Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Graham on Confucius IV: Humanism

Scott Bradley

Man is able to enlarge the Way, it is not that the Way enlarges man.
(Analects 15/29)
This celebrated quote from Confucius, taken as a starting point, has profound implications. Understanding Confucius as the 'father' of classical Chinese philosophy, as the one who got the ball rolling as it were, we begin to see many threads of his thought are perpetuated in the weave of even those philosophies which were conscious attempts to break from him. What we see here, despite his arch-conservatism and appeals to a feudal, hierarchical past, is Confucius' profound humanism. The point is the betterment of humanity, and there is no better way to achieve that end than to look to what humanity as manifest requires.

Graham offers this quote as an example of Confucius' apparent disinterest in Heaven as a meddling power. This is clearly implied, but it needs to be said that "Way" (Dao), for Confucius, had little, if any, metaphysical significance; the Way is simply the means by which humanity is able to achieve its natural fulfillment.

What is significant is that 'Heaven' does not give us commandments to obey — tell us how we ought to behave; rather, we discover what works best for humanity through a study of humanity. This is essential humanism, and the antithesis of religion. Such an orientation is hard to sustain, however, given our hunger for absolutes. Neo-Confucianism was (I think) an attempt to provide those absolute guiding principles (li) and thus a departure from the empirical and existential.

My recent critique of Jed McKenna's emphatic declaration of the Truth was largely inspired by his similar departure from the "Drift and Doubt" of an existential Dao. The central question is whether we are to engage with life as it is manifest, a process that will yield a rather messy assortment of 'truths', or are we to impose Truth upon humanity from above. (McKenna, admittedly, arrived at the Truth through existential struggle, but so too might we say of every other religious prophet; except for 'true believers', his is but another "contending voice" which has no more weight than any other.) Philosophical Daoism, for all its criticism of Confucian moralism, perhaps remains the most faithful to his most fundamental humanist point of departure.

On the personal front, this quote exhorts us to "enlarge" our own ways. Finding what works best for us individually, and honestly engaging in the process it suggests, will ultimately "enlarge" us. This is the life "examined", which, though it need not be done, makes for the exciting adventure that life can be — for those so inclined.

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