Lecture on Confucius and Self-Knowledge

The central idea of Confucius is that every normal human being cherishes the aspiration to become a superior human being--superior to one's fellows, if possible, but surely superior to one's own past and present self. This goal does not mean attaining a perfect state of the self but rather a state of always striving to go beyond my present state. The ideal state is primarily something to be accomplished, not something that can be realized once and for all. Confucius rarely spoke of perfect virtue and even said "those who know virtue are few." Further, he said:

The practice of right living is deemed the highest, the practice of any other art lower. Complete virtue takes first place; the doing of anything else whatsoever is subordinate.

From the highest person to the lowest person, self-development must be deemed the root of all, by every person. [If this root is neglected, what grows from it cannot be well-ordered. If the heart is evil, what goodness can come in external actions?]

The ancients when they wished to exemplify illustrious virtue throughout the empire, first ordered well their states. Desiring to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated themselves. Wishing to cultivate themselves, they first rectified their purposes. Wishing to rectify their purposes, they first sought to think sincerely. Wishing to think sincerely, they first extended their knowledge as widely as possible. This they did by investigation of things.

By the investigation of things, Confucius meant what we call in the West the commitment of Socrates to the examined way of life. Just as Socrates admitted some ignorance at the heart of all that he knew, so also Confucius acknowledged that investigation of things requires that one admit one's ignorance when it is reasonable to do so. Confucius said, "When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to acknowledge that you do not know it--this is knowledge." Self-knowledge is difficult. Those who act against the ideal self may not be able to recognize that they are acting against their ideal self. Consequently, Confucius held, "When you hear words that are distasteful to your mind, you must inquire whether they be not right; when you hear words that accord with your own views, you must inquire whether they be not contrary to right." For the superior human being is universal, able to hear all sides of an issue, whereas the ordinary person is partisan, unable to see matters from the other point of view [Frost, p. 104, Lu Yu 2:14]. "The purpose of the superior person is truth." See also Lun Yu 6:18 and 17,8,1-3 on pages 105 and 107 of Frost.

Notes on li and jen (pronounced as run):

Li = the proper = rituals, good manners, propriety Golden Age of past, historical meaning ideal social order, philosophical ideal Confucianism is a religion of li, of moral order. This reverence for tradition shows the conservative side of Confucianism.

Jen = true or ideal humanity. A religion of conservative practices would tend to repeat only the past. This ideal serves as the heart and soul of li. If a past custom no longer realizes the ideal human relationship amongst people, then the old customs must be changed. Li assumes that the moral ideal is fully known and represented by past practice, but jen requires that we never claim full knowledge of the ideals towards which humanity should journey, that we must adapt the ideal to new situations.

The key concept that summarizes this flexible adaptation of the ideal is known as the Golden Mean in Aristotle's philosophy and as Chung Yung in Confucianism. The Golden Mean as the key to virtue is inherent in the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, who urged a moderate fulfilment of all basic human appetites so that a person would in one's moral character have a wise internal balance and beauty just as a Greek statue would have beautiful external proportions. Going to the extreme in any one appetite would destroy a person's moral character just as going to an extreme in the design of an arm of a statue would make the statue grotesque. Moderation is the key. Aristotle exemplifies this by considering what is the proper amount of food for an individual to eat. There is a great deal of difference for someone weighing 120 lbs. and for another weighing 240 lbs. as to what they should eat. Yes, they both need a balanced diet, but one needs fewer calories than the other. Either one could eat too few calories or too many calories. Each must eat a mean, a middle, between too little and too much, but the mean is different for each person. What is physically healthy and morally proper is a mean relative to each person and that person's situation. In general, what is morally proper is the middle between too little and too much, relative to an individual, as the person of moral wisdom and practical experience would decide a matter. More specifically, the wise person chooses:

to do the right thing (neither too little nor too much of it), in the right way (neither too slowly nor too hastily), at the right time (neither too soon nor too late),

for the right motive (out of consideration of the inherent value of both others and the self, neither undervaluing nor overvaluing either others or the self), with the right people (neither too few nor too many nor any people with whom it would be wrong to act), and in the right place (not in any place that would be unreasonable).

The key to all these right characteristics is rational consideration of all relevant circumstances in so far as rational consideration judges what is in the best interest of justice, love, courage, temperance, and other virtues. For example, the practically wise person, in general, ought to choose to do:

the temperate act, the act that maintains a reasonable order in one's appetites and emotions;

the just act, the act which respects both other persons and self in society who deserve them;

the courageous act, the act which protects values worth fighting for and even dying for either by taking a stand now or by withdrawing now and taking a stand later; and

the loving act which positively advances the inherent value of those whom one loves such as family and friends.

Because of these criteria, Aristotle holds that some actions are inherently immoral, having no mean. For example, there is no such thing as killing deliberately and directly the right amount of innocent people as a mean between too few and too many. Such an action is inherently unjust as the direct and deliberate harming of another. Again, there is no such thing as the right amount of deliberate hate between too little hate and too much hate. Hatred is inherently wrong as the deliberate refusal to love those whom one has taken on a responsibility to love.

All of the above material from Aristotle may be taken as compatible with the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean. For example, the Confucian thinker, Hun Tsu, wrote, "Knowledge, humanity, and courage--these three are virtues which apply to all humanity and that by which they are practiced is one." (Theodore DeBary, Sources of Chinese Civilization, p. 134) The wise practice of the virtues of wisdom, courage, and humanity requires that all the virtues be practiced together. First, a person cannot be wise without being courageous in facing dangers to one's search for truth, and a person cannot be wise without loving consideration of ideal humanity in both self and other. Second, a person cannot be courageous without wise consideration of both the dangers one must face and of the true ideal of humanity in both self and other as a value of inherent worth which is more precious than mere physical life. Finally, a person cannot exercise the virtue of true humanity without a wise understanding of the value of wisdom and of autonomy (self-choice/self-guidance) and without a grasp of the inherent value and beauty of courageous actions on behalf of wisdom and true humanity. In summary, wisdom, courage, and humanity, and indeed all other virtues by extension, must be practiced together as one.

Because wisdom, courage, and humanity must all be practiced together and indeed with all other virtues, therefore a wise balancing of all aspects of one's personal and social virtues results in a Golden Mean. See for example. Frost, p. 110:

Superior persons do what is proper to the station in which they find themselves; they do not desire to go beyond this. In a position of wealth and honor, they do what is proper to a position of wealth and honor; in a poor and low position, they do what is proper to a poor and low position; situated among barbarous tribes, they do what is proper to barbarous tribes; in a position of sorrow and difficulty, they do what is proper to a position of sorrow and difficulty. Superior persons can find themselves in no position in which they are not themselves. In a high position they do not treat with contempt their inferiors; in a low situation they do not court the favor of their superiors. They rectify themselves and seek nothing from others so that they have no dissatisfaction.

They do not murmur against heaven nor grumble against people. Thus it is that superior persons are quiet and calm.

Chung yung = Chung (Just Right) Yung (Doctrine)

Sung Yii in the 3rd Century B.C.E. wrote: If she were one inch taller, she would be too tall. If she were one inch shorter, she would be too short. If she used powder, her face would be too white. If she used rouge, her face would be too red. Her figure and her complexion were just right.

Time was an important factor in the idea of being just right:

Among teachers, Confucius was the timely one. When it was proper to go into office, then to go into it; when it was proper to remain out of office, then to remain out of it; when it was proper to continue in it long, then to continue in it long.

DeBary quotes these definitions of chung yung:

To have no emotion of pleasure or anger, sorrow or joy, welling up: this is to be described as the state of chung [centrality]. To have these emotions welling up but in wise proportion: this is the state of yung [harmony]. (Ibid., 132)

See the comparable translation in Frost on page 110: Chung Yung, 1,4-5:

When the passions such as joy, anger, grief, and pleasure, have not awakened, that is our true self, or moral being [chung]. When these passions awaken and each and all attain due measure and degree, that is our moral order [yung]. Our true self or moral being [chung] is the great reality (literally, great root) of existence, and moral order [yung] is the universal law in the world.

When true moral being [chung] and moral order [yung] are realised, the universe then becomes a cosmos and all things attain their full growth and development.

The Basis of Chung Yung [Centrality Harmony/True Moral Being Fulfilled in Moral Order]

Just as Aristotle holds that the virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom, justice, and love are based upon the dignity of the human person in oneself and others, so also Confucius holds that jen, true humanity with all the virtues that enhance true humanity, has a basic principle which is never violated and which always helps to create the moral order, yung, that will bring enduring harmony and mutual fulfillment when practiced by all humanity. For Confucius, the objective statement of this principle is shu, reciprocity, and the personal attitude by which one truly relates to the objective principle is cheng, sincerity.

Cheng is sincerity, the moral integrity whereby the individual becomes a genuine human being, a real human realizing the genuine ideal of humanity. Such a person is genuine, sincere with others but also genuinely, sincerely what one is, a true human being.

But a person could be genuinely evil or genuinely good. What is the objective principle of moral goodness which a person should genuinely, sincerely hold at the center of one's personal and social life? That principle is shu, reciprocity, also called humanity, also called loyalty and reciprocity:

When a man carries out the principles of conscientiousness and reciprocity he is not far from the moral law. What you do not wish others should do unto you, do not do unto them. (Frost, 109)

This version of the Golden Rule, stated in the gospels of Christianity in a positive form of doing unto others, is obviously stated by Confucius in a negative form of not doing unto others. Because of this difference, the Confucian version has been criticized as only the Silver Rule, a good moral rule but not as good as the positive version. However, the very next lines in the Chung Yung which exemplify shu have four positive applications of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you:

There are four things in the moral life of a man, not one of which I have been able to carry out in my life. to serve my father as I would expect my son to serve me: that I have not been able to do. To serve my sovereign as I would expect a minister under me to serve me: that I have not been able to do. To act towards my elder brother as I would expect my younger brother to act towards me: that I have not been able to do. To be the first to behave towards friends as I would expect them to behave towards me: thatI have not been able to do. (Frost, 109-110)

Of course, this consideration of the wishes of the other must always be a reasonable consideration in accord with other virtues, especially the virtues of justice and love. For example, a judge would not be considering wisely if the judge thought that just as a judge would not want to be sent to prison, so neither should the convicted felon be sent to prison. Rather the judge considers wisely in accord with the virtue of justice as follows: a reasonable person who has committed a crime against another wisely judges as one should when one judges in accord with justice. A person who does the crime ought to do the time. Both doing unto others as you would wish others to do unto you and not doing unto others as you would wish others not to do unto you must be rooted in the principle of basic respect for the inherent value of all human beings. Doing unto others and self in accord with the inherent value of the human being involves the virtue of love, and not doing unto others and the selfin ways that would demean the inherent value of the human being involves the virtue of justice. As Confucius points out, we all have experiences of superiority and inferiority, and we may add, equality, and we can all make a fairly good judgment of actions and whether or not those actions will enhance or demean the inherent value of our superior, our inferior, or our equal.

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