- Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy
A striking feature of classical Confucian ethics is the normative role given to exemplars. The Analects, for instance, supports many of its claims with appeals to the normative biographies of legendary sages and villains, anecdotes of Confucius and his students, and the ideals of the sage (shengren) and the junzi. Take away the exemplar, and it is not all that clear what would remain. Yet despite the relevance of the exemplar to Confucian ethics, there are only a few scholars presently working out the details. One of the most prominent figures in this subfield is Stephen C. Angle, who is presently interested in understanding how the ideal of sagehood, particularly in its Neo-Confucian incarnation, might regulate the lives of those who aspire to such an ideal, and how that ideal might inform moral education and politics.
Angle's recent work Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy is a welcome contribution to the rapidly growing body of Neo-Confucian scholarship. Yet what is so refreshing about this book is that Angle refuses to remain devoted to historical formulations or traditional divisions. He acknowledges the differences between Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, as well as several of the difficulties in interpreting the work of each. Yet rather than devote himself to the controversies and intricacies, Angle wishes to highlight the similarities between these two philosophers while also attempting to honor both where there are significant differences. All the while, he is engaged in what he calls "grounded global philosophy"—he is interested in seeing what the Neo-Confucians might contribute to contemporary British and American philosophy as much as he is concerned to see how the Neo-Confucian position might be developed and extended in light of contemporary philosophy. Angle thus avoids dogmatically supporting any one philosophical position while simultaneously illustrating the contemporary relevance of Neo-Confucian philosophy. This book is also remarkable for its ambition, and has rather wide implications—for instance, Angle's third and final section constructs what might be called a Confucian utopia, and articulates a vision of what Confucian politics could be like in modern China. This reach, combined with his inclusion of several of the "New Confucians" in his discussion, secures a much more inclusive project than one might expect. With many philosophical works, when the author writes "we," those who are likely to identify with that pronoun are few indeed; Angle's "we," on the other hand, attempts to reach across the Pacific. [End Page 392]
Angle tells us that for those influenced by the Confucian tradition, "sagehood was the appropriate object of a personal quest. Seeking to come ever-closer to sage-hood was a concrete goal for many" (p. 17). This utilization of sagehood as a regulative ideal informs much of his discussion, leading him to write about sagehood from the perspective of non-sages, rather than focus on sagehood in terms of historical or legendary sages. In fact, according to Angle, the utility of the ideal of sagehood does not depend on whether that ideal can be fully realized. As he puts it, "Taking sage-hood as an ideal, like taking junzi as an ideal, means striving to improve oneself. It means committing oneself to being on the road to sagehood. . . . [O]ne will not attain either state, in all likelihood" (p. 21). A few pages later he writes:
There is no need to insist that very many people are or can become sages. The only people clearly identified as such are those far in the past, cases in which little is actually known about them and we can almost imagine that their status as 'sage' is partly honorific. I think nothing would be lost if a Confucian were to acknowledge the possibility that there never has been a full-on, one-hundred-percent sage.(p. 26)
Angle, however, maintains that the unattainability of this ideal does not vitiate its normative significance. This is because the difference between the full sage and partial sage...