Supposing we think of the universe this way: there is Heaven and there is Earth; nothing else — no other worlds, no gods. “Heaven” is roughly analogous to what we moderns call “Nature.” Heaven’s laws, however, unlike Nature’s, are moral, not physical.

Two substances pervade this universe: ki and ri . Ki, roughly, is matter and energy fused. Ri, equally roughly, is “principle.”

Every material thing in the universe is composed of ki; every phenomenon is governed by ri. Modern education doesn’t prepare us for this kind of thinking, but in 17th- and 18th-century Japan, as in China for thousands of years until very recent times, it came more or less naturally. The corollary is that according to Confucian philosophy — for that is what we’re dealing with — good government is government in harmony with the universe. Misrule is not. Misrule riles Heaven.

Airy stuff — but the intellectual discord it sparked shook premodern Japan and reverberated deep into the 20th century. The fall of the shoguns in the 1860s, the descent into war in the 1930s — we’re peering into the cauldron of generation. Those who stirred it little knew what they brewed.

The three representative philosophers of the time are Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725), Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) and Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) — Hakuseki the fundamentalist, Sorai the rebel, Motoori the unwitting revolutionary.

“This year,” wrote Hakuseki in 1708, “draws to a close with no end of heavenly portents and natural calamities.”

A natural calamity was a heavenly portent — of heavenly ki out of whack; of the ruler’s moral unfitness. If the ruler is good, the people are good and happy; evil and unhappiness among the people prove the ruler’s depravity even without natural calamities such as the eruption of Mount Fuji in 1707, or the drought that in December 1708 was parching Edo (present-day Tokyo) — more than parching it; Edo was a metropolis built of wood; the risk of fire was terrifying. The shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, could not but be implicated. Just and wise government does not “disturb ki” — volcanoes do not erupt; rain falls as needed.

Tsunayoshi died on Feb. 19, 1709. “That day,” Hakuseki noted with satisfaction, “it rained toward nightfall.”

Hakuseki, rising in influence under Tsunayoshi’s successor, Ienobu, steered Japan into a reign of “rites and music.” Why did natural calamities abound? Why had both Tsunayoshi and his predecessor failed to produce heirs? Because, said Hakuseki, “at present rites and music are not properly practiced, and there are places where the ki of Heaven and Earth is disturbed.”

The reforms that followed, of official dress, official ceremonies and the music performed on official occasions, strike us as shockingly pettifogging, but thinking was different then, and Hakuseki’s aim was as high as the cosmos. Suitable rites and music, he taught, would rectify the government. Rectified government would purify the morals of the lower orders. “The ki of Heaven and Earth” would be appeased. And Heaven once more would smile on Japan.

Nonsense, fumed Sorai.

Sorai never acquired the political clout Hakuseki wielded, but Hakuseki himself soon fell from grace, Ienobu dying in 1712 and subsequent shoguns proving less amenable to Hakuseki’s brand of Confucianism. Sorai made his mark more as a teacher than as a government counselor — but it was a very deep mark indeed.

What he did in effect was detach government from “Heaven.” The Way of Confucius was inherent not, as Hakuseki supposed, in the cosmos but in the human heart. Confucius himself had said so 2,000 years earlier, as Hakuseki would have known had he not been distracted by the neo-Confucianism originating in 12th-century China, an altogether more abstract — more “cosmic” — line of thought. What Sorai urged, in effect, was a movement back to Confucius.

And he urged the study of poetry — ancient Chinese poetry primarily, but Japanese poetry, too, for “these poems are the ones to which people of ancient times responded with joy and sorrow.” Moral principles are drawn not from the cosmos but from human “joy and sorrow.” The poets knew that better than anyone, and knew better than anyone how to express it. “Abstract theories are irrelevant here,” said Sorai in a sly dig at Hakuseki. Was not the “Book of Odes” (or songs, or poems) one of the ancient Confucian classics? Of course it was. Why, then, had Hakuseki neglected it?

Norinaga, the third actor in our little drama, born two years after Sorai’s death, rose to prominence in the 1760s as a disciple of Sorai’s. He, too, revered poetry; he, too, respected human feeling above all else — far above all else. His famous concept of mono no aware (the pathos of things) seems at first blush a variation on Sorai’s ninjo (human emotions). Perhaps it was at first, but Norinaga went to extremes Sorai would not have contemplated. He was led at last to renounce Confucianism altogether in favor of an ecstatic nativism whose role, two generations after his death, in the overthrow of the shoguns in favor of the divine Emperor would no doubt have pleased him — but what would he have thought of the strutting militarists of the 1930s, many of whom strutted with his name and his poetry on their lips and in their hearts?

It’s hard to know what to make of Norinaga. He seems beautiful and repulsive at the same time. He wrote, “If we constantly devote ourselves to the way of poetry … our hearts will naturally become polished and gentle. … We will be captivated by the flowers and birds, and our eyes will be delighted by the moon and the snow.”

He also wrote, “Our august country is the august country of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. It is the beautiful and magnificent august country superior to all other countries. … In foreign countries, though, there is no correct transmission of the age of the gods. … Instead they … believe that everything is established through reason. This is very foolish.”

Michael Hoffman’s forthcoming book is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”

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