A Ku Indeed!

Was Confucius an Anxious Dude?

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Existentialism by Chris on March 11, 2008

2008-01-28t221813z_01_nootr_rtridsp_2_science-plague-europe-dc.jpgOne of the central points that is often made in the Analects states that the junzi (exemplary person) differs from the hsiao jen (small petty person). This difference is exemplified in many ways, the most obvious being that the junzi is focused on excellence, whereas the hsiao jen is focused on profit. One other central division, one that I’m concerned with, suggests that the junzi lives “without anxiety” whereas the hsiao jen is wracked by it. But is this right?


Is it that the junzi lacks anxiety, or lacks fear? I wonder whether this is really the true division; the hsiao jen is concerned with threats to his/her worldly existence (the success of his/her plans), and so suffers from fear. Because the junzi is not focused on gain, he/she does not fear. However, I think the junzi may be anxious, whereas the hsiao jen evades anxiety.

Let me put my cards on the table. The distinction I am thinking of comes from Existentialism. Specifically, Heidegger (borrowing liberally from Kierkegaard) argues that fear is a psychological state. It is geared towards what we perceive to be threats to our worldly projects and aims. So, if it interests me to make money, I fear the stock market crashing. Or if I love health, I fear illness. And so on.

On the other hand, Heidegger says, there is anxiety. Anxiety is an existential (ontological as opposed to psychological) state (it’s a “mood” he says). Anxiety is not fear, but shares some similarities with it. Instead of sensing a threat to this-or-that plan or project that I value, anxiety is directed at a way of feeling that my way of being in the world as a whole is threatened. One of the most common ways to talk about anxiety is to mention how coming face to face with death can provoke it. If you’ve ever had a near-death experience you know what this means — after the situation, the whole world recedes away and seems unfamiliar. You feel distanced from the world of your projects — this is the mood of anxiety. It makes you feel insecure at the core. It makes all specific ways of being in the world, that we can thoughtlessly become attached to, seem meaningless.

My motivation for thinking about this issue comes from a variety of different directions. Here, I ask this question because I want to highlight that Confucius has an odd position on death. When his students ask about the afterlife, he redirects their attentions to the world. When asked about the spirits, he says the same thing. When specifically asked about death, he says to worry about life. And then, of course, there’s LY 4.8; here, the Master suggests that “In the morning, hear the Way, in the evening, die content!”

These passages raise interesting questions, not just about what they say, but about what they don’t say. What they say is that:

1. Living in the Way allows for one to embrace death.

2. It is important not to obsess about what comes after death.

3. Questions about death relate immediately to questions about life.

One reading of (2) and (3) is straightforward. If the person thinks too much about what comes after death, their eyes are taken away from the task — which is living in the immanent sphere. Jen is about relationships, and those are here, on Earth. But not dealing with questions about what comes after death, Confucius must have realized, would raise immediate issues of anxiety for his students. To leave the grounding for one’s entire being unsettled in this way may have actually served some purpose. I have no doubt that death-anxiety was a pretty serious thing 2,500 years ago too.

The path of the Tao is not one for gain — it is not the road of the hsiao jen. To unsettle one’s disciples about their very finite natures surely had the result of forcing them to rethink why, and for what reason, they wanted to pursue this path (associated questions: is virtue acquisitive? expressive?). In Heidegger’s vocabulary, anxiety can produce the opportunity for the student to engage with the Tao in a resolute (and authentic) fashion. In “being-towards-death” — or in embracing the finite nature of one’s future, the seriousness of present commitment takes center stage. To put it simply: you don’t monkey around when death is around the corner.

One way to think about it might be to use a capitalistic analogy. Imagine that a person can live forever — or that there’s life after death. If there is, then there’s an infinite supply of moments ahead. The demand for life is a constant. With an infinite supply, the value of any moment is infinitely small. As a result, one is lead into irresolute living of the type we see in Ranyou in LY 5.9, who seems to have an issue with getting up in the morning and performing his tasks. His life has no sense of unity, no narrative, no “uumph.” One moment is no different from the next — time itself is “leveled” and meaningless.

On the other hand, to live with the uncertainty of death is to have a demand for life, but under the recognition that it could all end right now, in the next second. As a result, the limited supply of moments causes their value to go up quickly. The result: resolute (authentic) living of the kind of that is a necessary condition for the Tao. The kind of living that shows an active participation with life. You approach life as opposed to “wait for things to happen” (Heidegger calls them anticipation versus awaiting). The distinction between resolute and irresolute living (as a result of embracing anxiety) may even explain LY4.4, where the Master said, “It is only the virtuous man, who can love, or who can hate, others.” If only the resolute are truly alive, then this would make sense. A world of real non-instrumental value — one where people can be loved or hated as a result of their stance regarding excellence — only exists within the world of those who face death. The petty do not love or hate, they find people useful or useless.

A long post. A final point, though, because I need to mention (1) above, about how living in the Way allows one to embrace death. From an Existential point, this makes sense. If one has made resolute commitments in the face of death, then one has embraced death and accepted it as a part of living, but a part that does indeed inform the passion with which one undertakes one’s plans and projects. The resolute person does not fear death, nor do they seek to escape it. Instead, recognition of it imparts an element of significance to one’s living.

But what about the claims that Confucius was “peaceful” of mind? Doesn’t anxiety mean a person who is just the opposite? I don’t think so, but it also depends on what we mean by “peaceful.” The resolute person is steadfast, and isn’t of “two minds”. Neither is the junzi. It could well be that Confucius means by “peaceful” rather “free from the concerns of fear”. One can easily imagine the hsiao jen as irresolute because of their shifting mental state; worried about one thing, they are driven to do X; worried not about another, they are driven to do not-X. A chaotic life controlled “from the outside” by worldly circumstances which then interact with one’s fears. The resolute person, who has no fears about profits and punishments, would not be driven in this way. “Peacefulness” could well be a way of describing an equanimity that flows from the kind of constancy that stems from being self-controlled.

So…was Confucius anxious?

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2 Responses

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  1. Manyul Im said, on March 11, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Chris, only until he was 70.

    Had to get that quip in. I still need to digest your post a bit more. I’ll be back (insert Schwarzenegger accent here).

  2. […] Original post by Chris […]


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