The Analects

I finally got around to reading the Analects of Confucius, in Arthur Waley’s translation. The introduction claims that this is actually a good, fairly literal, translation, which would make it different from his translation of, say, the Tale of Genji, which gets called a paraphrase. I imagine that’s an exaggeration born of scholarly outrage, but it has been clearly superceded by more recent translations.

Anyway, back to the Analects. I have to confess that I wasn’t impressed. Part of this is that I think Confucius is completely wrong in his choice of the ideal form of government; he’s a supporter of divine right monarchy. Another large part of it is that the Analects are irredeemably vague on just what makes right conduct. A great deal is made up of exhortations to behave properly, and with Goodness.

Well, obviously.

To illustrate the point, let us take one, fairly fundamental, issue. Confucius appears to believe that it is Good for the descendant of earlier emperors to rule with absolute loyalty from his subjects. I believe that democracy is basically Good. Now, the issue. I believe that Goodness involves compassion. Does Confucius think that? I have, honestly, no idea. He is so different from me on one point that I have no confidence that he will agree with me on other points. What, then, is his ethical position?

Reading books like the Analects is valuable, because it brings home the fact that the difference between good and evil is very far from being obvious. If you took an historical vote, feminism would come out as evil, even if you let women vote. There’s actually a good chance that it would come out evil if you restricted the vote to people alive now; history would definitely tip the balance. I think that the majority of all people who ever lived are wrong about that; are wrong about a fundamental feature of ethics. The existence of “honour killings” makes it clear that people alive now do not agree over “murder is wrong”. (Strictly, “killing, without juridical authority, someone who poses no immediate or even long term threat to your or anyone else’s physical well-being is wrong”. “Murder” comes loaded with wrongness as part of its meaning.) It’s important to note that the existence of murder doesn’t demonstrate this; people do things that they believe are wrong. The people responsible for “honour killings”, however, believe that they are doing the right thing.

If people can disagree on such fundamental points, a text that merely exhorts people to do the right thing, without being very specific about just what that is, is pretty much useless as an ethical text. And that, in the end, is how the Analects struck me.







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