Wednesday, April 29, 2009


By Thomas Riggins

Christopher Caudwell, the British Marxist who was killed in 1937 in the Spanish Civil War at age 29, was one of the most important cultural theorists of the past century. Many Marxists, especially of the younger generation, may never have heard of him since with the overthrow of the Soviet Union and its East European allies the entire cultural legacy of the Marxist movement has been over-shadowed by capitalist triumphalism.

One of the functions of Marxists is to keep alive the memory and the traditions of the truly great Marxist thinkers who have preceeded us and whose achievements we will be the custodians of until the world revolutionary movement is again in a position to challenge the imperialist powers and block their domination of the planet. A time we are approaching more rapidly than many suspect.

Caudwell’s most important work was the posthumously published Illusion and Reality: A Study in the Sources of Poetry (1937). This article will attempt to present some of his major ideas to a contemporary audience.

According to Caudwell, the social consciousness of human beings is directly proportional to the interaction it has with other human beings and with nature. In other words, the more interaction humans have with one another and nature, the greater their social consciousness. This social consciousness is the tool used to attain freedom, which Caudwell defined as the degree of control over the environment.

Poetry had its origins in the way humanity first struggled to attain freedom. The earliest humans could not rely on a purely instinctual life such as we find in other animals. Humans had to form some type of economic cooperation (hunting, fishing, food gathering) which necessitated a higher degree of socialization of the instincts (that is, of common feelings and emotional responses) directed to group survival.

As an example, Caudwell points to the role of art in relation to early harvest festivals. The festival functions to collectivize group emotions and direct them towards the future harvest (or hunt). It does this by means of dance and ritual. Early people thus entered a world of illusion in which group goals were reinforced to bring about the socially necessary labor needed to translate the illusion into the reality of the future hunt or harvest. Caudwell believed that art was basically economic in origin and function. The individual is socialized by participation in group ceremonials--i.e., she is educated.

The development of class society breaks down the old collectivity and the artist becomes differentiated from the group. Individual artists replace group art. Art is divorced from the nitty-gritty of everyday economic concerns. In poetry, the lyric replaces the epic. While Homer reflected the collective life of Greece, the lyric poets expressed individual and solitary views of their subject matter.

So poetry, and art in general, is “the nascent self-consciousness” of humanity. An Hegelian notion better expressed by Marx as an historically determinate species-being consciousness (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). In other words, art brings about the beginnings of human self consciousness.

What is the content of early art? What does it reflect and create? What is its role? Its content is not an independent objective reality but social reality. Its function is to direct individual emotions to a common goal. Its role is to domesticate the instincts--to socialize them to group values. The “fantasy of poetry is a social image.”

Originally thought separated from practice to be a “guide to action” but gradually the guiding group became dominate in the society. This group no longer reflects a socially undifferentiated consciousness. It has become a ruling class. Two cultures now develop: the culture representing the ruling circles and “folk” culture. This is the origin of our distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture.

Having dealt with the origins of art (poetry), Caudwell turns his attention to modern poetry. “Modern poetry is capitalist poetry.” Why do Shakespeare, Galileo, Michaelangelo, Pope, Goethe and Voltaire seem modern when compared to Valery, Cezanne, Joyce, Bergson and Einstein, while Homer, Thales, Chaucer and Beowulf seem remote and foreign to us?

Caudwell thinks it is because the economic base of developing capitalism which the first group represents (the bourgeois foundation) is reflected in their works. They are spokesmen of their times when the feudal world view was under attack by a new economic class whose outlook they reflected. To the extent our culture still rests on this foundation we can identify with these thinkers and artists.

Recalling the social function of art, Caudwell points out that in class society art has separated itself from religion "as the art of a ruling class" and tends to be conservative, "academic" and conventional. We see long periods of time, even centuries, of unchanging artistic standards (Greece, Rome, Egypt, India, China, etc.) yet the art of our time is constantly changing and seems to progress. New and radical schools of art flourish, peak, decline, and make way for new schools and experimental methods. How can this be reconciled with Caudwell's thesis?

To answer this we must grasp the "basic contradiction of bourgeois society"--the bourgeois concept of freedom--the basic bourgeois illusion. With the overthrow of feudalism arose the idea of an aristocracy of merit (Jefferson) rather than birth. Every person is free to own private property and to dispose of her life as she wishes (originally this applied only to men). The bourgeois state appears to function above society and class as a referee be-
tween the various component parts of the population.

The basic contradiction is that "seen from the viewpoint of the bourgeois, bourgeois society is a free society whose freedom is due to its completely free market and its absence of direct social relations, of which absence the free market is the cause and expression. But to the rest of society bourgeois society is a coercive society whose individualism and free market is the method of coercion." The worker must enter the capitalist's market or starve.

The basic precondition for capitalism's advancement is its constantly revolutionizing its means of production and the concomitant competition between capitalists. The growth of monopolies takes its toll on small and medium businesses, and sometimes even giant corporations, which fail and are eliminated from the scene.

Modern art, as a product of this constantly changing society, is not conservative and conventional precisely because the bourgeois mode of production is also non-conservative and non-conventional. The bourgeois falls victim to his own system, his illusion of freedom will not save him from the exigencies of the real economic functioning of his market. Kafka is an example of this petty bourgeois feeling of powerlessness. "The bourgeois is always talking about liberty because it is always slipping from his grasp."

Freedom from natural necessity (want) is the sine qua non for the development of spiritual freedom. In so far as the bourgeois economy is expanding and developing freedom from nature is growing. Unfortunately this freedom gravitates to the pole of the bourgeoisie leaving more and more unfreedom in society as a whole.

"Thus the bourgeois illusion regarding freedom, which counterpoises freedom and individualism to determinism and society, overlooks the fact that society is the instrument whereby man, the unfree individual, in association realizes his freedom and that the conditions of such association are the conditions of

Poetry (art in general) in the bourgeois period functions to reinforce emotional attitudes having survival value in bourgeois
society. The greater degree of complexity in modern society explains why different and contradictory artistic movements clash and contend appealing to different classes and strata. The function of poetry (art) is to adapt the instincts to the social situation humans find themselves in or are in the act of creating.

Caudwell Notes: "The bourgeois sees men's instincts -- his 'heart, source of his desires and aims -- as the source of his freedom. This is false in as much as the instincts unadapted are blind and unfree. But when adapted by the relations of society they give rise to emotions, and the adaptations of which the emotions are the expression and mirror, are the means whereby the instinctive energy of man is diverted to drive the machine of society: the machine of society, revolving, enables man to face nature and struggle with her, not as individual instinctive man but as associated, adapted men. Thus the instincts drive on the movement which secures man's freedom."

Art is an attempt to achieve freedom in the world of feelings and emotions. Science is that same attempt in the world of sense perceptions. There are, therefore, two methods for attaining freedom -- one adapted to our inner, the other to our outer reality. To understand these, we must look to the function of the "word."

Words "are tied to precepts which are photographic memory- images of bits of reality." Precepts are used to create concepts, language, and the possibility of communication. For humans to be able to work together they must have a common perceptual reality changeable by their actions. The world created by language and the word gives us the Common Perceptual World. The other world, of the ego and the emotions (called by Caudwell "feeling tones"), is the Common Affective World. Cooperation and the associated life of humans in groups, interacting with and working upon nature, creates a special ego or mind so that individuals share feeling tones just as they share the meanings of words.

Science has created a "Mock Ego", a universal observer who could create and verify the laws of science--the "any right thinking person" to whom the scientist could appeal for procedural verification. Parallel to the "Mock Ego" of science we find an equivalent for the world of art to which feeling tones and emotions can be attributed. Just as the Mock Ego of science tries to integrate the laws of objective external reality, the Mock Ego of art tries to integrate the feeling tones and emotions of associated humans. They both arise from the social interaction of humans and they both aim at freedom -- freedom from want as well as the positive freedoms of individual development and expression.

While science gives humanity more control over external reality, "the other world of art, of organized emotion attached to experience, the world of the social ego that endures all and enjoys all and by its experience organizes all, makes available for the individual a whole universe of inner freedom and desire." One way art does this is to make the emotional content of consciousness congruent with common social aims required for the attainment of the instinctual desire for freedom and development. "Art is the consciousness of the necessity of the instincts."

Art and science, then, are the products of the human struggle against nature. Art represents the struggle to socialize the instincts and to be free from their blind operation. Caudwell sees both science and art originating in, and then freeing themselves from, religion. Once they have independently established them-selves, "religion no longer plays a useful role."

The two conditions that a work of art must fulfill if it is to live up to its function of integrating the individual ego into the social ego are 1) that the work must be important in dealing with the crucial problems of its age as significant emotional attitudes, and 2) the work must be general -- i.e., the average individual must be able to relate her inchoate emotional attitudes to it in such a way that it helps her to organize them in a way beneficial to her participation in, or understanding of, the social ego.

Because of these two conditions, only a materialist outlook will enable us to come to an understanding of art -- i.e., the understanding of the connection between the social relations and their influences upon works of art. Art "lives in the
social world and can only be of value in integrating experiences general to men, it is plain that the art of any age can only express the general experiences of men in that age."

Art is subjective and linked to the sources of our emotional self-awareness. Caudwell calls this source the "genotype." He writes, "art cannot escape its close relation with the genotype whose secret desires link in one endless series all human culture." He views the genotype under two headings -- the "timeless" (universal) and the "timeful" (particular).

The universal aspect leads to the following comment: "... on the whole the genotype is substantially constant in all societies and all men. There is a substratum of likeness. Man does not change from Athenian to Ancient Briton and then to Londoner by innate differences stamped in by natural selection, but by acquired changes derived from social evolution."

Under the other aspect we see the timeful or particular. Caudwell holds that individual differences appear within the basic universal genotype due to a genetic "shuffle." Thus individual differences arise, personalities, characters,etc. On the basis of these observations, Caudwell maintains that poetry represents the universal while the novel represents the individual aspect of the genotype.

Poetry helps us to adapt to the objective world which surrounds us. It "is an emotional attitude towards the world." Because it adapts our emotions to external reality it enriches that reality. The poet gives emotional significance to the contents of the world -- to a part of external reality. "In life this piece of external reality is devoid of emotional tone, but described in those particular words, and no others, it suddenly and magically shimmers with affective coloring. This affective coloring represents an emotional organization similar to that which the poet himself faced (in phantasy or actuality) with that piece of external reality."

Poetry expands with the development of society and new poets arise from whom we demand a new emotional attitude towards our changing social reality. Great poems are those which gather the greatest amounts of the new social realities and place the proper emotional responses on them. Thus Caudwell thinks great poems must necessarily be long ones (to cover the greatest amount of new content and emotional response).

The purpose of the poem, however, is not to display its content but the emotional structure which the poem organizes and directs towards that self same content. Poetry is just as essential as science in humanity's attempt to dominate nature and make for itself a human world in which to live.

Poetry is the weapon of the genotype in its on going struggle to subdue nature -- "to mold necessity to its own likeness." Poetry is especially important for materialists in so far as humanity and its longings can be easily overlooked in the scientific descriptions of the world in which everything is ultimately reduced to atoms, waves, energy particles, etc. "Poetry restores life and value to matter, and puts back the genotype into the world from which it was banished."

According to Maynard Solomon (Marxism and Art), we have in Caudwell the first attempt to create a complete theory of poetry based on Marxism. He was the first Marxist to point out that fantasy plays a major role in bringing about causal changes in both human consciousness and history, and that through fantasy art changes the world by means of individual works of art whose production, by forcing into consciousness previously unarticulated and mute feelings, changes both the artist and the audience.

These insights, according to Solomon, helped Caudwell explain the enduring appeal of the great art of the past which persists because it expresses, in addition to its historically specific emotional articulations, certain basic and common genotypical features which are universal in the human species.

This answer to the problem of how the art of one era could appeal to people in another era based on a different economic and class system (a problem raised by Marx in the introduction to his Critique of Political Economy) was another of Caudwell's contributions to the philosophy of Marxism.

For our own times, we should ask ourselves what kind of “feeling tones” do current works of art produce. When we evaluate the movies, theatre, music, painting, architecture and contemporary literature, especially poetry, we must analyze our immediate emotional responses. Do these works inspire us to collectively work together to overcome the problems of life and society or to resign ourselves to the status quo of the “human condition”?

In understanding our own responses, and the responses produced in others, to the emotional content of the contemporary art world we can creatively apply Caudwell’s theories to the construction of a contemporary Marxist understanding of the role and function of art.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Great Transformation

Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation": A preview based on Walter Grimes' review
By Thomas Riggins

THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS by Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, 469 pp., reviewed by William Grimes in THE NEW YORK TIMES, Friday, April 21, 2006.

Grimes [WG] really likes this book; he calls it "splendid"-- his only reservation seems to be its ending which he calls "squishy". Armstrong [KA] is well known as a popularizer of religious history. She probably is most famous for "A History of God." She writes well, is very enjoyable to read and also very informative, but sometimes she lets her ideals, I think, distort the reality she is trying to describe.

Here she attempts to trace the origins and histories of four major religious traditions -- those coming out of India, China, Greece and Israel. Let’s see what WG says she is up to. He says that she begins 3,500 years ago (about 1500 BC) with the "Aryans" (an obsolete term these days, having been replaced by Indo-Europeans or even proto-Indo-Europeans) of "southern Russia," where he says we find "the first stirrings of religious consciousness... that would eventually lead humanity from nature worship and sacrifice to an inward-looking, self-critical and compassionate approach to life."

The only problem with this is the roots of this approach go back to several origin points, not just to the "Aryans," with a pedigree going well beyond 1500 BC. A "monotheistic" and compassionate religion had sprung up in Ancient Egypt several hundred years before this date, for example. Besides, if you look at any of the major spiritual traditions of today, many of their adherents have difficulties with being self-critical, inward looking or compassionate.

This great transformation supposedly "occurred independently in four different regions during the Axial Age, a pivotal period lasting from 900 B.C. to 200 B.C. ..." and resulting in Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and "the philosophic rationalism in Greece," WG reports. The "Axial Age" is, however, an unscientific concept cooked up in the 1930s to provide a "mystical" interpretation for these historical developments. Four extremely important "axial" figures, who were just as foundational to our world today as anything or anybody within the official "axial" parameters, actually fall outside of the 900 to 200 BC dates-- namely Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV, the "first monotheist") and Zoroaster (both before 900 BC), and Jesus and Mohammed (both after 200 BC).

The book is supposed to tell us how, WG says, "the crowded heaven of warring gods" lost out and the "human imagination" moved on to look "inward" rather than "upward" to find "enlightenment and transcendence." This just doesn't describe the real world, which is just as spiritually confused and "upward" looking with "warring gods" as it ever was.

WG says that "the military conflict and sectarian hatreds" of today are on KA's mind (they are "the powerful undertow to her book".) He quotes her as follows: "In times of spiritual and social crisis, men and women have constantly turned back to this period for guidance. They may have interpreted the Axial discoveries differently, but they have never succeeded in going beyond them."

There has never been a time, in my view, without its spiritual and social crisis, and these axial views have never and will never, I think, have any solutions for them. We have in fact gone beyond them. Modern science, Marxist economic theory, and the secular humanist values stemming from the Enlightenment are far more advanced "spiritual traditions" than anything left over from the "axial" age.

"The gradual elimination of violence from religion is one of Ms. Armstrong's great themes," according to WG. But the examples given are only cosmetic. Religion is even more violent today than in the past. From "kill a commie for Christ" to the inter-Islamic jihads of the Moslem world, the Holocaust (Christians exterminating Jews), to the Hindu-Islamic killings in India (where Kali worship still demands the sacrifice of children), as well as Christian-Muslim blood baths going on in Africa (Nigeria), there is nothing but religious violence. The contrary is Armstrong's dream as well as her theme.

KA writes, "The Axial Age was a time of spiritual genius; we live in an age of scientific and technological genius, and our spiritual education is often undeveloped."

The problem is that the spirituality of the "Axial Age" is no longer relevant to our changed circumstances and the spirituality that would be relevant to us. The social values of Marxism, Darwinism and Einstein (for example) are stifled by a corrupt, ruling elite of capitalists whose power rests, in great measure, on perpetuating ignorance and superstition. Karen Armstrong has a good heart and clearly she finds solace in these outmoded beliefs, but I prefer to stick to Enlightenment values and modern science.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


by Thomas Riggins

Karl and Fred were talking in Karl's study about the fact that they had been friends for over 50 years--since first grade in fact. Karl was saying “Why don’t we engage in an extended study of Chinese philosophy to see if any of it is useful in comprehending the new century” Fred was not at all adverse to this suggestion so Karl pulled down his copy of a Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy edited by the Chinese scholar Wing-Tsit Chan.

“I remember that very well,” Fred said. “When we were in Hawaii in the summer of 1968 you lugged it around with you every where you went. Do you still remember what you read?"

“I most certainly do,” replied Karl, handing the volume to Fred. “Here! Why don’t you look at it and ask some questions--between the two of us we can try to find out if this stuff has any meaning today.”

Fred opened the book and said, “We might as well begin with Confucius--he is the first philosopher I see listed in the Table of Contents.”

“So be it’” Karl replied.

“Ok,” Fred said, “I have the Analects here...”

Karl interrupted, “The Lun-yu in Chinese. That's a collection of Confucius’ sayings collected by his students after his death. You know Confucius was a great teacher like Jesus, Buddha and Socrates and like them he didn’t write anything himself--his wisdom was saved for us by his followers putting it down for future generations.”

“Oh, so we are getting ‘virtual’ Confucius.”

“Well," responded Karl, “there is probably some tampering with the text, some student misinterpretations, but also a lot of the real ideas and opinions of Confucius as well. After all, he was born in 551 BCE, lived 73 years, and died in 479 BCE.”

“That's 72 years,” Fred corrected.

“Ah,” Karl replied, “unlike us, in China when you are born you are considered to be one year old so when we are one a Chinese is already two!.”

“Anyway,” Karl continued, “He was from a small state called Lu and lived in a time of political turmoil and war because the central authority had broken down and all the little petty states were competing for power. Confucius was self educated, there were no professional teachers--he was the first--and he thought his ideas if practiced would restore the Empire to its former glory and create a just state for the people as well. Failing to do much in Lu he left it and wandered around to other states spreading his doctrines and collecting a large group of disciples who followed him. After many years he returned to Lu and died a few years later, leaving his ‘school’ behind.

“I see a bunch of Chinese technical terms here in Chan before we even get to Chapter One of the Lun-yu,” Fred remarked, “Have a look see!”

Karl took the book. “Yes, I see. I’ll tell you which ones are the most important and we will have to memorize them as they will keep cropping up. But for the time being we can ignore them. I’ll talk about them when they actually pop up. Why don’t you begin looking at the text of the Lun-yu.” Karl handed the book back to Fred.

“ What’s this 1:1 ?”

“It means ‘Section 1, Chapter 1’-a conventional ordering.”

“OK,” and Fred began to read: “1:1 Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat or practice from time to time what has been learned?”

“Very famous,” Karl interrupted. “The very first sentence. It indicates that Confucius enjoined the unity of theory and practice!”

Fred continued. ”What does he mean here in 1:8? ‘Have no friends who are not as good as yourself.’ If the Chinese thought Confucius was the greatest teacher and the best then he couldn’t have any friends!”

“He means ‘morally good’,” said Karl, “not the best teacher. Confucius was morally good and so were many of his disciples so he had plenty of friends.”

“Well, what about this: 1:11-’When a man’s father is alive, look at the bent of his will. When his father is dead, look at his conduct. If for three years he does not change from the way of his father, he may be called filial.’?”

“You know the ancient Chinese were very family oriented and patriarchal with large extended families and sons were filial--meaning obedient, respectful and loyal. Very unlike today with us!”

“You mean they were big on the Fifth Commandment!”

“They certainly would have agreed with it. Anyway, this quote just means that a son should be loyal to his father’s ideas while he is live, and stay loyal to them thru the three years of official mourning after his death, then he can go his own way with his own ideas--he has done his duty.”

“What about 2:1? He says ‘A ruler who governs his state by virtue is like the north polar star, which remains in its place while
all the other stars revolve around it.”

“Chan points out two things are going on here. One is the idea that the Ruler rules by virtue and second, as Thomas Jefferson would say , ‘that government governs best which governs least.’ Everything should fall into place naturally by the laws of virtue.”

“Wow! sounds like a Republican--no big government!”

“Or a Marxist--’virtue’ leads to the withering away of the state!”

“Hmmm. The Right and the Left can claim the old boy!”

“Well, lets wait and see on that one Fred.”

“O.K. Karl. 2:4 is very interesting. He says, ‘At fifteen my mind was set on learning [not Intendo]. At thirty my character had been formed. At forty I had no more perplexities [Gad Zooks!]. At fifty I knew the Mandate of Heaven (T’ien-ming). At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing moral principles.”

“T’ien-ming--’Heaven-Fate’ or ‘Nature-Fate’ the famous ‘Mandate of Heaven’,” K mused. “You know Chan says the prevailing meaning of this term is what we would simply call the ‘laws of nature.’ Different Chinese thinkers in the long history of China of course meant many different things by this term--from God’s Providence to the philosopher’s ideas of moral law or fate (destiny) to natural endowment [genetic constitution].”

“Here is 2:11 ‘A man who reviews the old so as to find out the new is qualified to teach others’. I like that--it means a teacher has to keep reading and studying or he or she becomes stale and unfit. But what does 2:12 mean? ‘The superior man is not an implement.’ “

“This is the type of person who follows Confucian philosophy--the sage, the philosopher, etc. I don’t like the term ‘superior man’ and all its patriarchal suggestions, ‘superior person’ would be better. You know Fred, despite the prevailing sexism of Chinese culture in Confucius’ day, we have to see this philosophy as compatible with the equality of the sexes if its going to mean any thing in this new century of ours. Not being an ‘implement’ only means the sage is not just a tool to be used by those in power, a sort of technical expert used to carry out plans devised by others. A true wise person would be well rounded and part of the evaluative process. The scientists, for example, that made the Atomic Bomb, for all their smarts , were just implements. How many scientists today have any real input in the decision making process regarding the use of their work? Many are hired hands. I think this is what Confucius meant.”

“What does he mean here in 2:18--’When one’s words give few occasions for blame and his acts give few occasions for repentance--there lies his emolument’?

“Its as Chan points out--Confucianism stresses equally the importance of both words and actions.”

“3:17 won’t go over well today!”

“Read it!”

“Ok, Confucius is replying to one of his followers who was against killing a lamb as a sacrifice at the start of the month. ‘Tz’u! You love the lamb but I love the ceremony.’ What do you think of that one?”

“Times change. I think by now we all agree that animal sacrifices are a pretty primitive or barbaric behavioral pattern that nowadays would be considered a pretty ignorant sort of practice--but Confucius was living twenty-five centuries ago...”

Fred interrupted, “But weren’t there people, teachers in India at this time, that thought that killing animals was verboten?"

“I think the point is, this was acceptable in Chinese culture. Confucius is trying to point out the importance of tradition and ritual, but on this point I think Tz’u had a more advanced outlook--its too bad that Confucius didn’t rise to the occasion.”

“Here is another confusing saying, 4:10-’A superior man in dealing with the world is not for anything or against anything. He follows righteousness as the standard.”

“Hmmmm. Looks like you could not say ‘I’m for peace or I’m for social reform.’ But of course its confusing because it seems as if you could say ‘I’m for righteousness!’ Does Chan say anything in his comment Fred?”

Fred read out , “Here lies the basic idea of the Confucian doctrine of ching-ch’uan, or the standard and the exceptional, the absolute and the relative, or the permanent and the temporary.”

“This we should remember: ‘The Doctrine of Ching-Ch’uan’. It means don’t be dogmatic, don’t commit the fallacy of accident, maybe even be pragmatic--no, that's the wrong word. Keep an open mind and judge every situation you are confronted with in terms of its own unique problematic, but don’t break the rules of ‘righteousness.’ The big problem is of course how to determine what ‘righteousness’ is. For Confucius it seems to have been the rules of his own society seen from the vantage point of a man who looked to the past practices of an idealized former age. Confucius would balk at being involved in a current situation that deviated too much from the past--not always, but mostly. His view or doctrine would go along with what today we call ‘situational ethics’ but with a ‘conservative’ twist.”

“Maybe this will help,” Fred said. “In 4:15 he tells his follower

Tseng Tzu ‘there is one thread that runs through my doctrines’ which Tseng Tzu explained as ‘The Way of our Master is none other than conscientiousness (chung) and altruism (shu).’ So I say ‘righteousness’ equals chung + shu.”

“Not bad,” Karl remarked. “I like the idea of ‘one thread (i-kuan)’. What does Chan say about these terms?”

“Chung is the full development of a person’s mind--the good aspects, and Shu is extending these good aspects to other people. Develop your own abilities and help others develop theirs--what could be more righteous than that?”

“Read on!”

“Here is 4:16--’The superior man understands righteousness(i); the inferior man understands profit’. Yikes! Our whole Global Capitalist system is based on profit!"

"Maybe to be a Confucian today puts you in the opposition.”

“ Do you really think so Karl? Confucius lived under something like feudalism. What was his attitude?”

“This is getting heavy. I think we will have to keep these questions in mind and read along some more in the Source Book before we try to answer them.”

“OK by me. Here is just some information from 6:5. We find the name of Confucius’ favorite student was Yen Hui.”

“I know, he died very young, in his thirties.”

“What do you think of this? 6:17--’Man is born with uprightness. If one loses it he will be lucky if he escapes with his life’.”

“I don’t know what this means. ‘Uprightness’ is a culturally relative term and a person learns it from his or her society, so I don’t know what it can mean to say you are ‘born’ with it. But think of ‘with’ in the sense that a person is born into a society with [i.e., which has] such a sense, then if one loses the sense of uprightness inculcated into one by the society one gets into a pickle indeed. I can make sense of 6:17 along these lines.”

“Well Karl, I think you must be correct. Looking back to 5:12 I found this: Tzu-kung is speaking, ‘We can hear our Master’s [views] on culture and its manifestation, but we cannot hear his views on human nature and the Way of Heaven [because these subjects are beyond the comprehension of most people].’ So I don’t think that Confucius was talking about anything innate in humans.”

“I agree. What’s next?”

“6:19--’To those who are above average, one may talk of the higher things, but may not do so to those who are below average.’”

“This is sort of a philosophical rule. The Prime Directive of philosophy is to ‘Always seek the truth by means of logic and reason without appeals to faith and emotion.’ And here we have what I call the ‘Second Directive’--’don’t bother talking philosophy with people who don’t understand the importance of the Prime Directive.’”

“That’s how you interpret 6:19? Where does the Prime Directive come from? I haven’t seen it in the Analects?”

“Its from Socrates via Plato. But there are hints of it in the Analects. I’ll point them out when we come to them.”

“Maybe there is a hint of it right here in 6:20--”Devote yourself

earnestly to the duties due to men, and respect spiritual beings but keep them at a distance. This may be called wisdom.’ I think I see a hint there.”

“Good observation Fred. Read on!”

“OK, 6:21--’The man of wisdom delights in water; the man of humanity delights in mountains. The man of wisdom is active; the man of humanity is tranquil. The man of wisdom enjoys happiness; the man of humanity enjoys long life.’ “

“These are two of Confucius big values--activity and tranquility. They are found in the same person depending on the circumstances. By the way, Yen Hui had a short life but I doubt that Confucius did not consider him a man of humanity.”

“And Chan remarks that ‘courage’ was later added to the list and that Mencius grouped these first two values with his concepts of righteousness and propriety to get ‘The Four Beginnings.’”

“Yes, but we will get to Mencius in due time. Let’s not jump the gun.”

“6:23--’When a cornered vessel no longer has any corner, should it be called a cornered vessel? Should it?’”

“We are approaching here a central and important doctrine of Confucius--the rectification of names--but we will have to wait a while for its proper development. Its just hinted at here.”

“I see Chan’s brief comment:’ Name must correspond to actuality.’ The Correspondence Theory of Truth!”

“What’s next?”

“6:28--’A man of humanity, wishing to establish his own
character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method of realizing humanity.’ Chan calls this ‘The Confucian golden rule in a nutshell.’ “

“Yes, and this passage is connected with 4:15 and the ‘one thread’ passage.”

“7:1--’I transmit but do not create. I believe in and love the ancients.’ Chan suggests we compare this with 2:11 and points out that he did do things that were new--’he offered education to all’--and his ideas on the ‘superior man’ and ‘heaven’ were somewhat original.”

“That comment on education needs to be looked at, especially the ‘all’ part. I want to give Confucius his due credit. He was not a stuck-up aristocrat and if so-called common people showed an aptitude for learning or people from impoverished economic and/or social backgrounds showed talent, Confucius welcomed them as students. This was really a big step forward for the China of his day and in his own social context Confucius was an enlightened person in this respect. But he did NOT offer education to ‘all’. He had nothing to do with women and did not rise above his social conditioning with respect to their rights as human beings with the same value as males. In this respect Plato was much more enlightened than he. One wonders if women had been seen as equals by Confucius if they would have had to wait until the victory of the Marxists in 1949 for the preconditions of their emancipation.”

“Excellent observation Karl. I wonder why Chan missed it. Anyway, here is 7:8--’I do not enlighten those who are not eager to learn, nor arouse those who are not anxious to give an explanation themselves. If I have presented one corner of the square and they cannot come back to me with the other three, I
should not go over the points again.’”

“A very revealing quote on his teaching methods. Compare it to 6:19.”

“In 7:16 he says ‘Give me a few more years so that I can devote fifty years to study, then I may be free from great mistakes.”

“This reminds me of Hume’s satire on his own death--asking Charon to grant him a leave of a few years so he might see the overthrow of religious superstition. Of course Confucius is not trying to be funny, this simply shows his modesty--yet fifty years is hardly a few!”

“7:20-’Confucius never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorder, or spiritual beings’”

“Here is one of those Prime Directive hints we were speaking about earlier.”

“7:22--’Heaven produced the virtue that is in me; what can Huan T’ui do to me?’”

“This seems deterministic. Huan T’ui tried to assassinate Confucius. It seems as if Confucius was a Presbyterian here. If Heaven has determined what shall be then Huan T’ui really can’t do much to Confucius. There are many problems with this type of determinism which are not discussed in the Analects.”

“7:24-’Confucius taught four things: culture (wen), conduct, loyalty, and faithfulness.’”

“Very succinct statement showing that Confucius’ concern was with social philosophy--politics and ethics--and not religion or metaphysics.”

“Here is 7:29--’Is humanity far away? As soon as I want it, there it is right by me.’”

“Its as Chan remarks. We are always able to act properly. Our humanity is always on call and we have no one to blame but ourselves if we fail to act upon it--unless there is a gun to your head or something similar.”

“Now Karl, here is a good one--more than a hint of the Prime Directive if you ask me. 7:34--’Confucius was very ill. Tzu-lu asked that prayer be offered. Confucius said “is there such a thing?” Tzu-lu replied, “There is. A Eulogy says, ‘Pray to the spiritual beings above and below.’” Confucius said, “My prayer has been for a long time [that is, what counts is the life that one leads].”’”

“I agree with you Fred, this is really a great quote. Confucius has no interest in religious mumbo jumbo. This would be especially true if he thinks Heaven is a deterministic system. It looks like Tzu-lu missed one corner ot the square!”

“7:37--’Confucius is affable but dignified, austere but not harsh, polite but completely at ease.’ And Chan remarks that this is ‘The Confucian Mean in practice.’ But we haven’t talked about the ‘Mean’ have we?”

“Not yet, but its coming up. Its more or less like the Greek notion of nothing in excess.”

“Now here is a very interesting description of Yen Hui the favorite disciple. Chan says it is very Taoist. It is given by Tseng Tzu. 8:5--’Gifted with ability, yet asking those without; possessing much, yet asking those who possess little; having, yet seeming to have none; full, yet seeming vacuous; offended, yet not contesting--long ago I had a friend who devoted himself to these ways.’ And now to continue. Here is an example of elitist thinking! 8:9--’The common people may be made to follow it (the Way) but may not be made to understand it.’”

“This goes along with the sentiments in 6:19. Undemocratic from our point of view but quite in keeping with the feudal mentality of the times. This distrust of ordinary people seems endemic. Not only is our U.S. government designed to minimize participation by the common people but we have seen the collapse of the European socialist countries was facilitated by a similar, and in their case paternalistic, contempt of the ordinary person. The current Chinese government seems no different in this regard no matter how much better off materially the majority of the people may be.”

“Here comes a passage that Chan says has caused a lot of problems in the Confucian tradition. 9:1--’Confucius seldom talked about profit, destiny
(ming or the Mandate of Heaven), and humanity.’ Chan points out that while ‘profit’ is discussed only six times and ‘destiny’ ten times ‘humanity’ is mentioned one hundred five times! So how can it be maintained that Confucius seldom talked about it. Chan says it is an intractable problem. Confucius had positions on all these subjects.”

“Well, I understand not talking a lot about ‘profit’--’chung + shu’ seem incompatible, at least if profit is elevated to the primary aim of life. ‘Ming’ is a metaphysical concept and we have already noted that metaphysics was not one of Confucius’ major concerns.”

“9:16--’Confucius, standing by a stream, said, “it passes on like this, never ceasing day or night!”’”

“Obviously a metaphor for time and life. This saying is very much in the spirit of Heraclitus and even the Hegelian dialectic. I hope the Chinese Marxists appreciate it!”

“Now we have what Chan says is ’a most celebrated saying on humanism’. Another one of those hints we were speaking of previously--a lot more than a hint actually. 11:11 Tzu-lu ‘asked about serving the spiritual beings. Confucius said,”If we are not yet able to serve man, how can we serve spiritual beings?” “I venture to ask about death.” Confucius said, “If we do not yet know about life, how can we know about death?”’

“A really great quote Fred. Would that all the squabbling religious fanatics we are reading about in the papers every day might heed these words!”

“ We have come to 11:25 A, I am going to summarize it. It is rather long but has generated a great deal of speculation as to its meaning because of what many consider to be the unusual responses in it by Confucius. In this passage Confucius asks several of his companions what they would most like to do in the world assuming they had attained office and recognition. One replied that he would like to govern a state that was in dire straits so that in three years the people could see how he could solve all the problems. Another gave a similar answer while admitting that he was not himself a ‘superior man.’ Another wanted to be a junior assistant as he was still learning. Finally Tseng Hsi said ‘ In the late Spring, when the spring dress is ready, I would like to go with five or six grownups and six or seven young boys to bathe in the I River, enjoy the breeze on the Rain Dance Alter, and then return home singing.’ Now Confucius re plied “I agree with Tien.’ The Chinese have expended a lot of ink trying to find out why Confucius agreed with Tseng Hsi (‘Tien’ was a familiar name).

Well, Fred,” Karl began, “it seems pretty clear that what Confucius is saying is that its best to have power in a well ordered state that doesn’t require any heroics to administer. His other students didn’t get the point, obviously, of Confucius’ ideas about government. He seems to have had a lot of students he should have gone over that first corner with again.”

“That’s right A. Now here is a version of the ‘Golden Rule’ from the Analects--its in 12:2 ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.’”

“The negative version. I used to think that the ‘Golden Rule’ was unique to our culture till I read about it long ago in the works of Confucius.”

“A point for anti-ethnocentrism.”


“12:22--’Fan Ch’ih asked about humanity. Confucius said, “It is to love men.” He asked about knowledge. Confucius said “It is to know man.”’”

“Again the stress on moral and social subjects. Of course today knowing ‘man’ would include psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, etc., etc. And ‘love’.... here we need a real definition of what constitutes ‘love’ of humanity. What is the real substance of Confucian Humanism.?”

“Is it just practicing the ‘Golden Rule’ in whatever situation you find yourself?”

“Maybe. But maybe its more action oriented than that. Maybe ‘love’ means we have to strive to change the social situations in which we find people. Maybe nowadays Confucianism can only be practiced within the Marxist framework. Sort of ‘Marxism-Confucianism.’”

“That sounds a little like the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. He said he had come to realize that hi s philosophy, ‘existentialism,’ could only be developed within a form of Marxism because the social conditions that brought forth Marxism have not been transcended. In fact, according to him, no philosophy made any sense that ignored or rejected Marxism because only Marxism addressed itself to the problems of humanity as a whole, to abolishing race and class exploitation and treating, eventually, all people as ends.”

“We are getting far afield. Better get back to the Analects!”

“13:3--here Confucius brings up the topic of ‘The Rectification of Names’. ‘If names are not rectified, then language will not be in accord with truth. If language is not in accord with truth, then things cannot be accomplished.’”

“You know L this is extremely important. This is reminiscent of Bertrand Russell and of the Analytic Philosophers and the Oxford ordinary language philosophers. The words we use to describe reality have to correspond to that reality. People are misled and misgoverned all the time by being duped by the misuse of names. Remember the Vietnam War--American troops would retreat and the military brass would call it an ‘advance to the rear’! They were just trying to mislead and confuse the American people.

“Like renaming the War Department the ‘Department of Defense' or calling the invasion of Iraq 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' instead of 'Operation Iraqi Oil'”

“I think we have another directive under our Prime Directive, or rather another rule.”

“That’s one directive and two rules we have then.”

“Yes. Rule One--don’t discuss philosophy with those who reject the Prime Directive. Rule Two--’The Rectification of Names.’ That is ‘language must be in accord with truth.’ This may be difficult to attain but we must constantly strive for it. You see, we are learning lots of stuff we can apply to our own age and culture!”

“Hmmmm. Here is a difficult passage I think. 13:18--’The Duke of She told Confucius, “In my country there is an upright man called Kung. When his father stole a sheep, he bore witness against him.” Confucius said, “The upright men in my country are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” ‘ What do you make of that Karl?”

“I think its the ‘Euthyphro Problem.’”

“ What’s that?”

“Plato wrote a dialog called the Euthyphro. Socrates meets Euthyphro who is on his way to report a murder his father has committed. He thinks piety requires this. This is like Kung being a witness against his father because he, and the Duke of She, think that uprightness requires this. Confucius holds the contrary view.”

At this point Karl walked over to his bookcase and pulled out the Oxford Companion to Philosophy. “There is an article here on this problem Fred, by Gareth Matthews. I think it will throw some light on Comrade Kung’s behavior.”

By all means, Karl, carry on!.”

“To put the problem in Chinese terms we have to figure out what does ‘uprightness’ consist of-- that is where does the notion come from. Is it one thing in Lu, Confucius' native state, and another in She or is it constant so Confucius is really indicating that the Duke of She is wrong. I must say, I don’t have an answer to this and neither did Socrates. Here let me read this passage, or paraphrase it to the Chinese context. The point seems to be that ‘uprightness’ can’t be defined as something we should do because some authority demands it of us, say God or Heaven, because then we would only be doing it because of authority and authorities differ. Nor can it be the case that God or Heaven orders it because it is right to do so because then it is an independent thing to which God or Heaven is subject. So we really can’t figure out from whence the standard of ‘uprightness’ is derived. Its the old ‘Is it good because God wills it or does God will it because it is good’ problem. I think the Prime Directive rules out ‘God” as an explanation, so we have to say on one level ‘uprightness’ is relative to cultures, the level of cultural development and on another level we have to contextualize the circumstances of each situational act. The Duke of She hasn’t given us enough information on this case and I think Confucius jumped the gun with his reply. Is your primary duty to your family or to the state--i.e., to a legal system which should protect all. Its Kung’s father that is the problem but between the Duke of She and Confucius its not possible to definitely say one or the other is right. It seems the duty to ‘truth’ however would tip the scales against Confucius unless Kung volunteered this information in a noncompulsory environment.”

“14:36--’Someone said,”What do you think of repaying hatred with virtue?” Confucius said,”In that case what are you going to repay virtue with? Rather, repay hatred with uprightness and repay virtue with virtue .”’

“Confucius means you repay hatred with proper behavior according to the circumstances.”

“This means, according to Chan, absolute impartiality. Confucianists mean that by ‘uprightness’.

“If so than Kung was being impartial in saying his father stole the sheep.
Confucius should have agreed with the Duke of She!”

“In 15:8 he reaffirms his humanism: ’A resolute scholar and a man of humanity will never seek to live at the expense of injuring humanity. He would rather sacrifice his life in order to realize humanity.’”

“Go on Fred.”

“OK, 15:23, a follower asks if there is one word that sums up Confucius’ philosophy. You guess Karl!”

"Well, I think it must be 'humanity' (jen/ren)."

“No, its shu or altruism, from 4:15. He then repeats the negative ‘Golden Rule’ which must be the real meaning of altruism and hence is the one word summation of Confucius philosophy!”

So we can boil down the whole of the Analects to this one comment. But lets proceed anyway.”

“OK, 15:28 ‘It is man that can make the Way great, and not the Way that can make man great.”

“This is heavy Fred. The Way or Tao is the master controlling force, as it were, of the universe--”God” to Westerners! So we make ‘God’ he doesn’t make us ‘great.’ I think this boils down to our actions in life reflect on the Way, we in a sense create it in our own image-- we can follow it positively or negatively. For example if we ourselves are , say, homophobic or think males are higher than females, or want to control the actions and thoughts of others, lo and behold, our ‘God’ wants that too, and vice versa.”

“So our religion is just the reflection of the kind of human beings we are.”

“Yes, and that is based on our education, our openness, and the culture we are brought up in--wide or narrow.”

“15:38--’In education there should be no class distinction.’”

“To bad he didn’t, as Plato did, add ‘no sex distinction’ as well. He would have to be against our system of public schools for the masses and elite private schools for the rich. American or European followers of Confucius have a big educational reform to fight for. Even private universities would have to go public....”

“Or let anyone attend. I’m not sure everything has to be public. You could have both--just that admission standards and costs have to be equalized so the rich don’t end up in one type of system and the poor in another.”

“I see we can have a big debate about this!”

“Here in 16:9 is something we can’t agree with, at least as he puts it. ‘Those who are born with knowledge are the highest type of people. Those who learn through study are the next. Those who learn through hard work are still the next. Those who work hard and still do not learn are really the lowest type.’”

“This is no good. People are not ‘born’ with knowledge. Also different people learn different things. You might work hard at chemistry and not learn it but work at history or literature or physics and learn that, or music. Confucius should have recognized ‘different strokes for different folks’--this idea is an elitist throwback--a little too judgmental I think.”

“OK Karl, I won’t argue with you because I think you might be right. Nevertheless, there may be something to what he says if you substitute ‘capacity’ for ‘knowledge. What do you think about this in 17:2-’By nature men are alike. Through practice they have become far apart’?”

“Well we can universalize this and see how contemporary Confucius' thought is. He is indicating what we now commonly think to be true, that is, that human beings are pretty much equal all over the world and it is only cultural differences which separate us. Jarrod Diamond’s recent book, Guns, Germs and Steel, demonstrates this thesis. It is a little inconsistent with what we have just been discussing since the differences between humans should be due to ‘practice’ so some people should not be ‘born’ with knowledge.”

“And we should note that what Chan says in 17:2 is ‘the classical Confucian dictum on human nature.’”

“All the better. This dictum is absolutely superior, from a modern perspective, to Aristotle’s views, in the Politics, about the superiority of Greeks and his notion about ‘natural slaves.’ Not even Plato, it would seem, had advanced to this Confucian idea.”

“You are thinking about his discussion in the Republic about the different ways Greeks should treat Greeks as opposed to barbarians in warfare?”


“Now, right after this, in 17:3 he says ‘Only the most intelligent and the most stupid do not change.’”

“Looks like another deviation from 17:2 but I think not. I think, as in Aristotle, we should be putting a little mental note to ourselves when we read these passages, such as ‘always OR for the most part’. This allows us to recognize that we are dealing with general principles not absolute ‘laws’. While there may be individual variation in intellectual capacity this should be a cross cultural thing. By and large within, as between, cultures ‘intelligence’ is also a social construction, therefore I don’t think there is any ultimate contradiction between 17:2 and 17:3.”

“Karl, do you think we have another Rule,Rule Three, with 17:2?”

“I don’t see why not. Rule Three: ‘All human beings are basically alike, ie., equal.’ Just remember the proviso that since we are dealing with a multi-cultural world this needs some interpretation.”

“Such as?”

“Such as they are ‘equal’ before the law, or subject to the same ‘rights’ as each other. Basically we all evolved from the same blob so its got to be ‘practice’ that separates the Queen of England from Apple Annie! “

“Here is an excellent quote to underscore Confucian Humanism--17:19: ‘Does Heaven say anything? The four seasons run their course and all things are produced. Does Heaven say anything?’”

“Even after all these centuries how can we improve on this observation.”

“Its not an observation, its a question. I think Confucius meant it to be left open.”

“Maybe. We don’t have to answer this now then.”

“We may have to retract Rule Three--look at 17:25-’Women and servants are most difficult to deal with. If you are familiar with them, they cease to be humble. If you keep a distance from them, they resent it.’ And Chan says Confucius and the whole tradition thought women to be inferior (servants may differ due to ‘practice’).”

I see, we put ‘human beings’ in Rule Three and Confucius had said ‘men’ so we were giving him credit for what is actually a modern idea. This universal sexism, except perhaps for Socrates, is a problem. We now
know there is no scientific evidence to justify it and so women would have to be included under Rule Three whatever Confucius may have thought. We are holding to the view that Confucius and other past philosophers would change and adapt their views to accord with what we could demonstrate to them by our modern methods to be true of the natural world. So I think they, as philosophers, would give up an outmoded sexism just as they would the centrality of the earth in the solar system. After these considerations I think we can keep Rule Three.”

“This last is a quote :from a pupil, Tzu-hsia, ‘So long as a man does not transgress the boundary line in the great virtues, he may pass and repass it in the small virtues.’ 19:11.”

“That’s it?”

“There is a little more but I think I hit all the major issues or points.”

“So we have Confucius in a ‘nutshell’ as it were. I think we have made some progress in understanding Chinese philosophy in its infancy. We have a Prime Directive, actually derived from the Greeks, and three rules to go by. Now we should look at another ancient Chinese tradition which may be a big rival to Confucius--I mean lets discuss the views of Lao Tzu.”

"OK, but let's post that later."

c. 2006 Thomas Riggins