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2 Classical virtues and the rule of ritual

2 Classical virtues and the rule of ritual

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as fit to govern others, the individuals they would think of as deserving of

admiration and emulation—the two pictures would differ in important ways.

While the Greeks admired men whose words and deeds squared with one

another, Aristotle never suggests that reticence (arising from putting more effort

into deeds than into speech, Analects IV.22, 24, XIII.3) might be a quality to

look for in a man of virtue. While Aristotle insists that an important virtue consists

in being neither too fond of nor too reluctant to enjoy the pleasures that

accompany touch (viz. food, drink and sex: 1117b24–1119b18), Confucius does

not give special attention to this kind of self-control. He remarks that when

young a superior man should ‘guard against the attractions of feminine beauty’

(Lau 1979: XVI.7)2 and steadfastness appears to be jeopardized by being full of

desires (V.11), but these are not specifically desires for the pleasures of touch,

since he views older men as prone to strife (bellicosity) and avarice

(acquisitiveness) (XVI.7). Aristotle and Confucius both employ concepts

translated as ‘courage,’ but Aristotle regards his (andreia, manliness) as

connected to what is painful (1117a33–6), whereas Confucius allows his (yung) a

wider application that places it closer to Kant’s strength of resolve, ‘Faced with

what is right (yi), to leave it undone shows a lack of courage (yung)’ (Chan


These differences alone do not tell against the suggestion that the good or

‘virtuous’ person might be treated as a standard by which to assess conduct and

attitudes. It may be that in describing something as complex as an exemplary

person Aristotle and Confucius have, because of their different styles and

preoccupations, simply emphasized different features, or it may be argued that a

virtuous person could hardly be expected to look the same in different cultural

settings, just as an appropriately dressed person will look different in different

climates. In terms of the image of measuring devices, which was first considered

in Section 4.2, it may be that different straightedges and try squares—or, better,

different devices and procedures for generating straightedges, square corners and

circles— when adapted for different purposes will look different, although they

reflect the same fundamental principles. If that argument is correct then we

would expect that what would serve as an exemplary person in our culture will

differ at least in superficial respects from the descriptions given by Aristotle

(mid-fourth century BCE) or Confucius (early fifth century BCE), owing to the

differences between our culture and either of theirs.

Some of these differences are due to the fact that Aristotle and Confucius both

take the hierarchical (and ‘corporate,’ Section 7.1) nature of the social

environment for granted and are thinking in terms of the characteristics of the

‘better class of person.’ If we speak of ‘ethical virtues’ at all we have in mind

such qualities as honesty, self-control, modesty, generosity, friendliness and

courage, and there is a tendency on our part to assume that most people will

possess most of the qualities we are discussing. Possibly the last of these is

something we regard as unusual—this is why there are awards for bravery for

both soldiers and civilians, although often the ‘virtue’ of courage refers to that


modest level of self-confidence that distinguishes normal people from the

pathologically timid. As for the rest, few people would want to admit that they

were in any respect deficient in honesty, self-control, etc.

Aristotle appears to be interested in what makes people exceptional, rather

than merely acceptable, citizens. In the last chapter of the Nicomachean version

of the Ethics, we find the following attempt at a realistic assessment of the power

of argument or discourse (logos):

As things are while discourses [arguments about ethics] seem to have

power to encourage and stimulate the genteel3 among the young, and to

make a character which is well born, and a true lover of what is admirable,

ready to be possessed by aret , they [discourses] are not able to encourage

the many to nobility and goodness. For the many do not by nature obey the

sense of shame, but only fear, and do not abstain from bad acts because of

the disgrace but through fear of punishment; living by passion they pursue

their own pleasures and the means to them, and avoid the opposite pains,

and have not even a conception of what is noble and truly pleasant, since

they have never tasted it. What discourses would remold such people?


An aret in Aristotle’s Greek is literally an ‘excellence,’ a respect in which

someone excels. For everyone to be expected to excel is something of a paradox.

Nevertheless, it was possible for aret to slide from the exceptional to the

acceptable (a reasonably demanding level of acceptability to be sure) in Greek

even before Aristotle.

In one of Plato’s early dialogues, the Protagoras, a young man of a ‘great and

prosperous family’ asks Socrates to introduce him to the famous sophist

Protagoras in the hope that by associating with Protagoras he would learn how to

‘make a name for himself (Hamilton and Cairns 1961:316c). Protagoras, under

questioning by Socrates, professes to be able to teach the young man ‘the proper

care of his personal affairs, so that he may best manage his-own household, and

also the city’s affairs, so as to become a real power in the city, both as a speaker

and as a man of action’ (318e), in other words a man to be admired, emulated

and regarded as exemplary. Socrates understands this as the claim to teach aret ,

and he expresses doubts that this can be taught.

Protagoras responds by elaborating a myth about the origins of mankind which

argues that unless a sense of shame (which Aristotle held in the passage above to

be rare) and fair play (justice) were widely distributed, society would be

impossible (322c-d). A corollary of this is an explanation of the observation that

Socrates made when he initially questioned Protagoras, which is that there

appear to be no recognized experts on justice and civic aret ; everyone,

Protagoras explains, is an expert. Protagoras adds to this an analogy (327a) based

on the conceit of a society in which flute playing is regarded as the sine qua non

of social acceptance, and he suggests that in such a society everyone would reach


a very high standard of performance. This, he says, is the situation of Greek

citizens with respect to the (moral) excellences; they all achieve a very high

standard. There are no recognized teachers of the (moral) excellences, because

like the Greek language everyone teaches the younger generation. What happens

as Protagoras elaborates his response is that the sense of ‘excellence’ slips from

meaning ‘exceptional,’ in Protagoras’s initial claim, to meaning (a high standard

of) ‘acceptable.’4

Where this leaves Protagoras’ claim to be able to teach civic leadership

(produce the virtuosos of virtue) is unclear. Plato has his character Socrates pass

to a different line of inquiry without comment. Plato may well have felt that the

weakness of the response he put in Protagoras’ mouth spoke for itself and would

have been obvious to anyone who shared his assumption that some people are born

to rule, so that attempting to acquire the qualities (the excellences) that qualify

one to rule is a very doubtful enterprise. Aristotle for his part shared this

assumption, the obverse of his belief that there are natural slaves; as he puts it in

the Politics, ‘Leading and being lead are not only necessary they are expedient;

indeed some are marked from the hour of their birth for subjection, others for

rule’ (1254a22–4). In particular, Aristotle regarded it as natural for men to rule

over the women and children of their households as well as over some men who

(Section 7.1) were fitted by nature only to be servants (1254b15–25).

Similar attitudes are implicit in the words attributed to Confucius: ‘Women

and servants are most difficult to deal with. If you are familiar with them, they

cease to be humble. If you keep a distance from them, they resent it’ (Chan

1963:XVII.25). Both men accepted the connection between status and

occupation: ‘Certainly the good man, the statesman and the good citizen ought

not to learn the work of inferiors except for their own occasional use, otherwise

the distinction between master and servant ceases to apply’ (1277b4–6).

Confucius sounds apologetic for being able to do menial things: ‘When I was

young I was in humble circumstances, and therefore I acquired much ability to

do the simple things of humble folk. Does a superior man need to have so much

ability? He does not’ (Chan 1963:IX.6).5

The notion of a superior man in Confucius—see Section 4.3 on the contrasts

that Confucius used to identify this sort of person—and the corresponding notion

in Aristotle are both moral and socio-political terms of assessment. The superior

man, if not required to compromise himself in the process (XV.7), is clearly

called on to participate in government (XVIII.7). Aristotle believes that a ruler

ought to have the ethical excellences (1260a15), and when considering whether

the excellence (virtue) of a good citizen and a good man coincide, concludes that

they will wherever ‘citizen’ means someone who takes a turn holding office (a

view that Aristotle favors: 1275a22) and he adds that not thinking of the lower

classes as citizens is no more unreasonable than excluding slaves from

citizenship (1277a13–78a14). When we consider the views of Aristotle and

Confucius on the virtues, we are dealing in each case with qualities thought to be


relatively rare, rather than common, highly desirable, rather than minimal

qualifications (except perhaps for someone who is to wield political power).

While it is true that scandal has been known to ruin the careers of some of our

politicians, we tend to be fairly cynical about our leaders. Confucius for his part

was sensitive to the way in which certain people set the pattern for others to

follow and insisted that those who wanted to rule should take into account the

effects of inevitably being prominent as long as they are dominant. ‘If a ruler sets

himself right, he will be followed without his command. If he does not set

himself right, even his commands will not be obeyed’ (Chan 1963:XIII.6). ‘The

character of a ruler is like wind and that of the people is like grass. In whatever

direction the wind blows, the grass always bends’ (XII.19) (cf. ‘setting an

example,’ XII.7, XIII.1, XIII.2).

This idea of the influence that a ruler can exert may appear exaggerated given

the low esteem in which political leaders are often now held, but we should not

overlook the influence that individuals (sports stars, media personalities, anyone

regarded as ‘successful’) and groups of people (the wealthy and powerful,

members of high-status professions, the outspoken and articulate) exert on our

characters, our attitudes and what we value. We take our cues about how it is

proper to conduct ourselves and what to expect in our institutions from

individuals who are ‘the prominent,’ many of whom are not ‘dominant,’ i.e. have

no power to command or direct us. Confucius hoped to use this mechanism of

influence to correct what he perceived to be the breakdown of good order in

society around him.

In this connection, his attitude to the possibility that people can be made to feel

sufficient shame (ch ih) when their conduct is perceived to be improper stands

in marked contrast to Aristotle’s.

Lead the people with administrative policies and organize them with penal

law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame.

Lead them with te and organize them with ritual actions [li], and they will

have a sense of shame and, moreover, order themselves harmoniously.

(II.3, Hall and Ames 1987:175)

Confucius may be read as addressing a problem closer to that of Kant in that he

is more confident that he can determine what is the right way to behave and is

concerned with how a moral elite can bring it about that enough people follow

this. Aristotle had sufficient confidence in laws and punishments as a social

mechanism and, as we will see (Section 8.4), was more concerned with how the

right sort of elite can function to determine what is the right way to behave.

What Confucius recommends as a mechanism of social control instead of

penal law is a cultural resource that is not commonly given similar emphasis in

the West. Li is often translated ‘ritual’ or ‘rites,’ although by themselves these

English words do not convey much of the force of li in Chinese—particularly its

foundation in social roles and relationships. We have some of what the Chinese


call li, that is rituals from graduation and wedding ceremonies through forms of

dress appropriate on certain occasions (ball gowns, evening dress, military

uniform) to recognized patterns of interaction (introducing people, waiting in

queues, holding doors, sending greetings cards), but we are not in the habit of

warmly recommending conduct in general simply because it conforms to these

patterns and do not see our social identities as tightly bound to the roles we take

in these rituals. The forms and patterns are often treated as necessary

inconveniences, sometimes with contempt. Chan Wing-tsit uses ‘propriety’ to

translate li, which conveys the moral force of the Chinese word, but unless one

remembers the associations that li has with recognized forms (suggested by the

word ‘ritual’), much of its peculiar sense will be lost.

The concept of li covers ceremonies such as sacrifices (including live animal

sacrifice, III.17), how to interact with social superiors and inferiors, how to show

respect for one’s parents (II.5), how to compete with one’s equals amicably (III.

7), how to channel emotional responses such as grief (III.4) and shame (II.3), and

how to dress and conduct oneself on any occasion. The tenth book of the

Analects is almost entirely devoted to the sort of example that Confucius himself

set in matters of dress, conduct and the outward expression of attitude on various

occasions and in various circumstances. Music formed a part of many rituals and

was itself performed according to ritual (just as were archery competitions, III.

7). Confucius’ boast of having rectified the music of Lu (IX.15) and his criticisms

of certain musical forms and styles (‘Banish the tunes of the Cheng…the tunes

of the Cheng are wanton,’ Lau 1979:XV.11) are of a piece with his concern for

the proper conduct of ritual. (These are strikingly similar to the concerns that

Plato expressed that not merely the representational content of the performance

arts in his ideal city should be carefully regulated but also the harmonies and

rhythms that were integral to their performance, Republic 398c–402a.)

Confucius recommended li as an important force both for forming character

and for governing people:

Unless a man has the spirit of the rites (li), in being respectful he will wear

himself out, in being careful he will become timid, in having courage he

will become unruly, and in being forthright, he will become intolerant.

(Lau 1979:VIII.2)

The superior man widely versed in culture but brought back to essentials

by the rites (li) can, I suppose, be relied upon not to turn against what he

stood for.

(ibid.: VI.27)

When those above are given to the observance of the rites (li), the common

people will be easy to command.

(ibid.: XIV.41)


If [a man’s] knowledge is sufficient for him to attain [a position of power],

his humanity (jen) sufficient for him to hold it, and he approaches the

people with dignity, yet does not influence them with the principle[s] of

[ritual] propriety, it is still not good.

(Chan 1963:XV.33)

A later Confucian, Hsün Tzu (fourth century BCE), summed up the place of li in

Confucian thought in this way: ‘He who dwells in ritual and can ponder it well may

be said to know how to think; he who dwells in ritual and does not change his

ways may be said to be steadfast’ (Watson 1963–4: 95). For Confucians, li

represents a grammar of action, the means by which individuals may use their

conduct to communicate with one another, and as a vehicle of thought. By means

of li a ruler does not have either to preach or to legislate proper conduct,

providing he joins his subjects in the continual performance of activities

carefully structured to reflect the social order and the conduct appropriate to each

role within that order.


Where the standard resides

Rituals, laws and sage kings

Just as Kant did not regard external conformity to law as sufficient for merit,

Confucius regarded mere devotion to music and ritual as not enough. ‘If a man is

not humane (jen), what has he to do with ceremonies (li)? If a man is not

humane, what has he to do with music?’ (Chan 1963: III.3). There are two

different approaches to translating the character represented by ‘jen’. One rests

on etymology. The Chinese character is a modestly elaborated version of that for

human being; this suggests that it should function in the way we use ‘a real man’

or ‘humane’ to indicate someone who is in some way or other an exemplary

instance of the human race. The way jen is tied to sensitivity to what other

people want (‘Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire,’ ibid.: XII.

2) supports Chan Wing-tsit’s choice of ‘humane.’ The other approach is to try

from the use of jen in Confucius and later Confucians to identify a functionally

similar term in English. Lau’s choice of ‘benevolent’ combines a near synonym

for ‘humane’ with a characteristic prized highly in Western cultures, that of

‘being well intentioned’ or ‘having a good will’ (being, that is, bene volent)—the

characteristic that we have seen Kant prized above all others, if it informs intense

effort (‘the straining of every means’). The danger inherent in the choice of

‘benevolent’ to translate ‘jen’ is that we will assume too readily that Confucius

shares Kant’s outlook. The safest approach therefore is to adopt Chan’s

translation, understanding ‘humane’ as ‘whatever characteristic makes one an

exemplary human being.’

Asked about jen on various occasions, Confucius says that a mark of being jen

is that a man is loath to speak lest he fail to live up to his words (XII.3), that a


person who is jen reaps a benefit only after overcoming difficulties (VI.22), that

a man of jen never worries (XI.29), that only a man who is jen is capable of love

and hate (VI.3), that only by setting one’s heart on jen can one be free of evil

(VI.4), that few people sustain being jen for any length of time (VI.7), but that

achieving it takes nothing more than desiring it (VII.30). A wise man will be

attracted to jen because of its advantages (IV.2), but no one can be considered

wise unless dwelling in jen (VI.1); indeed, jen appears to be a necessary

condition of wisdom (V.19), as well as a sufficient but not a necessary condition

of being a superior person (XIV.6). There are lists of lesser excellences that a

person with jen may be expected to possess, ‘A man who is strong, resolute,

simple and slow to speak is near to humanity (jen)’ (XIII.27). Also,

‘Earnestness, liberality, truthfulness, diligence, and generosity’ (Chan VII.6; cf.

‘respectfulness, tolerance, trustworthiness in word, quickness and generosity’,

Lau 1979). The closest that Confucius comes to a definition is ‘To master

oneself and return to [ritual] propriety (li) is humanity (jen)’ (Chan 1963:XII.1).

It is interesting that the Japanese, who use an identifiably Confucian

vocabulary to articulate their moral outlook, seem not to find much use for this

trait of character, which to some extent softens and introduces flexibility into the

otherwise stringent demands for unquestioning obedience to those above one in

family (parents, older brothers) and society (the emperor). In Japan, Benedict

reports (1946:117–19), the kanji character pronounced ‘jin’ and used in phrases

referring to acts (‘doing jingi’) is that which the Chinese use for jen. But ‘doing

jingi’ is used to refer to activity outside the law, either ‘above and beyond’

(charity, mercy) or in the sense of ‘outlaw’—as in the honor (‘among thieves’)

that binds people who are acting contrary to what law requires. In neither case

does it attract much approval or admiration. ‘The Japanese, [have] entirely

reinterpreted and demoted the crucial virtue of the Chinese system and put

nothing else in its place that might make gimu [unconditional obligation to the

emperor, one’s parents or one’s work] conditional’ (119). Only in Japanese

Buddhism does jin have positive connotations, as in the phrase ‘knowing jin,’

which refers to the mercy and benevolence characteristic of an ideal person


In Confucius, much less is said about another evidently central quality of

human beings, yi, commonly translated as ‘righteousness.’6 At one point,

Confucius declares that the superior man regards yi to be supreme, at least over

the quality of courage. ‘When the superior man has courage but no righteousness,

he becomes turbulent. When the inferior man has courage but not righteousness

[yi], he becomes a thief’ (Chan 1963:XVII.23). (Two further passages connect

the superior man to an interest in and understanding of yi: VI.10, VI.16.) A

Confucian of the second century BCE, Tung Chung-shu, suggests a connection

between yi and correction or rectification, ‘[yi] consists in correcting oneself and

not in correcting others. If one is not correct himself, he cannot be considered

righteous (yi) even if he can correct others’ (ibid.: 286, with ‘correct’ for

‘rectify’). Understood in this way, jen, as mastering or ‘controlling’ (Lau:

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