Sunday, May 22, 2011

Good Coffins

Good Coffins
by Scott Bradley


"In middle antiquity, it was prescribed that the inner coffin was to be seven inches thick with the outer coffin to match...It is only in this way that one can express fully one's filial love." (Mencius II B 7)

Confucians see love for and duty to one's parents as the cornerstone of all practical morality. From this inviolable and natural love springs the love and duty that one extends out to the rest of humanity. There are, of course, problems with this theory, but within the context of their world, it seems practical enough. The aim of the Confucians (like their arch-rivals, the Mohists) was to spread love and harmony throughout the world. How could we dispute such intentions?

What we can dispute is the manner in which they anchor their morality to specific cultural habits. Can love for one's parents only be truly expressed by burying them (upon their demise!) in 14 inches of wood? Could we not rather burn their bodies with that same wood? But within the context of their culture, one might reply, their way was 'best'.

I also am a moderate believer in cultural relativism (some 'goods', like female-genital-mutilation, for example, should be judged by higher standards). This was not the case in Mencius' prescription, however. He was complaining that current cultural practice did not comply with ancient practice, and was therefore wrong. It is this extreme conservatism and inflexibility which is, in my opinion, the Achilles heel of Confucianism. It insists on fixed norms in an unfixed world. And it was from this that the proto-Taoists sought liberation. "Go with the flow" is more than just a slogan from the Sixties.

Adherence to fixed norms and rituals, Laozi tells us, is the beginning of . . . (I have no copy with me and no internet access, so I’m going to make this up) . . . chaos. It leads to some strange distortions of the natural human experience.

“Mencius said, ‘Keeping one’s parents when they are alive is not worth being described as of major importance; it is treating them decently when they die that is worth such a description.’” (IV B 13)

Surely, given the chance, Mencius would explain away this apparently peculiar point of view, and I think I know what he would say. To care for the living is obviously necessary, the dead, not so. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how easily things get stood on their heads.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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