Confucianism and the Enlightenment

Via Western Confucian, I’ve run across this address by Professor Tu Weiming transcribed at Andrew Cusack’s web page, “Towards a Confucian Modernity”, which I fear will be part of a process better called “Towards a Confucian surrender to the Enlightenment”.  Weiming contests the assumption that all civilizations must follow the Western path to modernity.  He says that the European Enlightenment ignored important values like community, family, authority, and ritual.  These are certainly important values, but it’s not true to say that the Enlightenment ignored them:  it was positively hostile to them.  Nor was this a side issue of the Enlightenment–it was its whole point.  The entire focus of the Enlightenment was on the destruction of the Catholic Church and the communal bonds, sacramental sense, and social/sexual mores the Church had fostered.  Nor did it plan to replace these with Confucian mores, as Weiming naively assumes from the positive attention some philosophes gave to China.  The Encyclopedists admired one thing about China, and one only:  that it was not Christian.  So Weiming’s program, to join universal Enlightenment values “liberty, rights consciousness, due process of law, instrumental rationality, privacy, and individualism” with universal Confucian values “sympathy, distributive justice, duty consciousness, ritual, public spiritedness, and group orientation” is pure self-contradiction.  What the Enlightenment meant by “liberty” was the absence of “duty consciousness”, by “individuality” it meant the absence of “group orientation”, by “instrumental rationality” it meant the absence of “ritual”.  So Weiming’s defense of these Confucian values–and it is a good defense–form not an argument for supplementing the Enlightenment, but for rejecting it as pernicious and false.

That is the true Confucian position, but Weiming explicitly rejects it:

An urgent task for the community of like-minded persons, deeply concerned about ecological issues and the disintegration of communities at all levels, is to ensure that we actively participate in a spiritual venture to rethink the Enlightenment heritage. In other words, this is not simply the problem of Western philosophers; this is the problem of anyone who is concerned about our global situation. The paradox is that we cannot afford to uncritically accept its inner logic in light of the unintended negative consequences it has engendered for the community as a whole, nor can we reject its relevance with all of the fruitful ambiguities it entails for our intellectual self-definition, present or even future. There’s no easy way out. We do not have an either/or choice.

The possibility of a radically different ethic or a new value system separate from and independent of the Enlightenment mentality is neither realistic nor even authentic. It may even appear to be either cynical or hypocritical. We need to explore the spiritual resources that may help us to broaden the scope of the enlightenment project, deepen its moral sensitivity, and, if necessary, creatively transform its genetic constraints or historical constraints in order to fully realize its potential as a world view for the human community as a whole. And, of course, the key to the success of this spiritual joint venture is to recognize the conspicuous absence of the idea of community, let alone the global community, in the Enlightenment project. Of course, the idea of fraternity, as many of you know, the fundamental equivalent of community in the three cardinal virtues of the French Revolution, has received scant attention in modern Western economic, political, and social thought. This is a major task for most of us.

I certainly wouldn’t want to “reject the relevance” of the Enlightenment.  It is the source of all the modern world’s evils, and that’s why I spend so much energy denouncing it.  Weiming, however, says that we must not embrace a “radically different ethic”.  Why not?  Because that would be “neither realistic nor even authentic”.  I’m not sure what the hell that’s supposed to mean.  It’s perfectly realistic to embrace a non/anti-Enlightenment ethic; the Christian ethic is still sitting around waiting for anyone willing to pick it up.  Why would embracing this ethic be “inauthentic”?  I would think it would be more authentic to follow an ethic I actually believe than accommodating myself to one I know to be false and evil.  No, instead we must start with an intellectual movement whose central focus is the radical rejection of religion and community, and we must inject it with religion and community.  This seems like an awfully roundabout way of returning to some very basic human goods.  I certainly don’t like the idea of starting from the Jacobin understanding of “fraternity”, which was as bloodthirsty an idol as the other two members of the French Revolution’s Satanic Trinity.

One can’t combine everything.  Sometimes we must choose.  The philosophes knew this.  If we’re going to follow them in anything, it should be in that.

5 Responses

  1. On the meaning of “Liberty,” there was a stark contrast between the Anglo-Saxon and European Enlightenments and that persists to this day..

    In British and American eyes, freedom primarily means being free from interference, especially government interference. To a European, freedom primarily means sharing in the government. For many Europeans, including some Britons, like Carlyle and Matthew Arnold and Frenchmen like Renan, Restoration Prussia was the veritable embodiment of the Aufklärung.

    The American Revolution was a rebellion against an external power, the British Crown; thereafter, strong local feeling often led to the Federal Government being seen as, in some sense, an external power.

    In Europe, by contrast, in the wake of the French Revolution, government action came to be seen by the citizens, as the consummated result of their own organized wishes. Of course, Europeans can be very readily persuaded that self-serving deputies are betraying the people’s mandate, in the service of special interests; in fact, the political class is held in great contempt – Hence their taste for a strong independent executive, from Napoleon to de Gaulle, to mention only the more respectable examples. Nevertheless, no one believes that curbing the powers of government is desirable, or even imaginable: the government is the appointee and agent of the people; to curb the government’s powers is to curb the their own.

  2. It’s an honor to be mentioned here. Like any right-thinking person, I initially rejected the Enlightenment and all its works, but I’ve come to think that it might have come about due to Catholic contacts with the East and with the New World, in the latter case giving birth to concepts like human rights, as Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has noted:

    “Father Las Casas was the most active, although not the only one, of those nonconformists who rebelled against abuses inflicted upon the Indians. They fought against their fellow men and against the policies of their own country in the name of the moral principle that to them was higher than any principle of nation or state. This self-determination could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality. The first culture to interrogate and question itself, the first to break up the masses into individual beings who with time gradually gained the right to think and act for themselves, was to become, thanks to that unknown exercise, freedom, the most powerful civilization of our world.”

  3. Hello Western Confucian,

    I think the example of Las Casas means something quite different from what Llosa believes. First, Las Casas lived centuries before the Enlightenment; therefore, the latter is not needed for the criticism of manifest injustices–the Christian tradition can do this on its own. Also, Las Casas was criticizing a new practice, not the ancient principles of his civilization.

    What’s more, it’s manifestly untrue that no other civilization has suffered moral critiques from its members. Mencius condemned wars of conquest during the Warring States Period, when they were common. Romans as diverse as Cato and Tiberius Graccus condemned the widespread practice of usury on the poor, as did the Hebrew prophets. Antigone defied state authority to perform funeral rights for her brother. Muhammed condemned infanticide. Euripides regularly made barbarians morally superior to the Greeks in his plays. That’s just stuff off the top of my head.

  4. Hello MPS,

    That’s a very good description of the difference between the two (English and continental, roughly) Enlightenment understandings of freedom. Both of them, though, are incompatible with Christianity, for which neither individual nor collective self-determination is a worthy goal. Beneath their disagreements, the strands of the enlightenment share their basic assumptions and values.

  5. I was merely suggesting that civic virtue (“duty consciousness”) was a strong component in the virtues of the Continental Enlightenment (largely derived from classical Roman ideas), which was not seen as in conflict with their understanding of “freedom.”

    Now, the Romans were a people who hated work, despised commerce and lived by plundering and enslaving their neighbours. To be successful at this (and they were very successful) it was necessary to cultivate certain very real virtues: courage, perseverance, self-control, prudence, discipline, constancy in misfortune, devotion to the community.

    The profound difference from Christian morality is in the end to which these virtues were directed; the temporal well-being of a community, with which the interests of the individual were wholly identified. This is what Hegel meant, when he said the individual attained objective reality and an ethical life only in the state.

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