Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Flash of Lightning

The tenets of Kung Fu Tzu (Latinized as Confucius) formed the basis for official ideology of China for 2400 years. By contrast, I have only one week’s experience reading the Analects. So I can say about as much about Confucius as someone trying to solve a midnight murder when all he knows is what he saw during one flash of lightning. But here are a few disconnected observations.

(1) Concerning The Golden Legend, the medieval classic on the lives of the saints, I read recently that while each story is interesting on its own, “in the mass” the book becomes tedious and repetitive. Some books are meant to be read a little at a time, and I think the Analects of Confucius is one of those books. Not that it’s tedious! But it is deceptively deep. After the first three sentences, I wanted to put the book down and ponder them for a week. Here’s where a ten-year reading plan doesn’t work so well.

(2) I can see why the Jesuits in China admired Confucianism and tried to incorporate it into their Christian lives. Confucius says little about Heaven or God, thus avoiding doctrinal conflicts for the most part, and he says a lot about healthy ways to think about morality, ways that to a good extent are compatible with Christian teaching. He says, for instance, that good people aren’t faultless. They’re just the ones who recognize their faults and their weakness and wish to be better.

(3) Confucius has a lot in common with Aristotle. Both talk about virtuous acts coming from a virtuous person. (In at least one place, though, Confucius seems to turn pragmatic and say that we commit virtuous acts in order to lead a tranquil life.) And they both seek a happy mean between defect and excess.

(4) Confucius taught a Silver Rule: Don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you. This negative formula is similar to Kant’s categorical imperative (reached in a totally different way, granted). And in pondering Kant’s ethics, it has occurred to me that the problem with the negative formulation is that it can lead to inaction.

(5) I wish Christianity had more of a history of training in discipline outside the monastery. Confucius talks about developing a steadiness in the face of insult or startling news, and I wish I had that discipline.

(6) Confucius emphasizes learning – not just gaining knowledge, but learning life. And learning life is hard. If you’re studying to be a carpenter and you mess up your first chair, you can learn from your mistakes and start a new one. But we each have only one life to experiment on. If we get to the end of that one and find that we’ve messed it up, we don’t get a second chance. So we have to learn as we go on our first, last, and only go around. Having only one chance is why we need the experience of those who have gone before us. I’m not ready to start sacrificing to my ancestors as Confucius did, but I do try to learn from them.

As for the murder mystery and the flash of lightning, wouldn’t that make a great story? Who would be better at solving it: Holmes, Poirot, or Father Brown?

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