Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism

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Confucianism as an Ethical Tradition

After the Zhou people conquered the Shang people in the middle of the eleventh century BCE, the early Zhou kings ruled by letting feudal lords govern vassal states. As their powers grew, feudal lords fought one another and resisted the Zhou king until the state of Qin conquered all other states in 221 BCE. A number of ethical and political thinkers lived in the period from the sixth to third century BCE, proposing different ways of restoring order as well as ideal ways of life for human beings. Among them, several thinkers, including Confucius (sixth century BCE), Mencius (fourth century BCE) and Xunzi (third century BCE), as well as their followers, were regarded as belonging to the same movement of thought. This movement of thought was referred to retrospectively in the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) as rujia, or the school of ru. The English term Confucianism is now often used as a translation of rujia to refer to this school of thought.

Unlike what the term Confucianim suggests, the expression rujia, or "the school of ru," does not bear any special relation to the name of the individual known as Confucius. Instead, ru referred to a social group that already existed before the time of Confucius. The group consisted of professional ritualists who performed rituals in such ceremonial contexts as funeral rites, sacrifices to ancestors, and marriage ceremonies. In addition, these ritualists were often professional teachers, not just of rituals but also of other disciplines such as music. Certain individuals who were members of this group in virtue of being professional ritualists and teachers (including Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi) came to develop concerns that were no longer restricted to rituals or to their own economic sustenance. Instead, they directed their attention to finding a remedy for the chaotic social and political situation of the times and to establishing the ideal way of life for human beings. They believed that the remedy lay with the maintenance and restoration of certain traditional norms and values, including but going beyond rituals, and proposed that, ideally, people should follow a way of life that embodies such norms and values. Unlike what the term Confucianism might suggest, these norms and values did not originate with Confucius but date back to a much earlier time.

Still, in referring to this movment of thought as rujia or "the school of ru," the Chinese did regard Confucius as the first and most important thinker of the movement. Both Mencius and Xunzi, the two other major Confucian thinkers from that period, also regarded themselves as defending Confucius's teachings, and their different developments of Confucius's teachings competed for influence in the Han dynasty. In the Tang dynasty (618907), the Confucian thinker Han Yu (768824) regarded Mencius as the true transmitter of Confucius's teachings, and this view was endorsed by Zhu Xi (11301200) of the Song dynasty (9601279). Zhu Xi included the Analects (Lunyu ) of Confucius and the Mencius (Mengzi ), along with the Great Learning (Daxue ) and Centrality and Commonality (Zhongyong ), the latter two texts dating probably to early Han, among the Four Books. These texts eventually became the canons of the Confucian school, and Mencius came to be regarded as second only to Confucius in importance. Different kinds of Confucian teachings continued to evolve after Zhu Xi's times, represented by major figures such as Wang Yangming (14721529) of the Ming dynasty (13681644) and Dai Zhen (17241777) of the Qing dynasty (16441912).

Suppose we characterize ethics in terms of a concern with the question how one should live, where the scope of "one" is supposed to extend considerably beyond the person raising the question. Confucian thinkers do share a concern of this kind. Furthermore, they are reflective not just in having a conception of how one should live, but also in being concerned with the proper spirit behind the observance of rituals and other traditional norms, and with the grounds for observing these traditional norms and values. This warrants describing them as ethical thinkers. Also, although there are substantive differences in the views of different Confucian thinkers, these thinkers also share a broad similarity, both in defending certain traditional norms and values and in the use of certain common key terms in elaborating on their thinking. They share the same allegiance to Confucius's teachings and, after the time of Zhu Xi, also share a conception of certain canonical texts that define the Confucian school. These similarities warrant regarding them as belonging to the same tradition of thought and describing Confucianism as an ethical tradition. The rest of the article will elaborate on some of the main characteristics of this ethical tradition.

Conception of the Self

To start with, let us consider how the Confucians view the self and the human constitution. They use the term ti, often translated as "body," to talk about a person's body, and they also have ways of referring to parts of the body, such as the four limbs and the senses. These parts of the body are not regarded as inert; not only do they have certain capacities, such as the eye's capacity of sight, but they also exhibit certain characteristic tendencies. For example, the four limbs are drawn toward rest, while the senses are drawn toward such ideal objects as beautiful colors or pleasurable objects of taste. Such tendencies are referred to as yu, a term often translated as "desires" and paired with an opposite term often translated as "aversion." These terms have, respectively, the connotations of being drawn toward and being repelled by certain things. The terms can be used not just for parts of the body but also for the person as a whole to describe how the person is drawn toward things like life and honor and repelled by things like death and disgrace.

That human beings have such tendencies as part of their basic constitution is regarded as a fact about them that is pervasive and difficult to alter. Facts of this kind are referred to as the qing of human beings, where qing means "facts" and, in this context, the connotation of certain facts about human beings that reveal what they are genuinely like. Later, qing comes to refer to what we would describe as emotions, including such things as joy, sorrow, and anger, these also being regarded as parts of the basic constitution of a person.

There is another feature of the Chinese view of the person for which it is difficult to find a Western equivalent. The body of a person is supposed to be filled with qi, a kind of energy or force that flows freely in and gives life to the person. Qi is responsible for the operation of the senses; for example, it is supposed to make possible speech in the mouth and sight in the eyes. Conversely, it can be affected by what happens to the senses; for example, qi can grow when the mouth takes in tastes and the ear takes in sounds. Also, qi is linked to the emotions, and what we would describe as a person's physical and psychological well-being is regarded as dependent on a proper balance of qi. For example, both illness and such emotional responses as fear are explained in terms of the condition of qi.

Among the different parts of the person, special significance is attached to xin, the organ of the heart that is viewed as the site of what we would describe as cognitive and affective activities. Xin, a term often translated as "heart" or "mind," can have desires (yu ) and emotions (qing ) and can take pleasure in or feel displeasure at certain things. It can also deliberate about a situation, direct attention to and ponder about certain things, and keep certain things in mind. One capacity of the heart/mind (xin ) that is particularly important for Confucian thinkers is its ability to set directions that guide one's life and shape one's person as a whole. Such directions of the heart/mind are referred to as zhi, a term sometimes translated as "will."

Zhi can refer to specific intentions such as the intention to stay in or leave a certain place, or to general goals in life such as the goal of learning to be a sage. It is something that can be set up, nourished, and attained; it can also be altered by oneself or swayed under others' influence, and lost through insufficient persistence or preoccupation with other things. Early texts sometimes compare setting one's zhi in certain directions to aiming at a target in archery, and zhi is sometimes used interchangeably with another character that means "recording something" or "bearing something in mind." Probably, zhi has to do with the heart/mind's focusing itself on and constantly bearing in mind certain courses of action or goals in life, in such a way that zhi will guide one's action or one's life unless it is changed by oneself or under others' influence or unless one is led to deviate from it by other distractions. Zhi (directions of the heart/mind) differs from yu (desires) in this respect: although zhi pertains to the heart/mind, yu can pertain to the heart/mind or to parts of the body such as the senses or the four limbs. Furthermore, whereas zhi involves focusing the heart/mind in a way that guides one's actions or one's life in general, yu involves tendencies that one may choose to resist rather than act on.

With this survey of the different aspects of the person as background, let us consider the notion of self as it applies to Confucian thought. Now, besides the use of first-person pronouns, the Chinese language has two characters with the meaning of "oneself." Zi is used in reflexive binomials referring to one's doing something connected with oneself, such as one's examining oneself or bringing disgrace upon oneself. Ji is used to talk about not just one's doing something connected with oneself but also others doing something connected with oneself (such as others appreciating oneself), oneself doing something connected with others (such as oneself causing harm to others), or one's desiring or having something (such as a certain character) in oneself. The two characters differ in that the former emphasizes one's relation to oneself, whereas the latter emphasizes oneself as contrasted with others. In addition, the character shen, which is used to refer sometimes to the body and sometimes to the person as a whole, can also be used to refer to oneself or to one's own person when prefixed with the appropriate possessive pronoun.

These linguistic observations show that the Chinese have a conception of the way one relates to oneself. Furthermore, in connection with Confucian thought, the characters just mentioned are often used to talk about one's examining oneself and cultivating oneself on the basis of such self-examination. This further observation shows that Confucian thinkers also work with a conception of one's being related to oneself in a self-reflective manner, with the capacity to reflect on, examine, and bring about changes in oneself. So they have a conception of the self in the sense of a conception of how one relates to oneself in this self-reflective manner.

Confucian thinkers ascribe the capacity of self-reflection just described to the heart/mind, to which they also ascribe a guiding role. They emphasize the importance of self-cultivationthat is, the process of constantly reflecting on and examining oneself, setting one's heart/mind in the proper direction, and bringing about ethical improvements in oneself under the guidance of the heart/mind. There has been extensive disagreement within the Confucian tradition about how the heart/mind can set itself in the proper direction. For example, Mencius and Xunzi disagree about whether a certain ethical direction is already built into the heart/mind and whether one should derive the proper direction by reflecting on the heart/mind or by learning from the outside. Later, Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming disagree in the different emphases they place on learning and on attending to the heart/mind in the process of self-cultivation. Despite such disagreements, they all regard the heart/mind as that which guides the process of self-cultivation.

Furthermore, they also agree on another distinctive feature of the heart/mindnot only can it set directions that guide the person's life and shape the person as a whole, but it is also independent of external control in having the capacity to hold on to the directions it sets without being swayed by external forces. For example, both the Analects and the Mencius emphasize its guiding role, comparing the directions (zhi ) of the heart/mind to the commander of an army. In addition, the Analects notes one point of dissimilarityalthough an army can be deprived of its commander, even a common person cannot be deprived of the directions set by the heart/mind. Such directions can, of course, be influenced by outside factors, but the point is that the heart/mind has the capacity to resist such influences and, for the Confucian thinkers, one should ideally cultivate oneself to attain such a steadfastness of purpose after having set the heart/mind in the proper directions. This independence of the heart/mind from external control is also emphasized by Xunzi, who compares the heart/mind to the position of the ruler and the senses to the offices of government; like the ruler, the heart/mind issues order but does not take order from anything.

Not only is the heart/mind independent of external control, but it also has the capacity to constantly step back to reflect on and improve its own operations. Three early Confucian textsthe Xunzi, Great Learning, and Centrality and Commonality emphasize the idea that the heart/mind should cautiously watch over its own activities to ensure that all of them, however minute or subtle, are completely oriented in an ethical direction. This idea is presented in terms of watching over du, where du refers to the minute and subtle workings of the heart/mind that are not yet manifested outwardly and to which one alone has access. The idea is taken up by later Confucian thinkers, who in addition emphasize the importanceof watching out for and eliminating what they call"selfish desires," that is, the distortive influences in the heart/mind that might lead one to deviate from the ethical direction. This aspect of Confucian thought shows that the Confucians ascribe to the heart/mind a self-reflexiveness; for any of its own activities, however minute and subtle, it has the capacity to reflect on and reshape such activities to ensure their orientation in an ethical direction. This self-reflexiveness is related to the independence of the heart/mind from external controleven though its activities can be influenced by external circumstances, the heart/mind has the capacity to constantly step back and reshape its own activities under the conception of what is proper, which it forms on the basis of its own reflections.

Given their emphasis on the distinctive role of the heart/mind, did Confucian thinkers believe in some kind of mind-body distinction? In a sense, they do emphasize a distinction between the heart/mind and other aspects of the person. The heart/mind has the distinctive capacity to reflect on these other aspects and on its own activities, to form a conception of what is proper, and to regulate and shape other aspects of the person and its own activities under such a conception. On the other hand, the distinction that the Confucian thinkers emphasize pertains to the distinctive capacities and modes of operation of the heart/mind rather than to the heart/mind as a distinctive kind of entity that occupies a "mental" as opposed to a "physical" realm. The character xin, translated here as "heart/mind," refers to the organ of the heart that is a part of the body just as the senses are. And just as the heart/mind can operate in the manner described earlier, the senses also have their own modes of operation, such as distinguishing between and being drawn toward certain sensory objects. What distinguishes the heart/mind from other parts of the body is not that it pertains to a "mental" as opposed to a "physical" realm but that its modes of operation are different from, and enable it to perform a guiding function in relation to, other parts of the body.

Furthermore, there is also a sense in which Confucian thinkers deemphasize the distinction between the heart/mind and other aspects of the person. Earlier, we considered the Confucian emphasis on one's cautiously watching over the minute and subtle activities of the heart/mind, activities that are not yet outwardly manifested. In elaborating on this idea, the relevant texts also emphasize the point that, though initially not discernible from the outside, these activities of the heart/mind will inevitably be manifested outwardly, and so one cannot conceal from others the way one truly is. Indeed, the different aspects of the person described earlier are all interactive. For example, the life forces (qi ) that fill the body can be affected by what happens to the body, such as the tastes that the mouth takes in and the sounds that the ear hears; conversely, the life forces can generate speech in the mouth and sight in the eyes. Also, the directions (zhi ) of the heart/mind can guide and shape the life forces while depending on the life forces for their execution; conversely, the directions of the heart/mind can be swayed if the life forces are not adequately nourished.

It follows from the intimate link between the heart/mind and the life forces, and between the life forces and the body, that the heart/mind is also intimately linked to the body. Various Confucian texts observe how the condition of the heart/mind makes a difference to one's bodily appearance. For example, Mencius observes how one's ethical qualities, while being rooted in one's heart/mind, are reflected in one's face, back, and the four limbs, while the Great Learning observes how virtue adorns the whole person just as riches adorn a house. Thus, while the heart/mind is distinguished from other aspects of the person by its modes of operation and its guiding role, it is at the same time intimately linked to other aspects of the person. It is not a kind of "private" or "inner" entity that eludes observation by others, but its condition is inevitably reflected in other parts of the person. In their emphasis on self-cultivation, the Confucians have in mind a transformation not just of the heart/mind but of the person as a whole. Accordingly, if the selfis viewed as the object as well as the subject of self-reflection and self-cultivation, it would be more appropriate to describe the Confucian conception of the self as comprising not just the heart/mind but the whole person, including various parts of the body.

Indeed, not only does self-cultivation affect one's whole person, but it also has an attractive and transformative power on others, a power that many Confucians regard as the ideal basis for government. For them, the ideal goal of government is to transform people's character, and the way to accomplish this is to first cultivate oneself and to let the transformative power of one's cultivated character take effect. This does not mean that governmental policies are not important. However, proper policies are themselves a manifestation of the cultivated character of those in power, and properly carrying out policies transmitted from the past also requires a cultivated character. So the ultimate basis for order in society lies with cultivating oneself, and there is an intimate link between self-cultivation and transformation of others' character.

Ethical Ideal

Having considered the Confucian conception of the self, let us consider the nature of the ethical ideal that the Confucians espouse. This ideal is presented through several key terms, three of the most important being li, yi, and ren.

Li originally referred to rites of sacrifice and subsequently broadened in scope to include rules governing ceremonial behavior in various social contexts, such as marriages and burials, as well as ways of presenting gifts, receiving guests, asking after the health of parents, or having audience with a prince. Subsequently, its scope broadened further to include rules governing behavior appropriate to one's social position, such as supporting one's parents in their old age. Though the term can be used to include social norms in general, li often retains the connotation of ceremonial behaviour. The Xunzi, for example, although sometimes using li interchangeably with li yi ("rites and propriety") to refer to various social norms, more often uses li in connection with ceremonial practices and their minute details. Whether it is the ceremonial or nonceremonial that is emphasized, li includes only rules that are part of a continuing cultural tradition and that pertain to the relations between people in different social positions or in recurring social contexts; behavior such as saving a drowning person, though proper, is not a matter of li. Also, Confucian thinkers emphasize the importance of the proper spirit behind the observance of li, which include attitudes such as respectfulness, attentiveness, and seriousness.

From a contemporary perspective, it may appear puzzling how rules as diverse as those ranging from details of rituals to rules governing conduct between people in different social positions could be placed together under one single concept. However, the rules of li do exhibit a unity both in the attitude that they are supposed to reflect and in the social functions they perform. A serious and reverential attitude toward others underlies both the observance of the responsibilities one has in virtue of one's social position and the observance of rules governing ceremonial behavior; a breach of li, even in ceremonial contextssuch as being dressed improperly when receiving a guestdemonstrates a lack of the proper attitude and constitutes a serious offense. And, just as the rules governing interaction between individuals in different social positions promote order and minimize conflict, the rules governing ceremonial behavior promote harmony and the proper channeling and beautification of one's feelings in those areas of life associated with strong emotions, such as funerals and mourning or marriage ceremonies, during which individuals from different families become united as one family. The common spirit underlying the various rules of li and their common social functions show that their being grouped together is not based on a failure to distinguish between categorically different areas of life.

Another point worth noting is that the Confucian attitude toward li is not entirely conservative. Although the Analects contain only one passage that apparently endorses, on economic grounds, a deviation from an existing li practice, the Mencius is more explicit in asserting that li can be overridden by other considerations in exigencies. The Xunzi discusses the importance of adapting li to the changing circumstances of life, and later Confucian thinkers such as Wang Yang-ming also observe that what is of importance is to preserve the spirit behind li rather than to adhere to its minute details.

The Confucian readiness to deviate from or adopt li relates to another key term in Confucian thought, yi. Yi has the earlier meaning of a proper regard for oneself or a sense of honor, involving one's not brooking an insult, and lack of yi is often linked to disgrace in early texts. It is subsequently used to refer to what is proper or fitting to a situation, and is linked to chi, a character often translated as "shame."

Chi is a reaction to an occurrence or situation that one regards as beneath oneself and potentially lowering one's standing, and it is like shame in presupposing standards to which one is seriously committed. However, it is unlike shame in that it can be directed not just to past occurrences that fall below such standards but also to future prospects of such occurrences. Although chi can be directed to the manner in which one is treated in public, it is not typically associated with the thought of being seen or heard, and the typical reaction associated with it is not hiding or disappearing. Rather, it is associated with the thought of one's being tainted by a certain occurrence, and the typical reaction associated with it is to "wash off" what is tainting by distancing oneself from or remedying the situation. Even when directed to the past, it does not carry the connotation of dwelling on the past occurrence, but instead emphasizes a firm resolution to remedy the situation. It is more like the attitude of regarding something as contemptible or beneath oneself, and is linked to ideas such as disdain or a refusal to do certain things.

Yi, for Confucian thinkers, has to do with a firm commitment to certain ethical standards, involving one's disdaining and regarding as beneath oneself anything that falls below such standards. These standards include not being treated in a disgraceful manner as measured by certain public norms, and so one common example of yi behavior is a refusal to accept treatment in violation of li. However, they also include other measures that go beyond what is honourable or disgraceful by public standards; the Xunzi emphasizes a distinction between social honor and disgrace, as opposed to "propriety" (yi ) honor, and disgrace. Accordingly, yi can also provide a basis for departing from a rule of li.

The firm commitment that yi involves is also related to a certain attitude toward external goods not within one's control. The Confucians advocate one's not being swayed in one's purpose by such external considerations and one's willingly accepting the consequences. In face of adversities to oneself or the prospect of great profits, one is supposed not just to conform to what is proper in one's behavior but also to be free from any distortive influences that might lead to a deviation from what is proper. One should not be subject to fear or uncertainty in face of adversities, and one should willingly accept such adversities, an attitude conveyed in the use of the the character ming.

Though often translated as "fate" or "destiny," ming does not refer to some opaque force operative in human events that cannot be thwarted. Instead, it serves primarily to express a certain attitude toward occurrences that go against one's wishes and to which one attaches importance, an attitude that follows upon one's recognition of certain constraints on one's activities. The constraints may be causal in that the occurrences are actually not within one's control, such as the failure of one's political endeavors or unexpected illness or death. The constraints may be normative such that the occurrences are something one could alter even though such alteration would involve improper conduct. Whichever is the case, having done what one could within the limits of what is proper, one should willingly accept the undesirable outcome by not engaging in improper conduct to alter things and not worrying about that outcome. Instead, one should resolve to redirect attention to other pursuits, such as Confucius's turning his attention to teaching after having accepted the failure of his political mission.

Finally, let us turn to the Confucian notion of ren. In its earlier use, ren refers either to kindness, especially from a ruler to his subjects, or to the qualities distinctive of members of certain aristocratic clans. It is used by Confucian thinkers sometimes in a broader sense to encompass all the ideal ethical attributes for human beings and sometimes to refer to a specific ethical attribute that emphasizes affective concern for others. Even for early Confucians such as Mencius, such affective concern should extend not just to human beings, but also to certain kinds of animals. For later Confucians of the Sung-Ming period, it involves a concern for everything, including plants and what we would describe as inanimate objects. For both early and later Confucians, ren involves a gradation. One should have a special concern for parents and family members that one does not have for other people, not just in the sense of a more intense affection but also in the sense of observing certain special obligations to them as defined by li. One's relation to other human beings also differs from one's relation to other animals and objects; for example, in the case of animals bred for food, ren toward them is primarily a matter of one's being sparing in their use, not using them in excess, and not treating them in an abusive manner.

In later Confucian thought, ren is understood in terms of two ideas associated with Heaven (tian ), which has the connotations of both a supreme diety and the underlying purpose or design of the natural order. In early texts, Heaven, the ideal ruler, and even oneself are often described as forming one body with other people and things. Later Confucian thinkers continue to advocate similar ideas and characterize ren in these terms. Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things originally forming one body with myself, and ren involves attaining this state of unity with all things. Though one may have deviated from this state of existence, the task of self-cultivation is to enlarge one's heart/mind until one sees everything as connected to oneself. This idea is sometimes put in terms of a medical analogy. Just as medial texts refer to as a lack of ren numbness in one's limbs, an inability to feel for other people is also a lack of ren.

In early texts, Heaven is also regarded as what gives birth to things, and its operation is described in terms of a ceaseless life-giving force, an idea highlighted in the early text Book of Change (Yijing ). In later Confucian thought, Heaven's giving birth to and nourishing the ten thousand things is described as its ren. The heart/mind of humans should be identical with the heart/mind of Heaven and Earth, which is to give life to things. This is ren in the human context, a quality compared to the life-giving power of a seed. This idea of a ceaseless life-giving force is related to the idea of forming one body with the ten thousand thingsin giving life to all things, it is as if all things are part of one's own body.

With the above explication of the ethical ideal as background, let us consider the Confucian view of the relation between the self and the social order. As in the case of the relation between the heart/mind and other aspects of the person, there is a sense in which Confucian thinkers emphasize the independence of the self from the social order, and a sense in which they emphasize their intimate relation.

As we have seen, Confucian thinkers emphasize the capacity of the heart/mind to reflect on one's own life, including the activities of the heart/mind itself, as well as its capacity to reshape one's life and its own activities on the basis of such reflection. In virtue of such a capacity, one also has the capacity to step back from one's place in the social order and assess one's relation to it. In the Analects, for example, we find passages describing hermitlike individuals who shun the social and political order, at times ridiculing Confucius and his disciples for their persistent and (to these individuals) futile attempts to bring about social and political reform. The Confucian emphasis on the preparedness to deviate from or adapt traditional norms, less explicit in the Analects but more conspicuous in the Mencius and the Xunzi, also presupposes a capacity to step back and reflect on the existing social order.

At the same time, Confucian thinkers also view the self as intimately related to the social roles one occupies. In viewing human beings as a species distinct from other animals, they see the distinction as residing in the capacity of human beings to draw social distinctions and to abide by social norms associated with such distinctions. The point is found explicitly in the Xunzi, which states that what makes human beings human beings is not their biological or physiological constitution but their capability of social differentiation and distinction. It also accounts for Mencius's observation that someone who denies social distinctions or fails to make use of this social capacity is, or has become close to, a lower animal. Later Confucians such as Zhu Xi, although acknowledging that certain other animals exhibit something like social relations, also emphasize that human beings are different from other animals in their unique ability to bring to fruition such relations.

Also, as we have seen, Confucian thinkers advocate an ethical ideal that is informed by the traditional social setup that they advocate. The ideal involves a general observance of traditional norms that govern people's behavior either in virtue of the social positions they occupy (such as being a son or an official) or within other kinds of recurring social contexts (such as a host receiving a guest or sacrificial ceremonies); it alsoinvolves the embodiment of certain attitudes (such as reverence) appropriate to such behavior. In addition, it involves the cultivation of desirable qualities within various social contexts, such as filial piety within the family or devotion when serving in government. Confucian thinkers do acknowledge the importance of a preparedness to deviate from or adapt traditional norms, and later Confucians such as Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming explicitly mention that the fine details of the li of ancient times are not all applicable to their times. Nevertheless, they see such deviation and adaptation as themselves based on a certain rationale underlying the social order that, although calling for changes in details in response to changing circumstances, is at the same time something that can be realized only in the evolving social order. It is through participating in this social order and letting oneself be shaped by it that one becomes fully human.


Let us now turn to self-cultivation, the process of, shaping one's own character out of a reflexive concern with the kind of person one is. Confucius stressed learning and reflection as part of the process. The former involves drawing moral lessons from the cultural heritage, which includes such elements as poetry, history, rites (li ), music, and archery, and embodying such lessons in one's life. The latter involves reflecting on what one has learned so as to adapt it to one's present circumstances. Confucian thinkers after Confucius's times developed different views of human nature, different views of what the basic human constitution is like prior to learning and social influence. These different views have led to different conceptions of self-cultivation.

Some Confucian thinkers, such as Xunzi and Dai Zhen, emphasize the basic biological desires of human beings in elaborating on the basic human constitution. For them, living up to the Confucian ideal is instrumental in satisfying these basic human desires. According to Xunzi, when human beings act out of these desires without regulation, strife and disorder follow. The Confucian Way regulates and transforms such basic desires so that people can satisfy them in an orderly fashion. On this view, self-cultivation involves reshaping and transforming basic human desires, something that Xunzi at times compares to straightening a crooked piece of wood. Dai Zhen also emphasizes the basic biological desires and feelings. He sees the Confucian Way as a matter of one's using one's desires and feelings as a way of gauging others' desires and feelings, and one's satisfying others' desires as one would one's own.

Certain Confucian thinkers, such as Mencius, view human nature primarily in terms of ethical predis-positions that human beings share. Mencius opposesthe biological conceptions of human nature of his contemporaries and argues that the human heart/mind has a sense of propriety (yi ) and that human beings do give precedence to propriety over biological desires. He believes that human beings already share certain ethical predispositions, such as the sense of commiseration upon suddenly seeing a child on the verge of falling into a well or the sense of shame when a beggar is given food in an abusive manner. For him, self-cultivation is a process of fully developing these ethical predispositions, a process that he compares to the development of a sprout into a full-grown plant. By directing attention to and nourishing these ethical predispositions, everyone is able to attain the ethical ideal.

Sung-Ming Confucians such as Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, being self-professed Mencians, draw on the Mencian view but develop it in a different direction. Unlike Mencius, who regards human beings as having ethical predispositions that require nourishment to develop into the ideal ethical attributes, they regard these attributes as already present in the heart/mind in a full-blown form. Certain distortive influences, which they call selfish desires and sometimes selfish thoughts, can prevent the ethical attributes from fully manifesting themselves. Si, the character translated here as "selfish," has to do with focusing on oneself, or on people and things with which one forms close associations, in a way that inappropriately neglects other people and things. It involves a separation of the self from other people and things, preventing the life-giving force of ren from reaching all things and detracting from one's original unity with them. So, for both Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, self-cultivation involves restoring the original state of the heart/mind, thereby allowing full manifestation of the ethical attributes. This process is illustrated with analogies such as the clear mirror obscured by dust or still water disturbed by sediments; the ethical task is to remove the dust or sediments to restore the original clarity of the mirror and of water. Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming differ on how to implement this task, the former emphasizing learning and the latter recommending focusing on the operations of the heart/mind.

The Confucian emphasis on self-cultivation, the process of one's doing something to shape one's own character out of a reflective concern with the kind of person one is, is arguably one of the more distinctive features of Confucian ethical thought. This emphasis, however, can lead to the worry that it involves a misdirection of one's ethical attention. This worry can take two different formsthat this concern with one's own character is either too other-directed or too self-directed.

First, some may be concerned that this emphasis on self-cultivaiton may involve an excessive concern for others' opinion of oneself, especially if it involves one's thinking in terms of cultivating such attributes as ren and yi. The thought is that the terms that refer to ethical attributes are typically used in third-person descriptions rather than in the content of the ethical person's deliberations. So it appears that the first-person exercise of cultivating these attributes in oneself involves being concerned primarily with the way others would describe oneself. It seems that, in aiming at ren and yi or at becoming like the ancient sages, one's primary concern is with one's being describable by others in a certain way or with acquiring the kind of stature that the ancient sages have in others' eyes. If so, this kind of concern does seem other-directed in a disturbing way.

Part of the response to this worry is that, even if we grant that ren and yi are more often used by others as a third-person description of the ethical person, a concern with these attributes need not be a concern with one's being describable by others in a certain way. Instead, it can be a concern with one's becoming like the kind of person that one would oneself describe in this way. That is, the third-person description in terms of ren and yi can be a description of others by oneself rather than of oneself by others. Furthermore, in being concerned with becoming like the kind of person that one would oneself describe in this way, one's primary object of concern is not with the description but with having a certain character that can be described in this way. Likewise, a concern to be like the ancient sages can be a concern with one's character being like theirs, rather than with one's having the kind of stature that they have in others' eyes.

Still, even if a concern with ren and yi need not be a concern with how others view oneself, it is a concern with one's own character, and this can lead to the second worry that such a concern may be too self-directed. This concern can be too self-directed in two ways: One may be concerned with preserving or promoting one's own self-image as a certain kind of person, or one may be making one's own character the most important ethical consideration, more important than other-regarding considerations. These two forms of the worry are different. The first focuses on the way in which one is concerned with one's character, how it can take on a distortive form so that one's object of concern is one's image of oneself rather than one's character as such. The second focuses on the importance one attaches to one's own character, how one puts undue weight on one's character in comparison to other-regarding considerations.

In connection with the first form of the worry, we have seen that a concern with ren and yi is a concern with improving one's character. Just as such a concern need not be a concern with the way others' view oneself, it need not be a concern with preserving or promoting one's own self-image. However, the worry about a concern with self-image may arise with regard to the particular actions that one performs, in relation to both acts of ren and acts of yi. Let us therefore consider the two kinds of action in turn.

In the case of ren, let us take a helping action as example. Suppose one's thought in helping is that one should be doing what is ren. If so, it seems that what one is concerned with is that one gives expression to one's ren character, that one does what is ren, or that one preserves one's image of oneself as a ren person. In any case, it seems that there is indeed a misdirection of one's attention in acting.

It is unclear, though, that the Confucians would advocate performing such acts with thoughts about one's own ren. For example, in the case of the child on the verge of falling into a well, one's compassionate response is described as a direct response to the imminent death of the child, unmediated by thoughts about one's own character. It is true that, in cases in which one acts not out a sufficient concern for others but out of a concern that one should become the kind of person who would be so moved, one might act with the thought of doing what is ren. Even so, one's acting with such a thought is itself a way of transforming oneself so that one will act out of a more direct concern for others. Although, ideally, one should not need to act with such a thought, one's doing so is instrumental in the attainment of this ideal and so should not itself be problematic.

Yi involves a firm commitment to distancing oneself from certain things that one regards as below oneself. In acting out of such a commitment, it seems, one's primary concern is with avoiding smears on one's own character, which is a self-directed kind of concern. Now, even if this is correct, it seems that this kind of self-directed concern need not be problematic for actions that do notat least directlyaffect the well-being of others. For example, in the case of the beggar's rejecting food given with abuse, there does not seem to be anything problematic with the thought that to submit to such treatment to avoid starvation is beneath one's dignity. If there is something problematic about acting out of this kind of concern, it will have to do with acts that also affect the well-being of others.

Let us therefore consider an act of this kind, such as King Wu's overthrowing the corrupt last king of the Shang dynasty. In the description of this occurrence in the Mencius, there is a reference to chi, or regarding something as below oneself. Now, although King Wu's attitude was that he regarded it as below him that he, who was in a position to remedy the situation, should allow the people's suffering to continue, there are two ways in which he was also acting out of a concern that is not self-directed. First, what he regarded as below him is also something he would view with aversion if done by someone else in a comparable position. That is, although he reacted with chi because of his special relation to the situation, underlying this reaction is the more general attitude of aversion directed to the act, whether by himself or by others, of allowing avoidable suffering to continue. So, in acting out of chi, he was in part also acting out of a more general concern that an act of this kind did not take place. Second, his acting out of chi is not exclusive of his acting out of a genuine concern for the people. Presumably, it was because he had such concern that he regarded it as below him that the situation be allowed to continue. As long as this other-regarding concern also played a role in his action, his action did not seem to suffer from a misdirection of attention.

This last point assumes that a concern to avoid what is below oneself and a concern for others converge; but what if the two should come into conflict? This takes us to the second form of the worry about an excessive concern with oneself: the worry that one may attach too much weight to one's own character by comparison to other-regarding considerations. Indeed, Mencius him-self had been accused of precisely this kind of self-centeredness. The Mencius contains several examples of his refusing to see a ruler because he had not been summoned or treated in accordance with certain rules of li appropriate to his position. His critics made the point that, if only he had been willing to "bend" himself a little and have audience with the ruler, he might have been able to effect desirable political changes and thereby help the people. By insisting on an adherence to li, he was apparently putting more weight on preserving his own sense of honor than on the well-being of the people.

This is a serious charge, and Mencius's response was to draw on the early Confucian view about the transformative power of a cultivated character. The basis of order in society is the cultivated character of those in power, and what Mencius sought to accomplish in the political realm was to "straighten out" those in power. And straightening out others depends on one's being straight oneself; there has never been a case of one's bending oneself while succeeding in straightening others. So, according to Mencius, it is not possible to achieve the desired political changes by bending oneself. And, to the extent that the well-being of the people depends on a reform of the political order, which in turn depends on the transformative effect of a cultivated person, there cannot be a conflict between a concern for one's character and a concern for others. The same point applies to the relation between one's character and the character of others. Given the belief that the transformative effect on others' character is a natural outgrowth of one's cultivating one's own character, there cannot be a conflict between a concern for one's character and a concern for others' character.

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Kwong-loi Shun (2005)

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