My Personal Reasons to Talk about Confucius
I remember well that I read The Analects first when I was thirteen. I found a translation into my native language in my sister’s library. I liked it so much that I would rewrite some of its fragments and learnt them by heart. The fascination lasted for some time until started to read Greek philosophers. The second reason is a bit strange, given my professional interest in American pragmatism. What’s the connection between American pragmatism and Chinese Confucianism? Namely, one of its most eminent representatives, John Dewey, visited China in 1919-1920 and earned popularity to such an extent that some called him ‘Second Confucius’. It is interesting to read many materials that compare these two, on moral education for example. And I was even a reviewer of a PhD dissertation on it at the university of Malaga, Spain. And the fourth reason refers to my Chinese students. I give university courses to Continental Chinese students in English. Rhetoric and Persuasion most often. It is interesting to see the cultural difference between the Chinese and the Western way of communicating. English is an issue, but it is not that problematic as a different mentality. To reduce the cultural shock, I turn to the Confucian tradition. It helps understand many things.
Cultural Reasons to Talk about Confucius
I mentioned already my trouble and fascination with the Chinese culture by teaching my Chinese students. It indirectly refers to Confucius as a figure who lived 25 centuries ago, to Confucianism as a philosophy that developed throughout ages, and to The Analects as a great book. These belong to the most eminent monuments of Chinese culture and, I would say, the universal culture. So, it is good to know something about it in the time of globalization and cultural diversity. On the one hand, we can learn something about one of the oldest civilizations and, on the other hand, we can look at ourselves from the perspective of a very different culture.
The book is not authored by Confucius himself but by his disciples. It was edited long time after his death. It is composed of very short claims, dialogues, and statements. Partially, they are fragments of conversations. All these claims have a deep message: philosophical, political, educational. They stress the role of morality (ren) in public life. Perhaps the Greek idea of virtue (arete), the Christian idea of love (agape), or the modern term empathy look similar. Yet, there are many interpretations possible.
Confucianism as a Philosophy of Life
Confucianism, according to Western standards, has elements of religion, ethics, and political philosophy. It is a worldview that embraces all basics aspects of life. Social harmony reflects the universal harmony. It means that there is a fixed place for everybody: “Let the ruler be ruler, ministers ministers, fathers fathers, sons sons” (12.11). Respect to the elder, still living or already dead. The betterment of the social relations and public institutions can be done by the betterment of the characters of people. Morally better people will make public relations better. So, to be a good kid, a good professional, and a good member of the community is the main way to go in life. I recommend this philosophy at least to see if our Western individualism is not too egocentric and too narcistic. So, individualism has a different meaning from what we know from the West. This quote illustrates this: “Do not be concerned that no one recognizes your merits. Be concerned that you may not recognize others’ (1.16).”
Western vs Chinese Rhetoric
During my classes with my Chinese students, I realized how much they do not want to express themselves. Soon after, I realised that it is compatible with the Chinese and Confucian traditions of rhetoric and communication. Eloquence and argumentation, opinion not esteemed much. Too much talk means something superficial, sort of a bla bla talking. Actually, the book starts with this: “Those of crafty words and ingratiating expression are rarely ren (moral)” (1.3). The students will not discuss with the teacher because it is not nice. Breaking harmony. So, it is hardly possible for me to practice rhetoric with them because how can you practice rhetoric without discussing, exchanging opinions, etc. We, the Western people, would probably say that they, the Chinese students, are afraid of the consequences from the authorities. Partially it must be the case. Yet, they talk about harmony which is compatible with Confucian approach. The other thing is that they respect teachers’ knowledge, also according to the Confucian approach. This logic says that the students do not have enough knowledge to discuss many things so they should wait and learn. Something opposite I experience with my Western students very often: not knowledge but individual opinion seems to be something they like to refer to most.
Confucius and the Contemporary Chinese
Studying and comparing, I was surprised to see how much Chinese Communism corresponds to the Confucian tradition at some points. Subordination to the authority in the first instance. Both advocate subordination to the political power. Also, recognition of the moral role of the state power. In Confucian teaching, the authority corresponds to the universal order: “Governance is setting things upright. If you lead with uprightness, who will dare not to be upright?” (12, 17: ‘governance’ and ‘upright’ having the same meaning in Chinese). Authority manifests the natural order and hierarchy: politicians, teachers, parents. The political fragmentation of China has always been a problem and the centralization of power seems a priority. The Chinese do not understand the Western ideal of democracy and recognition of the microscopic minorities, since it means anarchy. Possible fragmentation of a big country in the name of recognition the right of very small groups (small according to the Chinese standards).