required. Here is Woodruff: “Reverence must stand in awe of something — something I will call the object of reverence. What could it be? Something that reminds us of human limitations…. Therefore you must believe that there is one Something that satisfies at least one of the following conditions: it cannot be changed or controlled by human means, is not fully understood by human experts, was not created by human beings, and is transcendent” [p. 117]. Because there’s been quite a bit of consternation about the questions of “transcendence” in ancient China, in my review of Woodruff’s book (Philosophy East & West 55:3 (July 2005)) I spend a fair amount of time discussing this issue. Here’s a bit:
“…Woodruff’s idea of reverence still makes sense in a world without transcendence…. Reverence would not make sense in a world with no mystery, in which nothing was beyond our ken, or in which all ideals were readily attainable. As Woodruff himself shows, though, ancient China is not such a world. He cites Analects 9:11: “Yan Yuan said: ‘…The Master is good at leading one on step by step. He broadens me with literature and restrains me with li, so that if I wanted to stop I could not do so. But, having done all I can, [the goal] seems to rise sheer above me. I long to go after it, but I cannot find the way’” [p. 146]. Woodruff comments most aptly: “You feel, when you are in awe, that you are human, that your mind is dwarfed by what it confronts, that you cannot capture it in a set of beliefs, and that you had best keep your mouth closed and your mind open while awaiting further disclosure” [p. 147]. Yan Yuan is in awe of the way (dao), or of tian; they do indeed dwarf him. But this is perfectly consistent with seeing that he is nonetheless a part of the way, of tian; this is part of what it means to say that one is “human,” in the Chinese context. One is imperfect, yes, though in principle perfectible. The “in principle” here is a metaphysical possibility but tantamount to a practical impossibility. Confucian writings place their sages only in the distant past or the elusive future, not in the present, so ideals retain their mystery and their power. The Confucians therefore give us a way to embrace reverence without transcendence.”
A quibble: I haven’t read Woodruff, but the passage he cites, Analects 9:11, seems ill-suited for his point. For one thing, “the Way” isn’t mentioned in the passage. Maybe that could be inferred; or maybe Yan Yuan is after some form of moral or political accomplishment that escapes him. More important, the sentiment expressed in the passage seems more to be frustration than awe. The passage begins with a sigh after all–not that a sigh could only mean frustration, but would a sigh be appropriate for awe in Warring States? I’m not sure. The elusiveness that Woodruff comments on is definitely there, but I’m not sure I see the awe.
More than a quibble: Putting transcendence aside–though it is one of the conditions that Woodruff thinks could “remind us of human limitations”–I think I have a general problem with the awe-object’s elusiveness, whatever the cause, in explaining what would make awe, and hence reverence, an *appropriate* response. It seems important to me that reverence implies a positive evaluation of its object. Maybe that’s why transcendence and other forms of elusiveness seem insufficient–though I might be willing to grant they are necessary–for explaining or generating a reverential attitude. For example, resignation (see my Xunzi remark above in comment 10) and frustration seem to be two options that are appropriate responses to elusiveness, instead of awe. So, suppose there is something elusive about the value of the ancestor-progeny relationship–because it could be characterized as “beyond our ken” in various ways, either practical or cognitive. What in addition to elusiveness of that relationship would provide an explanation of early Confucian filial attitudes as reverential rather than merely respectful, I wonder?