Xiao Ren and Min Bending like Grass
Today in the seminar Steve Angle mentioned one of my favorite passages (not that this narrows things down much) — 12.9. Within it, Confucius lays out a claim about the force of virtue (de) in an excellent person (junzi), suggesting that this force has the capacity to transform (in some way) the “petty person.” But the passage is, in my opinion (and as I noted to Steve) unclear to me, and it contains a number of unanswered questions about the relationship of moral exemplars and those they influence.
LY 12.19 is actually long, but the relevant part is contained here:
If you want to be adept, the people will also be adept. The excellence of the exemplary person is like the wind, while that of the petty person is like the grass. As the wind blows, the grass is sure to bend.
First, Steve pointed out that in his opinion the use of “petty person” is an offhand usage; in truth, he thinks that it means “common person” and so should not be seen as a pejorative. I completely agree with Steve (for reasons I’ll point out) that it makes more sense to read it that way for theoretical reasons. But I’m just not convinced that this is, literally (I’m not working from the Chinese, but contextually), what the passage means.
I wonder whether we should consider the fact that 12.19 seems to be “bundled” with 12.16 – 12.19. At the very least, three of the four passages all seem to be a part of the same conversation — one between the Master and Ji Kangzi. The first, 12.16, deals explicitly with the notion of the petty as in comparison with the junzi. So here, “petty” means xaio ren. Then, in 12. 18, Ji Kangzi asks specifically about the xaio ren. There, “petty” is clearly a pejorative, as it is in 12. 16, as the xaio ren are labeled as “thieves.”
Now we come to 12.19. In it, Ji Kangzi asks whether those who do not “follow the Way” should be killed. Confucius says no, because they can be (as the quote above notes) transformed. As it stands, those who do not “follow the Way” can be read as having an ambiguous target, as it could be neutral between undifferentiated persons (the common, the min) and the more perjorative xaio ren.
Some evidence that the use of “petty” is non-pejorative comes from Slingerland, who replaces “the people will also be adept” with “the common people will be adept.” So this is evidence that the target of “petty” is non-pejorative, but rather just means “lowly” (perhaps in the sense in which “common” might mean “non noble” in a more class oriented sense). However, Ames and Rosemont simply say “people” which removes that piece of evidence.
How, then, should it be read? I think the inter-passage evidence is inconclusive, at least insofar as what is above. But contextually, I am led to think that the term is meant as a pejorative. Not only does it make sense in context of 12.16 – 12.19, but it also is, literally, the word used, a word that has a clear unambiguous pejorative meaning in other passages.
This brings me to the second issue. If it is read as a pejorative, I think we have some theoretical questions to answer. The post has been long, so I’ll keep it short. Basically, the question is this: why is it that the de (virtue) of the xaio ren is like grass? The metaphor, of course, leads one to think that the xaio ren are pliable, and that their behavior can be easily modified by exposing them to just the right exemplar.
But is that true? If so, why? It would make sense with respect to the min. Here, it seems, we’re dealing with more of a “shapeless” mass, a set of persons who are, in Hall and Ames’ way of speaking, “undifferentiated.” They are like clay that has not yet been given a real shape.
But this is not the case for the xaio ren. These folks have formed characters, albeit bad ones. So you would think that transforming them for the better would be especially difficult. Think of Aristotle here — once a person has established habits and dispositions, it is hard to alter that person’s basic character orientation. So if 12.19 does refer to the xaio ren, then why are they grass-like?
One possibility, though I have no idea if it is right, is that the xaio ren have no “internal narrative” guiding their lives. All I mean here is this — the goals of the xaio ren are external. Their lives are fragmentary, as their behavior is really motivated and guided by features in the world only. They see pleasure here, they move towards it, punishment there, they move away. There’s no narrative that connects those moments that is internally guided in the way that one would expect the life of the junzi to be motivated (given that their narrative should be connected via the internal goods of jen). So, perhaps, even though the xaio ren have traits and predispositions, the fact that their narrative is still, if anything, externally determined leaves them open to transformation.
Then again, I don’t know. That’s just a good guess.