Will the Real Confucius Please Stand Up?
Over at The Useless Tree and at Frog in a Well there’s a discussion about how to approach the teaching of Confucius. Since I’m teaching two courses dealing with Confucius this semester (one is a basic ethics course fitting in Confucius for a few weeks, while the other is a full semester seminar just on Confucianism), I figured I’d put up a post on it. There are two basic (and related issues) at work. One is the fact that the Analects is most certainly an accretion — the text was not all written at the same time and so was put together over a period, some stretching far after Confucius. So the question “Who is Confucius?” is an obvious one. The second is whether a text should be presented within its cultural and historical context.
I’ll come right out and admit it: I do very little with respect to situating the text within its historical/cultural context. In addition, I pay little attention to the question of whether the texts actually represent the views of one person, or many.
Some of the reasoning why I approach the text this way is simply due to being accustomed to doing it that way — this itself a result of my (analytically oriented) philosophical training. I don’t recall in graduate school a single moment when we (as the students) were given historical and cultural backgrounds surrounding any of the texts we read. We simply looked for the arguments, “tore them out” and put them under microscopes. Terribly non-historical, I’ll admit — we treated arguments as if they were timeless artifacts.
I tend to treat Confucius in a similar (if not so overtly sterile) fashion, though I do stress the inescapable fact that our readings of the text are historically situated. I start by treating the text as a puzzle — one that has to be reconstructed by the reader. Because it is written in the style that it is, highly metaphorical, disordered, partial, and aphoristic, there’s no doubting the fact that any “reading” of the text will be heavily interpretative, and as a result, readings of the Analects will tend to be extremely autobiographical.
Like Sam’s approach (at Useless Tree), this style of approaching the text says that as a teacher I’m more interested in what the texts say about us, and about our own approaches to life than I am in how accurately our attempts to reconstruct that text are reflective of the contexts in which they were presented (or even of the actual historically embedded intentions of the authors. This doesn’t mean “any reading will do” of course, but I simply don’t stress the demand to try to understand the texts in that way). Of course, I’m in no way devaluing the importance of this sort of approach — it’s simply not mine. (That’s not to say that I couldn’t add a bit more historical context to my own presentations of the text, because I probably could).
The second question concerns the personage of Confucius. Who is he, anyway? Was there one guy? Or many? If one, are the texts even reflective of him? Again, I’ll have to come out and admit that I’m not terribly concerned with the question, though of course it’s an interesting question. When I or my students come face to face with the Analects (or any other text similar in nature), I want one quasi-Heideggerian question to guide the approach: “should I choose this person as my hero?” Is this a person from the past whose approach to existence I want to appropriate and make my own? Do I want to relive this history? This seems important to me, because a truly authentic interaction with the Analects should play a part in a person’s face-to-face engagement with the question of how to orient him or herself in life. In struggling with Confucius, you struggle with yourself.
The “Confucius” being struggled with here is clearly a “personage” being put forth as an exemplar, as a possible “hero” to be emulated and through which one can engage in a kind of authentic “repetition” of a historical “way of being.” But whether this “way of life” truly belonged to one person, or a few, or many, seems immaterial with respect to the responsibility of the reader to engage with the text in the way I am proposing. Perhaps this might be more of an issue for, say, a Christian engaging the Bible. If the question is “should I make Jesus my hero?” then, given the importance (for Christians) of the actual divinity of the historical personage of Jesus, it might be more important that “Jesus” (in the sense of what is being presented as a “way of life”) not turn out to be actually a reflection of an assemblage of individuals. Given that nothing turns on “Confucius” actually turning out to be spread out over numerous people/times, I don’t see anything of importance (again, with respect to my way of approaching the text) as relying on a specific way of answering the question.
That said, it certainly is nice to think of the whole system as belonging to the guy in the paintings, and also to the guy who seemed so clearly to have such an affectionate relationship with his students and, by extension, to those who are reading him.
One possible wrinkle: When you are thinking in terms of “your hero” it is perhaps psychologically necessary that this “conversation” you are having (your struggle with your own identity via your engagement with a person’s way of life presented in the text) be with another person (living or dead). When we think “how ought I to be?” it may be that you need to approach alternatives as presented by another person engaging the same question. But I could be wrong here in the sense that “person” needs to be “one person”. Perhaps a Confucian rejoinder might be that conversing with a “person” really always involves, in the end, talking to at least two entities (the minimum for a relationship). As a result, conversing with an admitted “assemblage” would be fine. On this last point, I’ll have to think a bit more!