A Ku Indeed!

Confucius and John McCain

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Politics, Values Analysis by Chris on September 18, 2007

John McCain is known for the saying that he has plastered on the side of his campaign bus. It says “Straight Talk Express”. McCain likes this, because he wants to be known as a “straight shooter” — as someone who always tells you straight out and directly what the truth is.

Given that we’ve just begun the Analects in one of my classes, I have to wonder whether Confucius would have considered himself a “straight shooter” in the same way that McCain does. I think the answer is, predictably, “yes and no” (as is mostly the case when you try to apply something to Confucius). Here are the differences, as I see them:

For “Yes”: Confucius is often very straight forward with his students. At times he might even seem rude. At best, the things he utters, both to rulers and to disciples, might seem like “tough love”. He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t appear worried that what he says might upset his audience. I think people reading him appreciate him for his kind of honesty. But that said…

For “No”: Confucius is an “indirect” communicator most of the time. Many times he uses historical stories, metaphors, analogies, and so on to communicate his meaning. He often — and to the utter frustration of his students (and readers) — won’t give straightforward answers to what appear to be straightforward questions. Sometimes he gives people different answers to the same question (11.22 being the most famous example). So on these levels, he seems not to be a straight shooter at all.

Why the difference in approach? One simple reason, another not so simple.

(A) Life is particular, people are particular, and so must pedagogy be particular.

This point is the simple one. What Confucius is pointing out here is that different people need different things. In some cases, a straight answer might do the trick. In another, a more obscure answer might be what is called for. Perhaps, in the latter case, the student is lazy, and must learn to take an active role in his/her own education. If he/she is “looking for answers” only, then straight talk might not be the way to go. Essentially, the Confucian picture here is that we ought not to treat people in the same ways. Respecting a person and teaching them means respecting that they are individuals and so their differences must be taken into consideration when you are dealing with them. Using a “one size fits all” approach is not helpful.

(B) Transformative revolutions only happen when they come from the inside.

This is the more important point. What Confucius is getting at here is a point that is later picked up by the 19th century Existentialists (Nietzsche and Kierkegaard come to mind specifically). The point is this: no one has the power to change another person in the sense of producing a true transformation in that person, specifically — in this case — with respect to virtue. In other words, “arguments” that are designed to “present the incontrovertible facts about the situation” cannot transform anyone. It’s always up that person how they choose to see that argument, or how they choose to evaluate it’s importance. As such, if the person does not will the change from the inside, nothing will happen. Straight talk on its own cannot change anyone.

You know the type. You present them with endless arguments why smoking is bad for them (say), and they just keep puffing away. It’s not that you haven’t given them all the information possible. They have it all. But yet they don’t quit. But then, one day, they quit. And it doesn’t appear to be due to the addition of some piece of missing information; rather, it seems to be due to the fact that the person, from the inside, willed to “become a non-smoker”. In some way, being a non-smoker became an internal “truth” (I’m thinking of my other post on Kierkegaard here) to them (by the way, I’m not moralizing here — I was this person; I smoked 2 1/2 packs a day for 20 years).

I think the Confucian would say, in agreement with the Existentialists, that it’s up to the person to make that internal truth actually happen. We, on the outside, can help, but we can’t make a person good. That comes from within. Much as we present “straight talk” and present “arguments”, it won’t work to transform them (think here of convincing proofs for or against God — they never convince anyone, even those who can’t find what’s wrong with them). If it could, then “transformations” could come from the outside, and then we’d just have to learn what arguments to present. But it doesn’t work that way.

So, from a Confucian (or Existentialist) point of view, what’s the best way to communicate to your student, or friend, or parent (depending on who you’re trying to help)? Most of the time — indirectly. The reason: you want to communicate in a way that gives information, but at the same time do so in a coded (hence indirect) form that requires interpretation on the part of the listener (“arguments” don’t require this, they actually try to do away with it). What indirect communication does is force the reader (if they bring effort to the table) to take part in that internal revolution, by coming to a conclusion for themselves through interpreting the metaphors or analogies in a personal way, in a way that makes sense to their own situation. Through this kind of “internal effort” the person can become good, or transform into a different sort of person. It doesn’t always work, but I think that Confucius believe that indirect communication gives people the materials to forge change for themselves from the inside. When you simply “present” arguments to another, this simply cannot happen, because there is no role for the listener to play, and thus no active way in which that “internal revolution” can take place.

Pretty cool stuff, I think. You’d suspect that all of these differences in writing/speaking style were accidental, but they are not. In today’s world, especially the American one, people might actually dislike Confucius because he does, in most cases, not seem like a straight shooter. But I think when you see what he’s doing, you recognize that he actually has more respect for his listener — and has their well being more at heart — than the McCains of the world do.

(By the way, anyone interested in the larger theme of “indirect” communication in Chinese philosophy/politics/literature and history should take a look at Francois Julien’s Detour and Access, specifically the first half of the book. A remarkable work looking at the differences between Eastern communication (indirect) and Western (direct), how those differences emerged, the functions they played, etc.)

3 Responses

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  1. Sam said, on September 18, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Great post! I am thinking about some of these issues now – writing about childhood and education – and your thoughts here are very helpful. I especially like the “Life is particular, people are particular, and so must pedagogy be particular” point. This captures well the Confucian sensibility (which is also found in 11.22: “Chiu holds back…so I urge him on. Lu has enough drive for two people, so I hold him back.”) The challenge for teachers is to find ways to understand the individual capacities and character of each student we face – hard to do when there are 60 people in the room! I guess Confucian education can only work in very small settings….

  2. Chris said, on September 18, 2007 at 2:05 pm


    Whoops! My mistake — that’s the Analect I was actually thinking of above in my post (it’s not 11.16, it’s 11.22, as you point out)!

    I think you’re right about large classrooms. It’s no surprise that when people talk about the failure of virtue ethics in application, it is often due to things “getting too big”. Sometimes it is the country (as opposed to the city state, or the small state of Lu), sometimes just the classroom.

    I wonder how Confucius would have dealt with a large classroom (200+ students)!

  3. Sam said, on September 18, 2007 at 11:43 pm

    Actually, 11.16 also works for your argument. Here is the Lau translation:
    Tzu-kung asked, ‘Who is superior, Shih or Shang?’ The Master said, ‘Shih overshoots the mark; Shang falls short.’
    ‘Does that mean that Shih is in fact better?’
    The Master said, ‘There is little to choose between overshooting the mark and falling short.’

    As to 200 in the classroom, I suspect he would show them one corner and be happy with however many could show him the other three…

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