Suppose Confucianism had prevailed? We’d have “rites and music” instead of law; filial piety instead of democracy and free-market capitalism. The ruler would radiate paternal benevolence and we, his subject-children, would respond with respect and obedience. Would we be worse off?
Most people would say yes, we would be. Few of us are satisfied with the way we’re governed or the people we elect to govern us, and yet, strangely enough, democracy itself is rarely called into question. The modern alternatives — communism, fascism, Japanese militarism — disgraced themselves horribly in the last century, which seemed to settle the issue once and for all in democracy’s favor. Confucianism? Ancient, quaint, charming — but relevant? How can it possibly be?
Rites and music: It sounds crazy. Yet one of early-modern Japan’s great thinkers, Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725), meditating on the shogun’s failure to beget an heir, wrote: “At present, rites and music are not properly practiced. … Thus, without the assistance of the gods and spirits, it is possible that the principle of germination cannot be achieved.”
To Japan in its formative years, say the fifth to ninth centuries, inclusive, Chinese civilization was civilization — period. And Confucianism, as part and parcel of it, was indiscriminately absorbed along with Buddhism, Chinese literature, Chinese art and everything else China had to offer a dazzled young neighbor not long out of the Stone Age.
But Confucian Japan, or rather neo-Confucian Japan, lay far in the future. Its zenith was in the 17th and 18th centuries, aftermath of a century and more of civil war that had torn the country apart, sowing death, misery and mayhem everywhere. Peace came at last under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867). The country was unified, closed to outsiders, and ruled by a dynasty of shoguns under the guidance of Confucian scholars, Arai prominent among them.
Peace, tranquility and agricultural self-sufficiency — not, as in our restless and insatiable age, progress, technology, trade, productivity and prosperity — were the aims, which meant aligning national affairs with what the West, following the Ancient Greek thinker Pythagoras, called the “music of the spheres.”
The corresponding Confucian term is li — usually translated “principle,” for want of a better word, but the concept is similar: a moral, rhythmic, orderly quality that pervades the universe and in tune with which we must live if we are to be fully human and not beasts.
Pythagoras (c. 580-c. 500 B.C.) and Confucius (551-479 B.C.) were near contemporaries — a beguiling coincidence
By Arai’s time, cracks were marring the orderly facade. No one had planned it — certainly not the Confucians — but there it was: a burgeoning money economy that sprang up, grew like a rank weed in a well- tended garden, and turned everything topsy- turvy as it enriched the lowly merchants, impoverished the warrior-aristocracy and caused (so it was generally thought) famines that wracked the land and seemed at times to threaten the social order.
Rites and music. “The ancient kings always employed rites and music in governing the realm and state,” wrote Arai. “Now … the time has come for a flourishing of rites and music.”
The “ancient kings” were the semi-mythical Chinese sage-kings who had ruled some 500 years before Confucius. Confucius himself looked to them as his ideal rulers, and to their era as a Golden Age to the like of which latter-day sages must guide mankind’s return — by recovering the old rites and music.
People nowadays look ahead to the boundless future. Confucius and Confucianists looked back — very far back — to a time before degeneracy and corruption had set in.
Arai, of course, was a “reactionary.” What Confucianist wasn’t? But he was a reformer too, in his own way. He reformed the coming-of-age ceremony for sons of the shogun. He reformed the forms of dress and ritual for official shogunal processions. He reformed the music performed on official occasions at the shogun’s castle.
Our instinctive response to all this is: So what? This is fiddling while Rome burns — isn’t it? What have official dress and music to do with famine and social unrest?
A great deal, to a Confucian. Where we see an economic problem, Confucians saw a moral one. All problems were moral — all solutions, too. Correct dress, correct music, correct ceremonies among the rulers would, Arai thought, bring the people back to the universal li — to morality, in other words, or virtue, which alone assured peace and prosperity.
Why, it might be asked, should we bother with this old stuff? Is there a point, beyond simply marveling at its weirdness? It actually gets weirder, as you go more deeply into it. Japanese Confucianists were not all of a piece. There were fierce disagreements among them: Does morality originate in heavenly li, or in the human heart? Did the ancient sage-kings civilize mankind by, so to speak, bringing li down to Earth — or did they pervert us by turning us away from nature and the natural virtue within us?
Each point of view spawned its school, and the arguments spun and spun, growing (at least to a nonspecialist) cloudier and cloudier. All this at a time when Western philosophers — John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith — were teaching radical new concepts: tolerance, the social contract, the free market. Here was the future, in embryo.
What Japanese thinkers saw of that future — they did see some of it, as the money economy flourished and the merchant class rose — they abhorred and sought to staunch. It was a losing battle but not an ignoble one. Toward the end of his career, Arai wrote, “I did not begrudge to give my life. Never for a moment did I forget my wish to make the people of the entire land residents of a world of great peace.”
Suppose he and his thinking had prevailed. Would we now be living in “a world of great” — if petrified — “peace”?
Michael Hoffman’s latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).