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  • Reply to Stephen C. Angle
  • Joseph Chan

I am grateful to the editors of this journal for the opportunity to respond to Stephen Angle’s thoughtful reply to my review of his book. Stephen and I share a “progressive” vision of Confucian political philosophy, and I think his book represents an important attempt to provide a foundation that forges a close connection with the ethical core of Confucianism. What I found most intriguing and provocative in Stephen’s book is not only his general claim that Confucian moral progress requires constitutional democracy, but, more importantly, his specific “self-restriction” argument that even sages, if they exist, have to restrict their virtue and submit themselves to the laws of a constitutional democracy, so as to allow their own and other people’s virtue to flourish. In my opinion, this argument, if sound, provides the strongest Confucian-based argument for democracy, and this is the target of my critique. I argue that in the (unlikely) event that sages do exist, Confucians should favor benevolent guardianship rather than democracy; that is, sages should not restrict their perfect virtue but make full use of it in their service to the people—in which case the self-restriction argument does not work.

In his reply to my review, Stephen clarifies that the argument in his book “is not that we must take actual sages into account.” He agrees with Zhang Shizhao that “there never has been this kind of sage [with absolute authority of virtue]” or at least “none that can be confidently identified at any particular point in time” (bracketed words added). This suggests that his self-restriction argument for constitutional democracy is not based on a “commitment to sages” and that my critique is based on an inadequate understanding of that argument.

Admittedly, Stephen does not claim that sages have actually existed. Nevertheless, for me, the most important and interesting part of the book lies in its attempt to explore the implication of the limit case of the sage—the theoretical possibility of the existence of the sage—for Confucian politics. In his response, Stephen also says that his argument is that “Confucian political philosophy must be based on the promotion of ethical progress, up to and including the limit case of the sage” (italics added).

The limit case of the sage appears to be a central concern throughout the book. On page 28, for example, Stephen approvingly quotes Mou: “No matter how great or spiritual the attainment of one’s [virtuous] character, when manifested in politics, one cannot override the relevant limits (that is, the highest principle of the political world).” Later, he writes: “one way of summarizing ‘self-restriction,’ as it applies in the political realm, is that even sages cannot violate the constitution” (p. 66). On [End Page 798] page 85, Mou’s claim is repeated: “even sages ‘cannot override the relevant limits (that is, the highest principles [lüze] of the political world).” And in his conclusion, Stephen underscores the importance of the limit case of the sage for his self-restriction argument: “I want to emphasize that even in the ideal case of a sage, self-restriction is still part of the very ideal. … To whatever degree we are individually able to measure up to the standard of sagehood, we too will embrace self-restriction” (p. 144; italics added). Given the book’s attempt to defend constitutional democracy against the background of the “ideal” or “limit” case of a sage, I feel that my critique is not misplaced.

If, however, the ideal case of a sage is removed from the picture and the theoretical possibility of the existence of a sage or sages is not considered for Confucian politics, I suspect that the self-restriction argument would cease to have much relevance. If the virtue of every human being is limited and fallible, and if sagehood is essentially controversial and contested, then it seems that no individual can lay claim to superior insight or virtue that could warrant his or her exemption from legal guidance and constraint. This being the case, the need for self-restriction of virtue for the sake of constitutional democracy does not arise, for...


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pp. 798-799
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