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51yKWQ2hXqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The rectification of names is a somewhat strange way to talk about something which is intuitively obvious to most: a properly functioning society needs people to know their appropriate place. This can sound patronizing and anti-egalitarian, but even in the relatively “flat” social structure of the United States this holds, as most would balk at being treated by a medical doctor who did not have the appropriate qualifications. Who someone is still matters at the end of the day, no matter the fact that we’re a society that is permeated in the idea that we are all equal before the law. Your doctor is someone who went to medical school. Your mother is the woman who raised you. And so forth. This issue is universal, across cultures.

Michael Schuman’s Confucius: And the World He Created is a look at a very different Weltanschauung from the perspective of a Western liberal, who nonetheless attempts to remain sympathetic to Confucianism. This is difficult in some cases, in particular in the domain of relations between the sexes, where the views of Confucius and his intellectual descendants were typically patriarchal. To me Schuman’s attempt to make an apologia for Confucius and the systems which descend from his original views are a little excessive, because it isn’t as if most of the readers are going to “convert” to Confucianism. Pure description would suffice. Two thousand year old systems of thought are usually understood to need some careful “interpretation” for modern contexts. This is needed for Confucianism because of its emergence in a particular time and place, and this-worldly orientation. Neo-Confucianism aside the fact of the matter is that most indigenous Chinese schools of thought are often thin on implausible metaphysics (e.g., the Way is relatively vague), but thick on rules and regulations for everyday life. Obviously those would be geared toward an ancient agricultural society, because that’s when Confucius and his followers lived.

51z--jox5zL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ As I’ve noted before Schuman’s is not an entirely academic book, it combines an intellectual biography of Confucius, with a history of Confucianism, as well as its modern day applications. Therefore one isn’t going to get into the details of the arguments about Confucianism which arose during the Song dynasty, and the reaction against Neo-Confucianism which occurred during the rule of the Manchus (yes, there were Confucian analogs to Salafists during this period!). The breezy treatment of these historical nuances probably benefits someone with more of a background in Chinese history, as you can fill in the blank spaces.

But I do think one can come away with a broader moral of what Confucianism can teach us about how to relate to each other and society as a whole. The period before the rise of the first Chinese Empire was an intellectually fertile one with many schools of thought which had their own theories of how to maximize human flourishing. Out of this ferment what we term Confucianism eventually won out during the Han dynasty two thousand years ago, though the original ideas of Confucius and Mencius were transmuted considerably. One must always remember that there is a distinction between what people say and what they do. As a matter of reality it does seem that a considerable amount of Legalism, even if it was notionally reviled, was laundered into the State Confucianism which began with Emperor Han Wu. In Confucius: And the World He Created the author recounts attempts to create a feminist-friendly Confucianism. This may seem ridiculous, but, one must remember that in some ways Confucianism was often an odd fit for the autocracies which co-opted it for nearly two thousand years.* Similarly, Christianity has been used to justify slavery as well as abolish it. The mental gymnastics are universal even if there are differences in detail. There is no shame in this.

The important insight we can gain from the longevity of a Confucian political philosophy is that its core theses do have some utility for complex societies. Unlike that of Rome the Chinese order of two thousand years ago actually persisted down to living memory, with the fall of the Ching in the early 20th century. Confucius believed he was a traditionalist, rediscovering ancient insights as to the proper relations between human beings. I suspect this is correct, insofar as the Golden Mean he and his humanistic followers recommended between the cold and cruel utilitarianism of the Legalists and the unrealistic one of the followers of Mozi is probably the best fit to human psychological dispositions (both the Legalists and Mohists were suspicious of the family).** In the disordered world of the late Zhou, on the precipice of the Warring States period, Confucius and his followers elucidated what was really common sense, but repackaged in a fashion which would appeal more systematically to elites, and scaffold their own more egotistical impulses (in contrast to the Legalists, who seem to have enshrined the ego of the ruler as the summum bonum).

download And that is the reality which we face today. Our world is not on the precipice of war, but social and technological changes are such that we are in a period where a new rectification of names is warranted. Old categories of sex, gender, religion and race, are falling or reordering. Western society is fracturing, as the intelligentsia promote their own parochial categories, and traditionalists dissent and retreat into their own subcultures. To give two examples, there are those who might find offense if addressed by the pronoun he or she, even though this is an old convention in Western society. In contrast, traditionalist Christian subcultures no longer have unified control of the public domain which would allow for them to promulgate the basis of their values. There are those who might accede to traditional Christian claims who can not agree with their metaphysics, which the traditional Christians hold to be necessary to be in full agreement.*** In contrast, the progressive faction which declaims the morally restrictive manners of the traditionalist Right in fact belies its own assertions by the proliferation of terms which serve to define the elect from those who do not uphold proper morals and manners.

The thinness of Confucianism metaphysics allowed for the emergence of religious pluralism in Chinese society (and the development of Neo-Confucianism as a form of the doctrine imbued with features eerily similar to Buddhism). But its metaphysical thinness is perhaps an explanation for why it could persist and reinvent itself, because one need not accede to metaphysical claims to see the sense in the priorities of Confucianism. The robustness of State Confucianism and the Chinese imperial order over thousands of years show that a unitary elite ethos oriented toward proper ordering of individual and social relations can be highly successful in enabling human flourishing in conditions of Malthusian constraint. Today due to productivity gains we live in a consumer society where individualism has pushed the scale toward anomie and atomization. But barring widespread CRISPR some things will not change about human nature, and the rectification of names will come back in some form and some way. In fact, it’s happening today. That’s not an assertion that’s “problematic.”

* For example, as promoted by traditionalists like Sima Guang Confucianism can arguably be thought of as anti-capitalist libertarianism in terms of preferred political economy. And yet today it is being drafted in the service of corporatist capitalist states such as Singapore.

** Though do note that what we know about the antagonists of the Confucians are often filtered through the Confucians themselves. History is written by the winners.

*** Also, there are historically contingent matters which make the traditional Christian subculture in the United States incongruous to outsiders. E.g., the connection between Christianity and jingoistic bellicosity seems very peculiar to those outside of Southern American Protestantism, as Christianity would seem inimical to such a viewpoint.

• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Confucianism, Confucius 
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I noticed that a new biopic of Confucius just opened in China. It’s pretty obvious that they “sexed up” his life, as you can see in the trailer. In terms of a big-budget biopic it seems to me that the life of Confucius is a very thin source of blockbuster material in relation to other social-religious figures of eminence. Jesus, Moses and Buddha have supernatural aspects to their lives. Muhammad’s life offers the opportunity for set-piece battles. Confucius was in many ways a failed bureaucrat, a genius unrecognized in his own day. His life can’t be easily appreciated unless you have the proper context of his impact on Chinese history in mind. Stepping into it without a grand frame can lead one to conclude that he was quite a pedestrian man. Confucius was a man of ideas (though even those ideas can seem somewhat obscure, e.g. rectification of names). You see this in Annping Chin’s The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics; I can’t imagine Karen Armstrong writing such a dense and slow book.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Confucianism 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"