Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Philosophy comprehends life as a question

Confucianism Is Philosophy Not Religion By Taru Taylor
Contributing Writer The Seoul Times Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Confucianism is much misunderstood. The United Nations, for example, classifies it as a religion. Big mistake. Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion. What's the difference? Religion believes in god as the final answer. Philosophy comprehends life as a question. Confucianism is a disciplined ethical inquiry — a moral philosophy.
To really understand a moral philosophy one must understand its heroes. Its idealists, not men of action. Here in South Korea that means Confucius and Mencius.
They are tour guides of the magical mystery tour that is Asian civilization. Consider "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" as an analogy. Wonderland is Asian civilization. Alice is every human being who would enter the rabbit-hole into Asian civilization. The White Rabbits are Confucius and Mencius. Notice I said that Confucius and Mencius "are" the White Rabbits, not "were."
Moral philosophy is timeless. Right and wrong never really change. Thus, it is folly to dismiss Confucius and Mencius as mere ancient philosophers of antiquarian interest. It is presumptuous to consider their words only with reference to times past, as if they have nothing pertinent to say to us now.
Many of their political and economic speculations are dated. Obsolete. But that's beside the point. For the theme that persists throughout "The Analects of Confucius" and "The Works of Mencius" is that ethics trumps politics; ethics trumps economics. They insist that the Confucian, as such, must do right even when it is more prudent and more profitable for him to do wrong.
Civilization is like Alice's Wonderland because it is not straight and narrow. It is circuitous and meandering. Mysterious. There is no map; only a compass. Every civilized person is his own pathfinder. There are no leaders or followers. But there are tour guides.
"The Great Learning" and "The Doctrine of the Mean" are the first two of the four Confucian classics. Taken together they provide the moral compass for every person who would find his way through the magical mystery tour of Asian civilization. Again, the other two Confucian classics, "The Analects of Confucius" and "The Works of Mencius." provide tour guides for every Alice who would adventure in the Wonderland of Asian civilization.
Civilization considers every person to be his own authority. Authoritarianism, which is about select leaders finding the right way for everybody else, is diametrically opposed to Confucian civilization. Thus Confucius and Mencius are tour guides, not leaders. Their charges are active disciples, not passive followers.
Confucius speaks to his role as guide, not leader, in Book 18 Chapter 8 of "The Analects." Po-i, Shu-chi, Yu-chung, I-yi, Chu-chang, Hui of Liu-hsia, and Shao-lien, great leaders of his own past, he characterizes with sincere respect. He then characterizes himself: "I am different from all these. I have no course for which I am predetermined, and no course against which I am predetermined."
In Book 7 Part 1 Chapter 26 of "The Works," Mencius distinguishes his role, as a philosophical guide, from the ideological leader. He reports that Yang led men according to the selfish principle: "Each man for himself." That Mo led men according to the altruistic principle: "Love all equally." And that Tsze-mo led men as a mediator between the two. Mencius describes Yang's and Mo's as "one-point principles." conceding that Tsze-mo's was better as a "two-point principle." But just as two wrongs don't make a right, two points don't make a philosophy.
Whereas Yang, Mo and Tsze-mo led according to one-point and two-point ideologies, Mencius guided according to the philosophy of "right principle." As he put it, "The reason why I hate that holding to one point is the injury it does to the way of right principle. It takes up one point and disregards a hundred others."
When Confucius speaks of being neither for nor against any predetermined course, and when Mencius speaks of right principle, what they both speak of, in a word, is circumspection.
Circumspection involves looking at a circumstance as a sphere of infinite sides, not as a coin of two. It characterizes the baduk player who places the stone according to the logic of the board, not a formula. It is the operative word of Confucianism because every Confucian must solve the problems of right and wrong on his own.
Confucianism is a philosophy of personal moral responsibility. It is an existential code of ethics. It is therefore, in essence, neither political, nor economic, nor social. It is no less individualistic than Western Utilitarianism.
Unlike Utilitarianism, which sees the individual as a pleasure-seeker, Confucianism sees him as a moral agent. The Confucian does not pursue happiness. He does the right thing.
The Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived a "hedonistic calculus" for every Utilitarian to calculate maximal pleasure and minimal pain. This is the Western counterpart of the Confucian's moral compass. Enlightened self-interest on the one hand; circumspection on the other.
To every South Korean I ask — Which are you? Pleasure-seeker? Or problem-solver? The Utilitarian maximizing his pleasure just as the businessman maximizes his profit? Or the Confucian solving the problems of civilization just as the baduk player solves the problems of the 361-point board? Imitation Westerner? Or Easterner in command of modern science and technology?
If you have any views visit the discussion board. Related Articles The Children Are Our Present Racism at the University Black History Month: Who Needs It? Mr. Taru Taylor, who teaches English at Sangmyung University in Seoul writes opinion pieces for The Seoul Times. Mr. Taylor majored in philosophy at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College. His minor was English Literature there. He has been writing columns and other opinion pieces for many newspapers and publications including college ones.

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