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  • Elements of Confucian Virtue Politics
  • Youngsun Back (bio)

I. Introduction

As Sungmoon Kim points out, contemporary Confucian studies has been disproportionately focused on the ethical side of the tradition. In this regard, Kim’s book, Theorizing Confucian Virtue Politics: The Political Philosophy of Mencius and Xunzi, makes an enormous contribution to the field of Confucian political thought. What makes his project even more valuable is that he goes beyond the textual analysis of political concepts and ideas in classical Confucian writings and builds them into a coherent and systematic political theory.

In what follows, I will examine Kim’s reconstruction of the Confucian political theories of Mencius and Xunzi. However, rather than taking issue [End Page 497] with whether his reconstructions are true to the original ideas of these Confucian thinkers (I believe there could be a number of legitimate reconstructions), I intend to accept his version of Confucian political theories as they are. On this assumption, I first investigate whether his conceptual frameworks are effective and appropriate to philosophical reconstructions of Confucian political thought, and then I examine whether his reconstructions have any limitations, and, if any, what parts should be complemented in order to make them a comprehensive theory.

II. Negative and Positive Confucianism

Kim makes clear that he is not aiming at providing a correct interpretation of the political messages in the Mengzi and the Xunzi. Rather, his aim is to reconstruct their political insights and ideas in a philosophically intelligible way, probably to the extent that neither Mencius nor Xunzi themselves had or could have thought. In order to turn their ideas into a systematic political theory, Kim employs four conceptual frameworks, which are closely related to each other: (1) negative and positive Confucianism, (2) virtue and ritual constitutionalism, (3) moral and civic virtue, and (4) strong and tempered virtue monism.

I will first examine negative and positive Confucianism. According to Kim, Confucian virtue politics places supreme importance on the moral character of the ruler for the success of the government. On the one hand, the ruler should exert his political power to run the government in a way that brings benefit to the people, and, on the other hand, he should not exert his power in a way that brings harm to the people. Kim calls the dimension of enabling the ruler’s legitimate power “positive Confucianism,” and that of constraining the ruler’s illegitimate power “negative Confucianism.” He argues, in general, that Mencius’ political theory leans toward negative Confucianism, and Xunzi’s toward positive Confucianism.

However, one should not mistakenly consider them a bipartite system. As Kim notes, “positive Confucianism refers to the aspect of Confucian virtue politics that enables the ruler, properly constrained by the logic of negative Confucianism, to legitimately exercise his political power and authority for the sake of public interest or common good.”1 He seems to be saying that the ruler’s legitimate power is to be enabled on the condition that it is properly constrained. This suggests that Xunzi’s positive Confucianism is not an antithesis of Mencius’ negative Confucianism; rather, it is predicated upon negative Confucianism. What is more, Kim argues that Xunzi’s positive Confucianism is a further articulation of the nascent insight in Mencius’ thought. If this is Kim’s view, then we can render their systems more accurately as seen in the nested relationship in Figure 1.

In my view, in order to capture this relationship properly, instead of employing a simple “negative/positive” framework, it would have been [End Page 498] better for Kim to pay closer attention to the dynamic and productive interplay between negative and positive dimensions in the political thought of Mencius and Xunzi.

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Fig. 1.

Furthermore, the framework of negative/positive Confucianism tends to gloss over the differences as well as overemphasize the closeness between Mencius and Xunzi. First of all, what is enabled concerning the ruler’s interest seems to be quite different in the thought of each of the two Confucians. Kim’s point is that we find positive Confucianism in both thinkers in the sense that they do not object to the ruler’s interest per se, but rather...


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pp. 497-506
Launched on MUSE
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