The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What Confucius Teaches Those Who Want a Better World

Statue of Confucius from Rizal Park in ManilaIn the pantheon of political philosophers, by influence, Confucius is of the first rank: the most important political philosopher in China, arguably the most important chunk of the world for the majority of the last 2,500 years.  After a time of persecution by Mao and the Communist party, his influence rises again, as the East seeks a different model than the West to sanctify non-democratic rule.

It is easy to look at Confucius, as at many other ancient philosophers and judge them entirely on our own beliefs.  With Confucius, this means we look at how Confucius ignored all relations with women except marriage and motherhood, and how his indifference was used to justify stripping women of rights in most heavily Confucian societies.  This is, to be sure, a real flaw: a philosophy which reduces the rights of half the human population can never be truly just or kind.

But it is also important to look at Confucius in the context of the times.  The Confucian relationships were all hierarchical relationships: father to son; husband to wife; older brother to younger brother; lord to subject, and so on, but they were also all based on kindness and care: the lower ranked individual owed the senior ranked individual obedience, but the senior ranked owed the lower ranked one kindness and care.

If a king failed in this duty to care for those who owed him loyalty, Confucius argued that he was not, actually, a King.  Rectification of terms meant that you couldn’t call someone who ruled without care a king: such a man was a tyrant, and your duty to him was not loyalty, it was rebellion.  If a son did not act as a son should to his father, Confucius believed the fault lay as much, or more, with the father: after all, the father had raised the son, who else could have failed to inculcate loyalty, probably through lack of care?

You can see why Confucius hardly ever held office during his own lifetime: why the Princes of his age did not wish to employ him.  He died convinced his way, his Dao, had failed.  Mencius, the next great Confucian philosopher was even less successful in his lifetime.

Confucius also believed, deeply, in ritual and music as means of ethical and moral improvement.  For Confucius proper behavior came from proper emotion; proper sentiment.  You spent three years in mourning for your parents because you were genuinely sad and bereft.  Why eat good food, or wear fine clothes, when such things were as ashes to you in your grief?

Rituals work.  They are relatively reliable ways of inculcating emotion, and attaching emotion to symbols.  Once you have spent enough time going through Christian rituals, Christ on the Cross has powerful meaning to you, meaning you can bring up any time, just by thinking on the cross.  If you are determined enough, and meditate enough, you can manifest the marks of the crucifixion, so powerful can the symbol become.

Spend enough time in particular rituals, and they change who you are.

We moderns often think of rituals as empty, meaningless: but done right, with belief and intensity, ideally at first with other humans, with synchronized movements and they are extraordinarily powerful.  Modern rituals such as our great concerts are still very powerful.  Rituals involving the nation state have also evoked great belief: many, many men have died for their nation believing it was a good thing to do, along with the nonbelievers.

Any system must be run by men and women.  Some will have more power, others less, all are participants.  When they come not to believe in the system, when they no longer believe in free speech, or privacy, or equality, or justice, the society will cease to display those categories.

This isn’t just about institutions: it is about people, and what sort of people are produced and selected and promoted by a society.

Confucius wanted harmony, and he wanted benevolence. He saw a hierarchical state as natural and necessary, and asked “how do we make this state good for everyone?”  And he did mean everyone.  When one of his students was involved in raising taxes on peasants who could not afford it, he was so distressed he cast him out and metaphorically told his other students to beat him.

So… obedience to those above, benevolence to those below, and if the benevolence fails: revolt.  If the obedience fails, en-masse, however, Confucius did not blame those below, he blamed those above: they must not have the ethical characters which deserves obedience.

Ritual and music (which also inculcates emotion, as we all know) was meant to create the people who could create this society.

Did it work on those occasions it was put into practice?

In some places, for some times, I think so: or better than the alternatives, like Legalism, which was incredibly harsh.  All things created by mortals fail, and even those that are successful are successful in cycles.  But Confucius had the horns of the dilemma firmly in his hands, and he gave answers which answered important questions.  Billions through history felt his answers were good ones.  Often, as with all political philosophers, his ideas were twisted to tyranny, but yet, he had asked correct questions, and he had given answers meant to actually answer them.

What sort of society is best for those who live in it?

How do we create the people who can make that society work?

What do we do when those who rise to power are not suited for it and how do we know when they are not suited to it?

Confucius died, bitter, but his questions and answers helped create the greatest most prosperous civilization for most of the last 2,500 years.  And while we might not accept his answers exactly as he gave them, they still have merit, and his questions still stand as a guide to those who would try to create the ideas which will create a better society for those who live in it.

Oh, and all philosophies age. It is the duty of the philosophers who come after a great philosopher to fix his or her errors.  Confucius erred in his treatment of women; it is for modern Confucians to correct the master so their philosophy may continue to promote benevolence.

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Human Nature for Ideology


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  1. “Ritual and music (which also inculcates emotion, as we all know) was meant to create the people who could create this society.”

    This works best I think in an homogenous culture or at least those who have seen very little assimilation of others from different cultures. As the world becomes smaller and cultures mix, their separate rituals are often seen as something that divides them from the main stream society they live in. Re: Islam in just about any western society or Christianity in traditional Islamic societies.

  2. “Spend enough time in particular rituals, and they change who you are.”

    I think a certain caveat needs to be added to that, something to do with spending the time at a level deeper than merely “going through the motions.”

    There was a treatise I read, which I wish I could find again because it made a lot of sense to me, which dealt with the element of sacrifice in religion. The gist of it was that all “religions,” start out with an element of personal sacrifice as an element of their belief, balanced by spiritual reward, and then gradually over time lose that element and focus more and more on spiritual comfort and shed the sacrificial focus. The position of the essayist was that they lose a great deal in the process.

    I could relate to the idea in my own experiance with AA, which originally focused on the personal self examination and spiritual change, but which today gives little more than lip service to that and is more focused on providing a comfortable social environmnet and “helping others to stay sober.” The latter is certainly easier and less painful, but I’m not convinced that it produces meaningful change for its members.

    I saw similar changes in the Episcopal Church from my childhood. Removing, for instance, the lovely prayer which begins, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy…” as being too self demeaning.

  3. Spend enough time in particular rituals, and they change who you are.

    That’s very true, but they can also prevent you from changing who you are, if that person doesn’t go even deeper than mere culture, which it may and probably does. Still, ritual helps hold it all in pace more readily. The resurgence of Russian Conservative Revanchism can be seen in this light. I call it the…

    Revenge Of The Smerds

    It goes well beyond, in complexity, Confucius’s ideal notions of a benevolent, patrimonial hierarchy.

  4. EmilianoZ

    The other important alternative to Confucianism was Taoism. Politically, the Taoists favored the libertarian collective anarchism of small primitive societies that might still have existed at the time at the margins of the Chinese empire. Compared to the Taoists, the Confucians were wildly successful in getting the sponsorship of monarchs.

  5. if that person doesn’t go even deeper than mere culture, which it may and probably does

    What I mean to say by that is, what constitutes the entirety of a person’s psyche and disposition. It may very well, and probably does, go beyond culture, and in fact culture is a manifestation of that deeper collective self.

  6. BlizzardOfOz

    Confucius erred in his treatment of women

    How casually we toss away ancient wisdom.

    The hierarchy from men to women has been accepted as natural and correct by almost everyone for the majority of human history, until second-wave feminists discovered that all of those people were evil sexists. Since that time, the societies where feminist ideology took root have promptly succumbed to demographic collapse. With reproduction levels below replacement, Western societies have been forced to import millions of more religious (and prolific) third worlders, who, big surprise, are not exactly enthusiastic feminists.

    Maybe we should not be so hasty to discard ideas that have held up over millennia, in favor of fashionable new conceits that (as all indications) may not last a century.

  7. dr spock

    emotions are useless and often get us in trouble. Science, reason, and logic = supreme.

  8. subgenius

    sorry spock…you fell for the classic bollox perpetrated by idiotic tv writers – emotions are a necessary base for intelligence (try finding ANY example of intelligence without…AI doesnt count, as it is clever gaming created by semi-intelligent beings)

  9. subgenius

    as an aside, the practices perpetrated in pursuit of enlightenment are all about fully experiencing physical and emotional states cleanly and without holding on to them – while (and this is the important bit) NOT thinking…

  10. Ian Welsh

    Finding universalist rituals that appeal to the majority in society is one of your jobs. The nationalists of the 19th century were very good at it.

  11. Ian Welsh

    “Descarte’s Error” is a good book on the necessity of emotion to thinking. Perfectly rational people (brain damaged so they can’t feel emotions) are paralyzed in most decision-making situations unless it’s absolutely clear cut; and almost no situations are clear cut.

  12. Spinoza

    It goes without saying that just because something is old doesn’t make it good. Hierarchies are lovely…so long as you’re on top.

    Gore Vidal has an interesting take on Confucius in his novel Creation in which the old man’s traditionalism is a mere pose to mask a kind of radicalism. By comparing the chaotic society in which he lived to a benevolent Golden Age he was able to urge the rulers and people to a better way of living. This is a common tactic of revolutionaries and reactionaries alike.

  13. Jeff W

    To add on to Ian’s comment a bit:

    Psychologist Jonathan Haidt interprets Damasio’s Descarte’s Error) as saying, in effect, that “Emotions are a form of information processing” [Haidt’s italics]. Cognition and reasoning, therefore, cannot be exclusively privileged over emotion; rather emotion is a type of cognition. The split between emotionality and rationality/cognition is (at least part of) Descarte’s error, according to Damasio.

  14. Jeff W

    spinoza, I’m glad you mentioned Gore Vidal’s Creation—I’ll add it to my reading list.

    Vidal, it seems, said Creation was the one book he wrote that he wishes everyone would read.

    A bit closer to the topic of the post: on a different occasion, when asked if the Buddha was his “philosopher of choice,” Vidal said, “No, I prefer Confucius. Confucianism isn’t a religion at all; it’s a system of education, of administration. It’s the sanest approach to life that I know about.”

  15. Jonathan

    @BlizzardOfOz, a good case could be made that, as in marriage, gender roles in public life have been subject to casual yet unrelenting revisionism and Whig historiography. In fact, gender roles are nothing more than a conspicuous aspect of a society’s division of labor, and they are always subordinate to the concerns of the working class’s production, consumption and reproduction. One ready example is how the stubborn self-reliant farmer ideal of the early 19th century transformed into the pliant, genteel salaryman of the 20th century as capital, fearing for their own necessity, demanded a subordinate, captive working (and consuming) class.

    Even taking irrationality as a necessary component of an ideology, your risibly and disingenuously cherry-picked timeline of events, calculated to lead directly to your assigned truth with no acknowledgement of a world outside it, is easily recognized as a desperate defense of your personal entitlement complex. That, regretfully for you, is exactly what most of us are fighting *against*.

  16. dr spock

    Ian welsh said, “Perfectly rational people (brain damaged so they can’t feel emotions) are paralyzed in most decision-making situations unless it’s absolutely clear cut”

    The limited research that was probably done to make this assertion is probably outmoded and more importantly, misguided in our current path towards a higher state of evolved beings. Psychological biases run along the same neural currents of emotions. Do you really want to live in a world where biases prevent rational arguments to make progress? We currently have too many americans stating climate change is not real.
    While it is true, motivations which promote action or inaction have a basis in seratonin and dopamine, historically emotion coded transmitters. HOWEVER they can be trained to respond to logic, and rational thought. Buddhist monks retrain themselves with this in mind.

  17. subgenius

    Buddhist monks most certainly do not train to master logic….they train to remove thought from the process…

  18. Ian Welsh

    The process of Buddhist training involves not clinging to thoughts and allowing them to abate. That doesn’t mean you never think, it means you do so only when needed and once the need passes, you don’t continue (you certainly don’t rehash over and over again). (Hindu enlightenment uses essentially the same process — the details vary, but every mystical path that results in what Buddhists/Daoists/Hindus would recognize as enlightenment involves stilling thought.)

    Most of the thoughts we have are predictable, repetitive and pointless — the constant internal babble is mostly shite. As you meditate, you start to recognize that most of your thoughts you don’t need.

    Hitting stable enlightenment (which I have not done), for almost everyone, involves a buttload of hard work.

  19. jcapan

    Reminds me of something the wonderful Alan Watts once said:

    “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”

  20. stirling

    This is one of my favorites.

  21. oldskeptic

    By and large I totally agree, changing mindsets is the key for, not just human survival, but survival that is reasonably comfortable.

    But I don’t think we have time left for that. That sort of thing will take a generation or two to actually show any real affects on behaviour.

    And we don’t have time any longer. We are at an almost perfect nexus of predicted multiple problems, which are dealable with, but there is zero desire amongst the worlds elites to do so, in fact (and they are the only ones that count these days) everything they want makes things worse, far worse.

    A perfect storm so to speak:

    1. Peak oil
    2. Peak gas (very nearly).
    3. Peak coal (despite the propaganda it is maybe no more than 10 years away, 15 tops)

    Which means peak fossil fuels.

    4. Peak water
    5. Peak soil

    Combined with peak oil and gas (and also peak phosphorus) means Peak Food.

    6. Climate change which accentuates the food issues and adds a lot of other problems.

    7. Total elite domination. They are not that stupid short term (though are in the end), their strategy is to take more of a dwindling pie and have the ‘national security’ people keep the proles (who get less and less of that pie) under control.

    Now there are always thugs that can be bought to beat someone up, no problems there. But the same elites are so stupid and greedy that they will plunder them too.

    Such as the US military or US cops, where their wages and pensions are going. Because people that are stupid thugs they will carry on being loyal for awhile (plus the ‘feel good’ bonus of beating up/killing people never gets old), but in the end (like East Germany) they will give it up and turn.

    But, for example in the US, the trend towards total ‘totalitarianism ‘ is still rising so that is a long way ahead. And the elites will bash brains first rather than change, because things are really good (and getting better) for them right now. The pie might be shrinking but the rate they are getting more of it gets ever faster.

    So there is going to be zero change .. until the ‘big collapse’ and end of civilisation as we know it and, unlike the Russian collapse, the world will be so denuded of resources that there will never be a come back, ever.

    Thus somewhere between 2050 and 2100 the ‘big die off’ will start to happen, where billions will die and not nicely too.

    I see only one option that might be able to save ,what I might call, technological civilisation for the longer term..

    Once I made this point years ago to some friends as a joke .. sadly it is hard to see a better alternative these days … full scale nuclear war and the sooner the better. Ideally with everyone launching, US,. Russia, UK, France, India, Pakistan, Chain .. the lot.

    Initial deaths in the exchange, around a billion, then anther 3-4 billion die in the short term aftermath from radiation, disease and mostly from lack of food. Population drops to 3-4 billion.

    Very rough 3-10 years as we go into a nuclear winter, say another 2-3 billion die population drops to 1-2 billion in total.

    But there can be a new beginning. The world has cooled a lot, yes CO2 will stay around for another 1,000 years but temp rises from that are now from a lower base.

    There are still a lot of fossil fuels left to use, some soil left, there will still be some technological base left in some countries. After that (max) 10 years cold spell then food production will rose again and the biosphere will start recovering.

    It is a ‘die off’ but it is a temporary one, rather than if we go on as we are the inevitable ‘die off’ will be final. Hopefully those survivors are a bit smarter than we are. But at least it might buy the human race a hundred years or so.

    The trouble is I cannot see a better option. Billions are going to die anyway, better now than in (say) starting in 50 years? But at least something is left for them to build on, if we wait for 50 years then nothing will be left.

    There is another option, in that the ‘elites’ might do a biological weapon to take out the proles (and I am sure some of them have thought of it) . I’d argue that’s a worse option, because the modern elites are so useless and never be able to rebuild (the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe’ problem).

    Sheer random chance plus survival of the fittest from a nuclear war collapse means that statistically more people with real skills will survive.

    While an elite sponsored ‘die off’ will be he heavy on marketing and nail salon people, rather than plumbers and farmers and engineers. Plus they will, as they have
    been trying hard to do, create a new slavery of people with zero skills.

    So I vote for nuclear war, the best of all the worst alternatives and the only hope for the future of humanity.

    I’d love to be talked out of this argument, but heck I can’t see another better way that is probable when you ignore ‘hopium’.

  22. Celsius 233

    @ oldskeptic

    Very interesting but; nothing there (your scenario) that will change human nature.
    We’ve had ample lessons over many millenia to no effect.
    Yours is also very human centric (understandable) but Gaia is about the totality of the organism, not a single species.
    Humans are expendable and preferably so…
    There is something fundamentally wrong with us…

  23. Dean

    @Celsius 233

    I find Mark Twain’s observations on the Human Race oddly comforting now. I would have found them disturbing when I was much younger.

    “Why was the human race created? Or at least why wasn’t something creditable created in place of it? God had His opportunity; He could have made a reputation. But no, He must commit this grotesque folly–a lark which must have cost him a regret or two when He came to think it over & observe effects.”
    – Letter to William Dean Howells, 25 January 1900

  24. dr spock

    Ian Welsh:

    good post on buddhism: “As you meditate, you start to recognize that most of your thoughts you don’t need.” You are right and I have tried countless times to figure out how to properly meditate and slow down or let my thoughts escape my attention…very difficult and I wish I could do it.

    oldskeptic: Pretty grim outlook you have here. Jimmy Carter said that if nations have weapons, they will undoubtedly use them at some point. If you want to be one of the survivors, I’d suggest you move to hawaii soon.

  25. Ian Welsh

    If nothing else works, try mantra recitation for an hour or two, then go to Anapana (breath meditation). Don’t count breaths, just use each breath as a reminder to stop thinking whatever thought you’re thinking. Usually you’ll already know how that thought will finish. One of the first things I found is that most of my ” verbalized” thoughts are completely worthless, if I’m “speaking” it internally I’ve already completed it non-verbally.

    As you meditate, you will breath less and less, and your hearbeat will drop (though not as dramtically). Thoughts and breath are connected, and you’ll naturally start to think less, as well.

  26. subgenius

    @Spock – As an addendum to Ian’s advice, I find the best results come from moving the intention into the body – you aim to let thoughts “wash through” your consciousness.

    If you “imagine” or “count” etc you are remaining in (sometimes even plunging deeper into…) the mental realm. It can help early on but it can easily form a trap/glass ceiling (I have seen it happen repeatedly – I have spent maybe 2 decades with daoists, zen/chan/tibetan buddhists and the odd sufi – I prefer the daoist take as it starts with the physical body, whereas the zen approach is to pay as little attention to the physical container as possible.)

    Instead try paying attention to FEELING the breath move through the body. This pulls the intention “down” into the body and “out” of the head, allowing thoughts to be more akin to ripples on a pond. The idea is to track the sensation of air flowing in the nose down the throat/windpipe into the base of the lungs then inflating up to a point of relative fullness then reversing and exhaling. Don’t push it too hard, let it be as natural as possible – feel for a natural recoil that leads exhale to inhale and inhale to exhale. Then let it get softer over time. Eventually the “sipping” becomes so soft that a single inhale/exhale can take minutes.

    It is worth studying a little (…a lot…you can never have too solid a foundation…) breath work via yoga/qi gong/etc as a base for this – most people breathe poorly and getting that attended to first is (imho) important.

    The process is relatively slow, just stick with it. There are a number of benefits (beyond the obvious) that accrue.

    I should probably add – meditation in it’s fullest sense is likely to be the most painful and difficult thing you can put yourself through – You have to attend to all the unpleasantness that you contain without flinching/shying away. One of my teachers has a saying:

    “There are essentially 2 roads to enlightenment, the single lifetime road and the infinite lifetime road. The difference is that the single lifetime road is infinitely more painful than the other option.”

  27. Ian Welsh

    The Daoists go through the affects on the body, which can be significant (and quite uncomfortable) if you make a real progress. Even at my relatively early stage I get strong heat sensations, for example (feeling much like having a fever), but later on it can be much worse.

    Of course, there are also periods of intense bliss and so on on the road.

    A lot of hard work goes into doing nothing, though. Meditating for hours a day is a lot harder than one would think sitting one’s ass would be.

  28. Celsius 233

    @ dr spock

    Give this a listen;

  29. stirling

    Or you can do it the hard way, which trust me is painful. it’s your choice

  30. stirling

    that is towards Ian response

  31. atcooper

    The not-self concept in Bhuddism feels really key to me regarding sustained meditative states. I’ve found even a few minutes of the state at once brings on a very real ego-destruction that changes a person wether you really want it to or not, and therein lies the pain insofar as I have experienced.

    I got some of the blissful stuff pretty quickly, and it acted somewhat as a worrying point for me, as I have had some addictive behaviors in the past, and worried it would become just another addictive thing.

    This was well before I started getting a real sense of the not-self part, and the attendant terror that comes with it. It turns out I needn’t have worried about addiction too much because it does have a kind of self moderating element to it. I’d even sabatoged my meditative sessions so I’d not experience more ego destruction than I thought I could handle.

    I’m just now coming around to realizing the terror and the ecstasy is related, and hope to develope some control if such a thing is possible. I have given serious thought to going to a monestary.

    Whatever else it is, it has made me feel more alive than I have in a long time.

  32. Ian Welsh

    Well, I’m too impatient for the easy way.

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