In a famous passage, Xúnzǐ argues that natural disasters lead to catastrophe only because of human failings: with the proper preparation, floods and droughts still occur, but do not devastate. I’m probably not the only friend of this blog who found special poignancy in this argument while lecturing on it in the aftermath of Katrina.
The news today has been good. Irene seems to have weakened unexpectedly. (I hope this hasn’t changed since last I saw good information.) Here in Philadelphia, it looks like we’ll get a category one hurricane, the equivalent (in Hong Kong terms) of a typhoon signal ten. I think there was just one of those in the ten years I lived in Hong Kong; we didn’t even lose internet. I’m preparing mostly by baking lots of bread and making lots of hummus. I’m still a bit nervous, because I don’t know what I can expect from local construction, and the American infrastructure is (understandably, to an extent) less robust than Hong Kong’s. And there are lots of people more vulnerable than I am, and lots of people who have been and are going to be hit harder. I’m glad that friends have evacuated the Jersey shore, and am proud of friends who are part of the preparations and will be part of the response.
In any case, it’s got me thinking about Xúnzǐ, and also about the Mohists, who would have interpreted a storm like Irene as a punishment from heaven. Continue reading
Book 9 of the Xunzi includes a passage that seems to argue that in order to prevent desperate poverty (qiong 窮) it is necessary that some people be poor (pin 貧) while others are rich. Sorting out the view Xunzi takes of poverty in this argument is harder than you might expect.
The argument’s central claim is that if people are equal in their power and position and the same in their desires and aversions, this will inevitably lead to conflict, disorder, and poverty. The sages are supposed to have solved this problem by establishing the rituals and the duties, a hierarchical system that ensures that some can lead while others follow.
Why, though, must there be inequality of wealth as well as of power? Continue reading
Section 2A/6 of the Mencius tells us that the heart of deference (辭讓) is the starting point of ritual. I’ll try to convince you that this is a puzzling claim, and then suggest a solution to the puzzle.
The puzzle is that ritual obviously mobilises motives other than deference, and calls for behaviour that is not simply deferential. Think of the way that grief takes on ritualised shape in funerals: this is not just an extension of deference. So, why did it make sense to the author or authors of Mencius 2A/6 to say that deference is the starting-point of ritual?
Section 5B/4 of the Mencius is a very interesting text. It’s one of the points at which the Mencius gets defensive about Mencius’s personal virtue. The issue here is Mencius’s willingness to accept gifts from rulers who acquired them by taking from their people. Why accept those gifts, given that you wouldn’t accept gifts from a more everyday sort of bandit?
This passage interests me in part because I’m interested in Mencian defensiveness (on which see also the earlier thread about Shun and his awful family). But that’s not the issue I want to take up here. What I’m wondering about is how (if at all) Mencius’s argument is supposed to work. Continue reading
The butcher Ding cuts up an ox with the grace of a ritual performer and in the process shows us how to take care of life—or so suggests Book 3 of the Zhuangzi. A fair number of scholars have taken this to be the text’s intended solution to the worries of Book 2. We may not be able to tell right from wrong in some ultimate sense, but we can achieve a kind of local certainty by taking care of life in the course of skilled activity.
But as with sagely gestures elsewhere in the Zhuangzi, there are reasons to hesitate. Foremost among them is the fact that in Book 2 itself we find comments about three skilled masters that seem to take up essentially the same worries that the butcher’s skilled activity supposedly solves. Continue reading
This post sketches part of the argument in my paper “The Warring States Concept of Xing,” which is just out in Dao 10.1 (Spring 2011). “Xing” is commonly translated as “nature,” though “spontaneous character” would be better.
There’s this idea that (in Warring States terms) it can be your xing 性 to do something even though you have no tendency to actually do it. This idea is badly wrong. And no one would take it seriously if they weren’t misreading the Mencius.
The big problem is that the Mencius seems to say that it is our xing to be good, and that people who study the Mencius are mostly trained to think that that claim somehow stands for or summarises everything else the collection has to say about human nature. And trying to interpret the claim so that it does stand for all that leads to some major interpretive troubles. Continue reading
Anybody want to talk about ai 愛? It seems like this might be the day for it.
The natural topic (for me, anyway) is the Mohist doctrine of jian ai 兼愛, or inclusive care. But, awkwardly enough, it’s perfectly clear that this doctrine isn’t about love, much less romantic love. So that won’t do.
But what about the statement in the “Lesser Selection 小取” that though Huo does ai her younger brother, who is a handsome man, she does not ai a handsome man. That second ai maybe looks a bit Valentine-y. Does anyone think they know what’s going on? Continue reading
I’m interested in hearing what, if anything, people think the crazy stories about the sage king Shun and his awful family are doing in the Mencius. I’m thinking especially about sections 5A/2 and 5A/3, which tell us how Shun responded to his family’s attempts to murder him, but 5A/1, 4A/26, and 7A/35 are also on-topic, and maybe 4A/28 and 5A/4 (and others?) as well.
One reason I bring this up is that I know that Manyul, Steve, and I have very different ideas about this, and maybe others do too. So it should be fun to talk about. Continue reading
Reading Alexus’s recent piece on Wang Chong (Comparative Philosophy 2.1) has gotten me thinking about truth and early Chinese philosophy again. I can’t take up Alexus’s interpretive claims, because I am not even a Wang Chong neophyte, but I want to offer a couple of thoughts anyway. Continue reading
This is part of an argument I’ve been developing for an embarrassingly long time. I gave it most recently at the APA in Boston last week. I’m focusing here on a point in my talk that Steve Angle took issue with in his comments.
Section 2A/6 of the Mencius famously tells us that anyone, or at any rate any person, would feel alarm and compassion at the sight of an infant about to fall into a well, and that this reaction amounts to a heart of compassion that we can “expand and fill out,” thereby becoming benevolent. One way to read this is as a call for self-cultivation: it’s saying, more or less, that each person can become benevolent by cultivating his or her heart of compassion so that gradually, over time, it develops into full benevolence. You may recognise this sort of reading, since it’s ubiquitous in the English-language Mencius scholarship. It’s also wrong.