Monday, March 06, 2006

Week 06, Classic, Confucius, Chuang Chou

Notes on The Classic of Poetry, Confucius, Chuang Chou.

Poem-by-Poem Notes on The Classic of Poetry.

“Fishhawk.” Who is the speaker? It seems that the speaker is collective, not individual. This poem isn’t a direct love lyric, but rather a communal lyric that asserts a harmony between the processes of nature and human emotions. The girl the speakers sing about is no doubt a maiden favored by the prince.

“Plums are Falling.” This is similar to the combined action/thought pattern in “he loves me, he loves me not” while plucking a flower. I find that it conveys a sense of how the mind turns even sharp observation of material acts and things to its own account. The woman in this poem is just picking fruit, but she’s thinking of something else. Marriages at this time would surely have been arranged, as they were in most ancient cultures, but the woman here suggests that she can assert at least an opinion, a kind of general desire for happiness and a “fine” husband. I’ve read that plum blossoms are symbols of courage and hope, heralds of the new year.

“Dead Roe Deer.” The situation here is in one way obvious, in another enigmatic. The maiden has been “led astray,” but how should we interpret her response to the situation? The dead deer perhaps symbolizes the girl’s loss of innocence. I’ve read that if one came across a dead deer, it was considered auspicious and proper to cover it as described in this poem, i.e. by wrapping it in white rushes.

“Boat of Cypress.” The poem is probably best understood as being about the speaker’s sense of betrayal at the hands of a lover. So how does the poem show the speaker dealing with her discontent? How is the leading image, the boat of cypress, related to the theme? Well, this image often (according to Arthur Waley) symbolizes the back-and-forth motion of a person’s intentions. The Odes, as Confucius will later say, help one compose oneself in such situations.

“Gentle Girl.” The poem is interesting in the sense that the girl is placed beyond all objects of the senses; she’s the very source of beauty. But at the same time the speaker, in the girl’s momentary (?) absence, concentrates on the material objects with which she is associated.

“Quince.” The exchanges aren’t equal materially—only the color of the gifts seems to make a rough match. But the love match is what matters. The man redefines objects for their symbolic value, and so a precious object can serve as proper “return” for an ordinary one, and vice versa. The Norton editors mention this poem to highlight the sense of egalitarianism that runs through these poems; as they put it, the gods don’t “play favorites,” and the Chou dynasty rulers seem to have respected the common people they ruled.

“Chung-Tzu, Please.” As the editors say, the poem is an offering of sorts to an overly excited lover. His behavior is a bit wild, and it’s a violation of decorum—the girl is becoming embarrassed about what her family and people in general might say about this manner of courtship. Reticence reigns even in revelation—the girl is enamored of Chung-Tzu, and the poem admits as much. She’s redefining his role as a lover, telling him how he must behave if he is to keep her affection and prosper in his suit. The material boundaries he crosses, the damage he does to the garden, violates her sense of belonging, her security. In ancient cultures generally, the individual’s sense of self is defined largely in relation to a communal order; a person’s “sense of self,” as we would say, is from the outset informed by the voices and opinions of respected others in the community. This way of understanding “personality” differs markedly from modern, post-romantic Western insistence on the uniqueness and radical autonomy of the individual. I would not care to overstate this argument since it’s foolish to suppose “people didn’t use to have a self way back when” (there’s truly “nothing new under the sun,” and the ancients could no doubt teach us a thing or two), but there’s a difference in emphasis to be reckoned on between ancient Chou culture and our own.

“I Went Along the Broad Road.” This short poem is apparently about a momentary meeting in the road between (in the first stanza) two old friends, and in the second, two former lovers. The speaker is concerned that no friendship or affair should ever be completely forgotten.

“Rooster Crows.” This poem is related to the traditional “dawn song,” as we would call it in western literature. Here, though, the point isn’t to curse the dawn for breaking the lovers’ idyllic time together; instead, the female speaker spurs the man on to go and do some work before he returns. I get the sense that these are courtly lovers, not peasants—the speaker has jewels to give, and they both will live the good life, replete with attendant harpers, fine wine and excellent food.

“Willows by the Eastern Gate.” Seems like an assignation had been set, but one partner didn’t keep it. The other’s mind remains fixed upon the place, wistfully or obsessively. The place knows nothing of the proposed meeting, but it is associated with the meeting in the speaker’s mind.

“She Bore the Folk.” Chiang or Jiang seems to have been one of those mortals who bears divine children to a god, in this case to the Jade Emperor, co-ruler of Heaven along with Jade Pure or Yuan-Shi-Tian-Zong. (See on Chinese Gods.) Lord Millet is her first-born of this god, and the boy grows up in a natural realm that both nourishes and abandons him. In turn, he establishes a close, productive relationship between ordinary mortals and the land that sustains them; Chou culture is agrarian, and this poem seems to be about the foundations of their society and political system. Lord Millet established the rites that the people still carry on with in the present time of the poem; their agricultural labor itself seems to be part of what is meant by “the rites.”

General Notes on the Analects of Confucius.

The complexity of the moral system in this text may stem from political necessity. As Lau says in his introduction to the complete translation, even before Confucius’ time, observing human behavior was considered an important way to gain some control over current and future events. People are unpredictable, and if you want to derive some sense of regularity from them, you have to study carefully how they behave. Confucius held some political offices connected to the Chou dynasty court, and he is concerned about this matter, too—he treats his disciples in accordance with their respective understandings.

The main quality of a gentleman is benevolence. It seems that in keeping with his flexible way of defining things, Confucius doesn’t offer any single statement, but makes us work at piecing together a sense of what the gentleman is, and how he must behave. First of all, the term seems partly connected with social class, as it sometimes is even today—i.e. to be a gentleman is to be well born, of a certain social standing and not exactly a member of the seething masses. Ancient societies had no problem maintaining strong distinctions between the lower orders and the higher-ups. But it also isn’t only a class-based term; the gentleman may be judged in terms of his character and his conduct, too. Lau explains clearly what “benevolence” entails:

1) Don’t make others do things you wouldn’t want to do yourself. This sounds a lot like the golden rule.

2) Love your fellow men. The family comes first here, but the affection extends in ever-lessening degrees to much more distant groupings. Confucius writes in support of a dynasty based on the clan-inheritance system, but we can see an impulse towards universalism here; he is capable of saying “love your fellow men,” even if he may not mean precisely the same thing as we might mean.

3) Do your best, do your duty—for the sake of doing so since Confucian ethics doesn’t really depend on concern over punishment in the afterlife. This seems similar to the idea set forth in the Gita: act in the spirit of worship, not self-aggrandizement.

4) Benevolence entails self-overcoming and observance of the rites, or, more broadly, religious and social custom. These are received wisdom, and, along with music and philosophy, they help to bring a sense of order to life, especially given the generally unpredictable and unruly character of people. Lau reminds us that self-interest is something Confucius understood to be a powerful chaos-maker in society and politics. Maybe this constant interest in “the rites” is annoying to modern westerners—American culture values rebelliousness (think “Boston Tea Party”) and individualism in that modern, post-romantic way. But many ancient cultures think of the self as more of a public construct. Confucius isn’t a Spartan advocating the life of the mess hall and the military camp, but the point is that a gentleman grows up respecting the rites, developing and learning in accordance with them. There is room for a notion of individualism, of personal integrity and reflectiveness—but the self is given a priori the pattern of the customs and traditions, and learns the value of moving along such a path towards wisdom and maturity. It would be arrogant, I think, to put this down as “conformism,” even if Confucianism is often used by Westerners like Ezra Pound to mean something like “strict order, respect for rank,” and so forth.

Other related virtues—they complement one another—are courage and reliability or living up to one’s word so long as that doesn’t mean being stupidly rigid. Then there are reverence in religious matters, and respectfulness in outward manner and in accordance with the station of the people around you.

I think it’s true that the courtly notion of education was strict and labyrinthine—we’ve all heard the term “Mandarin” applied to mean something like “an erudite person who is remote from ordinary people.” But it’s silly to generalize like that—Confucius evidently doesn’t see education as merely the passing on of facts; it is lifelong and process, part of a perpetual formation of character. Notice that he doesn’t call himself a sage, and insists that he’s never even met one. The sage is an ideal, not a reality easily achieved. Maybe even that is going too far, since as we said, the point of Confucian morality isn’t to strive for recognition—it is to do one’s duty and treat others generously but according to their status and merit.

General View of Social Order.
It’s not so difficult to see that Confucius’ society emphasizes order and harmony. Most likely, such an emphasis counteracts powerful real-life tendencies. There was plenty of political violence and probably a good deal of social unrest at times. Plato’s Republic was written in the aftermath of Athenian democracy’s self-inflicted implosion and defeat at the hands of Sparta—it is something of a wish-fulfillment. I don’t know that Confucius is in quite that position, but evidently, he had no illusions about his ideas being broadly applied as principles of government and social harmony. He has to settle for influencing his disciples, who will try to broaden the influence of his example to as many people as possible. This is a philosophy about how to develop sound individual character.

Another thing to consider with regard to Confucius’ vision of social order is his insistence on the way the common people—for whose good the whole political order is ultimately arranged, we are told—are influenced by the good (or bad) example of the nobility and ruling elite. Confucius claims that the common folk are like grass, and the nobility’s actions and words are like the wind that blows over the grass, bending it. The people take their “set,” so to speak, from their betters. What is American government founded on but a healthy distrust of government, coupled with an insistence that those whom we elect not tell us what to do in any area of life where it isn’t absolutely necessary? I’ve noticed that a certain slice of the electorate conflates leadership with moral example—there’s no harm in rulers behaving themselves (it’s embarrassing when they don’t, and can be dangerous if it touches upon matters of state), but a lot of us have trouble with the idea that we’re paying elected officials to set a moral example for us because such notions tend towards authoritarianism. In a sense, I’m paying the pols to carry out the public’s business, not to tell me how I should behave in my private affairs. Some of our presidents would probably never have been elected had we scrutinized their moral fabric or even their mental stability the way we do today—Jefferson was a complex and moody man to say the least, and Lincoln was subject to profound depressions.

Confucius’ sayings are at times rather cryptic and paradoxical, but they sound like the authoritative words of a master. They have come down to us at second-hand, as things said in response to questions asked by disciples of varying degrees of wisdom. I think this fits Confucius’ outlook well—he responds in particular ways to particular people at particular times. He isn’t preaching from the mountaintop; he’s talking about practical things in the here and now, and trying to explain to others why they ought to respect themselves and the relative dignity of other people, whatever their rank.

Page-by-Page Notes on the Analects of Confucius.

823. Confucius says that at seventy years old, a person’s understanding frees up development in accordance with the Way. The ruler is urged to teach by concrete example. What to do? Raise the virtuous, promote meritocracy.

824-25. Benevolence: respect for all, reverence for some. Benevolence is perhaps wisdom long continued, and involves overcoming internal and external barriers. A gentleman should maintain appropriate bearing and speech, consider the context and circumstances of words and actions. Tact is essential.

825-26. Music, religious rites, received customs—not chaos-inducing self-assertion—should be our pattern for development. Statecraft plays a major role in promoting this path. A gentleman should have a certain temperament: one that makes him generally capable rather than merely proficient in a few areas. Confucius and John Henry Newman the Victorian author would agree in that regard: Newman promoted a truly liberal education that would form a person’s character and temperament; above all, liberal education makes a person capable of continuing to learn, and learn quickly. Above all, a gentleman sets a good example for the commonfolk.

826. The young, says Confucius, deserve awe. Those fifty and under should have the potential to develop themselves authentically, at least if they live in a state that follows the Way. So in a sense, Confucius is promoting a “youth culture,” in spite of all the reverence for the old we associate with traditional Confucianism. I doubt, however, that he would agree with Oscar Wilde’s quip, “the young know everything.”

827. Undue sorrow is appropriate, Confucius suggests, if the person you grieve for has earned it. As the Bible says, “there is a time for every purpose and for every work.” It is somewhat less than human, perhaps, to measure out one’s sorrow, confining it neatly by means of the old rituals. Is it not in the very nature of sorrow to have something excessive about it? The deepest sorrows are in response, after all, to events that rake us to the very core of our being. Passage 26 is particularly fine: Confucius is tolerant of the others’ busybody counsels of perfection, but when Tien says he simply wants to “go bathing in the River Yi and enjoy the breeze on the Rain Altar, and then to go home chanting poetry,” Confucius is impressed. Tien’s wish is best because it flows from a sure knowledge of the wellspring of joy: to follow one’s heart in the proximity of the rites, concretely and simply.

828. Benevolence is discussed again. The golden rule is to treat all with respect and with due regard for their station in life. Government by good example is best. Encourage everyone to respect themselves by respecting their duty. It isn’t simply “rank” that matters. One must occupy well a certain station and fulfill one’s responsibilities. People are bound, bonded together, by a strong sense of reciprocal obligation. Even so, Confucius knows that it may take generations to achieve order, based on the multiplication of personal example. Is this because he believes self-assertion will keep cropping up? Sure. Also that the unwise can “teach by example,” creating thereby a prevailing climate of stupidity and greed. To what extent is Confucianism applicable today, we might ask? We live in an age of manufactured consensus, simulacra, global villagism, and so forth. Can cultural learning happen by means of concrete example? What is the root of us?

830. Education is not the same thing as extreme erudition. I agree—it seems best to “think along with” a text rather than simply to regard it as information to be received as fact and memorized.

831. The Odes are a channel for legitimate expression, and they help induce harmony. Society works like music; we must play in tune together, or there will be not euphony but dysphony, chaos, ugliness. We can’t escape our humanity, says Confucius. He is no primitivist. The state should guard the rites and customs. People live within the state, which is not, therefore, to be understood as a mere set of arrangements whereby some people will superimpose order on the lives of other people. Confucius and the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel might agree on at least one thing: the state is the nursery and guarantor of true individuality. We become who we are under the auspices of the governmental and social order.

Page-by-Page Notes on Chuang Chou’s Chuang Tzu.

835. Chuang counsels self-sufficiency, but not pride in accomplishment. It’s implied that since the Way can’t be known in its entirety, we shouldn’t presume to have met all its demands or to have followed it since we can’t verify our claims. Chuang’s basic approach is perspectivalist, but even that term seems inadequate since it invokes the “here/there” distinction that Chuang finds troubling. In his paradoxicality, he resembles the pre-Socratics, and his approach towards the misleading aspects of language and concepts seems quite similar to Nietzsche’s proto-deconstructive analyses many centuries later.

836. Lien Shu hears from Chien Wu about a “Holy Man living on faraway Ku-she Mountain.” He chides Chien Wu for not crediting the man’s perfection and wisdom. Such a man resists definition, he explains: in his perfections, such a sage remains aloof and refuses to be defined by things, events, or desire: “Though the age calls for reform, why should he wear himself out over the affairs of the world? There is nothing that can harm this man.”

837. Chuang Tzu tells a story about a traveler who made good money and achieved social advancement by buying the rights to a salve for chapped hands that the inventor had failed to capitalize on. The lesson here is that ingenuity pays. Chuang Tzu next explains that Hui Tzu’s shu tree is actually quite valuable in its uselessness, and has something to teach him: “If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?” Chuang here seems to be setting forth an anti-utility, anti-purpose ethos. Hui Tzu should adapt himself to the tree’s being, not the other way around.

838-39. Tzu-ch’i’s views on desire are excellent. He suggests, I think, that openness to desire is fine, but we mustn’t try to ground our lives on attaining the object of our desires. We won’t find any false carpe diem claims in Chuang. He also says that “Great understanding is broad and unhurried; little understanding is cramped and busy,” and that those of little understanding “drown in what they do.” Is the body the key to understanding? Well, it doesn’t seem to be the case, based on what is said here: “Once a man receives this fixed bodily form he holds on to it, waiting for the end. Sometimes clashing with things, sometimes bending before them, he runs his course like a galloping steed, and nothing can stop him. Is he not pathetic?” (839) Are words vital? It’s not certain: “Words have something to say. But if what they say is not fixed, then do they really say something?” Or does the Way rest upon something other than these things? Tzu-ch’i says that the mind teaches itself: “If a man follows the mind given him and makes it his teacher, then who can be without a teacher?” (839) Evidently, Chuang’s is not Confucius’ “little accomplishments” philosophy: we find in Chuang a different definition of “the Way,” one suggesting it is not realizable in custom or society.

840-41. The paired categories “this” and “that,” says Tzu-ch’i, amount to conceptual slicing and dicing. The distinction-making into right and wrong (moral categories) stems from desire. But desire for what? For certainty and stability, comfort for mind and body. We humanize, anthropomorphize everything around us. Consider Nietzsche’s Apollo/Dionysus argument, in which both are of twin birth, like obverse/reverse. The similar point is that the sage embraces everything, and rejects only rejections implied by the distinction-makers and anthropomorphizers. So understanding should rest in what it doesn’t understand, and go by “the torch of chaos and doubt” (841 middle). All firm definitions of the Way are false. Heaven is the equalizer, and one should relegate all to “the constant” (840). Tzu-ch’i says, “A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly. Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness. So, I say, the best thing to use is clarity.” Difficult language, to be sure, but at times Chuang’s simplicity is remarkable: says Tzu-ch’i, “A road is made by people walking on it; things are so because they are called so. What makes them so? Making them so makes them so.” When people stop walking on a road, they stop calling it a road, and it isn’t a road anymore. There’s no need, therefore, to get fooled by abstract concepts into confusing words with the world itself. Not all philosophers would agree (if indeed I understand Chuang’s point correctly) that we can keep the two distinct, but the clarity of his remarks is excellent: he understands that “concepts” are impositions on things, not sufficient explanations for them.

842-43. Tzu-ch’i suggests that understanding should “rest in what it does not understand” (842) since “If the way is made clear, it is not the Way.” The sage embraces things, leaves things as they are: this simultaneous embracing and letting-be constitutes success. See 842 1/3, 843 near bottom. We should consider what this philosophy offers by rejecting rejections and the lure of facile concepts and oppositions. See 840 mid: making into one equals allowing, letting be. Tzu-ch’i says that “Ordinary men strain and struggle; the sage is stupid and blockish. He takes part in ten thousand ages and achieves simplicity in oneness. For him, all the ten thousand things are what they are, and thus they enfold each other.”

844-45. I believe that here Chuang is allowing his characters gently make fun of Confucius’ upbeat, social understanding of the Way, of its respect for rank. Chuang recognizes that you can’t look to society’s workings for the “natural order of things.” Why not? Because we humans are inveterate self-promoters, substituting our perspectives and desires for the world, swallowing up or vacuuming all else into our acts of definition and understanding. So who is the man: Chuang Chou or the dream butterfly? See 845 top.

845. The cook Ting teaches Lord Wen-hui something important. He follows the Way, he suggests, by simply doing what he does. His wondrously deft carving of an ox isn’t simply a matter of conscious technique: “After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.”

846-47. The old tree’s uselessness—its resistance to men’s needs and desires—protects it. Carpenter Shih has learned to respect the forest, its way of remaining beyond our limitedness. The tree speaks to him in a dream and disinvites comparison, asking, “If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What’s the point of this—things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die—how do you know I’m a worthless tree?” Crippled Shu, too, remains outside the pale of usefulness, content to be unworthy of notice, though the philosopher notices him.

848-50. Master Sang-hu dies, and Confucius, in Chuang’s telling, sends condolences by Tzu-Kung. Confucius realizes that the man’s friends did not really need condolences. They sing and weave silkworm frames, and don’t lament. Confucius praises them for it, says that he, by contrast, stays in the realm, and thrives in the Way as fish in water: “Fish thrive in water, man thrives in the Way” (850). The emphasis on annulment of change sounds Confucian, but the kind of uncertainty Chuang embraces sounds very different. And singular Meng-sun? Well, he makes no distinctions but wails because others do. Confucius suggests that one may do well to “go along and forget about change” (850 bottom). I think he’s reasserting his perspective: go with, not against, the rites and customs. As for the Masters who didn’t need Confucius’ Hallmark-Card, is there a mild criticism here? Does their joy come from protest against death rather than calm acceptance? (Whitman’s “sane and sacred death.”) We recall Confucius’ willingness to indulge himself in “undue sorrow.”

852-53. Duke Huan learns a lesson about book-learning from the wheelwright P’ien: “When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So what you are reading there must be nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old.” So much for the Miltonic idea that “a book is a living thing,” I suppose. P’ien’s example of his “knack” for working with a chisel and mallet suggests that just as you can’t really teach people manual skills—they must learn for themselves, for the most part—there’s a great deal that can’t be captured in language.

854. Chuang Tzu is lectured in a dream by a skull on the rhythms of the living and the peacefulness of the dead. He had previously presumed to question this very skull, and had been using it as a pillow. But it’s clear that the skull thinks it has the best of the situation, and points out that life is full of troubles and tasks. It’s hard to see how the living could embrace this philosophy of nothingness and tranquility, but the passage seems to privilege the skull’s viewpoint.

858. The Yellow Emperor learns something about the nature of kingship from a boy tending to some horses: “Governing the empire I suppose is not much different from herding horses. Get rid of whatever is harmful to the horses—that’s all.” Stripping away the ceremony and flattery, the boy is suggesting, leaves the Emperor with this simple imperative as his guide.


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