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Understanding China (and More)

Confucius (Tang Dynasty)History may be “my thing,” but Asian history is not. Something about the East was always difficult for me to understand. The worldview is just very different from anything that the West has experienced, at least for a very long time. There is something almost familiar about Islam or even the animist religions of Africa in comparison with Taoism or Hinduism.

Maybe I’m an oddity. But I’m inclined to think that I’m not the only one who finds Asia a little difficult to understand. No, having an alarm clock marked “Made in China” will not help you. But reading Confucius might.

I volunteer at the library weekly, and I have a bad habit of picking up very random books while shelving. I still wonder if the check-out librarian had any thought on my picking up The Aneid and young adult sci-fi at the same time. My latest find was The Analects of Confucius. It’s short. It’s witty. (It’s also a little hard to understand in places unless you have a good background in Chinese history. I don’t. I read the footnotes.) The Analects include little gems like these:

“Only girls and servants are hard to train. Draw near to them, they grow unruly; hold them off, they pay you with spite.”

“Tsai Wo said: ‘Were a man who loves told that there is a man in a well, would he go in after him?’ The Master said, ‘Why should he? A gentleman might be brought to the well, but not entrapped into it.’”

“[Confucius] did not eat sour or moldy rice, putrid fish, or tainted meat.”

“[Confucius] did not sleep like a corpse.”

“One said, ‘ To mete out good for evil, how were that?’ ‘And how would ye meet good?’ said the Master. ‘Meet evil with justice: meet good with good.’”

“The Master said, ‘Unruly when young, unmentioned as man, undying when old, spells good-for-nothing!’ and hit him on the leg with his staff.”

Granted, those are more the exception than the rule. (To be honest, I wouldn’t eat moldy rice either.) Confucius often sounds almost Christian when he talks. The Analects even include a version of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.

In high school I was taught that Asians emphasize the group, while Westerners emphasize the individual. It seems that Westerners often respond to that difference in one of two incorrect ways. Some people think that Asians are horrible to consider putting the group first. Meanwhile, the multiculturalists argue that all cultures are morally equal, and that Asians mainly need to be understood. Some may even claim to admire Confucius. But the values he taught (aside from the ones about leaving people in wells) would not be popular with most Americans, period.

I’m in no place to comment on Chinese culture as a whole. But one of the main themes of the Analects is that of respect. Not respect to other people’s ancestors; respect to your ancestors. Not just taking care of your parents (you take care of animals too, says Confucius), but honoring them with every decision you make. And courtesy toward others ought to characterize everything you do. Those aren’t popular themes today.

For some of us, they are difficult. How do you honor your parents when one or both of them does little that is worthy of respect? (Confucius: a son should keep his father from doing evil, and vice versa.) How do you respect ancestors when some of them did foolish or evil things? (Confucius: choose your heroes wisely.) In any case, we live in a culture where self-promotion is seen as highly important. A culture focused primarily on deference would have drawbacks, of course, but it sounds appealing, particularly to those of us who find self-promotion to be embarrassing at best.

The Analects also helped me understand another book: C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Lewis write of the Tao, his word for the universal moral code that is the source of our value judgments. Even the relativists who argue against the Tao have to use some part of the Tao to make their arguments. We need special revelation, of course, because people can make evil choices based on the Tao. Its demand on duty to kin may be abstracted into extreme nationalism, for example. And there are contradictions between cultural perceptions of the Tao. (Most Christians and Jews would argue for getting the man out of the well, even if he was an idiot to climb in.)

But contradictions in the Tao—or, better yet, advances in it—are done within its parameters. “From within the Tao,” writes Lewis, “comes the only authority to modify the Tao…. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing the Tao or anything else…. Wherever any precept of traditional morality is simply challenged to produce its credentials, as though the burden of proof lay on it, we have taken the wrong position…. Only those who are practicing the Tao understand it.”

If you want to understand China, Confucius is a good start. But if you want to understand traditional morality, you can start anywhere—Confucius or Aristotle or Moses or Christ. Whatever anyone may say about our need for the Tao, no one functions for very long without it.

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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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The Iliad–And What It Isn’t

Achilles Tends PatroclusSometimes there’s a book that you hear about all your life–bits and pieces. You think you know what it’s about. And then you actually read it–and it isn’t. Not quite.

The Iliad is one of those books. We briefly covered it in one of my college history classes, and I was required to read its “sequel,” The Odyssey.

Except that The Odyssey isn’t really a sequel to The Iliad. In fact, the two books are so different that some literary critics have claimed Homer couldn’t have written both. The Odyssey is fantasy to The Iliad‘s war novel. The Odyssey ends happily; The Iliad‘s ending is ambiguous enough that Aristotle pointed to Homer as the first Greek tragedian.

And there is no Trojan horse. (Here I’m hoping to hear gasps of horror from those who haven’t read the book.) Evidently there were so many versions of the Troy epic floating around ancient Greece that nobody really cared about the Trojan horse anymore. Or something like that. At any rate, Homer focuses the story more on Achilles. Achilles is wronged by Agamemnon (the idiot) who takes Achilles’ favorite war captive as his own. So Achilles goes to his mother, a minor goddess, who convinces Zeus to teach the Greeks in general, and Agamemnon in particular, a lesson. Only tragedy convinces Achilles that the needs of his countrymen are more important than his personal grievances.

In all honesty, I got somewhat tired of reading about who-killed-whom by the end of the story. And the Greek system of morality could be…interesting. As much as the ancients worried about their wives and children being taken in battle, apparently declaring non-combatants to be off-limits wasn’t really a consideration. Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to survive on their own anyway; I’m not sure. I’ll leave that question to the historians.

I re-read the introduction after finishing The Iliad. Usually I read through books chronologically–if I do anything unusual, it’s only skipping to the end to see how the story turns out. But the introduction helped me put The Iliad into its historical context. Trying to write a unique epic about the Trojan War was, for Homer, equivalent to a modern-day writer trying to create an original dystopian novel, without plagiarizing Brave New World or 1984. There’s this, too–it might be difficult to create a single narrative of the Trojan War. It was, after all, extremely long. When C.S. Lewis began a [never finished] novel about Menelaus and Helen, he started it with Menelaus already inside the horse.

I’m getting pictures in my head of a particularly awkward Greek council of war. “So,” says Nestor. “Everything else has failed. Why don’t we pretend to go home, but actually stuff ourselves into a giant wooden horse instead?”

Come to think of it…I understand why Homer left that part out.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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A Question of Honor

Today the mention of the word “honor” probably brings one thing most readily to mind—dueling. To Americans, the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is probably the most famous, followed by Andrew Jackson’s duel over his wife’s reputation. Duels were fought over honor, or so the story goes. And honor itself is an outdated concept, a relic of times when women were expected to wave handkerchiefs at knights riding off to battle.

But the word honor actually has two different definitions. And the earlier one may encourage us to look more kindly on the days of those kerchief-waving women. Aristotle offers a definition in Rhetoric: “Honor is the token of a man’s being famous for doing good.” Honor is about reputation, about being respected by other people. Of course, Aristotle is by no means saying that good conduct is not important. Good conduct, or at least conduct that your countrymen perceive as good, is the key to honor. But your good conduct must be seen.

And what are the results of honor? According to Aristotle, they include “sacrifices; commemoration, in verse or prose; privileges; grants of land; front seats at civic celebrations….” And so on. Do good, and someone may write a poem about you. That is the pagan ideal of honor—not the ideal of image-obsessed pagans, but of those who were serious-minded citizens.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 14th centuryTo choose King Arthur as the opponent to Aristotle may seem unfair—to King Arthur. But Aristotle’s high paganism needs, perhaps, something a little less high and rational to effectively counter it. And the Arthurian legends, while not irrational, do not exactly adhere to the form of a proper syllogism or enthymeme. Knights are required to do some things and forbidden to do others on a seemingly arbitrary basis. They are expected to adhere to an extremely high code of morals. And they spend very little concern over improving their reputations.

Multiple knights confess to shameful deeds that no one else need have known about. When Sir Gareth comes to Camelot, rather than claim his privileges as a nobleman and the brother of Sir Gawain, he works in the kitchen and refuses to tell anyone his real name. Gawain himself marries what he believes to be an ugly hag in order to keep his word, although it horrifies the other nobles. And the list goes on.

In the Arthurian legends, honor is not reputation; it is character. Aristotle separated honor and virtue, although he recommended both. But to the people who passed down the stories of King Arthur, honor and virtue had become one.

As anyone who studies medieval history knows, there were few kings who lived up to this ideal. Yet it was an ideal. Christianity had truly changed European culture. Even today we are not immune from its effects. There are very few people today who would start a discussion on reputation the way Aristotle did—by saying that reputation is what other people think of you. It is, of course. But, says Christianity, it is not worth pursuing for its own sake.

I’m inclined to doubt the notion that duels were fought mostly over honor of the second definition. Did people fight over reputation? Yes; Andrew Jackson did. But those duels cannot be fairly blamed on people who read too much King Arthur. Hamilton and Burr were not going off on an Arthurian adventure. They were fighting about who-insulted-whom. And that, whether according to Aristotle or King Arthur, is not honor.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2013 in Classic Literature, Mythology

 

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