Posts Tagged ‘Cynicism’

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Confucius

July 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Confucius

 

The Master said, Yen P’ing Chung is a good example of what one’s intercourse with one’s fellow-men should be. However long he has known anyone he always maintains the same scrupulous courtesy.

—–Confucius, Analects Book V, #16

 

 

It would seem there could not be more difference between Cynicism and Confucianism. The Greek Cynics, like the Taoist philosophers in China, embraced the natural and unsophisticated. Good manners, social status, rituals—-all of these the Cynics mocked.[1] Confucius taught in opposition both to the Taoist drop-outs and the unscrupulous, often brutal rulers and politicians of his day. Little regarded in his lifetime, his philosophy became the moral foundation for the Chinese empire that stood supreme for two thousand years, and still provides much of the ethical philosophy for East Asia.

While Taoism treated the natural order and the social order as different and in a sense opposed, for Confucius the social order, moral order and cosmic order were all part of the Tao, the Way, Goodness itself. Goodness inheres in right relationships, and right relationships are expressed through right rituals. In the family, each member has duties and responsibilities to the others depending on their place: the parents are to provide for and teach their children, the children are to respect and obey when they are young, to care for their parents when they are old, and to properly mourn them when they pass away. The rituals that guide the family relationships can include wearing certain clothes when mourning the dead, giving a proper greeting upon entering a room, or much of what we might call “common courtesy.” Other rituals cover the respectful way to approach a social superior or ruler, or how a social leader is to interact with the spirits, and so on; so “rituals” can include things like the equivalent of saying “God bless you” after a sneeze all the way up to the nation’s leader laying a wreath at the tomb honoring the nation’s war dead. The Chinese did not distinguish between “religious” and “secular” rituals; they didn’t even have a word to distinguish “religion” from other rituals until European missionaries started arriving and asking them to describe their “religion.” Spiritual, social and familial rituals were all part of the Way, or Tao, and all had real power to affect the world.

The first and most obvious function of these rituals was to show respect for the other. To speak with appropriate politeness to a guest, parent or teacher, or to someone on the street, was to show respect for the dignity of that person and that person’s particular relationship to you. It is written that once a man came to Confucius and complained that the traditional three years of mourning for a dead father was too much; he couldn’t pursue normal career activities during that time and he thought it was too great a handicap. Confucius told him that if he thought he’d shown proper respect for this father, then fine; but after the young man left Confucius remarked on how ungrateful he was. After all, he said, for three years he had been the apple of his parents’ eye; the least he could do was mourn for that same period. But Confucius also knew that ritual should express and guide the true feelings of the heart; it should be more than just going through the motions. If we have the humaneness that a good person should have, we will want to express it by treating others well and not offending their dignity; so we will diligently fulfill the proper social rituals and courtesies.

Ritual also structures and limits how the powerful should act, and thus gives some distance between leader and led, some protection for the powerless. Confucius stresses that the “gentleman,” the noble person fit for public service in the government, should praise and support those with less status. “The demands that a gentleman makes are upon himself; those that a small man makes are upon others.” (Book XV #20) A good person will criticize his (or her) own faults, but look for the good in others; a small-minded person will look for the failings of others. (Book XII #16) “To demand much from oneself and little from others is the way (for a ruler) to banish discontent.” (Book XV #14) Or to say it in more detail:

 

            Jan Jung asked about Goodness. The Master said, Behave when away from home as though you were in the presence of an important guest. Deal with the common people as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you, whether it is in the affairs of a State that you are handling or the affairs of a Family. (Analects book XII, #2

 

So strict adherence to courtesy and other ritual is important when dealing with someone of higher rank or power, but also in dealing with the “common people.” Even in this highly hierarchical society, the most important thing is to treat others, all others, as you would wish to be treated. Ritual is there to govern the expression of this goodwill towards others, and the teachings of Confucius are primarily addressed to those who have the power (or seek the power) to lead others; we are not merely to show respect for those in authority over us, but to all people.

This passage points to a third important element in Confucian thought: that strict observance of ritual by those at the top of society will have “moral force,” and this moral force is a much more stable and effective method of leadership than is physical force and fear. If people have trust in their leaders and see that their leaders strive to fulfill all their ritual responsibilities, they themselves will be moved to obey. When leaders rely on moral force, the commoners will spontaneously love their country; but if they rely on threats and punishments, the people will think only of how to evade them. (Book IV, #11) When the leader loves and strictly follows ritual, Confucius says, the State will be well-ordered even if he issues no orders; people will see him, know that he loves the nation and people, and be moved by his adherence to his duty to in turn love the nation and work for its welfare. Or contrariwise, if the people see their leaders care more for themselves than for others, more for pointing out their own glory and the faults of others, and show contempt for others and for the nation by neglecting rituals, the rest of society will follow this bad example and become disordered, resentful and selfish, distrustful of their leaders and with no strong loyalty to the nation.

Diogenes and Confucius do seem to agree on some points. Both think our actions should reflect our hearts; showing “courtesy” without real human concern is pointless and hollow. Confucius says, for example, that some would say a good son makes sure his elderly parents are fed and sheltered, but we do that much for a dog; if care is given without respect, he asks, of what value is it? The difference between them is that the Cynic, or the Taoist philosopher, would say that getting rid of rituals would make for more natural human relationships and a more natural, and thus morally better society. For Confucius, the moral world is created, structured and sustained by rituals. To be “civil” towards others is to live in and to help sustain an ordered universe. And Confucius supports a hierarchical society, where duties to others are defined by their relationships and status.[2] Presumptuousness is frowned upon; Confucius even goes so far as to say that those who are not part of government should keep quiet about political affairs. Clearly this is inconsistent with a democratic society, although it seems not too alien to some of our leaders today in our supposedly democratic republic.

To put things in today’s words, to the Confucian, civility matters a lot. The people should be civil towards each other, to show they respect one another as human beings. They should be civil towards those in authority, to express respect for that authority, for the institutions and for the knowledge of those above them. But more important, the leaders must, absolutely must show civility in all they do. When the leaders speak and act with civility, the people will themselves imitate this; they will respect their leaders and from that learn to love their society and thus their neighbors as well. But when the leaders fail to show civility, the people will feel the same contempt for their leaders that the leaders show for the institutions and traditions of the nation. In that circumstance, demanding civility from your underlings while refusing to demand it of yourself is simply to weaponize it, to turn what should have been an engine for moral force into a mere exercise in power; and when the people are governed by power, they naturally resist and rebel.

 

To be continued….

[1] and Chuang Tzu was not much more impressed even if he was a bit more light-hearted about it

[2] I had an experience as a teen that suggests that this notion is present, to a lesser degree perhaps, in Western culture as well. In France I made the mistake of using “vous” when talking to a child; the French seemed to find this hilarious. I had been taught it was the “polite” form, but not that the adult-child relationship requires “tu” even when being “polite.”

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Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

June 30, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

 

Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?

—–Diogenes of Sinope

 

 

There has been much thought and more said about the need for civility and the deplorable lack of it today. There has been much outrage over the lack of common decency between strangers and between rivals, so much outrage that it would seem mathematically inevitable that some small portion of it must actually be sincere. But there has been little discussion as to what it is, why we need it, whether we can manage without it or whether we should. Part of a philosopher’s job is to discuss things everyone else thinks they know (or says they know) but really don’t, to clarify concepts, to untangle knotted thoughts. This seems like a good time for some of that. This is the first in a series of essays looking at some thoughts from philosophers who had different views on manners and civility, to see if the wisdom of the past can help us clean up some of the present follies.

There are many stories about the Greek philosopher known today as Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes he seems more like a shock comic than a teacher of wisdom, as if Mel Brooks’ blurring of the distinction with his character of the “stand-up philosopher” had come to life mixed with some Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And this is fitting, since “Cynic” is from the Greek word for “dog.” So here’s an anecdote: One day Diogenes was invited to the house of a rich man. He wasn’t used to polite company, and his public behavior was notoriously boorish. His host therefore sternly instructed him not to spit on anything, as he often did: not the nice furnishings, expensive tapestries, or even the elegant floor. Diogenes instead spit in the man’s face, saying everything else looked so nice he didn’t know where else to spit.

Cynicism is not, as commonly supposed, just not giving a fu—- oops, almost got a little too much like my subject! In fact, it was and is a very serious and challenging philosophy of life. Diogenes said that dogs live more natural and better lives than people; people are phonies, liars, cheats, fools, flatterers, chasing after money and status, while dogs just do what comes naturally. Diogenes famously walked around Athens in broad daylight with a lit lantern. When asked why, he said he was looking for an honest man, and not having much luck. So now he’s not only an insult comic, he’s a prop comedian. As Mark Twain, put it, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”[1] Centuries earlier, Diogenes had taken that lesson and pushed it beyond all bounds. For him, the natural was the real and true, and dogs and other animals better role-models than any people. Dogs don’t care if you see them mating or licking their genitals, and Diogenes thought this shamelessness was a lesson for people too; nothing is wrong in public if it isn’t wrong in private. Dogs don’t love you more if you wear fancy clothes or if you’re famous; if you feed them and scratch their heads you’ve probably made a new friend for life.[2] This is actually a very hard way for a human to live, however. Cynicism teaches that first each person has to be honest with himself or herself. It has no tolerance for hypocrisy. It embraces poverty as a virtue and is utterly indifferent to social status, since materialism and social climbing drag one away from the pursuit of Truth. There are several versions of this story; here’s the one that seems right to me. The philosopher Aristippus had sucked up to powerful people and won himself a place in the court of the ruler. He saw Diogenes cooking a bowl of lentils for his dinner. He said, “You know, Diogenes, if you’d just be a little more polite and tell the dictator what he wants to hear, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” He replied, “And if you would live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant.” THAT’s cynicism in a nutshell! Live life honestly; don’t compromise just to get ahead or win a popularity contest. Phony etiquette and politeness just block honest conversation between real people.

The most famous American philosopher who comes closest to Greek cynicism is Henry David Thoreau. Although Thoreau is more commonly known as a Transendentalist, in his personal ethics he shows many of the traits of cynicism: belief that voluntary poverty is a virtue, social climbing a vice, honesty matters above all. The Greek cynics lived shocking lives by a human perspective, but did so in the name of a deeper devotion to God. Thoreau too lived his life in opposition to what he saw as false human values, even going so far as to break the law (he invented “civil disobedience”), largely because he put his moral principles and spiritual beliefs ahead of the expectations of society. He was not as deliberately offensive as Diogenes had been, but he did reject the common rules of etiquette that we use to avoid actual human contact. In his day as in ours, people would say “How are you doing?” and the expected response was a perfunctory “fine” or something like that. Thoreau was notorious for taking that sort of question seriously; if you asked him how things were going, you were likely to get a half-hour summation.[3] While Diogenes had a reputation as a misanthrope, Thoreau was more sociable; but he was similarly inclined to ignore the social rituals of civility and cut straight to an honest response in his devotion to his principles.

This is certainly one way of thinking about civility, and it reappears in persons and cultures as different as Diogenes in ancient Greece, Chuang Tzu in ancient China or Thoreau in 19th century America.  Honest dialogue between human beings is valuable, maybe the only thing that is; adherence to good manners over honesty is not respect, but simple fraud. If someone is being a jerk, a fool or a villain, you do that person a service if you point this out to him or her; if you smile and compliment out of politeness, you cheat the other of the chance to learn and improve himself or herself.

To be continued…

[1] What would Twain say about this current president* who famously hates dogs, the first inhabitant of the White House in generations to have no dog or any other pet?

[2] Trump’s first wife had a dog that hated him.

[3] I’ve tried answering the “How’re you doing?” question honestly, and it often unsettles people if they listen at all; some just respond to “Kinda sick, actually,” with a mindless “That’s nice,” which seems to prove the claim that this politeness blocks actual communication.