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  • Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China
  • James Behuniak Jr. (bio)
Mark Csikszentmihalyi . Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 66. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2004. vi, 410 pp. Hardcover $175.00, ISBN 90-04-14196-0.

These are exciting times to be engaged in the study of Warring States thought. Over the past four decades, archeologists have unearthed several period documents, among them a number of long-lost and previously unknown writings. As these writings return to circulation after millennia, unprecedented advancements in understanding become possible. The challenges faced in dealing with these newly recovered documents, however, are manifold. There exist the obvious challenges of recovery, redaction, and translation, but there exist the equally important challenges of identifying the authorship and pedigree of any newly recovered text, and of providing a context in which to understand its message within a larger framework of thought.

Mark Csikszentmihalyi's Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China undertakes to meet these challenges in relation to one recently recovered text, an early treatise titled Wuxing 五行 or Five Kinds of Action. Csikszentmihalyi proposes we understand this text within the framework of a "conversation" among Warring States philosophers regarding the potential conflict among cardinal virtues. In China, as in ancient Greece, "the issue of the potential disagreement between the virtues was an important one" (p. 7). This "conversation" is made urgent, suggests the author, as it takes place in the face of growing opposition to a particular strain of the Ru 儒 or "Erudite" (also known as the "Confucian") tradition. In response to this growing opposition, the Wuxing forwards an ideal of sagacity that entails the unifying internalization of virtues such that one "acts from" those virtues rather than being motivated to act in accordance with the stipulated goodness of the act itself-stipulations that lend themselves to conflicts in principle. This new ideal of sagacity, consistent in many ways with what is called "virtue ethics" in the West, provides the Ru a resolution to the problem of moral consistency. Meanwhile, it serves as a response to contemporary charges of moral hypocrisy and pretentiousness directed at the Ru.

Of prime interest to Csikszentmihalyi is the fact that the ideal of sagacity in the Wuxing is related to transformations in the physical body. The face taking on a "jade coloration," the senses becoming more acute, and the qi 氣 ("pneuma, internal energy") becoming in some way optimized-all become implicated in the manifestation of one's sagacity. What the Wuxing represents, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is a stage in the advent of an idea, or a set of ideas, that he collectively labels "material virtue." He explains: [End Page 394]

The phrase "material virtue" refers narrowly to descriptions of the virtues in terms of their quasi-material properties. More generally, such descriptions are characteristic of the view that, once cultivated, the virtues manifest themselves through physiological changes in the body that may be observed by others.

(p. 5)

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the decision to begin articulating the virtues in quasi-material terms was a natural one at this stage in the tradition, since similar totalizing discourses were being developed in other disciplines such as medicine and physiognomy, also based on the notion of qi 氣 (p. 8).

On Csikszentmihalyi's reading, the intellectual affairs recounted here are reflected in the received Mengzi 孟子 (or "Mencius"). He argues, first, that the "internalist account of the origins of virtuous action" evident in the Wuxing is also evident in the Mengzi (p. 109). Next, references within the Mengzi suggest how it "both implicitly and explicitly assumes a theory of 'material virtue'" (p.113). And finally, within the Mengzi, we find rounds in the debate over the conflict of virtues. That "material virtue" is essential to the resolution of such debates is evident in Mengzi 4A17, where Mengzi uses the metaphor of "balancing" (quan 權) the virtues that, along with metaphors of measurement and weight used elsewhere, point to a materialist conception. Such metaphors "[imply] that the virtues are material, and material is measurable" (p. 123). The vocabulary that Mengzi chooses in describing the process of moral assessment "illustrates the implicit material dimension in [his] model...


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