Becoming an Adult

What is the relation between manners and morality? In a recent interview Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, modestly downplays the importance of manners: “Manners restrain impulses that annoy others; they seldom govern the great passions. It would take perfect morals, not just manners, to nullify the greater ills of the world. “(Washington Post, March 26, 2017) She seems on the one hand to be drawing a fine line between the two, but on the other to be claiming that the difference is simply one of magnitude. If “manners” refers only to an intricate code of conduct that can be followed by rote while disorderly emotions boil and bubble beneath the surface, like lava inside a volcano, then manners are merely forms of restraint, and do not express positive character traits except the power of self-restraint — which cannot be a meaningful end in itself.  

   If, for example, “manners” included only the knowledge of which pieces of silverware to use at any given phase of dinner, and the trained dexterity to eat without spilling a drop while conducting polite conversation with one’s neighbor, then the command of manners is perfectly compatible with wicked thoughts and high crimes. But if by “manners” we mean more than that, encompassing a refinement of sensibility that finds its focus in creating peace of mind and relaxed comfort in our neighbors, partly by rendering the physical and technical demands of the occasion smooth and unobtrusive, and partly through warm and memorable conversation — then “manners” can be understood to border on care for other people and for social groups. We may begin the acquisition of good table manners by imitation and rote, but the consummation of good table manners is in understanding how they serve people. The same applies to the learning of good hygiene habits, which may take years: clean body, fresh breath, nice smell, hair in order, clean clothes, frequent hand-washing. At first learning all this is a dreary imposition necessitating struggle, but after a while we learn to like being clean and fragrant, and after that, we realize that one big reason for all this is consideration for the health and comfort of other people. 

   In Confucius, the word li (translated ritual, ceremony, propriety) expresses the area of overlap between manners and morals. It is possible for manners to be a rote performance, and it is possible for a sense of justice and kindness to exist apart from manners, but all truly good manners are pervaded by intention and consideration. Often we learn the latter through many years of going through the motions, as with hygiene. Li covers the formalities, often unstated, of human interaction: how children relate to parents, parents to children, sibling to sibling, student to teacher, and so on, are all forms of  li, and we might spend many years figuring out how to do each one of these. A good analogy for the modern world is professional ethics. There is a stated as well as an unstated code of conduct between doctor and patient: both behave to each other in certain ways, not overstepping certain boundaries and maintaining an elegant economy in the relationship. For instance, the tv shows they each prefer to watch are not relevant to this interaction. Both of them enter the interaction with respect for the formal integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, in which each has a distinct role to play. This respect is li as a disposition, and when Confucians speak of “having li” what they mean is “having the feeling for li.” This feeling for li is rooted in an understanding of the human heart and in respect both for other people and for the social web in which we encounter them. The man who lacks li will think only about himself and make everything center on himself.

   Li takes us out of ourselves, and we start learning to do this from the time we start interacting with people. Through li, we learn how to submit to the needs of other people and of the community. If 90% of all ethical and spiritual training consists of whittling the ego down to more manageable size, then this is usually accomplished through li in all its complex forms. Without li, we would never grow up. Confucius puts it like this:


If you do not study li, you will lack the means to stand. (16.13)

By that curious verb stand what he means is “stand on your own two feet as an adult among adults.” I remember as a young man marveling at the confidence of older men, who knew how to carve the turkey and preside over a feast, who knew how to treat women well and to handle surly teenagers with gentle authority, and who could navigate finances and legalities with clarity. Such men could flag down taxis with ease and get instant attention from waiters. What I didn’t realize as a youngster is that these are trained men, hammered and forged in the smithy of li like a blade of 360 folds of steel. The best of them are not just passive products of the system, but know clearly why they do what they do and why they do it the way they do it. Their li is infused and animated with care for others, and thus inseparable from their moral goodness.

   Great passions and transgressions do not spring from nothing. Usually they are seeded in ordinary habits of speech or action, and nurtured there day by day. For a good person, manners and morality form a continuum, but perhaps for most of us there will always be some kind of tension between li and our “great passions.”



6 thoughts on “Becoming an Adult”

  1. Krishnan,

    Thank you. Thoroughly eloquent and fluid and fluent in the explanation and the delivery. Thank you for elucidating Confucian teaching in a way so that it is meaningful and relevant to the Western mind.

    “but perhaps for most of us there will always be some kind of tension between li and our “great passions.” – the mission of course is in the ideal of the ‘junxi’ exuberating ‘ren’ through wisely applying the propriety that is in the abstract or essence of ‘li’. We can never tell whether we achieve that apotheosis but we can only glean whether we are nearly there, if we see and benefit from the harmony in our relationships within the family and outside in the public face with others in the society we live in.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Vince. I’m finding Li is a very deep subject and am looking forward to writing on Xunzi. This is one of those ideas that doesn’t really have a corresponding idea in the West, unless it’s Greek nomos (as in Herodotus’ “custom is king”). I’ll be ruminating on this for a while! K


  2. Krishnan,
    Yes, whether Xunzi or Mencius, we should treat them as akin to different Mahayana Schools. The base foundation stones of ‘junxi’, ‘li’ and ‘ren’ and the other ancillaries remain the same as to how we manage society.
    It goes without saying, how we interpret each attribute or the entire body of Confucianism depends on the quality or sophistication or humanity of the ‘civilisation’ of society at any particular era or age.
    It is hard enough in a vacillating and metamorphosing or evolving society or culture or civilisation like the homogenous Chinese culture and tradition and a compliant or suppliant or filial people. Imagine how much harder still trying to distill some relevance or application of Confucianism to a non-homogenous free-wheeling individualistic Western society.
    I look forward to your insight.
    I must admit that if I were not English educated I would not have the ‘looking outside the box’ or paradigm shift in my perspective of my Chinese upbringing and tradition. I would have been both spiritually and philosophically lost and stymied and frozen robotically in the stringent manner and form of ‘li’, and not have the free and independent rebellious spirit and open mind that I have. Or maybe, that could be the ‘Hakka’ in me?


    1. Probably the Hakka. There were always these free-roving minds in China but they got shunted more and more to the periphery. Perhaps it was around the Ming that Chinese culture started ossifying. I wish I knew more about the early modern Chinese minds who had to figure out a way to bust out of the rigidity. The ossification was of the sense of what it meant to “be Chinese,” and it involved a loss of intellectual dynamism. I wonder if the inclination to Mencius or Xunzi depended on what one had experienced politically. At certain times it is very hard to believe in the universality of ren, no?


  3. Krishnan,
    I could be wrong but I think most Chinese, as a matter of intuition, rather than intellect, prefer Mencius and his innate goodness in man (as in the intuitive ‘heart’, as the ancient Chinese viewed the heart as the ‘thinking’ organ and the brain as a physical body machinery or engine) rather than Xunzi and his innate ‘evil’ (that should be more like a composite of conspiratorial and covetousness and self-centred-ness and selfishness and avarice and narcissism) in man.
    If you should compare and contrast the two of them for Western audience, may I suggest that you see the Xunzi School of Confucian thought as in the mortal son of man belabouring under the Original Sin and the Mencius School of Confucian thought as the eternal spirit son of God before the Original Sin before the temptation of the Serpent of the Tree of Knowledge – the animal in man against the heavenly spirit in man.
    Me – I am a fused Mencius/Xunzi – in a Zen sense, like other men, I am like the moon – I have a dark and a bright side – there is good (angel) and evil (devil) in me. The million dollar question is whether ‘li’ can manage my good as against my evil. Can ‘li’ control the ‘devil’ in me? Maybe! In all mankind? We can live in hope!
    Trying to choose between Mencius and Xunzi makes no practical or common sense, like choosing between Cambridge and Oxford.


    1. Vince — The comparison in the West is more like Rousseau versus Hobbes. It’s interesting that Confucius himself doesn’t feel the need to form a theory of human nature, and he himself moves flexibly between ren and li. The modern west is built on Hobbes — hence the complex legal systems, reviews, appeals, and checks and balances. What “law” meant for the ancient Chinese is a rich and interesting question! K


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