Confucius’ Gutsy Harmony

Confucians are often stereotyped as docile peddlers of “social harmony,” a state of civil and familial peace that is achieved through smooth manners, strict obedience to hierarchy, and a smidgeon of sycophancy. Disparagers of Confucius frequently describe him as a propagandist of social control. The truth, however, is very different: even in the Analects he is always at odds with tyrants, and he is usually unemployed because politicians rarely like to be held to higher standards than profit and petty victories.

  When Duke Ding, nominal ruler of the state of Lu, asks Confucius if there can be “a single phrase which could ruin a country,”  

 孔子對曰。言不可以若是其幾也 人之言曰。予無樂乎爲君、唯其言而莫予違也。』 如其善而莫之違也、不亦善乎。如不善而莫之違也、不幾乎一言而喪邦乎。
Confucius answered, “… words in themselves cannot have such an effect, but the people also have a proverb which says: ‘I do not enjoy ruling; I only enjoy people not disagreeing with me.’ Now if you are a good man and no one disagrees with you, it is fine. But if you are evil, and no one disagrees with you, perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance.” (13.15)
He is describing the kind of tyrant, familiar in our days, who wants power not because they want to rule,  but because power for them is a corroboration of their egos that is necessarily pained by criticism and craves loud agreement. If such a tyrant gets the universal agreement he seeks, the countrymwould disappear overnight into this man’s big mouth. 

   But harmonizing (和) is far from agreement (同):

子曰。君子和而不同。小人同而不和。

The Master said: “The noble man harmonizes but does not merely agree. The inferior man agrees, but does not harmonize.” (13.23, tr. Slingerland)

An anecdote from the Spring and Autumn Annals sheds light on Confucius’ meaning:

The Marquis of Qi had returned from a hunt, and was being attended by Master Yan at the Chuan Pavilion when Ran Qiu came galloping up to them at full speed. The Marquis remarked, “It is only Ran Qiu who harmonizes (和) with me!” Master Yan replied, “Certainly Ran Qiu agrees (同 ) with you, but how can you say that he harmonizes with you?” The Marquis asked, “Is there a difference getween agreeing and harmonizing?” Master Yan answered, “There is a difference. Harmonizing is like cooking soup. You have water, fire, vnegar, puckle, salt, and plums with which to cook fish and meat. You heat it by means of firewood, and then the cook harmonizes the ingredients, balancing the various flavors, strengthening the taste of whatever is lacking and moderating the taste of whatever is excessive. Then the gentleman eats it, and it serves to relax his heart. The relationship between lord and minister is just like this. If in what the lord declares to be acceptable there is something that is not right, the minister submits to him that it is not right, and in this way what the lord declares to be acceptable is made perfect. If in what the lord declares to be wrong there is something that is, in fact, acceptable, the minister submits to him that it is acceptable, and in this way the inappropriate aspects of what the lord declares wrong are discarded. In this way, government is perfected, with no infringement upon what is right…Now, Ran Qiu is not like this. What his lord declares acceptable, he also declares acceptable; what his lord declares wrong, he also declares wrong. This is like trying to season water with more water — who would be willing to eat it? It is like playing nothing but a single note on your zither — who would want to listen to it?” (“Duke Zhao”, year 20, Spring and Autumn Annals, tr. Legge)

Harmony is formed from differences of perspective. As long as there are individual human beings, such differences are unavoidable, and the wise person is not afraid of them. Indeed, the tension between different views gives a more complex flavor to the broth. While the smaller human being will tend to be “lost” in his own view and want to obliterate all other views, the greater-souled human being — knowing that difference in society cannot be obliterated — will derive satisfaction from working with the intractable people in front of him, and will seek to act as a corrective — a balancer, a harmonizer– of their excesses. This requires tact, courage, and stubbornness. 

子路問事君。子曰。勿欺也、而犯之。

Zilu asked about serving one’s lord. The Master replied, “Do not deceive him. Oppose him openly.” (14.22, tr.Slingerland)

To do otherwise — blowing him off, as it were —  is to give up and turn one’s back on him — in effect, negating the difference by avoiding it. Mencius will say that if you don’t speak truth to your sovereign, you are in fact stealing from him.

   Confucian harmony is thus not at all the polished, non-confrontational gliding of silken bodies past one another. It involves direct, sincere, eye-to-eye confrontation, with civility and firmness. It works in accordance with Li, the code of propriety and mutual respect, and also Ren, humane goodness, through which we care about other people and seek the best for them. If we were wrong, we would want someone to point it out; if we were not wholly wrong but partially right, we would want someone to state the other side. Because there is difference, there is always another side. The harmonic human being is attuned to this, delights in it, and never stops trying to find either a resolution or an illuminating tension.

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2 thoughts on “Confucius’ Gutsy Harmony”

  1. Krishnan,

    You are touching on what are in colloquial terms the most quoted or cited or referred to Analects of Confucius at the shop floor or street level. You have quoted Analects 13.23 but in practice the Analects 13.23 and 13.25 and 13.26 are commented on as a collective or troika.

    All these Analects are about the schism or the differential level or demarcation of quality of ‘virtue’ (one of the key ingredients of ‘Ren’ besides benevolence and integrity and righteousness) between a noble man or superior man (the colloquial ‘Big Man’) as against a ‘yes man’, a ‘brown nose’, a sycophant, a groveller, an unscrupulous man (the colloquial ‘Small Man’).

    These are difficult Analects to explain to a Western audience because the way they are written they are figuratively ‘mocking’ or ‘ridiculing’ of false appearance harmony.

    The following Chinese lesson is courtesy of help from my wife.

    The character 和 you have used on its own is a portrayal of the ‘harmony’ between nature and mankind.

    When it comes to interpersonal human relationships and affairs this ‘root’ character is coupled with another character. For example:-

    和谐 – harmony, concordance, tune, diapason, unison, consonance

    和睦 – harmony, peace, rapprochement, concord, amity, cordiality

    But there are many other bi-vowels in this category of Chinese vocabulary and they all represent different types of ‘harmony’ ranging from peace, unison, concordance, consonance, consensus, amity, agreement, accord, unanimity etc.

    We are, if I might put in orchestral terms (conducting an orchestra is like the ‘cooking soup’ example of Master Yan that you cited), looking at a situation where there is harmony when the violinist remains the violinist and the pianist remains the pianist and the clarinet, trumpet, drums etc remain what they are, and each pitch in and play as and when, sometimes together, sometimes separately etc their respective part to an orchestral piece.

    The ‘disharmony’ in this orchestral sense is when all the instruments should play the same tune and all at the same time. They are altogether playing the same tune but their accordance is not harmonious but cacophonous to the noble ear (‘pun’ for noble man).

    The ‘harmony’ used here in Analects 13.23 should be regarded more in the sense like the French word ‘rapprochement’, as I cannot think of a more suitable word. But you will know what word that I am looking for if I could explain the colour and complexion, incorporating the ‘lesson’ or ‘nuances’ from Analects 13.25 and 13.26.

    A Junzi would maintain his noble truth by agreeing and yet disagreeing, that is he gets the other party to agree without being an echo of the other, sort of mutually agreeing to disagree. Speaking allegorically, he as a Junzi expects you to provide your corner of the handkerchief when he provides you with one corner of the handkerchief (metaphorically representing the ‘problem’). He as a Junzi is therefore difficult to serve. Because he measures your true capacity and learning. That you are not just nodding Pinocchio. He is self-possessed in wanting to do things right in accordance with the Tao but he is not arrogant in any way in doing so, his mind is focused solely on the problem not his own sense of an Ego of a Self; he just wants you to be involved with him, as part of the solution or decision making, proof-reading his mind, in this sense, i.e. to double check his thoughts.

    The servile fawning obsequious sycophant in contrast echoes without being agreeable, he grovels and is a ‘yes man’ to get what he wants, a man of no principle or personal integrity – he projects ‘accord’ or consonance or agreement but he is not an epitome or personification of harmony of the Tao within himself – he is false to Mother Nature. If the sycophant is elevated to being the ruler than he expects you to be a replica of perfection of himself, i.e. a mirror of him! He only wants a ‘yes man’ in and out of you.

    So the answer was there all along in your introduction or preamble – “Confucius answered, “… words in themselves cannot have such an effect, but the people also have a proverb which says: ‘I do not enjoy ruling; I only enjoy people not disagreeing with me.’ Now if you are a good man and no one disagrees with you, it is fine. But if you are evil, and no one disagrees with you, perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance.” (13.15)”

    And that was how Master Yan explained of Ran Qiu to the Marquis of Qi.

    There are some errors by the way – “If in what the lord declares to be acceptable there is something that is not right, [and] the minister [then] submits to him that it (sic) [there] is [in fact something that is] not right, and [thus] in this way what the lord declares to be acceptable is [amended and] made perfect. If in what the lord declares to be wrong there is something that is, in fact, acceptable, the minister [then] submits to him that it (sic) [there] is [in fact something that is] acceptable, and [thus] in this way the inappropriate aspects of what the lord declares wrong are discarded [leaving behind what is acceptable].”

    Vince

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the copious note, Vince! I will return to this when writing a more expanded version, after getting to the Doctrine of the Mean. In these posts I am confining myself to a brief glimpse and not intending at all to give anything like an overview, in the hope that those not familiar with these texts will interest themselves in further study. The concept of “harmony” in all its various nuances and collocations is certainly one of the richer aspects of Chinese thought in general, whether Confucian or Daoist. Thanks also for the emended translation! K

      Like

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