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  • Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Wm. Theodore de Bary . Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good. Cambridge (MA) and London: Harvard University Press, 2004. xiv, 256 pp. Hardcover $24.95, ISBN 0-674-01557-6.

The subject of this book is the "evolving concepts of leadership ('nobility') and public morality ('civility') in several Asian traditions," which the author, Wm. Theodore de Bary, hopes may contribute to humanizing the globalizing process. It was also "the subject of workshops and colloquia" held by the author "with colleagues and students at Columbia (University) in 2002-03." De Bary says he is not offering "exact prescriptions for present problems," but is rather aiming to facilitate awareness of the ideals of people in the past and the ways as well as the problems involved in implementing them, so that engaged intellectuals and responsible citizens can avoid seeking easy technical solutions and quick fixes to today's dilemmas. Without this awareness, he says, "one can expect that the globalizing process may well be degrading, dehumanizing, and destructive of the earth, beyond anything seen in the past" (pp. xii-xiii).

Because de Bary sees Neo-Confucian utopianism as having gained "central ground" and "axial positions" (p. 227) in Chinese and East Asian life, he holds unrelentingly to its vision of an ideal social order, not as a set of fixed eternal verities but as dynamically evolving historic virtues, such as nobility and civility. Knowing well that this perfect society is perhaps impossible to achieve, he, like Confucius, has nonetheless kept trying to point to this ideal throughout his teaching career. His "noble person," as part of the ruling elite, is first and foremost selfcultivated for the task of governance. Like Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 (989-1052), de Bary is "First in worrying about the world's worries and last in enjoying its pleasures" (p. 122), working ceaselessly as an educator toward the proper governance of a society where everyone has a place to live and flourish.

With this Neo-Confucian ideal as the fluid paradigm from which he gets his "bearings" (p. 227), de Bary selects from a wealth of different sacred texts from the Asian traditions and interprets them with consistent erudition to show how in practice they match up to or deviate from this ideal. Some of his selections are from Indian Theravāda Buddhism, the Hindu Ramāyāna, and the Bhagavad Gītā, from Chinese Mahāyāna and Chan (Zen) Buddhism, and from the Japanese synthesis of these (and Confucianism as well) that resulted in the fashioning of instruments of loyalty to the state such as found in the Bushidō code. Half of de Bary's book is taken up with the contested and ambiguous nature of notions of nobility and civility, not only between different Asian textual traditions but also within each one. It would be facile to define such notions as static and unchanging, [End Page 71] as fixed in sacred texts, especially considering the complexity that has evolved within changing historical conditions.

De Bary's involvement in educating people toward these high ideals, particularly in the university context, may represent too slow a process (as he himself admits) "to overtake the impassioned violence breaking out all over the twenty-first century world" (p. 233). For him it is only a long, sustained educational process that is "genuinely respectful of human dignity, shared in all its manifest diversity" (p. 233), that can begin to approach his ideal of leadership for the greatest common good.

In Chinese culture, scholars traditionally could only offer advice to the ruler but had little in the way of political authority. Echoing Huang Zongxi 黃宗 羲 (1610-1695), de Bary calls for the establishment of a constitution and a legal system to protect good people of conscience from the arbitrary use and misuse of power by corrupt authorities. Also, like the great educator Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) with his "community compact," which penetrated down to the rice-roots of rural China, de Bary advocates strong social institutions where public opinion can be fostered, informed, and given a voice. Rulers in China (as elsewhere) need...


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