Why Confucianism matters

Human nature has not changed, within some broad parameters, across history. When I first became interested in topics such as ancient philosophy twenty years ago I recall being struck by the contemporary relevance of thinkers such as Aristotle. Previously my focus has been on the natural sciences, where the dead were just names, whose ideas had often been superseded and extended.

And yet when it came to ethics and moral living the philosophers and religious thinkers who flourished 2,000 years ago seem to have arrived at the primary issues at the general level, though progress and change occurred on the details (and continues to occur).

Why look to China? After all, there were ethical systems in the West. First, I’m not sure that the supernaturalistic religions work to bind elites together anymore due to lack of credibility. Christianity is getting weaker. My own personal hunch is that the current wave of Islamic assertiveness and violence is the paroxysm of a civilization confronting its irrelevance.

Second, Classical Antiquity had plenty of ethical systems, especially during the Hellenistic and Roman period. But Rome collapsed. There was a great rupture between antiquity and the medieval period. In contrast, the Confucian and Neo-Confucian system persisted down to the early 20th century in classical form and casts a strong shadow over East Asia even today. While Stoicism had personal relevance, Confucianism was designed to scale from the individual all the way to the imperial state.

The 1960s saw a radical transition to notional social egalitarianism in the West. This is the world I grew up and matured in. Arguably, I believed in its rightness, inevitability, and eternal dominance, until very recently. But I think that today that model is fraying and people are looking to find some mooring. In particular, I think we are in need of a rectification of names. From Wikipedia:

Confucius was asked what he would do if he was a governor. He said he would “rectify the names” to make words correspond to reality. The phrase has now become known as a doctrine of feudal Confucian designations and relationships, behaving accordingly to ensure social harmony. Without such accordance society would essentially crumble and “undertakings would not be completed.”

How are we supposed to behave with each given person? A lot of this is free-form and improvisational today, and it turns out that many people are not comfortable with this. Humans need scripts.

Finally, the world that Confucianism developed was highly stratified, though there was some chance of advancement. It was not a calcified caste system, but it was a hierarchical one. I believe that is the system that we are moving toward in the West, and it seems that a system that takes for granted non-egalitarianism, such as Confucianism, may benefit us.

13 thoughts on “Why Confucianism matters

  1. Explicit non-egalitarianism is hard to sustain with popular one-person-one-vote democracy. The closest you get is a kind of meritocratic rationalization, or divide-and-conquer by the elites (or the reduction of democracy over time).

    Do you think democracy will dissipate over time? In some ways we do or did seem to be heading towards more non-democratically responsive systems, like the attempts to tie everything down with treaties and bureaucratic rules at the international level.

  2. Breaking of egalitarianism could mean Confucian class system with total order between people, or simply fragmentation without total order. Total order corresponds to industrial or military organization; while fragmentation is bubbles and detached communities with their own culture. I think the latter is a better description of contemporary development.

  3. Explicit non-egalitarianism is hard to sustain with popular one-person-one-vote democracy.

    the roman *empire* maintained republican *forms* for decades after the transition.

  4. I’d say that arguably Confucianism only really flourished after the Song dynasty broke the Chinese aristocracy and instituted a fully civilian ruling class. Confucianism was a force for egalitarianism if anything. It was the religion of the mandarins, not of the people.

    If we were to make an analogy to Chinese history I’d say we are more like in the Eastern Han, with private patronage networks taking over the state from within. The result of that wasn’t a strong confucianism. The result was the spread of Buddhism. A very different beast.

  5. ” I believe that is the system that we are moving toward in the West, and it seems that a system that takes for granted non-egalitarianism, such as Confucianism, may benefit us.”

    Have you expanded in greater detail anywhere (something along the lines of) what you mean by this?

  6. Have you expanded in greater detail anywhere (something along the lines of) what you mean by this?

    no.

    David “Spengler” Goldman has been saying that for almost 20 years.

    that’s because that was the original spengler’s thesis about whta fundamentalism was.

    If we were to make an analogy to Chinese history I’d say we are more like in the Eastern Han, with private patronage networks taking over the state from within. The result of that wasn’t a strong confucianism. The result was the spread of Buddhism. A very different beast.

    good point. need to think more.

    Do you think democracy will dissipate over time? In some ways we do or did seem to be heading towards more non-democratically responsive systems, like the attempts to tie everything down with treaties and bureaucratic rules at the international level.

    i think we’ll see a shock in the late 2030s. the new oligarchy will maintain the forms of the post-ww 2 republic, but the long 20th century will be over, and the america we grew up in will pass into memory….

  7. But will the test for one’s place in the heirarchy be oral, written, or genetic? And will there be math?

  8. I’m not sure that islamic assertiveness and violence is a sign of the cultural irrelevance of Islam.

    Demographically speaking Islam is on the rise, especially in Africa. And the muslim youth seems to be very conservative, even reactionary, when compared to the past generations.

  9. Demographically speaking Islam is on the rise, especially in Africa. And the muslim youth seems to be very conservative, even reactionary, when compared to the past generations.

    1) total fertility is crashing in the middle east. african muslim fertility is closely matched by xtian fertility.

    2) the survey data don’t really support the idea (check WVS) they’re more conservative. what has happened is that modernization has brought a lot of conservative rural ppl into the mainstream and marginalized the urban super-elite who were the only ones the western public was interacting with.

  10. The reason I find Confucianism, et. al. interesting is that these ethical and political theories are not dependent on set metaphysical theories. This is the exact reason Aristotle is more useful today than Plato, and ancient Western philosophy as a whole is more useful than its Indic counterparts. Until you hit the Neoconfucians and the Buddhists they argued against, Chinese philosophy can be split from the specious metaphysical arguments of the day.

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