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Ancient China For Modern Conservatives

Tanner Greer [1]writes from China:

I am the fellow who wrote the “everything is worse in China” [2] post you linked to the other day. Thank you for sharing it with your readers.

I obviously think there is a great deal in the Chinese literary and philosophical tradition that fits the present moment. But I think there are some special barriers that make it difficult for Americans to delve into them. Imagine if you had to introduce Dante to a Chinese audience. This audience knows nothing about the background of the book. They can’t find Rome on a map, and haven’t read a Christian flavored book in their life. At best they have some highly stereotyped ideas about what Western civilization is all about. So can this audience just read Inferno straight through? Or do they need to read the Gospels first? The Gospels and Virgil? The Gospels, Virgil, and Augustine? Dante’s Divine Comedy is not just a “great book”—it is a commentary on all the great books that came before. Great works are always like this. It is part of what makes them great.

This is just as true in China as elsewhere. The Chinese canon, like the Western canon, is a conversation. Coming to a conversation mid-stream is at best disorienting. At worst you can leave with a errant sense of what the conversation was actually about. My dilemma is finding the best place for newcomers to first jump in.

One of the places I usually suggest conservative thinkers start, especially conservative thinkers whose past exposure to ancient China thought came in a new-age guise, is with Xunzi [3]. Xunzi was a self proclaimed Confucian who lived a few centuries before Christ. In the West we kind of have this fortune-cookie vision of Confucians: we see them as a bunch of old, secluded sages spitting out epigrams and coining pithy little proverbs. That might be justified for Confucius; we don’t have anything more sustained from him on record. But by the time Xunzi rolls onto the scene a few centuries later the game has changed. Xunzi’s preferred form was the treatise. In English these are usually 8-15 pages long, each an incisive attempt to ponder through the sorrows of mankind. Sorrows there were: Xunzi lived at the tale end of a terrible, vicious age, where China was divided between dueling leviathans engaged in constant, devastating war. These wars sucked up villages, towns, and peoples, with a bureaucratic efficiency the West wouldn’t see until the 1700’s. It was a terrifying, dispiriting time to be alive. My guess is that few of his contemporaries would have thought twice about one of Xunzi’s most famous pronouncements: “Human nature is evil.”

That is where Xunzi starts. Thankfully it isn’t where he ends—he sets himself the task of figuring out how humanity can pull itself out of the mess he sees all around him. The answer he comes up with is extraordinary: ritual. Personal and communal rituals are what, he claims, make us more humane. Ritual is the path away from blindly following our animal instinct; ritual is what raises humans above the beasts.  Within a few essays he develops an entire theory or ritual and its relationship to character building, slowly crafting the case that ritual is the training ground of righteousness and joy.

Xunzi had never heard of a Christian liturgy, of course, but each time I read his work I come away with the conviction that Xunzi explains its purpose better than most Christians ever do.

The really inspiring thing about Xunzi, however, is that you can tell how deeply personal this entire project is to him. Whether he is talking about ritual or kingship or music or education or any of the hundred things he turns his mind to, the feeling is the same. Xunzi is a man who has stared into the abyss of human cruelty, and is fighting with all of his might to not let that overwhelm his humanity. He sees the world for what it is. He doesn’t believe in the utopian fairy tales of the Daoists, nor the warm-fuzzy feeling based theories of Confucianism’s more optimistic strains. But he insists to the end that humanity is salvageable. The next generation of philosophers—according to some traditions, Xunzi’s own students—would turn totalitarian. That is not an exaggeration. This is what scholars in the field have called them: “the world’s first totalitarians.” Those theorists worshiped state power for its own sake, happily relegating human life to the maw of the leviathan. Xunzi sees the possibilities of that path, he knows its seductive logic. But he refuses. He stubbornly insists on seeing the world through the lens of human virtue, that politics and ethics must be focused on individual acts of goodness and virtue, despite–no, because of–the bloodshed and terror of his day.

So Xunzi is a great starting point for an intellectual journey into the Chinese tradition. He is a traveling companion worthy of just about any discussion or topic. Eric Hutton’s translation is accessible [3] to just about anyone. Some other thinkers might be more ideally suited for the Benedict Option, though. Many Chinese poets come to mind here. But poetry is hard. Poetry never seems to translate well unless it is narrative poetry, which Chinese poetry almost never is. (David Young cleverly gets around this by setting a selection of Du Fu poems chronologically, [4] allowing the poet to tell the story of his own life). On top of this, Chinese poets are very self-referential. They quote and allude to each other constantly—they are quite aware that great works are part of a conversation, and so design half of their poems to be direct responses to various poems that came before.

But they are so relevant to the BenOp project.

I mentioned three poets in the original post: Tao Qian, Li Bat and Du Fu. Tao Qian is the spiritual grandfather of all the famous nature poets in China. But how he gets there is interesting. Tao Qian was born into a prominent family involved in national affairs. His grandfather had been a major political figure; service in the bureaucracy was just what was expected for folks like him. So he joins it. He spend thirteen years career climbing. But then he breaks. Society is too vain, the monarch unworthy, bureaucratic politics too soul crushing. So he unpacks his entire family out to the boonies and restarts life there as a poor farmer. He struggles to make ends meet, and he writes about that. [5] He is a drunkard, and he writes about that. He is enchanted with small town life, and he writes about that. He wanders the hills and forest, and he writes about that. And occasionally he even writes about the pressure he feels to compare himself to the success of his ancestors, or friends once known. It is all very poignant stuff, and it has been enormously popular in China ever since, no matter how far away the contemporary ethos may be from its spirit.

This whole tradition of scholars fleeing from official society as a protest against its evils has tremendous relevance for BenOp Christians. I suspect that  few who reviewed your book  have really come to terms with the kind of sacrifices your choices will cost you. There will come a point where you must choose success in the world or banishment outside it. Tao Qian chose banishment and a clear conscience—but along with that choice came isolation and poverty.  I don’t think many of the people who wrote nice reviews of your book are really prepared for that choice. Folks like Tao Qian can make those choices a little bit easier.

Du Fu’s poetry has the opposite effect. There is a lot of escapism in Chinese literature. Escape into wine, into rural retreats, into monasteries, into history reading. Du Fu refused to do it. He lived through another era of chaos—the An Lushan rebellion, described in some historical gazetteers as the most violently destructive war in human history before the 30 Years War. Du Fu was a bit like Shakespeare, in that his poetry covers the entire scope of human society: everything from the beggars, soldiers, and farmers grinding away in poverty to the emperor and his consorts are taken as subjects of his art. Du Fu spends the first half of his life in Chang’an, imperial capital of the Tang Dynasty, then center of the known world. The whole time he seeks patronage from the emperor and accolades from the literati’s leading lights. Then the war comes crashing down and rips society apart. Du Fu is actually kept in the city under siege and occupation for more than a year, separated from his wife and children. When he finally escapes he writes a beautiful poem about the pain of seeing your children grown tall in your absence that any veteran would appreciate. Then he must begin his wanderings—years spent wandering from one part of China to the next, first as a refugee of war, later as a loyal minor official trying to make it back to the emperor’s court-in-exile. On one of these tiresome journeys through the mountains of China he writes the following poem:

MIRROR OF DHARMA TEMPLE

“Imperiled, I flee to a new province

All my forced effort ends with bitter exhaustion

Spirit wounded, wandering in mountain deeps.

Yet my sorrow dissolves before an ancient cliff-side temple. 

Charming: its pure, verdant moss .

Vulnerable: its wintry, bamboo clusters.

Streams twist and turn through the mountains

Raindrops drip and hang on the pines.

 

Melting mists obscure the morning light

The rising day hides, then lets forth its rays

In that half-light scarlet tiles flash

Doors and windows gleam, and are seen distinct.

I lean on my staff, the next stage forgotten 

When I emerge from my dreams, it is already noon.

Then faintly, a distant cuckoo’s cry–

Up this small path, I do not dare to go. 

[Forgive me if the translation is poorly rendered, I don’t have much time to devote to the task today].

To understand the poem you need to know that the phrase “cuckoo” is a homophone for “come home!” The cuckoo is also associated with Sichuan in Chinese thought, and that was Du Fu’s eventual destination. So here we have the story of a  soft court mandarin being forced from home in his old age, transversing forgotten mountain paths, with his young family (Du Fu married late) to reach safety. And then he sees the monastery! A beautiful place of peace and serenity, something so clearly lacking in Du Fu’s own life. If this were the normal Buddhist poem this would be the moment where Du Fu declares he will stay the night there, perhaps the life there, intoning on his escape from the “net of dust” that has trapped the rest of mankind. Du Fu is tempted-oh, he is sorely tempted. But then he hear’s the cuckoo call “Come Home!” and he sees the temple for what it is: a temptation. He has a duty (‘dharma’) to his family, and a duty to help rebuild his county. He does not dare to travel up the path to the monastery for fear that if he does he won’t ever be able to come back and continue his journey.

Who among us cannot sympathize with him? Is this not a beautiful expression of a dilemma so many of us must feel—the desire to retreat from the world, and a duty to make the world a better place? Du Fu realized that continuing the journey was the right thing for him to do. His role is to live in the world. The question he must then wrestle with is whether he can live in the world without being trod down by it.

Well that is enough for today. I hope this e-mail has given you glimpse of what Chinese philosophy and literature offers conservatives in America today.  There is so much more that could be said (and I have written about some of these themes  as they are expressed by other great works in the Chinese tradition before-see here [6] and here [7]), but it is not possible to fit an entire’s civilization’s corpus into one e-mail, so I will not try!

This is remarkable. I see a book here: a general survey of ancient Chinese philosophy and literature, drawing life lessons from it for contemporary Western cultural conservatives — a book that acts as a kind of literary self-help gateway into ancient Chinese thought, in the way that my Dante book [8] attempts to be for Dante, or Alain de Botton’s Proust book [9] does for Proust.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "Ancient China For Modern Conservatives"

#1 Comment By Mike W On July 24, 2017 @ 11:35 am

Rod, you and your readers might be interested in this book: “Christ the Eternal Tao” ( [10]). From the Amazon description:
Not until now has the ancient wisdom of Lao Tzu been presented alongside the otherworldly revelation of Jesus Christ in a way that encompasses the full significance of both. Christ the Eternal Tao presents the Tao Teh Ching as a foreshadowing of what would be revealed by Christ, and Lao Tzu himself as a Far-Eastern prophet of Christ the incarnate God.
Through heretofore unpublished translations and teachings of Gi-ming Shien — perhaps the greatest Chinese philosopher to have ever come to the West — this book uncovers the esoteric core of the Tao Teh Ching. Then, through the transmission of mystics of the ancient Christian East, Lao Tzu’s teaching is brought into a new dimension, exploding with new meanings. Christ, in turn, is seen in a unique light, His pure image shining in the clarity of Lao Tzu’s intuitive vision.

With its practical, time-tested advice on how to unite oneself with the incarnate Tao and acquire uncreated Teh, this is both a philosophical source-book and a spiritual manual, touching the heart and leading one to profound inward transformation. It is a long-awaited Answer to those who, having turned away from modern Western “churchianity,” are drawn to the freshness, directness and simplicity of Lao Tzu, and at the same time are strangely, inexplicably drawn back to the all-compelling reality of Jesus Christ.

The book is adorned with Chinese calligraphy and seals (created especially for it by well-known Chinese artists), and with traditional Chinese paintings of the life of Christ.

[NFR: It’s a great book, for sure. — RD]

#2 Comment By Nick On July 24, 2017 @ 11:39 am

After a few history classes in college, I’ve always been in awe of ancient China and India. Most K-12 educations in the US don’t give you the understanding that there were two whole civilizations that developed centuries before Greece/Rome/Christianity. It’s arguable that, in terms of technology, China was ahead of Europe until the Renaissance. Paper, gunpowder, grid layouts for streets, etc.

#3 Comment By Centralist On July 24, 2017 @ 11:41 am

I think my favorite lesson from Medieval China was the high cost of cutting off all intellectually study that challenges the status quo. It really paid off for the ruling elites right till the point the upstarts from cold north lands sailed into their harbors with better made versions of their own weapons. Just saying cutting yourself off from the world only protects your way of life till someone says you do not get protect anymore.

#4 Comment By oakinhouston On July 24, 2017 @ 11:52 am

“The answer he comes up with is extraordinary: ritual. Personal and communal rituals are what, he claims, make us more humane. Ritual is the path away from blindly following our animal instinct; ritual is what raises humans above the beasts. ”

Forgive me for bringing another culture here, in what is an extraordinarily illuminating post, but I just wanted to point out that Xunzi arrived to a similar conclusion as the Romans did (another very small c conservative culture).

Romans saw the form of ritual as having value in itself. Hence the need to repeat it from scratch if something went wrong. The ritual was not a medium for the worship or the message . The ritual IS the message.

#5 Comment By Gaius Gracchus On July 24, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

There is great wisdom from around the world, and there is very little truly new.

Progressives would burn down all past structures in their quest for the new, destroying civilization in their path, thinking they are smarter than those in the past.

True conservatism references the past, respects tradition, and is cautious in destroying structures. True conservatism understands the foolishness of humanity and easily humans get subverted into self-destruction.

I love reading ancient wisdom. Today’s world is blind. Too many can’t see, focused on their pleasure or greed.

The world could use more ancient wisdom from around the world taught to young and old…..

#6 Comment By George On July 24, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

“Duty to make the world a better place”?

This is obviously un-Christian, and liberalism.

Your commenter, Rod, clearly does not have Christian – or reigious – sensibilities, and upholds the worldly man’s choice of the world.

Religion – focusing on the Other World – is a “temptation”, and our true task is to perfect this world – don’t go into the Buddhist Temple, don’t help others by showing others the way out of the “net of dust”, rather make the world a better place, because this is our True Home, and improving material circumstances our true task!

All this is very fine and OK – it is a familiar viewpoint that we know well. Nothing new. Its the Modern World and its viewpoint. I merely am not sure what possible relevance this attitude can have to the BenOp, a religious position which must focus on the Other World.

This guy’s comment is permeated by worldly rhetoric (no argument, focus on the material is assumed as a value), and an un-religious sensibility that does not seem to me to have much to say about the predicament of religious communities whose focus must be on living as much as possible for the Other World.

#7 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On July 24, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

Strange you mention Dante and Proust in the same post. I was just thinking that in my [11] they would occupy the eastern and the northern corner respectively.

#8 Comment By Will Harrington On July 24, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

I agree with Rod. I want more!

#9 Comment By WhollyRoamin On July 24, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

This blog has the best readers and commenters.

#10 Comment By Polichinello On July 24, 2017 @ 3:22 pm

Minor grumble: I hate the new form of transliteration for Chinese that employs generally unpronounceable X’s and Q’s. We had a perfectly serviceable system before with “CH” And “SH”. No, it didn’t track pronunciations perfectly, but no transliteration ever will. I can much more easily remember a Chiang Kai Shek or Mao Tse-tung than a Lioa Xaibong [?]–Yeah, I can’t easily recall the Nobel Prize Winner’s name–but academics get to virtue signal about their little code. Good work, guys. Good work.

#11 Comment By Russel On July 24, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

“[Forgive me if the translation is poorly rendered, I don’t have much time to devote to the task today]”
-There is no reason to forgive. That was beautiful as it was.

I have been drawn to Eastern philosophy for more than half my life now. It was where I escaped to when I felt that the fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity I was raised to believe in had become a trap- in the sense that often times in evangelical churches you’re offered- and are expected to take- a prefab world view that dictates everything to the art you consume (no Harry Potter kids, he practices satanic magic) to the political party you support. And while I’m still drawn to it, I had to take a step back. I feel that as a westerner I had no context for *truly* understanding what I was reading. The lack of context allowed me to cherry pick the parts that I liked and to create an “Eastern” philosophy that no easterner would recognize. I took that step back after taking a few philosophy classes in college in which- much to my frustration- the professor would simply brush aside any references to non-western philosophy. In those classes I came to realize that I believe in objective morality, which is a hard concept to integrate into Eastern philosophy. Doesn’t jive with the ying and the yang my friend. So these days I see it as a tension between principles (western ideas of objectivity and fundamental rights) versus pragmatism (the Eastern concept of “with nature, against nature”)

So I wonder now after this post, is your BenOp a principled or pragmatic approach?

#12 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On July 24, 2017 @ 3:44 pm

Really excellent. The sort of fellow one wishes one had studied with.

#13 Comment By Smithborough On July 24, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

Iinteresting. I once had an interest in getting a basic knowledge of Chinese Philosophy, which I was thinking of getting back to. I have a copy of the 1928 Homer H Dubs translation of Xunzi (Hsuntse). I wonder if your correspondent has any opinion on this translation? I bought it to read about 25 years ago, but never got around to it. I was introduced to Chinese philosophy by Fung Yu Lan’s Short History. Would thus still be thought of as a reasonable introductory text?

#14 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On July 24, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

Russel

So these days I see it as a tension between principles (western ideas of objectivity and fundamental rights) versus pragmatism (the Eastern concept of “with nature, against nature”)

But for the fact that until recently Western moral philosophy was rooted on the fact that a just positive Law could not contradict Natural Law.

#15 Comment By Will Harrington On July 24, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

George

Be careful on how far that pendulum is swinging. Do not forget that Christian monastics built hospitals and served the poor. Working in the world for the betterment of people who bear the image of Christ is not something we can stop doing while telling ourselves we are protecting our faith.

#16 Comment By Will Harrington On July 24, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

Russel wrote “So I wonder now after this post, is your BenOp a principled or pragmatic approach?”

From an Orthodox standpoint I would have to say that this tension you speak of does not necessitate an either or answer. The better answer is usually both and. For it to work, the Benedict Option will have to be both principled and pragmatic.

#17 Comment By Eric On July 24, 2017 @ 7:25 pm

As a sidenote Rob, have you ever considered visiting or studying a non-Western society? Your preoccupation is obviously preservation of Western Christian civilization, but you always seem to be going to Europe, and given what you keep saying about what you perceive as Europe’s general failure to maintain its cultural integrity, maybe the answers to some of the questions or problems you perceive won’t be found there.

Other parts of the world have resisted liberal modernity in different ways, and even if you’re not trying to preserve Indian, Islamic, or East Asian culture, I wonder if you might at least have something to learn from them about how they have succeeded in preserving traditional culture in ways the West has not.

#18 Comment By minimammal On July 24, 2017 @ 7:25 pm

Wow, what a great post. As someone who has been interested in East Asian cultures since childhood and who was involved with a Japanese Buddhist sect before coming full circle back to the Catholicism of my upbringing, this is right up my alley. My knowledge of these cultures is encyclopedia-level, at best, but now I plan on doing some serious reading to see what the old Chinese masters can teach me.

#19 Comment By Nick On July 24, 2017 @ 8:14 pm

Minor grumble: I hate the new form of transliteration for Chinese that employs generally unpronounceable X’s and Q’s. We had a perfectly serviceable system before with “CH” And “SH”. No, it didn’t track pronunciations perfectly, but no transliteration ever will. I can much more easily remember a Chiang Kai Shek or Mao Tse-tung than a Lioa Xaibong [?]–Yeah, I can’t easily recall the Nobel Prize Winner’s name–but academics get to virtue signal about their little code. Good work, guys. Good work.

The “new” system of transliteration is the Pinyin system which the CCP uses as their “official” version, and has nothing to do with virtue signaling. Having lived in China myself for several years, I understand why some people prefer Wade-Gilles, but it hasn’t been widely used on the mainland since the 80’s.

#20 Comment By William Tighe On July 24, 2017 @ 8:51 pm

This guy

[12]

spent most of his adult life trying why the Scientific Revolution, Industrial Revolution, etc., didn’t happen first in China, long before they happened in the West; cf.:

[13]

[14]

#21 Comment By Pacopond On July 24, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

This really ought to be posted in the comments on the Cultural Climate Change thread, but that was three days ago, an eon if not eternity here in the virtual world of liquid modernity, but bear with me, I think this connects well to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ wonderful speech at the Chautauqua Institution and to Xunzi.

Sacks mentioned Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue as a great book. This summer I’ve been slowly re-reading it, and I’ve just finished. I read it when it first came out—a sheet of notes I took has a date of August, 1982, when I read it in a graduate philosophy seminar on virtue ethics.

At the time I was looking for a secular basis for ethics to combat the relativism and looming nihilism I saw ahead. I was an atheist at the time—which I believe MacIntyre was as well, since this was before his conversion to Catholicism, though I’m not sure of the biographical details.

I was drawn to aretaic or virtue ethics as a promising approach, and though I bailed out of graduate school without a doctorate, I wrote a master’s thesis on moral obligation and the ethics of virtue.

Years later I would try to think through a pragmatic approach to ethics, but came to the conclusion that pragmatism has a great deal to say about the relationship between means and ends, and does most of the things an ethical theory ought to do, except that it is silent about what our ends should be. All its imperatives are hypothetical, in the Kantian sense.

I wondered if a virtue ethics could have anything like a categorical imperative, and decided that if there is, it’s something like, “you should be what humanity-at-its best is capable of.” I’ll get back to the Confucian thoughts soon.

I copied this passage out of MacIntyre this summer. He has a discursive writing style that calls for close attention, but he is quite clear and direct here.

“In a famous passage in The Gay Science (335) Nietzsche jeers at the notion of basing morality on inner moral sentiments, on conscience on the one hand, or on the Kantian categorical imperative, on universalizability on the other. In five swift, witty and cogent paragraph he disposes of both what I have called the Enlightenment project to discover rational foundations for an objective morality and of the confidence of the everyday moral agent in post-Enlightenment culture that his moral practices and utterances are in good order.” AV, 107

And this: “The Enlightenment is consequently the period par excellence in which most intellectuals lack self-knowledge.” 78

He believes Nietzsche understood more clearly than contemporaries, and than later emotivists and existentialists, “that what purported to be appeals to objectivity were in fact expressions of subjective will, but also the nature of the problems this posed for moral philosophy.”

MacIntyre believes Nietzsche to be an important and serious moral philosopher, though he has no use for N’s grandiosity and Ubermensch conclusion. Indeed, at the end of MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals (1999) he calls Nietzsche “heroic.”

Thus the importance of the chapter “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” in After Virtue. Believing Nietzsche’s critique to have delivered the death blow to the Enlightenment project, he asserts that Nietzsche’s attach simply do not touch Aristotle, and that in an updating and rehabilitation of the Aristotelian approach, a virtue ethics can be constructed.

But he doesn’t do it in After Virtue. I read the first edition, and if anyone can tell me how the third edition differs from it, I would be most obliged, as I don’t plan to wade through the entirety of another edition to find out…at least not for a few more years.

So what does this have to do with Confucianism, Christianity, or conservatism? Well, when I was reading MacIntyre 35 years ago I was also studying Japanese language and culture, including its heritage from China. Confucianism is a virtue ethics.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in Confucian thought, but I wanted to know if the parallels between it and neo-Aristotlean virtue ethics was more than superficial.

A deontological ethics emphasizes rules; a teleological or consequentialist ethics emphasizes ends; an aretaic ethics emphasizes modes and attitudes. So say my 1982 notes.

So I read the Analects, and ready spotty bits of Wang Yangming, a neo-Confucian scholar, and other shreds and patches of Chinese thought. And today, based on Rod’s post, I bought the Kindle edition of Xunzi and have read the introduction and the first four chapters. This is one of the things I highlighted.

“The learning of the gentleman enters through his ears, fastens to his heart, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself in his actions. His slightest word, his most subtle movement, all can serve as a model
The learning of the petty person enters through his ears and passes out his mouth.”

After writing that the virtuous man learns from those who rightly criticize him and shuns flattery, Xunzi says “The petty man is the opposite. He is utterly disorderly, but hates for people to criticize him. (15) He is utterly unworthy, but wishes for people to consider him worthy. His heart is like that of a tiger or wolf, and his conduct like that of beasts, but he hates for people to consider him a villain. To those who flatter and toady to him he shows favor, while those who would admonish him he keeps at a distance.”

I can think of a current example of the petty man without trying too hard.

But the point, to start summing this up, is that Confucian and Aristotelian traditions value many of the same human traits. Confucians believed that the good human followed the Dao, the ineffable Way of a (nontheistic) universe. Aristotle believed there was a telos for human life, and Aquinas after him, identified that telos with God’s will.

It’s easy to see that virtue ethics can be seen through the lens of relativism. Virtues are just behavioral habits a society values; it’s nothing more than that. If your society is warlike, you should be a warrior; if stealing horses is the way to fame and wealth, then be a horse thief. Women are valued for fecundity and cooking, and that’s just the way it is among those people.

Aristotelian or Confucian values are just cultural artifacts, limited to their time and place, the argument would go. Besides that, they’re elitist, though how a relativist can criticize elitism in another culture without resorting to universal moral concepts is hard to carry off.

Yet those who really believe in the Dao, or the full flourishing of a human being, or a natural law established by a Creator will not accept this relativism.

And the question remains—can these ancient sages provide something valuable to our contemporary lives? I find virtue ethics to be interesting and important, and I try to live my life in that light, and I’ve found myself in recent years returning to tradition in an unstable world.

I could be wrong. But if I am, show me. There’s virtue in that, too.

#22 Comment By stephen cooper On July 24, 2017 @ 11:27 pm

Chinese poetry – the very good ancient poetry – is as distant from Chinese people of today as it is from non-Chinese – every word has changed its meaning a little, and there is no way to just jump in and read it, even if you are 100 years old and have spoken Chinese every day of your life. My point is, don’t be put off from trying to understand old Chinese poetry just because you are not Chinese. That being said, the exact same could be said of Italians and Dante. There are shockingly sinful and unChristian passages in Dante and there are amazingly New Testament like lines in some of the Chinese poets. Well,that being said, Dante, like Li Po and Tu Fu (the Mozart and Beethoven of their poetic day, not that it did them much good), never claimed not to be a sinner: poetry is almost always written by sinners and it is a luxury and like all luxuries should not be naively or sophisticatedly trusted. Thank God for Dante, though, who was a really good poet on his best days; that is not nothing! That being said, it is definitely worth one’s time, if one has the extra time, to study the poetry of other cultures, even seemingly remote ones like ancient China: there are few places in the world with a written culture that bear no signs that there, too, have lived one or more poets of whom one could say : that poet had an “anima naturaliter christiana.”Also you will get really good service in Chinese restaurants if you quote Li Po in a relevant way: “Home is the hunter, home from the hill” sounds a little like Li Po, as does “it rains on the just and the unjust”: both those phrases are really easily translated into thousand-year old Chinese.

#23 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On July 24, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

Nick,

That may be correct about china, but it’s not quite correct about India. Most of the flowering of Indian architecture, mathematics, theology etc. happened after Christ, contemporaneously with the byzantines (although I guess somewhat before the flowering of the west). The great Indian temples are old, in some cases more than a millennium old, but they’re not “Egypt old”.

#24 Comment By mohammad On July 24, 2017 @ 11:42 pm

Let’s call this blog: Rod Dreher’s online college for Philosophy, humanities and art (and sometimes food!).

#25 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On July 25, 2017 @ 11:56 am

Minor grumble: I hate the new form of transliteration for Chinese that employs generally unpronounceable X’s and Q’s. We had a perfectly serviceable system before with “CH” And “SH”. No, it didn’t track pronunciations perfectly, but no transliteration ever will

Pinyin isn’t really that difficult once you learn what the letters mean. (Although you could probably say the same of Wade Giles).

Romanization of indian languages, on the other hand, is an unholy mess.

#26 Comment By Pacopond On July 25, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

It’s hard to read Chinese, but it’s not hard to learn the Chinese characters in short, gnomic poetry like the Dao De Jing, and, while doing so won’t give you any aural sense of what’s going on, the beauty of calligraphy or even neatly printed Chinese is an aesthetic experience of high quality, especially when you can actually read it. There are some good bilingual editions.

Du Fu and Li Bai (Tu Fu and Li Po in the Wade-Giles system) provide a clear dichotomy between the yang of virtuous rectitude and the yin of inebriated affirmation of natural life, and you can get that without knowing any Chinese at all.

#27 Comment By Pacopond On July 25, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

Fuller elaboration on the contrast between the man of virtue and the petty man.

“The learning of the gentleman enters through his ears, fastens to his heart, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself in his actions. His slightest word, his most subtle movement, all can serve as a model for others.

The learning of the petty person enters through his ears and passes out his mouth.

When virtue has been grasped, only then can one achieve fixity. When one can achieve fixity, only then can one respond to things. To be capable both of fixity and of responding to things—this is called the perfected person.

And so, he who rightly criticizes me acts as a teacher toward me, and he who rightly supports me acts as a friend toward me, while he who flatters and toadies to me acts as a villain toward me. Accordingly, the gentleman exalts those who act as teachers toward him and loves those who act as friends toward him, so as to utterly hate those who act as villains toward him.

The petty man is the opposite. He is utterly disorderly, but hates for people to criticize him. He is utterly unworthy, but wishes for people to consider him worthy. His heart is like that of a tiger or wolf, and his conduct like that of beasts, but he hates for people to consider him a villain. To those who flatter and toady to him he shows favor, while those who would admonish him he keeps at a distance.

…petty man is not so. If great-hearted, then he is arrogant and violent. If small-hearted, then he is perverse and dissolute. If he is smart, then he is a greedy thief and works by deception. If he is unlearned, then as a poisonous villain he creates chaos. If he is heeded, then he is avaricious and arrogant. If he is disregarded, then he is resentful and dangerous. If he is happy, then he is flippant and capricious.

…worried, then he is frustrated and cowardly. If he is successful, then he is haughty and one-sided. If he is unsuccessful, then he is downcast and despondent. A saying goes, “In both cases the gentleman advances. In both cases the petty man falters.”

Integrity is what the gentleman clings to, and is the basis for government affairs.

The petty man works at boasting but wishes others to trust him. He works at deceiving people but wishes others to love him. His conduct is that of wild beasts, but he wishes others to consider him good. He can hardly figure out whatever he deliberates on….

[The gentleman] uses words to measure accomplishments. He uses the Way to observe all completely. There is one measure for ancient times and the present. So long as one does not contravene the proper classes of things, then even though a long time has passed, the same order obtains.

With respect to yet another sort of person, if one listens to his words, his arguments are niggling and without unifying order. If one employs him, then he is full of deception and without accomplishment.
he is incapable of harmonizing the people. Nevertheless, the smoothness of his tongue is such that his chattering has a certain measure to it, so that he is capable of becoming one of those who engage in strange exaggerations and bold haughtiness—such a one is called the vile person’s hero.”
Xunzi c. 310 – c. 235 BC

#28 Comment By Pacopond On July 25, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

stephen cooper, Xunzi wrote “So I say: stealing a reputation is worse than stealing goods” almost 1900 years before Shakespeare put the idea, in deep irony, into the mouth of Iago.

#29 Comment By Myles On July 28, 2017 @ 5:46 am

John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word = logos = reason = essential reality = Dao 道 (Chinese Union Version). Of course Lao Zi can be equally as valuable as Plato or Aristotle to present the Gospel. Christianity is, at bottom, an Eastern religion anyway.

#30 Comment By procyon On August 7, 2017 @ 6:30 am

“Minor grumble: I hate the new form of transliteration for Chinese that employs generally unpronounceable X’s and Q’s. We had a perfectly serviceable system before with “CH” And “SH”. No, it didn’t track pronunciations perfectly, but no transliteration ever will”

Wade-Giles caused too much confusion. Chinese already have “Ch” and “Sh” as two consonants(their pronunciation are similar to English). The pronunciation of “X” and “Ch” are totally different, so as “Q” and “Sh”.

There are cities called “Chi-zhou”, “Xi-ning”, “Qi-xian” and “Shi-ping”. How could you distinguish between them?