The Complete Human Being

Last Mother’s Day I read a young man’s tribute to his mother, who gave birth to him at 17 and then spent every joule of her waking energy making sure that he got every opportunity in life. The tribute expressed love, gratitude, respect, and above all, clear-eyed understanding of everything she had done for him. I was so moved by the goodness both of the young man’s words and of the mother he described that for a few minutes I did not notice what I was eating and instead found myself savoring the thought of goodness. Similarly, I think we all have known people of such goodness that we would prefer to live in poverty with them, or even in jail, than in abundant prosperity with anybody else. There are one or two people I would be happy to eat stale bread and drink water with at any time, and many other people from whom I would turn down an invitation, no matter how good the meal promised to be. 

   Xunzi, who claims to have a grimly realistic appraisal of the innate rottenness of human nature, nevertheless has faith that we are capable of learning to love goodness so intensely that all lesser desires have no hold on us. A Junzi, or superior human being, 

…trains his eyes so that they desire only to hear what is right, his ears so that they desire to hear only what is right, his mind so that it desires only to think what is right. When he has truly learned to love what is right, his eyes will take greater pleasure in it than in the five colors; his ears will take greater pleasure than in the five sounds; his mouth will take greater pleasure than in the five flavors; and his mind will find keener delight than in the possession of the world. When he has reached this stage, he cannot be subverted by power of the love of profit; he cannot be swayed by the masses; he cannot be moved by the world. He follows this one thing in life; he follows it in death. This is what is called constancy of virtue. He who has such constancy of virtue can order himself, and, having ordered himself, he can respond to others. He who can order himself and respond to others — this is what is called the complete man.  (Hsün Tzu, tr. Watson, pp.22-23)

A follower of Mencius would argue that we cannot be innately bad if we have the capability to become such complete human beings, but Xunzi would reply that the tendency to follow our meaner impulses is much stronger than the capacity for virtue (just look at the news!) and that our moral development is undertaken against the grain, as it were — even though it results in greater joy. The seed of virtue in us might be smaller and less abundant than all the other seeds, but with careful nurturing it an outgrow them all. For Xunzi the nurturing of this seed occurs through the training of  Li, propriety, which will be discussed in another post. This training will have to be a combination of habitual action, self-reflection, and contemplation of good and bad, because to be a good person it is not enough to do good things, but we must also love goodness whenever we come across it. How is it possible to learn to love goodness?

   The greatest insight of this passage is the remark that only when the self has been ordered in accordance with love of virtue is it possible to respond to others. The disordered soul — the one that is tugged about by sensuous delights and mental stimulations — lives at the whim of its own dissatisfactions, anxieties, and cravings — and all the projections that are caused by those. It is not capable of seeing another person calmly and impartially but instead absorbs the other person into its own passionate miasma. The person who sincerely loves goodness and who is moved by it in all its forms is the one who can respond, and without this capacity to respond to another human being, there is no genuine relationship or social life. Without a capacity for relationship, we cannot become complete human beings. In this we find the fundamental difference between a Daoist and Confucian view of life. For a Confucian, the fullness and wholeness of an individual human life is inconceivable without good relationships, but good relationships are only possible through careful training in propriety and goodness; without that, we might as well be alone.

 Wax On, Wax Off

What kinds of things do the close disciples of Confucius disagree about? Ziyou and Zixia, two men praised by the Master for their intelligence and refinement, do not see eye to eye about what should be given priority in teaching:

子游曰。子夏之門人小子、當洒掃、應對、進退、則可矣、抑末也。本之則無。如之何 子夏聞之曰。噫、言游過矣。君子之道、孰先傳焉、孰後倦焉。譬諸草木、區以別矣。君子之道、焉可誣也。有始有卒者、其惟聖人乎。
Ziyou said, “The disciples and followers of Zixia, in sprinkling and sweeping the ground, in answering and replying, in entering and departing formal company, are sufficiently competent. But these are only the lesser branches of learning, and they are left ignorant of what is essential. How can they be acknowledged as sufficiently taught?”

Zixia heard of the remark and said, “Alas! Ziyou has missed the point. Whose disciples will be first to be taught the Way of the superior person and then first to weary of it? As in the case of grass and trees, which are sorted according to their classes, so he deals with his disciples. How can the Way of a superior person be such as to stunt them? Is it not the sage alone, who can start at the beginning and work through to the consummation of learning?” (19.12)

Ziyou, speaking from the perspective of one who would place the “higher learning” foremost in education, expresses polite contempt for Zixia’s apparent fixation with trivial rudiments: surely we should go straight for the fundamental principles, and teach the young how to think about important matters first? Understanding Confucius, the Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, is more important than knowing how to clean our rooms and do our laundry!

   Since this Analect gives Zixia the last word, it is reasonable to assume that the editors sided with his criticism of Ziyou’s misapprehension of how education works. Anybody who has tried to raise functional teenagers knows that if the young person is clueless about how to go about cleaning up a kitchen or a desk, and cannot perform such basic tasks with vigor and attentiveness, he is unlikely to be blessed with a mind that is clear and orderly enough to study anything difficult. Little tasks and big projects exist in a continuum; besides, which of us occupies the viewpoint of one able to behold the entirety of things and judge what is small or large? The bacterium you fail to wash off your plate might kill you, and if studied, might lead to profound knowledge about organisms; the ability to think carefully about the descent of a pebble from hand to ground may yield insights into the laws of physics. Likewise, an ambitiously cogent theory about virtue might have zero affect on the behavior of someone too immature or impetuous to assimilate it deeply; reading Nietzsche or Heidegger might be confusing or even crippling to a student who has never attained any kind of excellence or experienced heroism.  In fact, studying the great writers on war, such as Xenophon or Thucydides, might turn a callow youth into a reckless warmonger if that youth has never experienced military training, physical hardship, and care for wounded comrades. Zixia’s educational ethos is fundamentally not about practical necessity but about Li, or propriety, which shades into Ren, or Humane Goodness. When a student is assigned to clean a bedroom for a guest, he will do a lovingly meticulous job if he imagines that he is cleaning it not for “just anyone” but for his mother: the feeling of affectionate respect will permeate every movement, and if it permeates every task that he does each day, the understanding of Li and Ren will be both deep and natural to him, not just shallowly conceptual. 

   In playing a musical instrument, even the Master will practice his scales daily; in practicing martial arts, a black belt will not cease to practice basic footwork and strikes. Indeed, the difference between a good practitioner and one who falls away from the practice early is that the good practititioner enjoys practicing the basics. Spending hours getting a beautiful sound from individual notes is not lesser musicianship than playing Brahms; working diligently on hitting a heavy bag hard with a perfect fist is not a lower level of karate than performing complex forms. It is common to see how the student fixated on the more glamorous tasks soon wearies of the basic ones and ceases to do anything. Zixia is reminding us that a good teacher always needs to know where each student is in terms of mental preparedness, and also takes care in guiding the student step by step. If we care enough, we will not rush it. Mencius gives us an image for this: a mountain brook, as it flows downwards, fills up a hollow fully before it spills over and continues on its course.

   The last sentence of this Analect can also be rendered: Both beginner’s mind and simultaneously consummate attainment — only a sage can have that. The rest of us need to observe well conceived progressions, and learn how to find satisfaction in ordinary practice. 

Demanding Much of Yourself

Thinking generally about Confucius’ resonant way with words and more particularly about his use of 遠 (“far, distant”), I remembered this piece of valuable advice:


The Master said, “Demand much of yourself but ask little of others, and you will keep resentment at a distance.” (Analects, 15.15, tr.Slingerland)

The translator here is trying to keep the ambiguity of the last sentence: stay far from being resented by others as well as keep feelings of resentment far from your own heart. If you ask too much of others and too little of yourself, everyone will hate you — and because such unrealistic expectations of others are doomed to disappointment, you will begin to hate them too. The superior person stays far, aloof, from this two-directional blame-game not by adopting a posture of no resentment, but by cutting off the problem at the roots — that is, by adjusting demands and expectations. It is good medicine for restoring ourselves to sanity.

   The Annals of Lü Buwei (c.239 BC), the great Qin Dynasty encyclopedia of all things Chinese, has a passage amplifying on this:

Therefore, the [superior person’s] demands upon others are determined by the other’s abilities, whereas his demands upon himself are determined by the standard of rightness. If your demands upon others are determined by their abilities, they will be easy to satisfy, and if your demands are easy to satisfy, you will win over people. If your demands upon yourself are determned by rightness then it will be difficult for you to do wrong, and if it is difficult for you to do wrong then your conduct will be refined. In this way you can easily take responsibility for the whole world and still have energy to spare. Unworthy people are not this way: they demand rightness from others, and demand from themselves what anyone can attain. When you demand rightness from others, your demands are difficult to meet, and when your demands are difficult to meet you alienate others. When you demand from yourself what anyone can attain, it is easy to do as you wish, and when it is easy to do as you wish, conduct becomes careless. (Annals of Lü Buwei, ch.19.8, tr. Knoblock and Riegel)
   Savored cold, this advice seems like good common sense — but on the hotplate of daily living, it is easy to lose track of this and lapse into our usual cycles of grumbling, blame, and disappointment. It is always everyone else who is at fault, indeed the whole world: only our own farts never smell bad.

   The Qing Dynasty Confucian scholar Wu Tingdong pointedly asks: Learning [self-cultivation] is carried on with regard to yourelf only — if you are sincere and strict in regulating yourself, when would you have the time to make demands upon others?

[I am grateful to Edward Slingerland for pointing out both of these quotations in his note to this Analect.]

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.    


Four Faces of Confucian Goodness

Nowhere in Confucius is there an attempt to give a technical definition of anything; instead, when faced with a “What is…?” question, his reply usually amounts to “It is when…” He refuses to reify moral qualities, to treat them as objects with fixed attributes that we can have. They are manifested dynamically in actions and ways of acting, and are never found apart from them. Thus when the diligent Zhong Gong asks about ren, humane goodness, Confucius answers characteristically with examples of doing ren, but this time he is more copious than usual and gives four examples, knowing that Zhong Gong will mull over how they all relate:

仲弓問仁。子曰。出門如見大賓。使民如承大祭。己所不欲、勿施於人。在邦無怨、在家無怨。 仲弓曰。雍雖不敏、請事斯語矣。
Zhong Gong asked about the meaning of ren. The Master said: “When you are out in the world, act as if meeting an important guest. Employ the people as if you were assisting at a great ceremony. What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. Live in your town without stirring up resentments, and live in your household without stirring up resentments.” Zhong Gong said, “Although I am not so smart, I will apply myself to this teaching.” (Analects, 12.2, tr. A.C.Muller)

All of these examples could also serve as examples of li (ritual, propriety) because they are all about doing the right things in the right way, but Confucius yokes them to ren because he wants Zhong Gong to understand that goodness includes both an outer and an inner engagement. The four examples deepen progressively, but taken together they can be considered four faces of ren as a disposition.

    When you are out in the world, act as if meeting an important guest. This advice becomes more powerful when taken in the context of a culture in which the guest-host relationship is almost sacred and “the guest is god.” Confucius doesn’t even specify “act towards people as if meeting an important guest”; rather, the attitude of gracious hospitality extends to everything we might meet. Guests can be easy or difficult, delightful or unpleasant: in every case, the good host entertains them, serves them, makes each one feel important and respected, and then sends them off. The key is that guests enter our lives and then leave; for the short time they are with us, they get our full attention and we neglect nothing while they are with us. This applies to the cashier at the grocery store, the car mechanic, the neighbor, the teacher, even the homeless person who asks for a dollar. It is an attitude that requires unconditional openness and generosity, but we will find that most of the time it brings out the best in the people around us.

   The next sentence continues to draw out the theme of elevating and ennobling our daily interactions: Employ the people as if you were assisting at a great ceremony. This is not asking us to become ceremonious and pompously formal in the workplace or at the supermarket, but rather to conduct ourselves as we would at an important occasion such as an inauguration or a funeral, where every detail has to be right, where all those people who are mere participants have to be helped in the fulfilling of their roles, and where, above all, we have to be self-effacing in the service of something greater than ourselves. This involves an attitude of quiet leadership,  and meticulous care for the whole and for all its functioning parts, such as an undertaker would have in the conducting of a funeral. On these occasions, individual egos are restrained and then orchestrated into a harmonious performance fitting for the time and place. Does this not apply potentially to every social interaction?

   Confucius then gives us the negative Golden Rule, which grounds ren in a capacity for empathy: What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. This rule by itself would give sufficient guidance for most of our daily interactions. It is rooted in an elementary degree of self-knowledge, and for obvious transgressions like theft and murder it seems simple enough; but applying it in our ordinary activities requires a highly developed sensitivity to the effects of our actions on other people — for instance, would I have wanted someone to speak to me as brusquely as I just spoke, would I have wanted someone to serve me food with as little pleasure as I just felt in serving my parents? No aphorism is more practicable than this one, because we know immediately what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves — but it takes work to notice what we are doing to others. The willingness to do this work is ren.

   Finally, act in such a way as to create no hostility: Live in your town without stirring up resentments, and live in your household without stirring up resentments. This attitude values harmony more than any other consequence of self-assertion, since in terms of ren, the loss of harmony affects everyone adversely. The original Chinese is ambiguous; it could also mean “be without hatred.” Thus, don’t behave in such a way that everyone detests you — and also, don’t go through life grumbling about everyone else, either at work or in town or at home. If we reflect on just how much of our normal internal monologue consists of grumbling about other people, this aphorism cuts closer to the bone. We can’t control other people’s grumbling but we can control our own. How then do we become the kind of person who bears no resentment to anybody? The sincere effort to become this person is also ren




Is Filial Piety Merely Obedience to Parental Despotism?

Is “filial piety” or xiao essentially a lifelong training in docility, obedience, and submission — creating children who never really grow up, and parents who ossify into tyrants? When we have bad or even wicked parents, do we have to suck it up and never question? Speaking as an Asian, I have to say that these are questions that bother even Asians.

   A conversation in book 2 of the Analects gives us a surprising answer:

孟懿子問孝。子曰。無違。樊遲御、子吿之曰。孟孫問孝於我、我對曰、無違。』 樊遲曰。何謂也 子曰。生、事之以禮; 死、葬之以禮、祭之以禮。
 Meng Yizi asked about the meaning of xiao. Confucius said, “’Do not disobey.’” Later, when Fan Chi was driving him, Confucius told Fan Chi, “Mengsun asked me about the meaning of xiao, and I told him ‘Do not disobey.’” Fan Chi said, “What did you mean by that?” Confucius said, “When your parents are alive, serve them with propriety; when they die, bury them with propriety, and then sacrifice to them with propriety.” (Analects, 2.5)

The first interlocutor, Meng Yizi, was a scion of a family well known for extravagance in rituals and lack of restraint. That he asks “about the meaning of xiao” suggests that the topic was, even among Confucius’ contemporaries, not well understood. “Do not disobey” seems a simple and predictable answer: Just do what you’re told. But Meng shows the superficiality of his interest by not questioning Confucius further. However, Confucius’ student Fan Chi understands that there must be more to it than obedience, and in his response, the sage places xiao as in fact subordinate to another idea. The word li, here translated as “propriety,” can also be translated “ritual” or “ceremony”; it is a broad term with no exact correlate in English, and in future pages I will go into it in more detail. Here, to understand the meaning of xiao, we have to gain some rudimentary understanding of what is covered by li.

   As  “ceremony,” it encompasses all the obvious ceremonial events of a culture: the civic and religious festivals, New Year, Thanksgiving, inaugurations and other formal openings, baptisms, marriages, funerals — the big markers for entire communities. As “ritual,” the reach of li is deeper and more subtle, permeating ordinary interactions in ways we are barely conscious of: handshakes, greetings, partings, etiquette around food and drink, how to approach specific types of people like policemen and judges, personal hygiene and dress codes, how we speak to different people. All of these involve a sense of propriety, of what is appropriate or inappropriate to do, and violations of propriety are keenly felt. We usually take two decades to learn how to navigate this level of li. But there is a deeper, micro-level of li on which we conduct ourselves more intuitively. For example, in conversations, at what length do we speak, how do we enter a conversation, how do we signal that our comments have ended, how do we tell that someone has finished speaking, when is it acceptable to interrupt…It is impossible to teach such things, because they are so wrapped up in “psychological timing”; most people manage to learn, but some people never seem to get it, no matter how hard they try. Every type of social interaction on a deeper level requires a degree of finesse. This is why we are never done with li; there is always more to understand, and always room for improvement. As human beings, we have a natural gift for doing li, but to do it well we cannot go by rote. The art of not offending people, for example, depends on knowing in oneself what it is to be offended, what kinds of things might be offensive, and what might offend this person here right now; it also requires that we care. 

   Thus, like every human interaction, xiao involves li and must accord with it. To live well in society, we have to cultivate and refine our knack for li, and we must somehow enjoy it, otherwise li would be nothing more than an exhausting burden.  We have to develop a feeling for li. For instance, we spend ten years teachng a child basic habits of hygiene, which he might resist and resent; but at a certain point, the child starts to like being well dressed, washed, and fresh of breath, and feels uncomfortable when he isn’t. The li of hygiene is completed by being assimilated into the personality. So when Confucius says When your parents are alive, serve them with propriety, he means something more than dutifulness: a pervasive sense and love for right actions accomplished well and without ego. Li informs all the actions of a good human being. While there is no book of rules that will tell you unequivocally how to behave in every instance, in general Confucian thought starts from the presupposition that the human heart is capable of self-reflecting and of figuring out what is right in any given situation. If our parents are abusive alcoholics and insist on drinking one more bottle than they can handle, Meng Yizi would be wrong to simply obey, and no one knows this better than he does; obedience would not be in accord with li or with xiao, since fulfilling such a wish would be harmful to the parents directly as well as indirectly, by damaging their relationships to everyone. He would be justified to remonstrate:


The Master said: “When you serve your mother and father it is okay to try to correct them gently. But if you see that they are not going to listen to you, keep your respect for them and don’t distance yourself from them. Work without complaining.” (4.18)

   This advice comes more from common sense than conventional prescription. When the power is all on the parents’ side, what more can we do than speak our minds firmly and, if we fail, not give up on them,  continuing instead with respect and trust in their capacity to do the right thing eventually? After all, we would want our children to do the same for us. If we see that their persistence in a wrong course of action will lead to a result they are certain to regret, it would not be xiao to acquiesce in this destructive course. We will see this later when we meet the legendary sage-emperor Shun, the exemplar of xiao.

“Filial Piety”: the Heart of Confucian Life

For a Westerner and westernized Asian, there is no greater stumbling block to Confucian thinking than the centrality of xiao, or “filial piety.” All the passages about self-reflection, learning, and putting virtue above power or profit are attractive and beneficial to everyone, but the regular exhortations to xiao are both strange and off-putting to someone brought up in a society that values above all the freeedom of the individual. An individual is meant to separate from the parents and forge a unique path; not to do so would be infantilism, a refusal to mature. Our myths tend to feature heroes who kill their fathers, such as Oedipus. From the perspective of individualism, the Confucian emphasis on xiao might seem repellent, a form of extreme social control; indeed, it can seem the opposite social myth, in which the parents kill the children. If the idea of xiao is the bedrock of Confucian life, do we have to reject the whole building if we cannot accept xiao? Can we reject xiao while still finding much to learn from the rest of the Analects? Or is there a way xiao can make sense to a modern Westerner?

   In my own lifetime I have noticed that my Chinese friends are able to accomodate three generations in one apartment: parents, grandparents, and children apparently living in harmony. If any of my Western friends were to try this arrangement, within a few weeks someone would die. Could it be that people with xiao have a better sense of how to live together than people without xiao, and that the key to living fruitfully with the generations is to understand how to be a child of parents? This how is not a simple given, but has to be learned– just as music, which is in us, has to be learned.

   The idea of xiao is complex and subtle, and in these short posts I can only hope to crack open a few ways of thinking about it. I confess that I do not like the usual translation “filial piety,” because that makes it sound too much like religious idolatry; the phrase also has echoes of Roman “filial piety,” which is sterner and more political n nature. “Filiality” may be more neutral and more faithful to the complexity of the concept, but I will refer to it as xiao.

   Confucius brings it up very early in the Analects:


The superior person concerns himself with the roots. Once the roots are established, the Way appears. Are not xiao and obedience to elders the root of humane goodness?”  (Analects, 1.2)

Roots refers to the founding principles of moral behavior, but it also alludes to actual biological roots. Respect for parents is based on this fundamental fact of our lives: that we are not our own origins! Moreover, we had no participation whatsoever in originating ourselves. In contrast, for the Indo-European heroic ethos, the hero is always his own author — figuratively, of course — and, qua hero, not indebted to anyone. Indeed, it is the greatness of the hero that ennobles the whole line. This particular Analect sets itself against any such view right from the outset: the junzi ( superior person, person of excellence, perfected human being) applies himself to the roots, and works to cultivate them. Besides junzi, the other major concept here is “goodness,” which translates ren, the richest and most important Confucian idea. Ren, which I will explore in subsequent posts, is often translated “benevolence” or “humaneness,” because it is the quality of heart in a person who is truly able to care, respect, and love — in other words, ren is the one quality essential to the very possibility of relationships between people. 

   Confucius’ assertion in this aphorism is radical in every sense of the word: if the fullest human goodness has its roots in xiao and obedience to elders (which is a secondary virtue derived from xiao), then we need to understand and cultivate xiao if we want to be good. But to a Western mind, there seems no clear connection between the two. To be fair to the “Western mind,” many contemporaries of Confucius also had the same perplexity, because they too were frequently asking him to explain xiao, as we shall see. If they all already agreed with him, he would not have seemed so unusual and often revolutionary to them.

   The idea of xiao is rooted in two facts: the biological fact that we all had parents and therefore some kind of dependence on them, and the psychological fact of emotional needs that exist between parents and children. Orphans and people who are long estranged from their parents feel these facts most profoundly. Our parents have a unique power to affect and unsettle us, and if our relationships with them lack harmony and a certain degree of mutual understanding our lives will be felt to be somehow incomplete; this is especially true if lifelong tensions are left unresolved on a parent’s death.  Thus our capacity to be happy is intimately tied up with the quality of our relationship with our parents. Most people will not be able to ignore this or run away from it, and good people will not want to because they already see with their hearts that they owe their parents a deep degree of affection and respect. This is also experienced in wanting our parents to be worthy of love and respect. Our most formative years are our first three and the nine months before; we usually remember almost nothing of this period, as if “we” were not there — but people were there for us. These people who were there for us were, in a real sense, our creators, and if we have any self-respect and self-love it must include respect and love for them.

   The respect and love in xiao are not necessarily qualities called forth by the quality of the parent. Even the ancient Chinese had bad parents — for example, the paragon of xiao, the sage emperor Shun, had appallingly nasty parents who tried several times to kill him, yet he could practice xiao towards them. According to Mencius, Shun would often be found weeping in the fields because of his parents’ hatred of him. Even in the modern West, I have frequently seen mature people being deeply hurt, and unable to sleep for several nights after,  because of a word or gesture of disrespect from a parent; this is because the yearning for parental love runs deep. What then is xiao, such that it is something that exists even in the face of difficult parents who may not accept it?

   (To be continued)





Home Truths

“How fortunate I am! If I should make a mistake, others are sure to inform me.” (Analects, 7.31, tr.Slingerland)

Whenever I am having one of those “bad days” when everyone around me seems determined to unload painful home-truths in my face, I deliberately bring to mind this sentence of Confucius as balm for my cuts. As deliciously ironic as it is, such that I have wanted it embossed on my office door as daily warning and therapy, it also reminds me that deep in my heart I actually want to be surrounded by eagle-eyed critics who will point out if I am performing beneath my own standards.

   The core of the Confucian way is daily self-reflection: clear resolutions, assiduously put into practice, and then reviewed. The extremely earnest student Zeng puts it like this:

“Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?” (1.4)

Carefully following each of these three criteria will result in the cultivation of an impressive human being — one that you would want as a colleague, boss, subordinate, governor, and even family member. While Zeng himself often seems to lack the warmth of heart necessary to balance and animate these principles of behavior, what he is giving us here are three standards according to which we can pragmatically evaluate our performance and articulate what we need to do next. Becoming a better human being involves practice, not just aspiration.

   But it is very hard to evaluate ourselves. Can we really see our own faults? It is remarkable how even good human beings can be unaware of serious problems in their behavior towards others — flaws of ego that can grate on their loved ones, and make their colleagues hate them. Even Confucius occasionally despairs of the possibility of self-reflection:

The Master said, “I should just give up! I have yet to meet someone who is able to perceive his own faults and then take himself to task inwardly.” (5.31)
   This is why it is a wonderful thing that we have an abundance of people who can see all our errors and faults, and who will inevitably point them out to us. It is just as wonderful as the fact that “nothing in the universe is hidden,” that our virtues and vices are all manifest, and that sooner or later people pick up everything about us. Confucius remarks elsewhere, Where can we hide, where can we hide? Life may leave us feeling raw and vulnerable, but in the end we should be grateful for all those critics and enemies — because they reveal to us what we cannot see for ourselves.