Confucius and the Forking Path
Peony at her blog asks a very good question: just how similar would Confucius be to Kierkegaard? More pointedly – is Confucius just an ancient version of Judge William from Either/Or, imploring the reader to get off his or her butt and finally make a choice or a leap into the authentic life of being socially embedded within roles? I find this to be a fascinating question and I’d like to think a bit more about it here. I’ll do it by situating the question within the context of Herbert Fingarette’s writing. Fingarette, I believe, upon hearing this question would take his shoe off and slam the table with it like Khrushchev while repeatedly yelling “NO! NO! NO!” Let’s walk this through below the fold and see how it shakes out.
The Kierkegaardian Prelude
From the Kierkegaardian perspective, authentic life is all about making choices with commitment and firm resolve. In his classic work Either/Or Kierkegaard presents us with three ways in which life could generally play out, the “aesthetic,” the “ethical,” and the “religious.” Although I think the “religious” path as Kierkegaard understands it is interesting, let’s restrict ourselves to the first two.
Essentially, Kierkegaard’s attack on the “aesthetic” life is that it avoids choice. Aesthetics fail to commit. They just
“float along” through life, carried in one direction or another due to some strong attractant in some way related to pleasure. One might be carried away in the direction of beautiful women (Don Juan), or motivated and driven by money, or fame, or fortune, or perhaps driven by a kind of internal imaginative masturbation that yields pleasure through the imaginative manipulation of possibilities (Johannes the Seducer, and most philosophers). Although the “types” of aesthetics differ, they are held together by a failure to make fully embodied choices about how to live one’s life. Aesthetics are, in a sense, “slaves” to this or that, and fail to take charge or take the drivers’ seat in life.
Enter Judge William, who demands of the aesthete that he “choose!” The Judge shows the aesthete that there is actually a plan, or a structure to how society works; everyone has a role to play, and in that role one finds ones full actualization. However, one must choose to take one’s place within that society and fully commit to the embodied realization of that role. One must be one’s roles, and continually re-commit to these roles as one moves from situation to situation, leaving behind the flaccid slave-like existence of the aesthete.
Enter the Protagonist: Confucius
There are clearly some similarities between Confucius and Judge William. Mostly, there’s the notion of completing oneself through the fully embodied social life. For the Confucian, there’s the Henry Rosemont-inspired claim that “one is nothing but the sum of one’s roles that one stands in to particular others.” In the Analects, one gets the clear impression that one’s very identity is structured by the rituals that form the “map” of those social roles. To actually be a person, by these lights, requires that one perform ritual (li) in such a way that one embodies “the roles that one stands in towards particular others.” Similar to the way Judge William talks, it is if your identity “awaits you” (given that your roles are already set). There’s a big table set up for dinner, and everyone is eating, but there’s one empty chair. That’s your chair; if you sit in it, you “become who you really are” (to steal a phrase from Nietzsche). If you don’t, and the chair remains empty, you fail to become yourself, much as the aesthete fails.
Moreover, the contrast with the aesthetic form of life maintains some analogy with the Confucian picture as well. Confucius’ own contrast between junzi (exemplary persons) and xiao ren (the small and petty) is laid out in, at least prima facie, the same terms. The xiao ren are pictured as being led around like slaves, driven to this or that as a consequence of being too attached to pleasures. Xiao ren are, in Confucius’ terms, “driven by personal gain” and are too often attracted by “beautiful women” as opposed to pulled by the beauty of virtue. In addition, it is easy to get the impression that junzi are self-determining in some way, or at the very least “in control” whereas xiao ren are neither, and seem to be, like Kierkegaard’s aesthetes, slaves to the world. To use a distinction drawn by MacIntyre, perhaps we could say that the junzi is driven by “internal goods” (of virtue) whereas the xiao ren is driven by “external goods” – and where the language of “inner and outer” seems to imply something about the self such that being driven by what is external” to the self entails heteronomy. Once we start walking down this road, it is not surprising that Judge William places such a premium on the question of freedom, and how it is related to the integral notion of choice.
But perhaps it is here that the analogy ends. Once we move to issues of choice, perhaps it is here that Kierkegaard and Confucius part ways. After all, it is an integral component of Kierkegaard’s story that Judge William argues that the aesthete must choose to “enter into the ethical”. The aesthete must summon every ounce of determination and commitment and make that leap from one type of selfhood to another, fully responsible for the choice and what it entails.
Herbert Fingarette, in his Confucius, the Secular as Sacred (specifically in the chapter “A Way without Crossroads”) argues otherwise. Fingarette’s argument is very interesting, and can get somewhat complicated, but I think the main components of it can be laid out simply. It looks something like this (some of what follows is my interpretation of implied premises that Fingarette is using):
1. A crossroads requires two real paths (tao).
2. For a path to be real, the agent must be capable of maintaining (or perhaps more fittingly “exemplifying”) his selfhood in the process of its embodied actualization (through practice).
3. Maintaining or exemplifying one’s selfhood requires embodied performance of li (ritual).
4. Only one kind of performance in a situation can succeed in embodying li.
5. Thus, only one type of situational performance will maintain or exemplify the self.
6. Thus, there can never be more than one path (tao).
7. Thus, there are no “choices” in Confucianism.
Fingarette’s argument here is interesting, and leads to what Rosemont has called (at least in personal correspondence) “the way or the ditch”. Essentially, there are no two paths that are equally “real” in the sense that the traveler can justifiably suggest are both consistent with “the way” (or Tao). To engage in the right (yi) performance of ritual (li) is to exemplify the self; to do otherwise is to lose the self, to fall into a state of being an animal of sorts (xiao ren).
The difference here with Kierkegaard is sharp and powerful. For Kierkegaard’s Judge, it is clear that “the self” exists before the leap into the ethical; as a result, making the move from the aesthetic to the ethical involves a fundamental moment of real choice (between those alternative ways of living). It may be the case that one is more authentic than the other, but that doesn’t have an ontological implications – the self exists in both situations. Thus, for the Kierkegaardian Judge, although performance of li (ritual and roles) helps to authenticate the self, li does not constitute the ontological precondition of the self.
For Confucius, Fingarette would argue, things are quite different. There can be no “leaps” from one type of life to another, because there’s only one kind of life to start – the tao. You’re either on the path or you are not (in which case you are in Rosemont’s “ditch”). Moreover, if you’re off the path of the tao, no leap can get you back onto it – instead, you must be “shaped” by corrective forces (presumably here the suggestion is that the magic powers of ritual held by exemplars above you will move you back towards the path). The individual must add “effort” but this is different from the leap of Kierkegaard.
There are many questions that can be raised about all of this, and a pile of objections. Moreover, one question that interests me regards the extension of li; if it is the case that ritual performances can be altered or changed by the person to adapt to a specific circumstance (a la Roger Ames, perhaps), how will this be explained in the Fingarette fashion? Can it? Would such a way of talking about creativity require an Existential dimension of “choice”? My intuition here about the last question is that it does not necessarily involve choice. Even if Li can be adapted to meet the situation at hand, it still appears that there is a one path that best fits the local context – even if it turned out to be non-repeatable in other situations (and so unique to that context).In such a case, you still get what Fingarette argues for – the seeking out of the right path, not a “choice” between rival alternatives equally playing the role as potential extensions of “the Way”.
Here I’ll stop, because I have nothing remaining to say other than to pose more questions!