I have very much profited from reading your enlightening book, The Path, and have also read Henry and Roger T Ames, Confucian Role Ethics, A Moral Vision for the 21st Century?, 2016. I have also benefited from discussing with Hun Hochmann her book, On Philosophy in China. As I am now full of questions on which I would like to learn from you, may I start the comparison with the Greeks, by some comments and questions both on your book, and if you will, on theirs?
To take first your opening two chapters, I found very useful your comment on pp. 7-11 and 21-2 that your Confucians were seeking a concrete and practical return to a better life and were not creating a coherent ideology or over-arching system of thought. This at once creates a contrast with the Greeks, who in the sixth to fifth centuries BC were seeking theories, and originally theories about the physical world. Is everything made of water or what, and how does it change into other things? Can we understand its changing or being differentiated at all, given that that would involve our thinking of something not being where or how it was before? Indeed, nothing can move, because to reach any distance, it would first have to complete crossing an infinite number of points halfway and half the remaining distance (Zeno). Did infinity allow for something of everything in everything, thereby explaining how food builds our flesh from the flesh it contains, and might there be indefinitely small worlds within worlds? Already well before this, psychology had come in, and the sophists whose ethics provoked the scorn of Socrates towards the end of the fifth century. What role did mathematics play in the construction of the physical world, in music or in ethics? There were stories, though apocryphal, about the founder of atomism, Democritus, about his very practical ethical advice on bereavement which looks much more like the Confucian stories, yet from the founder of a physical theory.
I could not agree with you more about the unhelpfulness of universal rational principles in ethics, including Kant and the utilitarians, pp. 9, and in Ch. 3, pp. 47-51, of which I too have complained in two books cited below, and about defining ourselves as individuals without reference, pp.11-13, to distinctive features and as if we possessed only the common human characteristic of ability to reason. I have complained about this too in the book I am currently writing about freedom of speech. It is also a central complaint of Rosemont and Ames’ book. But there were Greeks who avoided these mistakes. I doubt if any Greeks at all favoured celebrating individuality regardless of character, discipline and worth. I would mention particularly the Stoics as altogether avoiding the two mistakes highlighted, although there are other aspects of their views with which I don’t agree at all, because I think no one nor any Philosophy gets everything right, nor will we. But we can learn and improve our views by borrowing ideas from others, to expand or replace the ones we started with and find inadequate. In this I admire Akbar the Great, who translated Hindu texts into Persian, not so that Muslims could convert, but so that they could replace those of their views that were mistaken.
The Stoic school, founded in Athens in 300 BC, took a new turn, probably under Panaetius who was head of the school from 129 to 109 BC. It had been studying the ideal Stoic sage, but it now argued that we never meet perfect people, and should not neglect those who have any semblance of virtue. This provided an incentive to consider not the abstract perfectly rational being, but individuals with all their foibles.
I have compared with the duties of the individual persona in Stoicism Gandhi’s use of the Indian idea of svadharma, the distinctive duties attaching to different individuals. In addition, Gandhi was hesitant about accepting universal moral rules. Admittedly, he thinks that violence is always wrong. But that does not tell you what to do, because the non-violent course may be even worse, if for example, you have put yourself under an obligation by undertaking the protection of your township from rabid dogs, or from attackers. Then you will be in the wrong either way, but much more so, if you do not fulfil your undertaking, which involves violence.
To come now to your chapters 3-8 on individual thinkers and texts, I found it very useful when in Ch. 3 you connected Confucius with as-if rituals and gave telling examples to show how the West also has its own such rituals. [My reaction to the rituals as described in Rosemont and Ames’ book, pp. 117-8 had been to think them stultifying, but you showed me that that was wrong.]
I was less clear about emotional techniques in The Nature that Emerges from the Decree, in Ch. 4, in spite of their being very useful techniques, as to how one would learn them. To take an example based on pp. 50-1, suppose the optimistic person in a partnership likes to deal with problems by figuring out solutions, while the less optimistic is not confident there will be a solution, but would like him to hold her close silently instead. He may only think of suggesting solutions, and may only be able to learn what kind of attention she needs from her telling him, or from that example actually being given in the book. Does The Nature go beyond examples to give general guidelines to help one extrapolate from the examples? The trouble with general guidelines is that their very generality may mean that they are wrong. You can imagine that the Stoics have general guidelines for emotional calm,
The theory of Qi in Ch. 6 is of course a very physical theory, and the importance of music is by the Greek Pythagoreans backed by their own physical theory about harmonious ratios being embedded in nature.
In Ch 7, I wondered with a couple of Zhuangzi’s examples about the cancelled wedding and the bereavement, what he would think about the saying, “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Is there an incompatibility between going with the flow and committing yourself, and do you lose if you do not do the latter?
Regarding Xunzi in Ch. 8, on human nature bad, artifice good, the Greeks had strong and differing views on this. The Cynics, starting with Diogenes the Cynic in the 4th century BC thought convention bad and nature good, which is why he lived in a wine vase, and when Alexander the Great came to see him in admiration and asked what gift he could bestow, Diogenes supposedly replied, “stand out of my light”, meaning that the sun naturally gave him all he needed and Alexander’s conventional offerings could add nothing. The first Stoic was taught by Diogenes’ Cynic pupil a little before 300 BC. But the Stoics took a subtly different view. The best life would indeed be in accordance with nature, but it is not natural in the sense of being easy to achieve. They would have approved of Confucius imposing patterns on his emotional dispositions, but what would have struck them would be not that this required artifice, but that it was getting your dispositions to accord with nature, where nature was a value term describing how dispositions should naturally be, even though they are usually not.
In Ch. 9, I was intrigued by the relation of the meritocracy period in China to the Confucian period as described in Rosemont and Ames’ book. Unlike you, in The Path, I think, they focus attention on Confucius giving primacy to the person’s role within the family. If one starts from there, one thinks it must have required an enormous change to reach a meritocracy in which civil servants were moved far away from their families to prevent undue influence. Did it? May I, for the purpose of learning, ask you some questions about Confucius on the family, based on their book? I had earlier expressed interest in a paper by Roger Ames on the subject, but had then postponed discussion until I knew more.
Not only does their book title speak of Confucian role ethics, but more than anything, I think, they see the Confucian person as defined by his or her role in the family. When the Stoics provided a thick concept of a person, by contrast, roles and family roles were only a couple of elements among many others that entered into the Stoic persona, as I described it above. Might not being Jewish or black be a defining characteristic, especially where it carries disadvantages? So such emphasis on family roles seems only one possible choice among others.
On their account on p. 67 of Confucius’ The Four Books, the family is presented as the starting point, but I did not see a very clear explanation of how such strong prioritisation of the family leads “ultimately” and “with increasing effort” to social, political, aesthetic and cosmic cultivation. They translate xiao as “family reverence”, p. 60, and, if I am following, say on p. 165 that in the opening chapter of the Chinese Classic of Family Reverence, Confucius says that family reverence is the root of moral virtuosity and is that whence education itself is born, and that there is a progression from concern for one’s physical person at the centre, moving to care for one’s family and kin, culminating in bringing credit to your father and mother and to the whole family lineage, travelling at some point through service to your lord or ruler and finishing with service to the posterity of your lineage. Service to the ruler thus can eventually benefit the family by bringing credit to it, but is the deferential attitude to family a model for attitude to the ruler? And are there not other ways of bringing credit to the family, such as being a significant poet? There is a circle also in the Stoic Hierocles starting with one’s own body, and going on to circles of family, then neighbours, then members of the same tribe in the city, then fellow citizens, then neighbouring towns, then fellow countrymen, then humanity as a whole. We are further advised to pull the circles in towards us, increasing the honour with which we celebrate them (timê) by calling outer circles by a more intimate name, addressing cousins as “uncle” or “aunt”, and uncle or aunt as “father” or “mother”.
Those not inclined to agree about the position of the ruler would feel that deference, unless specially earned, was not automatically the right relation to rulers, much as it might be in the family. But even in the family it might be thought to carry dangers.
I am not clear where friends fit into Confucius’ account. In their book p. 122, Ames and Rosemont describe friends as “surrogates” for family. But that seems to rank their importance low. Friendship is especially important in Aristotle and Epicurus among the Greek philosophers, and indeed the Greek word for friendship can include the closest relatives. In the claims that family is ignored in the West, the tradition of Freud and post-Freudians is not mentioned, perhaps because they are not philosophers. But Freud would be thought by some even to exaggerate the influence of infantile complexes towards mother and father in the formation of identity. Nonetheless, he allows for a stage of rebellion against the family in which the peer group has more influence, and this admits an important opening to non-family friendships. Among the post-Freudians, the paper of Erik Erikson “Eight stages of man” saw life as concerned with the successful or unsuccessful establishment of personal identity. The idea that one needs to create one’s identity would have meshed with the view of an ancient Greek Platonist, Plutarch, who thought we needed to use our memories to weave our lives into a unified whole.
Dear Sir Richard,
Thank you so much for your wonderful comments. I have for so long been such an admirer of your work. One of the many reasons I so look forward to this discussion with you is that comparisons of the Greek and Chinese traditions are so productive. Let me begin with a general statement. I have long thought that the Greek and Chinese traditions are often more similar than the later traditions have made them out to be. To give an obvious example, because of the concerns of modern philosophy, we often focus on certain portions of Greek texts that are, for example, directly concerned with logic, or that make universal claims for morality, or that make metaphysical claims concerning truth. But such a focus is undertaken at the expense of the rest of Greek philosophy, much of which reads (at least to my admittedly biased eyes) very much like so much of Chinese philosophy – concerned with practices of the self and with ways of building a good life. You have been one of the leading scholars in bringing much of this philosophy to light – one of the many reasons I am such an admirer of your work. And, conversely, there were certainly attempts in classical China to build systems of logic and to make universal claims. But these, of course, are precisely the approaches that became less important in the later Chinese tradition. The later developments of the two philosophical traditions are fascinating, and the resulting ways that we now look back on the early periods are equally so. But, for the concerns of this conversation, let me simply note at the outset that the early Greek and Chinese traditions share much more than they are often presented as sharing. So, although we often hit contrasts when looking at the two traditions, we also often find figures wrestling with many of the same concerns. And there, of course, the slightly different answers that various thinkers will give, and the permutations of concerns that develop around similar themes, become all the more exciting.
I mention this by way of an introduction to underline why I find both your writings in general on the Stoics, as well as your comments above concerning the Stoics, so enlightening. The Stoics provide such a powerful comparand with so much of early Chinese thought. So similar in so many ways, and that similarity makes the slightly different answers all the more fascinating. Your general view about the work of comparative philosophy is beautifully put: “no one nor any Philosophy gets everything right, nor will we. But we can learn and improve our views by borrowing ideas from others, to expand or replace the ones we started with and find inadequate.”
So, to jump in. Let me begin with your excellent questions about The Nature that Emerges from the Decree, asthey open up a number of fascinating issues. For the readers: The Nature that Emerges from the Decree is a text from the fourth century BC, recently excavated from a tomb in what is now central China. One of the things I find so fascinating about the text is that it does not provide any absolute grounds for decision-making. Instead, it rests the entire argument on relationships and interactions. The argument opens with the observation that everything in the world is constantly encountering other things, and these encounters pull out – or drag out – different responses. So, for example, if someone yells at me, that event pulls out from me energies (the Chinese term is qi) of anger; someone laughing will pull out from me energies of joy. One of the dangers we as humans can fall into is that we are therefore purely passive in the world, simply being pulled emotionally by immediate things we happen to encounter and immediate situations we happen to fall into. The text wants us to break out of this, but – and here I finally get to your questions – it also wants to avoid giving generalisable norms that could guide us. The concern here is that focusing on generalisable norms may lead us to not focus on the complexities of interactions – and that is precisely what the text wants us to become better at doing. The goal of the text is to help train us to respond to situations well – to refine our dispositions such that we can sense the complexities of situations and respond effectively, and to refine our own actions as well by sensing how our actions are bringing out certain types of responses from those around us. And how do we do this, if we have no guidelines to follow? We must train ourselves, through things like rituals and music. The key here is that rituals do not tell us what to do in situations; they are on the contrary productive because they help us refine our dispositions and refine our abilities to respond to the world around us.
To turn to your example of the optimistic and less optimistic people in a relationship. Intriguingly, but very tellingly, The Nature that Emerges from the Decree says little about individual natures. The sense would be that even someone we think of as being optimistic should on the contrary simply be thought of as someone who has fallen into a certain pattern of responding to situations. The goal of the self-cultivation, then, would be to help one break out of the typical types of responses one tends to fall into and instead to refine one’s ability to sense situations more fully. In the example you mentioned, the story would be told not as one of people with different individual natures but rather as one of people who have fallen into patterns of responding in a certain way – and who therefore need to train themselves to sense the other in more depth and complexity.
You are certainly right that later texts will try to give more guidelines. But part of what is so fascinating about The Nature that Emerges from the Decree is its refusal to do so. The focus is always on learning to become ever better at sensing the complexity of those around one and on learning to respond well to them. The only real guideline would then be through images like musical analogies, namely that we should be trying to become more resonant with others in the same way that musical notes can resonate perfectly with each other. Other texts, like the Analects, will describe this as ren – a sensibility of humaneness, of sensing how to truly care for those around one, with the understanding that such caring requires one to learn not to fall into the usual patterns of interactions that so often define us.
This refusal to speak in terms of individual natures is if anything even more pronounced in the later thinker Xunzi. Xunzi as well strongly emphasises that the focus should be not on things like individual natures (even including what we would tend to think of as the good sides of our natures – say, our gifts and talents) but rather on the training that we should put ourselves through to become better than we currently are. Focusing on what we naturally are is, for Xunzi, always limiting.
You are quite correct that Xunzi makes the same argument about the natural world as well. He is suspicious of philosophies that argue we should try to accord with some kind of natural order in the cosmos. Much of what we would perceive to be a natural order is likely to be a current set of human hierarchies and patterns that we are simply reading into the cosmos – just as characteristics that we ascribe to being our individual natures are likely to be just a current set of patterns of interaction that we have fallen into. Thinking that we should accord with such a natural order would therefore radically limit the types of worlds we would be able to build. Xunzi wants us to focus instead on the acts to constructing better selves and better worlds.
Thank you so much as well for your questions about the family in Confucian ethics. You are quite correct that the emphasis on meritocracy was very much an attempt to break the habitual forms of relationships that can form within families. This is not, of course, to say that the goal was to break up families per se; the goal was rather to argue that there are different spheres of human interaction. One trains oneself to develop certain types of dispositions within families, but there are other types of dispositions that come into play if, for example, one is working in the government. Some familial dispositions can be helpful if brought into spheres of governance, but, as you said, familial dispositions could also easily lead to nepotism. Hence the importance of an institutionalised meritocracy, where the emphasis instead is on the values of cultivating an ability to work on behalf of a greater populace. The fact that one would be going back and forth between these (and many other) different spheres on a daily basis would also help to keep one from falling into too rigid a set of patterned responses – something that will almost always be dangerous in the sense that such rigidity would prevent us from seeing the potential dangers of certain dispositions that may have come to define us too fully.
This turns directly to your set of questions about Confucian role ethics. While I respect Rosemont and Ames tremendously, I would have to register a disagreement with them on their argument. They do indeed, as you argue correctly, “see the Confucian person as defined by his or her role in the family.” But I would disagree with them. There are certainly some texts that put a strong emphasis on the family, but there are many that would strongly oppose the idea that people should be defined by familial roles (or any other single set of roles, for that matter). To look again at Xunzi. Family roles are certainly important for Xunzi, but so are many other roles as well. Moreover, and most importantly, no one set of roles should ever define us. One may well be trying to be a good child to one’s parents and a good parent to one’s own children, but one is also trying to be a good friend to one’s friends, a good official to litigants in a legal setting, etc. And not only does it require training to learn how to act well in any of these roles in any particular situation, but it is also often the case that these various roles conflict. Indeed, one of the key concerns in much of Confucian ethics (and not just Xunzi) is accordingly to train oneself to sense how to act in situations when the various roles one is playing at any given moment have conflicting obligations. So, in short, roles other than the familial – very much including friendships – are crucial. And, furthermore, we are not at all defined by a single set of these roles, familial or otherwise.
This may be a good place to circle back to your excellent question on Zhuangzi. At the heart of Zhuangzi’s philosophy is an emphasis on the importance of embracing life fully. Even the argument that we should not fear death comes out of such a concern: because we fear death, we fail to live fully. Recognising that everything is fleeting allows one to be fully involved in every moment – precisely because one is focusing on that moment, rather than fearing the fact that it will eventually pass. So to some extent Zhuangzi would have agreed with the sentiment expressed in the statement that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” – at least with the sentiment about the importance of loving fully. But he may have wanted to add that, when it is later lost, the key is to avoid continuing to see the world simply from that one perspective (i.e., the one whose love has now been lost) and to train oneself to see other possibilities in the world as well. So, yes, we should love, and love fully – and all the more so if we understand that all things – all situations, all relationships, all individual entities – will pass.
Let me conclude here by referring back to the points I opened with. It strikes me that the Stoics in particular are deeply concerned with many of the same issues that figures like Xunzi and Zhuangzi are wrestling with, even when their answers are slightly different, and their terminologies even more so. All of these thinkers are trying to develop an ethics that would free us from conventions of the day, and all are hoping to do so by, among other things, training the emotions. But, to refer back to a theme that has come up repeatedly, it is also striking how frequently appeals to nature, and particularly to a normative nature, are made by the Stoics, whereas so often in early China nature is that from which the work begins, rather than being seen as the norm with which we should be according. Normative values are instead sketched out through analogies with things like music – the observation, for example, that notes in music resonate with each other being used to give us a general sense of what we should be trying to achieve when we relate with each other humans. So I would love to turn the questions that you asked so beautifully and ask them back the other way: why do you think the Stoics find such appeals to a normative nature so powerful? At one level the answer seems obvious – appeals to nature allow one to reject the conventions of the day. But, as we see with figures like Xunzi, it is possible to make the same critiques without such appeals. And, of course, Xunzi would add the extra point that such appeals may even be limiting. So, from a comparative perspective, it is very interesting that figures who share so many concerns tend to come down very differently on this point. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this, and, more broadly, on the philosophical implications of employing or opposing appeals to a normative nature.
With my very best wishes,
Thank you so much for your helpful response and new question, and for telling me more about The Nature that Emerges from the Decree, as well as about family reverence. I think I had better start by explaining more about the Stoics, who shared the Confucian interest in guiding daily life, and an aversion to universal rules telling you what to do. But I didn’t bring out that they did nonetheless have general statements of other sorts relevant to ethics within a systematic philosophy. Some of these, called “precepts”, were concrete, but relevant only to a few situations: refrain from shedding human blood, stretch out a hand to the shipwrecked, show the way to someone who is lost, share a crust of bread with the starving. But they also had “doctrines” of much greater generality relevant to ethics. I have argued that these doctrines may come from outside ethics. To control your emotions, you need to know the nature of emotions in general. For the Stoics, every emotion includes two value judgements, one that something very beneficial or disadvantageous is at hand in the past, present or future, the other that it is appropriate to react accordingly, either by reaching for it or by fleeing from it, or by feeling one’s physical soul sink or expand. Thus emotion, so far from being distinct from reason, consists of judgements of reason, though typically misguided ones. There are also side effects like trembling or flushing, but these you should learn to treat as unimportant accompaniments. This generality about psychological nature helps in identifying how to correct your emotion by questioning one of its component value judgements, which will be found, except in good emotions, to be mistaken.
They speak also of a law of nature or formula which is exceedingly general and is not listed as one of the doctrines. The one most preferred is “never break the common bonds of humanity”, which is variously phrased, sometimes as “I am human and nothing human do I think alien from me”, or “The common interest of human society should be yours”.
Where I praise the Stoics for not having a universal rule relevant to ethics is in their (like Gandhi) not having universal rules which tell you what to do in particular situations. This leads to their example of its being right only for Cato to commit suicide in the circumstances in which he did, but for no one else in the same circumstances. (Kant’s lecture notes reveal he knew of the Cato example, but the note-taker at least misunderstood it as utilitarian
A highly systematic philosophy thus addresses, like Chinese philosophy, the particularities of unique situations. But the systematic nature of the philosophy, I am guessing, is not like the early Confucians, and I find the systematicity useful, because even at the point where I think it wrong, I keep some related part of what the Stoics are claiming (Ask yourself what matters).
About The Nature that Emerges from the Decree, the Stoics have their own way of dealing with this real problem (p. 12 of your response which follows my letter) of letting our emotions passively pull us by the happenstance of circumstances. We often cannot help the initial appearance being that events are very good or very bad and that such and such a reaction would be appropriate. But the Stoics train you to step back and ask, “is the appearance correct?”. Until you say “yes”, you will not have the emotion, though you may have suffered some unwanted side-effects. The untrained person has the emotion immediately, because not trained to step back and evaluate appearance. But for this reason, it is not that we can never help misplaced emotion; it is (sometimes) avoidable with training (the Stoics invented cognitive therapy, but other Greeks added that the physical side of emotionality also needs addressing).
On another aspect of The Nature and of Xunzi (pp 12-13), I am wondering what they thought about the individual natures of other people. It may be good to see if you yourself are merely following thoughtless habit. But did they think that you should correct other people because they too are simply following habits? But some dispositions, including good ones, seem very constant in life, surviving even in old age. Take, for example, optimism and pessimism. If I were to give an example of habits, I might instead name unpunctuality, but I am not seeing optimism and pessimism as habits in the same way. They might still be affected by early experiences in childhood and it might be good to encourage either looking on the bright side or caution in one’s children when little, or in infant school pupils. But I wonder whether with adults other than oneself, there isn’t a need for taking people as one finds them with attributes like that. It will also depend on one’s relationship to them. In an equal life partner, opposite dispositions of optimism and pessimism may be usefully complementary, while with clear dispositions of habit, a selection may profitably be discussed. Discussion is appropriate similarly with trainees, employees, juniors at annual appraisal, subordinates in the armed forces in reports. With close friends, habits can be a subject for friendly jokes, but with more distant people, it may not be one’s business. On the other hand, more distant people may well be influenced by what they think of you, another reason for correcting yourself before others. But perhaps that was all that Xunzi intended? On another subject, I wonder how many people would be able always to foresee what would suit an equal life partner, without being told. Is telling not a useful corrective part of living together? In other less close relationships, is resonance an invariable guideline, or do some people, surprisingly, feel sometimes more at ease with a note of dissonance, rather than repeated accommodation, so as to know they are being listened to, but also what limits to expect?
I am glad that the view of Zhuangzi about looking for new possibilities after the cancelled wedding or the bereavement (p. 16) allows a period for grief. I hope his idea that the highest love is without attachment steers clear of the Stoic recommendation, “remember when kissing your wife that you are kissing a mortal”. This Stoic view is meant to avoid false evaluations and hence misguided emotions.
Now for your very good new question to me: why do the Stoics so much like appeals to normative nature? I don’t think this is so strong a feature of ethics at least among the founders of the other three greatest schools of Greek Philosophy. The grandmaster of the philosophy of nature, Aristotle, would agree with your writers, in that he distinguishes natural virtue as insufficient for real virtue, even though a suitable temperament is a helpful start. But his account of acquiring virtue in his Nicomachean Ethics is that one must be brought up in the right habits, directed to the right values, then think about the different virtues and the relations between them and then have a kind of perceptivity, not sense perception but akin to a geometer’s perceptivity, for seeing what the various virtues call for in particular situations. Natural virtue cannot do this, and though found in some individual natures it does not provide any norm. Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, also describes in his Republic a long educative process for ideal rulers in the ideal state, starting with aesthetic surroundings, music and gymnastics, but continuing with mathematical sciences, philosophy and then political experience before true goodness itself can be glimpsed. The nature of the physical world, by contrast, would be good only insofar as it derives from goodness at a much higher level.
The school of Epicurus, though like the others taking account of our mortal nature in the physical world, recommends simple pleasures as the goal of life, and so avoids artifice because the products of artifice can easily be lost, whereas simple natural pleasures, though also temporary, are more secure.
As you guess, the Stoics’ concern for the natural as normative is connected with chariness about the conventional which they inherited from the Cynics whom I mentioned in my first letter, citing Diogenes, who preferred natural sunlight to any gift of conventional goods from Alexander the Great. What would be naturally best for the Stoics would be strengthening bonds of kinship with other humans, which is not to say that it is natural in the sense of coming easily. But we can see that it is natural in the close relationship of the child in the cradle to immediate family; the extension to associates further out is in accordance with nature but more difficult. (The other main schools also came sooner or later to support their ethical views by appealing to cradle behaviour to show what was natural). The Stoic theory of what would be naturally best is backed up also by theology. The end for each person to follow is conformity not only with one’s own nature but with nature as a whole, the latter being the rationality of God, which is related to our individual nature as whole to part.
good wishes and thanks
Dear Sir Richard,
Thank you so much for your response, which is tremendously helpful. Building on your earlier arguments, the comparison of the Stoic material with texts like The Nature that Emerges from the Decree strikes me as particularly telling, since the concerns and problems being wrestled with in both materials are in many ways so similar: both are deeply concerned with the practice of ethics, and both are wary of positing universal rules. And that similarity, of course, makes the differences all the more illuminating.
But let me begin with saying a bit more about some of the similarities. To turn first to your excellent point about ethics varying not only by situation but also by person. By implication, The Nature that Emerges from the Decree would also be committed to a view that the right thing to do in any situation will vary by person: what would be right for one person to do in a situation would be different from what would be right for another person to do in that same situation. But the argument would be made not in terms of individual character but rather in terms of relationships. If we are to conceptualise everything, as The Nature that Emerges from the Decree is attempting to do, in terms of relationships – including the ways that we bring out different responses from each other in different situations – then the argument would be that different people will bring out different responses from the same person in the same situation. Thus, the actions that I could undertake that would have a positive effect on others would be different from those that someone else could undertake. If this is the case, then it follows that a key part of our ethics involves training ourselves to sense situations, sense the relationships we are developing, and sense how we can act in positive ways.
Since, as with the Stoics, we are not learning to do this by universal rules, we instead learn in part by example. Also like the Stoics, these are examples not in the sense that we are called upon to emulate the actual behaviour of the person in question. We study examples instead so that we can learn how someone before faced a complex set of situations and responded effectively (or failed to do so). We are emulating not the actual action taken but rather the degree to which the person in question faced up to the complexities of the situation and responded well. As with your excellent example of Cato, the tradition becomes intensely concerned with telling specific stories that we can learn from in this sense.
An interesting example is Bo Yi and Shu Qi, two figures that are often discussed in the literature. Bo Yi and Shu Qi are figures who putatively served under the last king of the Shang – a king clearly seen as a horrible ruler. The last Shang king was then overthrown and killed by Wu, who started the Zhou dynasty. So what should Bo Yi and Shu Qi do? Do they oppose Wu, who killed their master, or do they support Wu for overthrowing a tyrant? In the end, torn between two conflicting sets of obligations, they withdrew to the mountains and starved themselves to death. When they are studied, the point is not that, confronted with conflicting obligations, one should do what they did. The point is rather that they are exemplary in the degree to which they tried to respond to an impossible situation well.
As with the Stoics, there are precepts that will help us on this path of cultivating ourselves to respond effectively. For example, Xunzi will constantly emphasise the danger of focusing on natural gifts (a typical modern example would the oft-stated, “I am just not the type of person who is good at X”) and will instead emphasise the importance of training oneself. Similarly, Xunzi will discuss the dangers of fixation – the tendency for us to get fixated on certain ideas or goals, and thus fail to see the more complex sets of possibilities before us. The result, exactly as you said with the Stoics, is that we then have precepts that will help pull us out of dangerous tendencies that we fall into.
As for helping other people: yes, I do think the hope is not only that we should, through self-cultivation, attempt to become more responsive the world around us, but also that we should create contexts in which others would be encouraged to do the same. This certainly does not mean that we should try to be educating strangers on the street, which would almost assuredly have negative effects. But it does mean that we should be trying to alter contexts in which people are encouraged not to be training themselves. To give a contemporary example: the current emphasis on self-acceptance, on learning to love and embrace oneself for who one thinks one really is (“I’m just the sort of person who has a bad temper, but that’s just me”), would very likely be seen as a dangerous way of thinking. Instead of encouraging people to be training themselves, such a stance encourages people to be accepting of their current habits as instead representative of a true self that should be embraced and not changed. Many of the texts we have were in part written to argue against views at the time that also did not encourage training and self-cultivation.
In terms of your excellent example of longer-term dispositions that we fall into: yes, this is certainly true, but the teachings here would emphasise that one should always then be training oneself not simply to see the world that way. To stick with your example: if one tends to have either an optimistic or pessimistic view of things, then one should always be aware of the dangers of such a set view of things, since having an overly set way of reading the world creates the danger that we will fail to see certain trajectories in particular situations.
You are certainly right that in practice this can work out very well in relationships, wherein one partner with a more optimistic tendency can help the other with a more pessimistic tendency to not become too fixated on certain way of reading, and vice-versa. The hope, indeed, is precisely that it is through relationships that we can grow to become more responsive to the world around us.
And another point of similarity lies in your excellent point about dissonance in relationships. The emphasis on creating contexts within which we can grow, and on striving not to fall into set ways of reading the world, means by definition there will be friction and dissonance in our relationships. And this is certainly played out in the texts themselves: these are very argumentative texts, disagreeing with each other in very strong terms. So the emphasis on resonating well does not mean according with what the other wants. Very much the opposite: instead of a language of according, the focus is very much on the work of building better worlds, a work that is seen as inherently conflictual precisely because there are clear guidelines or natural laws to guide us.
But this brings us to some of the key differences that you highlighted so effectively. For all of these similarities, there are, as you correctly note, very telling contrasts. The systematicity that you so eloquently invoke with the Stoics is indeed largely absent from texts like The Nature that Emerges from the Decree, the Mencius, and the Xunzi. There is a lack of interest in syllogistic logic, for example. Many of the arguments are made through examples, poetry, anecdotes, and metaphors, rather than syllogistic logic. And striking as well is the refusal to give clear doctrines to guide our behaviour. The Mohist movement attempted to work out such doctrines, but texts like the Mencius and the Xunzi argued strongly against such attempts, fearing that clear doctrines would tend to take us away from the task of training ourselves to sense the complexities of situations, the degree to which we are often more complicit in the trajectories of the situations than we care to admit, and ways in which we could act such that the trajectories could be altered.
Relatedly: in contrast with the Stoics, one of the things that is striking in these texts – from The Nature that Emerges from the Decree to the Xunzi – is what is not said. There is a refusal to give arguments in any kind of systematic way about the ultimate nature of reality. This brings me back to the point on which you close. The Stoics are committed to making claims about the structure of the world – a structure with which we should try to accord. For Xunzi, to stick with this example, the argument on the contrary is that humans do – for better but usually for worse – pattern the world around them. Instead of a language of according with the world, the emphasis instead is on the degree to which humans construct the world around them. They key is therefore to learn to do it well – to construct worlds within which we could begin to flourish, as opposed to the more restrictive worlds that we usually construct. But, since there are no absolute guidelines – including natural laws – to guide us, the focus is on the cultivation process, with only general precepts (focus on training, not natural gifts; don’t become fixated) for us to follow.
Similarly, The Nature that Emerges from the Decree will argue that the world is simply a product of endless numbers of things (including humans) responding to each other – usually responding poorly, which is why we need to learn to start responding better. There is, again, no assertion of sets of natural laws with which we should be according.
I very much agree that these differences in relation to systematicity and according with nature are what makes the comparisons of these thinkers so fruitful. Given their common concerns of building an ethics that avoids making universal claims and telling one what to do, these differences become all the more fascinating. From a larger comparative perspective, I fully agree that this is a key difference on which to think through their respective projects.
Let me close by thanking you again for such an extraordinarily eye-opening discussion!
With my very best wishes,