- Sounding the Analects, Engaging Confucius
Confucius Now: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects, edited by David Jones, is a stirring, thought-provoking anthology that invites reflection and soul searching. Other collections on Confucius and the Analects have appeared in recent years, but they have tended to focus narrowly on issues such as what we know about the Master, what in the Analects constitutes his original teachings, and the like. By raising imponderable questions about the Master’s identity and his fluctuating persona over time, and pursuing hypothetical philological arguments, they have detracted from what is of interest in Confucius’ teachings as presented in the Analects while offering little in return.
Drawing on several disciplines, including religious studies, sociology, history, and philosophy, Confucius Now examines the Analects as a living human testament that has much to say to the present age. The book’s contributors contend that many of Confucius’ utterances in the Analects serve as reminders about basic moral facets of human experience, relationship, and interaction that tend to be overlooked or given short shrift in contemporary society and thought. These utterances thus challenge us to reflect critically on the quality of our own humane self-awareness, mutual recognition, and interpersonal conduct. They still offer the possibility of leading the serious reader to be more sensitive and other-regarding. The legitimacy of this contention underscores the continuing relevance of Confucius and the Analects.
The book is divided into five parts: “The Text and Its Spirituality,” “Thinking Through Confucius,” “Self-Cultivation,” “Spiritual Cultivation in Confucius,” and “Moral Cultivation in Confucius.” The stress on spirituality might seem surprising, since Confucius has long been presented to the West as a “rational humanist” who rarely deigned to speak of mysteries or spiritual matters. The term “spirituality” in this context, however, reflects the opening up of this concept in religious studies in recent decades through increased contact with related disciplines, such as anthropology and cultural studies. “Spirituality” is no longer bound up exclusively with a Judeo-Christian-style transcendent mystery without and an eternal soul within. It can take other forms, such as reverence for the fecund stream of life in this world, as in aboriginal philosophies, and particularly as reverence for humanity expressed in caring and humane attitudes and conduct. Confucian spirituality looks to the springs of life in revering the ancestors, an attitude it extends to family relations, to widening circles [End Page 195] of people, and ultimately to the life that abounds in nature. In this regard, Confucian spirituality could be adapted to ground an ethics of sustainability to ensure a green world for future generations. 1
The stress on cultivation in three of the five parts is also, at first glance, surprising. It makes the reader ponder whether Confucius and the Analects aren’t more about performance, that is, about practice and interpersonal conduct, than, say, filial piety, rote learning, mastery of the classics, deference to hierarchy, and the like. Indeed, this reflects a precious feature of Confucius: he was concerned first and foremost about daily life practice—the quality of one’s deportment and bearing, one’s interpersonal relations and conduct, and one’s reflection and self-awareness. By practicing cultivation, one becomes sensitively responsive, studies the classics 2 (especially with regard to the core human relationships and appropriate conduct) for their life lessons, and engages in the art of humane living. This stress on cultivation and practice underscores the fact that, ultimately, for Confucius, function outweighs form. Through cultivation, one actively establishes oneself (and others) and starts to take one’s stand—efforts that must, Confucius insists, originate from within. While mastering the received ritual rites (li) and social protocols, one nurtures the sensitivity, discernment, and wherewithal to fashion appropriate responses to situations generally. Notably, for Confucius, while heuristically valuable and de rigueur in standard occasions, ritual conduct is not ultimate in itself. He thus speaks of a wisdom (zhi) borne of one’s sensitive experience, learning, and practice by which one adapts or fashions ways to resolve perplexing situations that satisfy the condition of “humaneness” (ren...