Sunday, November 05, 2017

Wen and the Odes in Confucianism: possible lessons for a democratic polity?

 In the political domainacts of knowing and persuading rested upon wise use of the Odes.
… [I]n any social gathering, true virtuosi of the Odes, whether male or female, could safely express their innermost feelings without fear of offending others. (Early traditions attributed a number of odes to women.) [….] Regarded as the product of suitable emotions aroused in the singer, the odes served as a versatile rhetorical tool by which to arouse sympathetic emotions in audiences public or privileged, lettered or unlettered.
Just as the odes taught that skillful and rewarding relations depend on a proper appreciation of the objects deserving admiration, so the deeper pleasures available to humans—self-knowledge, friendship, sexual pleasure, and connoisseurship—relied on an extraordinary capacity to cultivate in oneself and others the desire for more refined social interplay. In the end, the ethical followers of Confucius claimed this province of ordinary human interaction, with its marvelous potential for imbuing men with greater vision, as their own special area of expertise, in contrast to those thinkers now labeled Legalists, Mohists, or Daoists. — Michael Nylan

Apologia—I don’t speak here to the question posed in the title (see the second list of titles below for works that address, in one way or another, this topic), but I was thinking of prominent politicians in existing democratic regimes as well as “leaders” of sundry kinds in contemporary society while reading about the role of the Odes among elites in ancient China. Suffice to say, our standards for knowledge and understanding, etiquette (as inextricably bound up with virtue), and moral charisma are far lower and perhaps ill-understood as well; at the very least, our expectations are rather different than those articulated in and inspired by Confucian models.
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I have been reading afresh about the function of the Odes in ancient and early imperial China among the elites (ruling and otherwise). The Odes (poems that were chanted) are one of the so-called Five “Confucian” Classics (the others: Documents, Rites, Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals), although it so happens that these works pre-date Confucius. The Confucian appellation owes to their significance for Confucian pedagogy, as they were essential to the ruist tradition that is later synonymous with individual and collective Confucian identity. One’s knowledge and facility with the odes in both public and more intimate fora were signs of erudition and suasive power (or charisma), an effective display of social skills and intuitive discernment that, in turn, revealed abilities related to an understanding of moral and psychological character as well as the specific dynamics and exigencies of the situation at hand. The social graces evidenced in one’s mastery of the odes was said to resonate with the “sound of virtue,” thereby “influencing others for the good.” Michael Nylan elaborates:

“… [T]hose who could chant odes and respond appropriately to them were considered ‘qualified to become great officers,’ who would ‘turn their merits to account.’ Conversely the lack of such abilities was deemed sure proof of the person’s loutishness, ignorance, insensitivity and lack of suasive influence, in that ‘words lacking pattern and refinement do not go far [in persuading others].’ Based on his knowledge of odes, one could get a grasp of a man’s training, self-discipline, and resourcefulness. And this ability to know men via their knowledge of the Odes was considered the most valuable type of knowledge available to the ruling elite. To know others and be known favorably by them was the one skill essential to those wishing to acquire or retain high rank. At the same time, those already in power needed to exercise their powers of discernment in knowing others, lest they fail to measure merit accurately, employ it suitably, and reward it proportionately, for only thus can a superior attract good men to his service and secure their loyalty.”

The Odes, and the Five Classics in general were part of wen: originally, line or pattern; to inscribe, to embellish; the arts or culture; generally speaking, wen makes reference to the patterned regularity or symmetry, harmony and beauty found in 1. (the dao of) tian (‘Heaven’), 2. (the dao of) the natural world, and 3. (the dao of) a properly humane culture (i.e., one suffused with ren). With regard to tian and the natural world one might say that, in the scientific language of today, wen is evidenced in the physical laws (or normative regularities) of nature (cf. Anthony Zee’s Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics, 1999), or the mathematical and aesthetic elegance of the Golden Ratio—Phi—throughout human history (see Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio, 2002). For Confucius, wen entailed the six arts,” namely, rites (li), music, archery, charioteering (the previous two being martial arts), mathematics and calligraphy. Of course given Confucius’ commitment to the Five Classics, we can assume poetry and dance were likewise essential. In Analects: 7.6, Confucius says, “Set your sights on the way (dao), sustain yourself with virtue (de), lean upon benevolence (ren), and sojourn in the arts (wen).”

Confucius’ position on the role of tradition in an appreciation of the arts is gleaned from 3.14, wherein he normatively discriminates between the respective dynasties: “The Chou [Zhou] dynasty looked back to the Hsia [Xia] and the Shang dynasties. Such a wealth of culture! I follow the Chou [Zhou],” In the Book of Rites (one of the Five Classics) we are reminded that “the perfection of virtue is primary, and the perfection of art follows afterward.” Put differently, the arts are enlisted in the Confucian perfectibilist or open-ended, hence lifelong project of moral and spiritual self-cultivation. They serve to integrally and holistically discipline or train the body and heart-mind (xin) of the would-be junzi (Confucian ‘gentleman,’ a meritocratic designation no longer tied to ‘nobility of blood’).

In thinking of the role of the Odes, we should keep in mind with Edward Slingerland the fact that “music was considered by the early Confucians to be one of the most powerful tools for shaping the emotions, and the metaphor of musical perfection also served for Confucius as a metaphor for the perfected state.” Xunzi understood wen as essential to harnessing or disciplining the “natural and irrepressible” emotions that “burst forth in words, poems, songs, and dances:”

“There is a danger, however, that this effusion of passion may overstep its proper bounds by violating the principles of the Way, and what began as a natural human tendency may metamorphose into a source of chaos. But the Sage Kings took steps to address just that problem: they established rituals of artistic expression, ensuring that poems and song conform to the Way. For when the people of a state sing and hear proper music, they are influenced by its power to bring themselves in line with the Way as well.”(Paul R. Goldin)

Confucius and his followers were well-known for reciting the three hundred odes, playing them on strings while singing and dancing. His devotion to the Odes exemplifies his understanding of wen. The Odes had variegated epistemic, political, ethical, aesthetic, psychological, and cultural functions in ancient China, only some of which we’ll mention here (see the excellent if not unsurpassed treatment provided by Michael Nylan in her 2001 study, The Five “Confucian” Classics). Not surprisingly, “all traditions portray the Odes’ vital importance as a cultural repository of eminent utility and as a teaching tool for the social graces” (Nylan). The Odes could arouse the emotions of others, allow for the acute perception of others’ feelings, enhance a fraternal sense of community, “diplomatically” express grievances or critiques so as not to offend or humiliate their targets, serve as a display of character and erudition. Formally or stylistically speaking,

“the inherent ambiguity and the multivalence of the odes allowed song-makers and audience alike to thrill to witty displays of learning, imparting a single meaning to lines quoted with a specific context. In effect, then, an ingenious, flexible, yet guided response, reaching ever higher levels of insight, became both the prerequisite for and the end product of Odes’ learning. (Nylan)

We might choose to characterize the Confucian project of self-cultivation itself in aesthetic, or more broadly, artistic terms, as Hall and Ames do in Thinking Through Confucius (1987) and Nylan does here:

“Moral self-cultivation is itself a kind of exquisite taste: the truly cultivated have learned to delight in the moral Way [Dao] and to appreciate the beauty and utility of ritual [li]. Such sophisticated powers of discrimination keep them on the path of full humanity (jen), painstakingly refining their initial impulses toward sympathetic understanding, like the jade cutter who cuts and files, chisels and polishes the precious material. People who know enough to take pleasure in the Way find that the end products of their efforts, their lives or their jades, have become exquisite works of art.” (Nylan)

Little noticed, at least from my vantage point, the Confucian conception of wen has much in common with the Platonic if not classical Greek understanding of the role of music and dance in paideia (moral education; aretē, or the moral habituation to virtue; education directed toward ‘the Beauty and the Good’): “As an instrument of paideia, ritual dancing, in which the customs of the group are encoded, implied the acquisition of moral virtues and a sense of civic responsibility, of mature allegiance to the community, an espousal of its traditions and virtues” (see Steven H. Lonsdale’s Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion, 1993). For Plato, music and dance were “the first and fundamental steps of education,” constituting a form of “unwritten laws” that complement or sustain the written laws of the polis. These unwritten laws might helpfully be identified as a subset of Confucian wen or simply li. Substitute the Confucian heart-mind (xin) for “soul” in the following and the identification is transparent: Plato believed music and dance contributed to moral education and civic virtue, in other words, to ends motivated by an intimate knowledge of the Good, “because rhythm and harmony penetrate most easily into the soul and influence it most strongly, bringing with it decorum and making those who are correctly trained well-behaved” (Lonsdale). 

Music and dance in ancient Greece, like the composition and performance of the odes in classical China, “made moral learning at once the most natural and so most delightful of all human activities—far more than a polite accomplishment, a significant source of gratification or fulfillment [in Greek terms, eudaimonia].” (Nylan) 

References & Further Reading

  • Ames, Roger T. and Henry Rosemont, Jr., trans. (1998) The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Confucius (David Hinton, tr.) (1998) The Analects. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.
  • Eno, Robert (1990) The Confucian Creation of Heaven: Philosophy and the Defense of Ritual Mastery. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Fingarette, Herbert (1972) Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Goldin, Paul Rakita (1999) Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi. Chicago, IL: Open Court.
  • Goldin, Paul Rakita (2011) Confucianism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames (1987) Thinking Through Confucius. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Ivanhoe, Philip J. (2nd ed., 2006) Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  • Kline, T.C. and Justin Tiwald, eds. (2014) Ritual and Religion in the Xunzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Nylan, Michael (2001) The Five “Confucian” Classics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Van Norden, Bryan W., ed. (2002) Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Xunzi (Eric L. Hutton, tr.) (2014) Xunzi: The Complete Text. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The following titles speak to the actual and possible relevance of Confucian philosophy to contemporary politics, political philosophy, ethics, and moral psychology:

  • Angle, Stephen C. Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 
  • Angle, Stephen C. Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012.
  • Bell, Daniel A. and Hahm Chaibong, eds. Confucianism for the Modern World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Chan, Joseph. Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Chong, Kim-chong, Sor-hoon Tan, and C.L. Ten, eds. The Moral Circle and the Self:
  • Chinese and Western Approaches. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2003.
  • de Bary, Wm. Theodore and Tu Wei-ming, eds. Confucianism and Human Rights. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
  • Ivanhoe, Philip J. Confucian Reflections: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Kim, Sungmoon. Confucian Democracy in East Asia: Theory and Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Kim, Sungmoon. Public Reason Confucianism: Democratic Perfectionism and Constitutionalism in East Asia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Neville, Robert Cummings. Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.
  • Rosemont, Henry, Jr. Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015.
  • Shun, Kwong-loi and David B. Wong. Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Tu Wei-ming. Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1979.
  • Tu Wei-ming. Way, Learning, and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.


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