The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics) (45 page)

BOOK: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics)
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In contrast with the idealised image of the traditional scholar, frail and delicate, living among books, the
shows that Confucius was adept at outdoor activities: he was an accomplished sportsman, he was expert at handling horses, he practised archery, he was fond of hunting and fishing. He was a bold and tireless traveller in a time when travel was a difficult and hazardous adventure; he was constantly moving from country to country (pre-imperial China was a mosaic of autonomous states, speaking different dialects but sharing a common culture—a situation somewhat comparable with that of modern Europe). At times, he was in great physical danger and narrowly escaped ambushes set by his political enemies. Once, in despair at his lack of success in trying to convert the civilised world to his ways, he contemplated going abroad and settling among the barbarians. On another occasion, he toyed with the idea of sailing away on a seagoing raft, such as were used in his time for ocean voyages (this daring plan was to puzzle to no end the less adventurous scholars of later ages).

Confucius was a man of action—audacious and heroic—but ultimately he was also a tragic figure. This has perhaps not been sufficiently perceived.

The fundamental misconception that developed regarding Confucius is summed up by the label under which imperial China undertook to worship him—and, at the same time, to neutralise the subversive potential originally contained in his political message. For 2,000 years, Confucius was canonised as China’s First and Supreme
(his birthday—28 September—is still celebrated as Teachers’ Day in China). This is a cruel irony. Of course, Confucius devoted much attention to education but he never considered teaching his first and real calling. His true vocation was politics. He had a mystical faith in his political mission.

Confucius lived in a period of historical transition, in an age of acute cultural crisis. In one fundamental respect, there was a certain similarity between his time and ours:
he was witnessing the collapse of civilisation
—he saw his world sinking into violence and barbarity. Five hundred years before him, a universal feudal order had been established, unifying the entire civilised world: this was the achievement of one of China’s greatest cultural heroes, the Duke of Zhou.
But now the Zhou tradition was no longer operative, the Zhou world was falling apart. Confucius believed that Heaven had chosen him to become the spiritual heir to the Duke of Zhou and that he should revive his grand design, restore the world order on a new ethical basis, and salvage the entire civilisation.

is suffused with the unshakable belief Confucius had in his heavenly mission. He constantly prepared for it; in fact, the recruitment and training of his disciples was part of his political plan. He spent virtually his entire life wandering from state to state in the hope of finding an enlightened ruler who would at last give him a chance and employ him and his team—who would entrust him with a territory, however small, where he might establish a model government. All his efforts were in vain. The problem was not that he was politically ineffectual or impractical—on the contrary. The elite of his disciples had superior competences and talents, and they formed around him a sort of shadow cabinet: there was a specialist in foreign affairs and diplomacy, there were experts in finance, administration and defence. With such a team, Confucius presented a formidable challenge to the established authorities: dukes and princes felt incapable of performing up to his standards, and their respective ministers knew that, should Confucius and his disciples ever get a foothold at court, they themselves would quickly be without employment. Wherever he went, Confucius was usually received with much respect and formal courtesy at first; in practice, however, not only did he find no political opening, but cabals eventually forced him to leave. Sometimes, even, local hostility swiftly developed and, quite literally, he had to run for his life. Early in his career, Confucius had once, briefly, been in office at a fairly low level; after that, never again in his life was he to occupy any official position.

From this point of view, one may truly say that Confucius’s career was a total and colossal failure. An admiring posterity of disciples were reluctant to contemplate this stark reality: the humiliating failure of a spiritual leader is always a most disturbing paradox which the ordinary faithful cannot easily come to terms with. (Consider again the case of Jesus: it took 300 years before Christians became able to confront the
of the cross.[

Thus, the tragic reality of Confucius as failed politician was replaced by the glorious myth of Confucius the Supreme Teacher.


Politics—as I have just indicated—was Confucius’s first and foremost concern; but, more generally, this is also true of ancient Chinese philosophy. On the whole (with the only
exception of the Daoist, Zhuang Zi), early Chinese thought essentially revolved around two questions: the harmony of the universe and the harmony of society—in other words, cosmology and politics.

The eremitic life may be tempting for a sage, but since we are neither birds nor beasts, we cannot escape among them; we must associate with our fellow men. And when the world loses the Way, the sage has a moral duty to reform society and to set it back on track.

Politics is an extension of ethics: “Government is synonymous with righteousness. If the king is righteous, how could anyone dare to be crooked?” The government is of men, not of laws (to this very day, this remains one of the most dangerous flaws in the Chinese political tradition). Confucius had a deep distrust of laws: laws invite people to become tricky and bring out the worst in them. The true cohesion of a society is secured not through legal rules but through ritual observances. The central importance of
in the Confucian order may at first appear disconcerting to some Western readers (conjuring up in their minds quaint images of smiling Oriental gentlemen, bowing endlessly to each other), but the oddity is merely semantic; one needs only to substitute for the word “rites” concepts such as “
,” “civilised usages,” “moral conventions” or even “common decency” and one immediately realises that the Confucian values are remarkably close to the principles of political philosophy that the Western world inherited from the Enlightenment. Montesquieu in particular (who, paradoxically, did not share in the Chinese euphoria of his time, as he detected a ruthless despotism at work in the political practice of eighteenth-century China) developed notions that unwittingly recapitulated Confucius’s views that a government of rites is to be preferred to
a government of laws; Montesquieu considered that an increase in law-making activity was not a sign of civilisation—it indicated on the contrary a breakdown of social morality, and his famous statement, “
Quand un peuple a de bonnes mæurs, les lois deviennent simples
,” could have been lifted straight from the

According to Confucius, a king leads by his moral power. If he cannot set a moral example—if he cannot maintain and promote rituals and music (the two hallmarks of civilisation)—he forfeits the loyalty of his ministers and the trust of the people. The ultimate asset of the state is the trust of the people in their rulers: if that trust is lost, the country is doomed.

Confucius often said that if only a ruler could employ him, in one year he would achieve a lot, and in three years he would succeed. One day a disciple asked him, “If a king were to entrust you with a territory which you could govern according to your ideas, what would you do first?” Confucius replied, “My first task would certainly be
to rectify the names
.” On hearing this, the disciple was puzzled. “Rectify the names? And that would be your first priority? Is this a joke?” (Chesterton or Orwell, however, would have immediately understood and approved the idea.) Confucius had to explain: “If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language is without an object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless and impossible. Hence, the very first task of a true statesman is to rectify the names.”

And this is, in fact, what Confucius himself endeavoured to do. One can read the
as an attempt to redefine the true sense of a series of key concepts. Under the guise of restoring their full meaning, Confucius actually injected a new content into the old “names.” Here I shall give only one example, but it is of momentous importance: the notion of “gentleman” (
, Confucius’s ideal man). Originally it meant an aristocrat, a member of the
elite: one did not become a gentleman, one could only be
a gentleman. For Confucius, on the contrary, the “gentleman” is a member of the
elite. It is an ethical quality, achieved by the practice of virtue, and secured through education. Every man should strive for it, even though few may reach
it. An aristocrat who is immoral and uneducated (the two notions of morality and learning are synonymous) is not a gentleman, whereas any commoner can attain the status of gentleman if he proves morally qualified. As only gentlemen are fit to rule, political authority should be devolved purely on the criteria of moral achievement and intellectual competence. Therefore, in a proper state of affairs, neither birth nor money should secure power. Political authority should pertain exclusively to those who can demonstrate moral and intellectual qualifications.

This view was to have revolutionary consequences: it was the single most devastating ideological blow that furthered the destruction of the feudal system and sapped the power of the hereditary aristocracy, and it led eventually to the establishment of the bureaucratic empire—the government of the scholars. For more than 2,000 years, the empire was to be ruled by the intellectual elite; to gain access to political power, one had to compete successfully in the civil service examinations, which were open to all. Until modern times, this was certainly the most open, flexible, fair and sophisticated system of government known to history (it was the very system that impressed and inspired the European
of the eighteenth century).


It is often remarked that the most successful and dynamic societies of East and South-East Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) share a common Confucian culture. Should one therefore conclude that the
might actually yield a secret formula that would make it possible elsewhere to inject energy into flagging economies and to mobilise and motivate a slovenly citizenry?

The prosperity of a modern state is a complex phenomenon that can hardly be ascribed to one single factor. Yet there is indeed one common feature that characterises the various “Confucian” societies—but it should be observed that this same feature can also be found in other social or ethnic groups (for instance, certain Jewish communities of the Western world) which are equally creative and
prosperous and yet do not present any connection with the Confucian tradition—and it is the extraordinary importance which these societies all attach to
. Any government, any community or any family willing to invest a considerable proportion of its energy and resources in education is bound to reap cultural, social and economic benefits comparable to those currently being achieved by the thriving “Confucian” states of Asia, or by some dynamic and wealthy migrant minorities of the Western world.

In affirming that the government and administration of the state should be exclusively entrusted to a moral and intellectual elite of “gentlemen,” Confucius established an enduring and decisive link between education and political power: only the former could provide access to the latter. In modern times, even after the abrogation of the civil service examination system and the fall of the empire, although education ceased to be the key to political authority—which, in this new situation, was more likely to come out of the barrel of a gun—the prestige traditionally attached to culture continued to survive in the mentality of the Confucian societies: the educated man, however poor and powerless, still commanded more respect than the wealthy or the powerful.

Confucian education was open to all—rich and poor, noble and plebeian. Its purpose was primarily
: intellectual achievement was only a means towards the end of ethical self-cultivation. There was an optimistic belief in the all-pervasive power of education. It was assumed that errant behaviour came from a faulty understanding, a lack of knowledge: if only the delinquent could be taught and be made to perceive the mistaken nature of his actions, he would naturally amend his ways. (The Maoist concept of “re-education” that was to generate such dreadful excesses at the time of the “Cultural Revolution” was in fact one of the many unconscious resurgences of the Confucian mentality, which paradoxically permeated the psychological substructure of Maoism.)

Most importantly, Confucian education was humanistic and universalist. As the Master said, “A gentleman is not a pot” (or also, “A gentleman is not a tool”)—meaning that his capacity should not have a specific limit, nor his usefulness a narrow application. What matters
is not to accumulate technical information and specialised expertise, but to develop one’s humanity. Education is not about
, it is about

Confucius once rebuffed quite rudely a disciple who asked him about agronomy: “Better ask any old peasant!” For this reason, it is often alleged now that Confucianism inhibited the development of science and technology in China. But there are no real grounds for such an accusation. Simply, in these matters Confucius’s concerns centred on education and culture—not on training and technique, which are separate issues altogether—and it is difficult to see how one could address these topics any differently, whether in Confucius’s time or in ours. (C.P. Snow’s famous notion of the “Two Cultures” rested on a basic fallacy: it ignored the fact that, like humanity itself, culture can only be one, by its very definition. I have no doubt that a scientist can be—and probably should be—better cultivated than a philosopher, a Latinist or a historian, but if he is, it is because he reads philosophy, Latin and history in his leisure time.)

BOOK: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics)
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