A Ku Indeed!

Such is Her Te!

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material by Chris on March 24, 2008

One of my students in my Confucius class asked today an interesting question: How does Confucius explain bad behavior, thinking specifically in terms of the role of modeling in the Analects when it comes to cheng (correction). Now, it is clear that Confucius thinks that good people tend to draw others into the “orbit” (Analect 2.1) of their jen, this leading them to become good as well (or at least to start on the road towards it) as a result of imitation (Analect 12.19 is perhaps a clear expression of this, but there are many others textual spots as well). As a result, when a person’s particular focus or virtue (te) is great (they are exemplary in their pursuit of personal cultivation), such will the effect of their te on others. But what about the bad folks? What explains them?


There seem to be two possibilities (maybe more, but my brain isn’t functioning on all cylinders at the moment):

1. Perhaps when the only people around are bad, people around them, who are naturally drawn to model, turn to modeling the bad exemplars. An humorous way of putting this might be that there’s a “dark side” of the “force” too, and so Sith lords are just as tempting as “polestars” (exemplars) as are good (Jedi) ones. On this interpretation, though, it isn’t virtue that is necessary for the pull of the exemplary person (unless virtue is read in a much more general way, a way devoid of moral content) on others, though it may be sufficient.

Instead, by this interpretation, the pull towards the (bad) exemplar would be based on a perception of authoritativeness. Given that bad exemplars can be community figures, or be esteemed by others, they can be seen as exemplary, and so on, so perhaps it’s this that drives the bad person to model such folks and become bad themselves. So it’s really a (human, I suppose) drive towards modeling what we see as “higher” than us that matters to explaining behavior modification.

2. It’s not that the bad people were drawn to model the bad exemplars at all. Instead, one might argue that only people with virtue can truly serve as models for others (so it’s necessary and sufficient for behavior modification). If you go with this interpretation, you might explain the behavior of the bad by saying not that they exemplify the models of the bad, but rather that the lack of good models leads to a kind of collapse of their humanity. In the absence of good models, they  essential degrade into (or remain as) isolated individuals, and thus their badness is “cultivated” through the absence of just the right environment. Of c0urse, according to this interpretation, virtue would have a kind of magical power it seems, since only it would be capable of effecting such change in others on a positive basis.

Which is it? I’m not sure, I’ll admit. If (1) is right, it’s natural hierarchy that draws people to model (as per 2.1). If (2) is right, it’s virtue only that has that capacity (natural hierarchy would be a free lunch, as it always exists alongside virtue).

The text seems indeterminate on this, though I may be missing something. Specifically, I’m thinking of passages where Confucius tells others that the best way to get people to stop stealing is for those above them (rulers) to stop stealing. These passages can be read in terms of (1) or (2). It could be that thief rulers are bad exemplars, leading people to model them. Or it could be that because they are bad, there simply aren’t any true exemplars around, leading the humanity of the min to fail to develop.

Which is it?

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One Response

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  1. Million said, on March 25, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    My inclination has always been toward the second. If you go route #1 then you have to run the risk of having to explain away a dualism of sorts; something that traditionally has been seen as nonexistant in the East.

    It’s not that I don’t believe good and bad can exist without falling into dualism, but I find it hard to believe that Confucius walked such a fine line. Walking that line takes a lot of time and philosophical effort, and if C did it then you would think he would have talked about it more.

    Nah, it just makes more sense to me that he was focused on perfection and everything else was the absense of it. That would explain why true virtue is so hard to attain. Virtue would be a very specific emotive state while literally EVERYTHING ELSE woulden’t be.

    My 2 cents.


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