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ConfucianismReview - Confucianism
by Paul R. Goldin
University of California Press, 2011
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Jan 17th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 3)

Confucianism is another in the series of introductory books on the various schools of ancient philosophy. Early volumes in the series have been warmly received and several have been reviewed here. The books in the series are "created especially for students" – by which the publishers mean not only students in colleges and universities, but also general readers who are students of philosophy and its rich history. Goldin's book admirably meets this criterion. It is comprehensive, readable, informative, reliable, well documented with a rich listing of primary and secondary source material, and covers the contributions of the three major figures in classical Confucianism: Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi. Goldin traces the similarities and differences among the three in his three major chapters. In addition he offers an interlude on two texts: Great Learning and Canon of Filial Piety, and a chapter on Neo-Confucianism and Confucianism today in which he outlines transformations Confucianism has undergone in the past century.

The introduction "What Confucianism is and what Confucianism is not" provides a useful definition of Confucianism which shapes the discussion. He writes:

I shall use the term "Confucianism" to refer to the philosophy of Confucius (551-479 BCE), his disciples, and the numerous later thinkers who regarded themselves as followers of his tradition. This definition is … flexible enough to admit the literally hundreds of philosophers who considered themselves as his latter-day disciples. Like any vibrant and long-lived tradition, Confucianism was never a monolith. …But competing Confucians rarely doubted each other's sincerity or commitment to applying the Master's teachings to the exigencies of their day. (pp. 1-2)

We learn that Confucianism sanctions actions and habits if and only if they are conducive to the cultivation of morality; in this sense one is reminded of Aristotle's notion of what will come to be called virtue ethics. Confucius and Aristotle agree that humans are social animals and that flourishing as a human requires social interaction and the development of relationships with other human beings and with the environment that supports and sustains us. Reciprocity is the key ingredient in the relationship formula. Confucius once was asked "if kindness requires kindness in return, does maliciousness require maliciousness in return?" He responded that kindness requires kindness, but maliciousness requires justice. Turn the other cheek is too alien for humans to follow.

The Golden Rule as we know it in the West is formulated "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" while Confucius states the concept differently as "do not do unto others that which you would not want them to do unto you." Consider that difference when thinking about the difficulties that arise between the West and China over considerations of human rights. The positive assertion suggests that what "I" believe is universal and correct. It seems the second, negative assertion, is more tolerant.

It is, of course, difficult for those of us raised and educated in the West to appreciate the subtlety of the ideas embedded in the Chinese language. Zhong and shu, ren and li, and even The Way are subject to interpretation and debate. Goldin presents a clear description of these concepts, writing:

Zhong and shu are not far from the Way. What you would not suffer others to do to you, do not do to them. There are four things in the Way of the Noble Man, none of which I have been able to do. I have not been able to serve my father as I demand of my son. I have not been able to serve my lord as I demand of my servant. I have not been able to serve my elder brother as I demand of my younger brother. I have not been able to do unto my friends as I demand of them.

He argues that Zhong's importance is within a notion of reciprocity as sensitive to social roles, and cashes out essentially as "being honest with oneself in dealing with others." Goldin argues that ren and li usually glossed as humaneness or benevolence and ritual or rites respectively, "cannot be understood correctly without being connected to the goal of role-sensitive reciprocity." In the notion of "The Way" the key idea is learning. Learning to be human is the only way that we can flourish in this world – learning, re-learning, and un-learning are the tools we employ to become human. This entails dignity, relationship with others, respect for others and for the earth – for harmony. We will be in harmony when we recognize we are members of a communion of subjects. Goldin quotes Xunzi:

How does one know the Way? I say: the heart-mind. How does the heart-mind know? I say: emptiness, unity and tranquillity. The heart-mind never stops storing, but it has something called "emptiness". The heart-mind never stops being filled, but it has something called "unity". The heart-mind never stops moving but it has something called "tranquillity".

Paul R. Goldin is Professor and Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. In the penultimate chapter of Confucianism he writes:

Paternalistic governments throughout China's history have been attracted to Confucius because they have regarded inculcating deference among the populace as a Confucian ideal. Were Confucius himself to have discovered how his teachings would be appropriated, he might not have been pleased. Confucian ethics begin with the premise that human beings have the capacity for moral self-cultivation, and thus a responsibility to reflect daily on their conduct and to modify it where it is deficient. … Confucianism certainly does emphasize service to the state – as long as rulers make a serious effort to live up to the obligation of providing their subjects with an environment of moral excellence – it never approves of craven obedience. (112)

The final chapter is an attempt to defend Confucius from radical feminist charges of sexism.

Confucianism is a brief and lucid book, and a worthy contribution to the series on ancient philosophy.


© 2012 Bob Lane


Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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