Books / Reviews

‘In Search of the Way’: looks for enlightenment

by Damian Flanagan

﷯Towards the end of the 16th century, emerging from the chaos of centuries-old civil war, four radically different belief systems— Christianity, Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism — competed for adherents.

In Search of the Way, by Richard Bowring.
352 pages
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, Nonfiction.

Christianity, associated with foreign imperialism and split by European rivalries, dropped out early, while the diverse, often unruly sects of Buddhism were tainted by association with the constant disruptions of the Middle Ages.

In an age that looked for creeds of social order and authoritarian certainty, Confucianism assumed unprecedented importance. Yet as Richard Bowring points out in this magisterial intellectual history, the Chinese sages’ vision of the perfect society — assuming centralized power and a class of scholar administrators — was profoundly mismatched with the reality of diverse fiefdoms controlled by samurai warriors.

Attempting to fit the Confucian model — already transformed to modern needs in China by various schools of “Neo-Confucianism” — would prompt furious intellectual debates and numerous ingenious attempts to meld it with the native traditions of Shinto. Meanwhile, the Confucian order created unforeseen social paradoxes — the burgeoning wealth of lowly merchants and the impoverishment of samurai.

Edo Period (1603-1868)Japan may have been shielded by national seclusion from European enlightenment, but its contemplation of complex philosophical systems was profound. This is a fascinating guide to the battle to create an intellectual system, backed by official patronage, that could claim both textual legitimacy and make sense of a uniquely Japanese reality.