East and West echo the sage: ‘The ideal society is like a family’


This story is part of a package on Confucius. The introduction is here.

Is Confucius dead?

He walked the Earth more than 2,500 years ago, his thinking focused even then on the remote past. Why bother with him today?

The eminence of his name, combined with aspects of his teachings that seem to favor absolute rule and unconditional obedience, have made him a convenient prop for Asian tyrants seeking to justify their dictatorships.

But does he have anything meaningful to say to the rest of us? Confucius, after all, knew little of technological change. We know nothing of stasis. To us, yesterday’s wisdom seems obsolete today. To him, a filial son was one who made no change to his father’s ways until the father had been dead at least three years. What can our globalized universe possibly learn from such a sage?

A good deal, argues a book titled “Confucianism for the Modern World.” The volume is a collection of essays by 18 scholars, Asian and Western, who evaluate the master’s legacy in terms of its contemporary relevance. Their point is that the incoherences and dissonances of our time have more in common than outward appearance might suggest with those that troubled Confucius 2Emillennia ago Eand that we, too, would be the better for a stiff dose of li.

Li is generally translated as “rites” or “rituals,” but those words, with their connotation of empty forms, strike the wrong note. Think of it instead, suggests contributor Hahm Chaihark, a professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University, as “a marvelous combination of education, self-cultivation, training, discipline, restraint, authority and legitimacy.”

For Hahm, li served as a kind of unwritten premodern constitution, a constraint on government absolutism rather than an encouragement of it.

“For example,” he writes, “during the Choson dynasty in Korea (1392-1910), the central bureaucracy included many offices” Estaffed by experts in li E”whose explicit duties were to educate, correct and criticize the behavior of the ruler.”

It’s a model worthy of careful study, Hahm maintains, for “once the citizens of modern East Asian countries begin to emulate their Confucian scholar-official ancestors, who first disciplined themselves with ritual propriety and then demanded the ruler’s discipline, their countries will become constitutionalist states.”

Skeptics doubt a globalized regime’s capacity to nourish civilized values beyond mass entertainment and mass consumption. Geir Helgesen, senior researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in Copenhagen, warns in his essay in the book of globalization’s tendency to overwhelm the individual and trigger “a retreat into personal, private spheres of interest .EE ” Accordingly, he says, “globalization might turn out to be a much more effective enemy of democracy than the totalitarian ideologies of the recent past ever were.”

So, should we disembark from the Internet and dust off our copies of “The Analects”? Maybe we should.

Helgesen cites a recent South Korean survey showing 89 percent of respondents agreeing with Confucius that “a leader should care for the people as parents for their children.” Ninety-one percent felt comfortable with the orthodox Confucian notion that “The objective of good government is to maintain harmonious social relations.” For 87 percent, as of course for Confucius, “The ideal society is like a family.”

Well, that’s South Korea, the Confucian nation par excellence. But Helgesen’s institute also conducted a similar survey in Denmark. “To our surprise,” he reports, “75 percent of Danish respondents agreed that ‘the ideal society is like a family.’E

What should we conclude from that? This at least, says Helgesen: “By teaching a social morality which stresses proper rituals based on the emotional pattern people recognize from family life, Confucianism may well have something to offer [our] ‘runaway world.'”

For other stories in our package on Confucius, please click the following links:
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