Yen Hui and the “Mystery” of 11.4
In my opinion, Lun Yu 11.4 is one of the simplest and most straightforward passages in the Confucian text. It reads: “The Master said, ‘Hui! He is of no help to me! He agrees with everything I say!” Yup. Seemingly simple, straightforward and clear. But yet most commentators don’t think that it say what it seems to say. Philosophers! Leave it to them to muddy the clear waters on make murky what was obvious. Well, I’m not complaining. That’s how I make my bacon too. But in this instance, I just gotta disagree!
My reading of 11.4 today is the same reading that I had of it when I first read the Lun Yu many years ago. Basically, I take it to be saying that Yen Hui has failed in this instance to be authoritative in his relationship with the Master. The failure is evident in the Master’s direct claim: Yen Hui is of no help to me! The reason is clear (to me): Hui overly deferential (one way to see it might be that he has failed to bestow yi, and is intent on merely deriving it in his relationship with Confucius). He never disagrees with the Master, so it’s a one-way street, not an dynamic interaction.
Why would this be? And of what help is Hui to Confucius?
I take it that Hui can be of help to Confucius because he is, of all the living people in the book, the only one that Confucius states is better (at times) than he is. As a result, there are clearly times when Hui has the moral “upper hand” and can serve as a teacher to the Master. Whereas the Master is typically the benefactor, there are times — even if not often — when he can be the beneficiary (of Hui’s help). But Hui does not offer it — he never disagrees with Confucius, and so leaves him ignorant when he can be corrected or helped to see “another corner” of a difficulty. In a sense, Hui “retreats” from the relationship in my way of visualizing it, atomizing himself as Confucius as separate entities (this means that his failure is a failure of chih, or “realization” — he does not embody his role-obligations in this instance). In doing so, Hui fails in his relational duties as a student (remember: in the pursuit of jen, do not give precedence even to your teacher).
To those familiar with Hui, much as he is an overall charming character who is clearly held up to be a paragon of virtue, this reading may not be entirely surprising; if Hui has a fault, it is that he is overly deferential (in contrast to the overzealous nature of Zilu, or the pedantry of Zixia or the smooth-talking cleverness of Zaiwo). It may well be that Hui is simply unintentionally overdoing his respect for the Master — he is pushing deference to a point at which ends up being a vice in certain contexts within the relationship with Confucius. Or, it could be that Hui is motivated by something a bit more problematic: perhaps he is continuing a habit of cultivating the outward behaviors that allow him to be seen as a good person (5.6 stresses Hui’s rivalry with Zilu, showing him to not be immune to the need for recognition, and we all know that Hui takes the “poverty thing” a bit too far), something the Master occasionally ribs him for. In any case, on my reading, 11.4 is a clear and honest rebuke of a character who is, for the most part, good and virtuous.
Still, this is not the only reading of 11.4 out there. As a matter of fact, mine is most certainly the minority view. Most readings I have come across read 11.4 as a compliment of Hui. In fact, I recall a conversation about 11.4 with Henry Rosemont once, and he clearly took the analect as high praise (perhaps even the highest) for Hui. The reasoning? Well, Rosemont (and typical commentary) see the Master as suggesting here that Hui can perfectly, without words and with ease, take in Confucius’ words and make them “his own” without any need for disruption of the Master’s lesson (so Hui is beyond the need to actually deliberate — he is perfectly ‘adjusted’ to his world). Essentially, this reading stresses that Hui is “just that good” to put it in contemporary terms. This, apparently, is the long standing commentarial position on the analect — it’s overflowing praise.
I must admit, though — I’ve never seen the majority argument about 11.4 as persuasive in the least. Who is right? Well, from my perspective we have to ask: what exactly are the interpretative benefits of contradicting the obvious literal words of a passage? What kind of hermeneutic strategy are we employing when we do this?
Literally, no one would admit (even Rosemont and other commentators) that Confucius is praising Hui. So why depart from that reading? To read metaphorically a passage of the Confucian text is surely not a problem, I’d admit, as the reader who refused to employ such techniques would quickly be “lost at sea” interpretatively. But when a text appears to be straight and literal, why depart?
As far as I can tell (or with respect to my own style of interacting with historical texts), there is one main reason to read a passage that suggests a literal reading non-literally. That is:
One should depart from a literal reading if it causes textual inconsistencies elsewhere in one’s overall understanding of the text.
So, essentially, when one’s overall conceptual understanding of the text is disrupted by a literal reading of a passage, this may be a time to re-interpret that passage in a way that “saves the overall interpretation” (to misuse a motto of the phenomenologist — to “save the phenomena”). In short, it’s good as a general interpretative heuristic to read the text in a way that maximizes authorial consistency.
So my question is simple here: has a case for this been made for reading 11.4 metaphorically? I don’t see it. Unless I am missing something (which is possible), there is no overall interpretation of the text, or of Yen Hui as a character, that is disrupted by reading the passage literally. In fact, reading it literally seems to support many of Confucius’ central claims:
1. No one is perfect (even Hui), striving for jen is continual, and so the Tao is not a destination but a road.
2. Yen Hui is as good as him at times, and sometimes even better.
3. Advancement on the Tao requires exemplars.
On (1): even Hui is not jen all the time. Remember, for Confucius, he keeps it up for three months once and then falls “off the wagon” (still impressive; for everyone else, jen comes in fits and starts). So if 11.4 points to a failure in Yen Hui, this is not inconsistent with the portrait of human weakness, nor of Hui himself.
On (2): Hui being weak from time to time doesn’t contradict this claim — if anything, it makes Hui more human.
On (3): it points out that even the Master needs an exemplar. He doesn’t have many (that aren’t historical figures, that is). So Hui’s responsibilities in this relationship are actually great. After all, Confucius needs an occasional benefactor, and that doesn’t shake (or shouldn’t shake) our understanding of the Master in any way either.
If this is all true, I see no reason to uphold the “Confucius is praising Hui” reading of Lun Yu 11.4. As a matter of fact, I’m left in confusion on the motives for the metaphorical reading. Why would one read the passage in that way? What are the benefits that demand overturning a clear literal passage with a clear literal meaning in favor of a metaphorical reading that actually reverses the literal claim?