Thursday, December 6, 2012

An inherently moral universe: Humoring friends and myself with Chinese Philosophy

"To have friends coming in from afar, how delightful!"

Confucius, The Analects 

Tomorrow morning, I am having coffee with a friend who is passing through these parts. This friend is kind of... how should I put this... interesting. He's knows that I teach philosophy at a college, and he also knows that I'm Chinese. Despite my best attempts over the years to disabuse him of this notion, he has it stuck in his mind that since I both teach philosophy and am Chinese, I must be an expert in Chinese philosophy! As a result of this notion that he has, all of our conversations ultimately turn to Chinese philosophy. Not being Chinese himself, he would always ask questions like, "What would a Chinese philosopher say about this or that problem or dilemma that I am now facing?"

There are a couple of problems with trying to answer questions like this. First, there is no such monolithic thing as a "Chinese philosopher", in the same way in which there is no such monolithic thing as a "western philosopher." Like western philosophy, Chinese philosophy is a very long tradition, divided into many periods of development. But the more significant problem is this notion that he has that I am an expert on Chinese philosophy: Nothing could be further from the truth! My primary area of research and teaching interest is in western ethics, and although, over the years, I have committed to memory a few lines from Confucius in order to humor certain people (including my friend) who insist that, being Chinese, I must know something about Chinese philosophy (which means that I have also, strictly speaking, contributed and enabled my friend's holding on to this mistaken notion about me), my knowledge of Chinese philosophy is probably no deeper than that possessed by a reasonably well-educated average person you might find on the streets of, say, Beijing or Shanghai.

But as you have probably figured, I do have a weakness for humoring people; or maybe I just have a weakness for wanting people to think that I'm smart. In any case, in order to be in a better position to humor my friend tomorrow morning, I spent half the afternoon today reading some works of Neo-Confucianism (roughly speaking, Neo-Confucianism is the form of Confucianism that was developed by Confucian scholars between the 11th to the 16th centuries. These scholars wrote commentaries and exegeses, and furthered expanded upon the original ideas of Confucius many centuries after Confucius (551–479 BCE) had already passed away. Hence "Neo-Confucianism".).

I had gone into my reading session with the attitude of preparing myself for a task (humoring my friend). But as I got immersed in my reading, I started humoring and then fascinating myself. As I read, the differences between the character of Chinese and western philosophy jumped out at me more and more. I was struck by the realization that in the Chinese worldview, the universe is an inherently moral universe. To speak of self-development and bettering oneself without speaking of personal moral development is something that is incomprehensible and alien to the Chinese mind. To the Chinese mind, a person who is educated, but who has not become a morally better person as a result of this education, has received no education worthy to speak of.  Such a person has failed to understand the nature of the universe, so to speak.

To get a sense of what I'm trying to say, consider these two passages from Penetrating the Book of Changes by the Neo-Confucian Zhou Dunyi:

"Yen Tzu [a student of Confucius] had only a single bamboo dish of rice, a single gourd dish of drink, and lived in his mean narrow lane. Others could not have endured this distress but he did not allow his joy to be affected by it. Now, wealth and honor are what people love. Yen Tzu did not love or seek them but instead enjoyed poverty. What is the idea? There are the highest honor and the greatest wealth to love and seek. But he acted differently because he saw what was great and ignored what was small. Since he saw what was great, his mind was at peace. His mind being at peace, there was no discontent. Having no discontent, he treated wealth, honor, poverty, or humble station in the same way. As he treated them in the same way, he could transform them and equalize them." 

This immediately raises the question: What was the "great" thing that he saw, that enabled him to regard both wealth and poverty with indifference? Here's another passage from the same work that might shed some light on this question:

"Tzu-lu [another student of Confucius] was happy to hear about his mistakes and his good reputation was unlimited. Nowadays when people have faults they do not like others to correct them. It is as though a man should hide his illness and avoid a physician. He would rather destroy his life than awake. How lamentable!"

It is very significant here that moral character (and the faults thereof) are directly likened to physical health and illness. And this is not just an analogy: The Confucians really do believe that a person of poor moral character is out of sync with the basic fabric of the universe and is therefore literally ill, just as ill as somebody who is suffering from a medically certifiable physical or psychological condition. What this also means is that somebody who is aware of his character flaws but yet does nothing to correct them, is somebody who is confused about what is good for himself, in the same way in which one who is ill but chooses not to seek medical attention is confused about his self-interest.

What this means is that ultimately, classical Chinese philosophy does not draw a distinction between moral goodness and self-interest: A person who knows who is good for himself would do everything he can to be morally good. To do any less would be to sabotage his own chances of living well in this world.       
Interesting, don't you think? I also can't help thinking that although there are many differences between Chinese philosophy and yoga philosophy, they both share this common starting point: In yoga philosophy, just as in Chinese philosophy, the universe is also an inherently moral place. Why else would the yamas (ethical observances) and the niyamas (spiritual guides) be the first two limbs of yoga?

Well, that's about all I have to say for now. Let's see how coffee with my friend goes tomorrow morning...


  1. That was a nice post. No matter how ashamed I am I have to admit I do not know much about Chinese philosophy, only very basic stuff. I liked how you connected it to the yogic philoshophy and the passages you quoted gave me the exact same feeling.

    1. There is nothing to ashamed of, we are all learning ;-) Yes, it'll be interesting to do more work and think more about the connections and differences and similiarities between Chinese philosophy and yoga philosophy.

  2. "To the Chinese mind, a person who is educated, but who has not become a morally better person as a result of this education, has received no education worthy to speak of."

    Why is the worth of moral education so neglected in western education systems?
    This resembles exactly what I've been feeling for some time: for most people becoming a "better" person is not among their prio 1 tasks or they are not even aware that this might be a task well worth working on.
    Hope yoga succeeds in planting this idea in more people's minds.

    1. Actually, there are attempts in western philosophy and education to combine the intellectual and moral aspects of human life. The Hippocratic oath is one example. And then there's Kant, who believes that one cannot be truly rational without being moral. But for some reason, things seem to have gone downhill after Kant. Not sure why...

      Yes, I am at least cautiously hopeful that yoga might do some something to alter the intellectual/moral fabric of the west. But that's a big, big task...