So what is the thread? Because that would be his ‘philosophy’
I had started to jot down some pithy phrase from The Analects: not the one in the picture, but something about a scholar or reader not being inflexible. It felt like a retort to Trump World.
But surely the point of the teachings of Confucius is not that he can be reduced to isolated lines and momentarily useful quotations?
If he is a philosopher, there must be more than that and to settle for solitary fragments is to fall into a pernicious orientalism (taking yoga instruction from a twenty-something white girl while musing over some fortune cookie version of ‘Buddha said’).
So what is it, then?
Having read a biography (of sorts) of Confucius and a primer on Chinese philosophy within the last year (I think), I feel I have a small leg up, but not much.
Little things matter.
But that’s also an orientalizing version of it.
More detailed, then. The emphasis on rites and quotidian duties and courtesies adds up into a worldview, if enacted in one’s life. Rites are also important, even when viewed separately from god and religion (which is precisely how he writes about them – as almost entirely separate from their mytho-religious context).
It is also an elitist philosophy. Like Plato or Nietzsche, he is not writing for anybody, but for a superman or a philosopher king. Even when poor, the man to whom Confucius is addressing (it could now be a woman, equally as well as man; but at the time, I think we can be reasonably sure that he was talking to men) is above the ‘masses.’ You could also think of him as being like the target audience of Roman philosophers.
But is this philosophy, in my sense? In a western sense? Is that even a valid question?
He instructs people to lead by example, especially in the small things. But what about larger issues? It is no criticism not to have a metaphysics, nor even to say that metaphysics doesn’t matter and maybe doesn’t even exist. His ideal society is guided by a meritocratic elite, though still ruled by more or less hereditary aristocracies.
When is is most explicit, which isn’t often, he speak of Confuciansim (though not, of course, using that term) as a moral philosophy, but I hesitate to classify it as ethics. It is ethical philosophy in the service of a more or less utopian political philosophy.