Roots of Ru [??] Ethics in Shi [??] Status Anxiety

By Richter, Matthias L. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2017 | Go to article overview

Roots of Ru [??] Ethics in Shi [??] Status Anxiety


Richter, Matthias L., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


INTRODUCTION

Among the ethical values and maxims propagated in the Lunyu [phrase omitted], one point stands out as a pervasive concern: a noble man or a worthy follower of Confucius' teachings does not worry about recognition or status. The first of multiple assertions to that effect is placed in a prominent position at the very beginning of the Lunyu, where an unspecified Master (1) professes,

Is it not indeed a pleasure to have learnt something and to practice it
time and again? Is it not indeed a joy to have one's peers come from
afar? Is it not indeed like a noble man not to resent it when others do
not recognize one?
[phrase omitted] (2)

The first chapter closes with another such statement:

The Master said, "One should not feel anxious about others' not
recognizing oneself. One should feel anxious lest one fail to recognize
others."
[phrase omitted] (3)

And in chapter four a "Master" says:

You should not feel anxious about not having a position but rather
about the means by which you position yourself. You should not feel
anxious lest no one recognize you, but seek to become worth recognizing.

[phrase omitted] (4)

These few passages show two things that are of importance for the present discussion: First, they indicate that anxiety (huan [phrase omitted]) about being recognized must have been a sufficiently significant phenomenon to warrant these repeated admonitions and their inclusion in the teachings that were chosen to be transmitted in the Lunyu. Second, these passages--like large parts of the Lunyu and many other early Chinese texts--are pragmatically underdetermined. They do not appear to present a general, broadly applicable moral and political philosophy, if this is what we expect of the Lunyu, nor do they indicate to what specific historical context they refer and what made them significant at the time when they were formulated. This is true for the most part of the Lunyu.

Reading the Lunyu--and many other texts from early China--requires a high degree of interpretive input. In the case of the Lunyu, such input could not be more amply provided: countless commentaries throughout the two millennia of its transmission and reception add specificity to its understanding. They convey an interpretation of this compilation as part of the canon, i.e., its scriptural reading, and thus vividly demonstrate how it has been kept productive as an element of tradition. They are not, however, a reliable source from which to understand the historical significance of the many short texts collected in the Lunyu at the time when they were composed. To be sure, this historical meaning is not recoverable in full, nor with a high degree of precision, but it has been shown in intertextual studies of early Chinese literature that it is to some extent possible to identify historical contexts and specific concerns that motivated these texts. (5) The present article aims to demonstrate that some of what we read today in the Lunyu and similar texts as general principles of self-cultivation and Ru ethics is most likely rooted in something more mundane, namely status anxiety of the lower strata of nobility, brought about by the increased social mobility in the Warring States period (453-221 B.C.E.). Before we can start exploring the texts pertaining to this issue, it is necessary to discuss the rationale behind such an intertextual study. The following examination is based on two crucial insights: First, most early Chinese texts are composite in nature, and second, their constituent parts are often underdetermined.

1. DEFICIENT PRAGMATIC DETERMINATION OF TEXTS AS A HERMENEUTIC PROBLEM

The Lunyu is a premier example of a pragmatically underdetermined text. Unlike other texts, this compilation does not even attempt to appear continuous and coherent beyond the scope of its mostly very short textual units. Most of the text opens up a vast range of possible interpretations and applications. …

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