Blinding Obsession (蔽)

Only a rich thinker will inspire schools based on opposing interpretations of the same book. It is not surprising that the two greatest early Confucians should pick out and develop two different strands of the Master’s thought into markedly different political philosophies.  Mencius, who insisted on the fundamental goodness of human nature, made Ren or Humane Goodness the essential core of our work as human beings. Xunzi, on the other hand, was less optimistic, and viewed human nature as innately selfish and destructive; consequently, he amplified on Confucius’ notion of Li, Propriety, as the principle that trains an antisocial species to become capable of social life. Confucius himself notoriously avoided making any assertions about human nature. Both Mencius and Xunzi lived through violent times, so the difference between their views cannot be simply attributed to different life experience. In the following weeks I’ll be writing on Xunzi, the less well known of the two. 

   With Xunzi we find ourselves far from the cryptic aphoristic style of the old Masters; instead, we get extended passages in which an insight is unfolded or an argument sharpened. Observe the elegant lucidity of a refined pessimist as he describes 蔽 () , “blinding obsession,” which is the special blight of statesmanship :

The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed by a small corner of truth and fail to comprehend its overall principles. . . . Nowadays the feudal lords follow different theories of government and the philosophers of the hundred schools teach different doctrines. Inevitably some teach what is right and some, what is wrong; some rulers govern well and others bring about disorder. Even the ruler of a chaotic state or the follower of a pernicious doctrine will undoubtedly in all sincerity seek what is proper and try to better his condition. But he is jealous and mistaken in his understanding of the Way and hence allows other men to lead him astray. He clings to his familiar ways and is loath to hear them spoken ill of; he judges everything on the basis of his old prejudices; and when he encounters some different theory, he is loath to hear it praised. Thus he moves farther and farther away from a condition of order, and yet never ceases to believe that he is doing right. Is this not what it means to be obsessed by a small corner of truth and to fail in the search for proper ways? If one fails to use his mind, then black and white may be right before his eyes and he will not see them; thunder or drums may be sounding in his ear and he will not hear them. How much more so with a man whose mind is obsessed! (Hsün Tzu, tr. Burton Watson, p,121)

We easily find prominent examples of this kind of obsession in our own political life: not only fanatics and idealogues, but also people of more moderate ideals who nonetheless can become violently fixated. Xunzi is shrewd in pointing out that such a person might be perfectly “sincere,” and that there is usually a gradual progression towards disaster as the initial fixation is reinforced and augmented. For a statesman 蔽 may well be the most perilous flaw because, in a position that demands a grasp of complex wholes and the subtle tensions between parts pulling in different directions, obsessiveness narrows the view and in doing so loses the whole. Obviously this is also true for leadership on a smaller scale, such as managing a business or heading a family. 

   In one-on-one interactions too we have experienced 蔽: at the painful end of a doomed relationship or friendship, we often realize that the signs of future disintegration were available to us in the first five mnutes of the acquaintance. Through attraction or other kinds of enchantment, we overrode our better sense and invested our energies in a version of the encounter heavily edited to suit our desires. We could have noticed; indeed, our friends will gently observe that something is “off” but not press the point for fear of alienating us.  If we had been capable of intelligently assimilating all the details of the encounter instead of just the ones we want, we would not have gone hurtling down the dark alley of intensifying obsession. The same tendency towards 蔽 can be recognized when we fortify an aversion to people who have hurt or displeased us. Stepping back and attempting to see things whole can have a healthy dampening effect on an incipient fixation.

   Does Xunzi see 蔽 as inevitable to all but a born sage, and thus needing only the constant presence of correctives, such as prudent advisors and friends? Indeed, is it possible to educate us out of 蔽 completely? If not, then is it sufficient for us to become more aware and intelligent about 蔽? Perhaps we begin gaining such intelligence by sitting down and systematically studying the beginnings, middles, and ends of our own fixations — understanding the “near at hand” in order to understand the same phenomenon in other people.



Dilemmas of Propriety (Li)

Yan Yuan asked about Humane Goodness (Ren). The Master said, “To subdue the ego and keep to propriety (Li)  is Humane Goodness. (Analects, 12.1)

As long as our lives are filled and surrounded by living, bristling, grudge-encrusted, confused, stinky, ordinary people — as opposed to angelic robots who unerringly do the right thing — each day will come with dilemmas of propriety, or Li. We just have to remind ourselves every now and then that we actually want people and not robots, even though the occasional smooth-functioning robot can be comforting. For a Confucian, dilemmas of li are essential to becoming more fully human, and practice involves understanding them and learning how to navigate them; indeed, the entire book of Mencius is built upon discussions of propriety, and can be read as a “course” in virtue through studying well chosen instances. But why go to Mencius? Just look at one thing that happened yesterday.

   We have a very good family friend who is a reliable confidant, always ready to help and loved by the kids — but…whenever he visits, he always overstays. Because of him the kids stay up too long and the house stays noisy till quite late, and then he will fall asleep on the couch. He doesn’t seem to grasp that we as hosts cannot go to bed if a guest is still in the living room. A situation like this may be a small thing, but Confucius would want us to consider it — because after all small things can geow into big things. Our friend somehow doesn’t notice the hosts getting restless and tidyng up in the kitchen, and also doesn’t recognize that these might be signals that it is time to leave. The failure in propriety here involves both ignorance of etiquette as well as obliviousness to what is going on. Propriety is both knowing the appropriate thing to do and doing it at the appropriate moment, which requires keeping your wits about you. Now, it could be that in the case of our friend, the confusion stems from an ambiguity in Li: is he a family friend, or close enough to be practically a family member? It would fall on us to enlighten him on the matter, but ingrained courtesy prevents us — because it would hurt his feelings and make him feel ashamed over what is in fact a little mistake. We are still wondering about the appropriate way to inform him, and whether it would be more appropriate to let it be and overlook it. However, overlooking it will have negative consequences, because his obliviousness makes us reluctant to have him around. 

   Part of the problem is cultural — that there is no explicit guidance in our social circles as to when to arrive and when to leave; and part of the problem is personal — that he doesn’t seem to ask himself if there is such a thing as a right time to leave. Since it is not an issue for him, he can’t imagine that it’s an issue for us. In itself our friend’s foible should not be a major problem, but if it is symptomatic of a more pervasive heedlessness it will unnecessarily taint all his future relationships; he will be a casualty of his own casualness. Obliviousness to these little proprieties will habituate him to a general insensitivity to other people, which is bound in turn to influence his moral choices. This is why a Confucian upbringing will insist on strict attention to proprieties from an early age; courtesy and morality are tightly wrapped around each other, because both are planted in knowledge of the human heart. Nineteenth century novelists like Austen, Balzac, and James are astoundingly perceptive about the intricate web of Li, which weaves every individual person and action into a whole: In these circles where trifles are of such importance, a gesture or a word at the outset is enough to ruin a newcomer. It is the principal merit of fine manners and the highest breeding that they produce the effect of a harmonious whole, in which every element is so blended that nothing is startling or obtrusive. Even those who break the laws of this science, either through ignorance or carried away by some impulse, must comprehend that it is with social intercourse as with music, a single discordant note is a complete negation of the art itself, for the harmony exists only when all its conditions are observed down to the least particular. (Balzac, A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, 1.2). 

   It would be exhausting to think through the proprieties of every single interaction in this way. One of the beauties of Li is that if we are fairly well trained, we will behave appropriately most of the time without thinking about it. Propriety should be mostly automatic, like the autonomous processes that regulate a healthy body. In carefully observing what is “done” or “not done” from childhood on, we learn first to submit our egos to an impersonal, impartial substratum in social interactions: it’s not about us, but about the neutral space in which we exist with other people. A person who is good at Li actually derives satisfaction from participating in this neutral space, which can elevate us above petty, personal concerns. The attunement to propriety may actually be a necessary foundation for any kind of spiritual practice, because it is the first step in the control of ego. Li also allows us to move on to the next interaction, and not get stuck in paroxysms of remorse for our mistakes, which would be just as much ego as never admitting a mistake. It is like playing any kind of game: we follow the rules without emotional investment, taking them as immutable in the world of the game — and when we make an error, we fail, learn, and continue. In video games, we calmly die, and then resume the next game a little wiser.    


Studying Mistakes


The Master said, “People’s mistakes run true to type. By studying [their] mistakes, we can know [their] ren/Goodness.” (Analects, 4.17)

This Analect has a simple, compact power that tends to be softened and dulled in the conventional interpretations, which go something like: “People err according to their own level. It is by observing a person’s mistakes that you can know his/her goodness.” (A.C.Muller) Or:  “The faults of men are characteristic of the class to which they belong. By observing a man’s faults, it may be known that he is virtuous.” (Legge) This kind of interpretation rightly enphasizes the value of noticing and understanding a person’s mistakes — not the grand crimes and depravities, but their everyday slips and oversights. This is why books like Plutarch’s Lives are wondrous caves full of treasure for those of us who love to study people; in Plutarch we can gaze upon the achievements, disasters, and day-to-day foibles and errors of ancient statesmen, and we wonder at how little personal misdirections inform the twists and turns of history. Strangely, however, the conventional interpretation takes this Analect to be about assessing other people‘s level of ren, or humane goodness. This seems superficial to me, and a lessening of the aphorism.

   The original Chinese, in its terseness, has no pronouns or articles. It could just as well mean, “By studying our own mistakes, we can know our own level of ren.” This is more in alignment with the Confucian program of self-reflection and also cuts closer to the bone personally. In general, reviewing our words and actions at the end of the day, it is possible for us to notice where we goofed. The practice of self-reflection requires us to being our attention steadily and calmly to these mistakes, and to understand them. It does not necessarily involve lamentation and convulsions of remorse, although those might come naturally with understanding. In examining even our small mistakes, we can understand better who we are and, more particularly, where we are in our cultivation of ren. The original words of this Analect go even further: By studying mistakes, we can know Ren. This raw, succinct translation carries a profound truth: how often, in realizing that we have inadvertently hurt someone, do we not then find that we have understood a little better what it might mean to be a good person? The realization of error brings with it a reminder of the right thing that could have been said or done. Of course, the heedless, shameless person doesn’t care and will plough on — but such a person tends not to reflect anyway. For the person who cares enough to reflect and to right the wrongs they have done, the book of mistakes is wonderfully large and painfully fascinating to read — and it contains, to those who want to find it, the book of ren