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The Ethics of Confucius: Propriety of Deportment

“It is virtuous manners which constitute the excellence of a neighbourhood. If a man in selecting a residence do not fix upon one where such prevail, how can he be wise?” (Analects, bk. iv., c. i.)

ConfuciusThese words of the sage, taken from the “Analects,” are characteristic. Confucius is more frequently accused of paying too much attention to propriety in manners than too little. Undoubtedly, he did place great stress both upon ceremonies and upon manners, but more upon the spirit that should inform them. How significant the ceremonies may have been in view of the traditions and customs of the people, it is impossible for men of this age living in Western countries to divine. But the canons of good manners which Confucius set up, although subjected to most critical examination, are found to be universal in scope and quite as valid today and in Western countries as in his day and in the East.

How universal and permanent they are, may be seen from this, taken from the “Li Ki”: “Do not listen with head inclined on one side nor answer with a loud, sharp voice, nor look with a dissolute leer nor keep the body in a slouching position. Do not saunter about with a haughty gait nor stand with one foot raised. Do not sit with your knees wide apart nor lie face down.” (Bk. i., sect. i., pt. iii., c. iv.)

This from the same book is so advanced that even in these modern days men in civilized Occidental countries have barely commenced to apprehend it: “When he intends to go to an inn, let it not be with the feeling that he must have whatever he asks for!” (Bk. i., sect. i., pt. ii., c. v., v. 2, 3.)

Undoubtedly he attached great importance to manners, in part because his whole system was one of breeding. It was his notion that a man should care about himself and therefore that his behaviour should comport with his real dignity and his sense of dignity.

One who so earnestly urged the necessity for absolute sincerity could scarcely be expected to praise that social polish which is both an affectation and a lie. He draws, indeed, a sharp distinction between the superior man, who is approachable and far from distant in manner but avoids flattery, and the man who behaves with hauteur, intended to wound and embarrass, toward all but those into whose favour he would ingratiate himself. He places them thus in contrast: “The superior man is affable but not adulatory; the inferior man is adulatory but not affable.” (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxiii.)

That by propriety in deportment is not meant subserviency, Confucius shows by his reply, when asked by his disciple, Tsze-loo, how a sovereign should be served: “Do not impose upon him, and moreover withstand him to his face.” (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxiii.) This counsel, it is worth remarking, was given by one who was the instructor of princes.

How minute, accurate, and well-taken were the rules of behaviour which he laid down is well illustrated by the following passages from the “Li Ki”: “In all cases, looks directed up into the face denote pride, below the girdle grief, askance villainy.” (Bk. i., sect. ii., pt. iii., c. vii.) “When a thing is carried with both hands, it should be held on a level with the heart; when with one hand, on a level with the girdle.” (Bk. i., sect. ii., pt. i., c. i., v. 1.) “When sitting by a person of rank, if he begin to yawn and stretch himself, to turn round his tablet, to play with the head of his sword, to move his shoes about, or to ask about the time of day, one may ask leave to retire.” (Bk. xv., 18.)

From a volume upon human conduct which betrays so fine and discriminating penetration, it is not surprising that we may cull so choice an expression of good taste as this: “For great entertainments there should be . . . no great display of wealth.” (Bk. i., sect. ii., pt. iii., c. ix.)

This acute perception of the most delicate distinctions was evidenced no more strongly, perhaps, in any of the marvellous sentences which have come down to this generation than in the following: “Of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult to behave to. If you are familiar with them, they lose their humility; if you maintain a reserve toward them, they are discontented.” (Analects, bk. xvii., c. xxv.)

That youth, or rather childhood, is the period when development of character and therefore of deportment should commence, is ever in his thought. That the son should admire and imitate his father, and the father should make of himself a human being whom the son, without surrendering his power to see things as they are, might admire and imitate, was fundamental in the Confucian conception of the art of living.

Whatever indicated the contrary of admiration and respect of a son for his father was to him as to all right-minded men offensive and disgusting. He characterizes such a boy: “In youth not humble as befits a junior” (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xlvi.), and later excoriates him in the following burning sentences: “I observe that he is fond of occupying the seat of a full-grown man. I observe that he walks shoulder to shoulder with his elders. He is not one who is seeking to make progress in learning. He wishes quickly to become a man.” (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xlvii., v. 2.)

That this might be avoided and that the manner as well as the purposes of the son might be directed into other and better channels, one of his disciples placed this requirement upon the father, whose parenthood vests him with responsibility for the manners of his offspring: “I have also heard that the superior man maintains a distant reserve toward his son.” (Analects, bk. xvi., c. xiii., v. 5.)

Not one of the foregoing is inapplicable to the regrettable incivility of children in this buoyant but inconsiderate age; and surely no others are so sorely needed in these days of flippant disrespect for elders as these trenchant exposures of the inherent badness of the manners of Oriental youths of olden times.

It remained for Mencius to lay down the following obviously correct rule for the association of friends: “Friendship should be maintained without condescension on the ground of age, station, or family. Friendship with a man is friendship with his virtue and does not admit of assumptions of superiority.” (Bk. v., pt. ii., c. iii., v. 1.)

The views of the sage as to what constitutes the true spirit of polite deportment seem always to square with the maturest judgment of the most recent authorities. What trained gentleman of any school will fail to recognize, with a thrill of satisfaction, this expression of the fundamentally correct notion of sportsmanship, observable according to his disciples in the conduct of Confucius himself: “The Master angled, but did not use a net; he shot, but not at birds perching.” (Analects, bk. vii., c. xxvi.)

Propriety of Speech. “They who meet men with smartness of speech, for the most part procure themselves hatred.” (Analects, bk. v., c. iv., v. 2.)

That one should be most circumspect about his speech, Tsze-kung enforces, also in the “Analects,” by saying: “For one word a man is often deemed to be wise and for one word he is often deemed to be foolish.” (Bk. xix., c. xxv., v. 2.)

And especially that he should be cautious about making rash promises, Confucius thus enjoins: “He who speaks without modesty, will find it hard to make his words good.” (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxi.)

The same idea is more fully and explicitly developed in this passage of the “Li Ki”: “The Master said: ‘Dislike and reprisals will attend him whose promises from the lips do not ripen into fulfilment. Therefore the superior man incurs rather the resentment due to refusal than the charge of breaking his promise.’ ” (Bk. xxix., 49.)

The need for caution in giving commands is urged in these apt words from the “Shu King” (pt. v., bk. xx., 4): “Be careful in the commands you issue; for, once issued, they must be carried into effect and cannot be retracted.” And yet more generally, emphatically, and powerfully the reason for caution in speech in this striking passage of the “Shi King,” already quoted in another connection: “A flaw in a mace of white jade may be ground away, but a word spoken amiss cannot be mended.” (Major Odes, decade iii., ode 2.)

The limits of proper admonition of a friend and the reasons therefor, Confucius also indicates thus: “Faithfully admonish your friend and try to lead him kindly. If you find him impracticable, stop; do not disgrace yourself!” (Analects, bk. xii., c. xxiii.)

This proverb furnishes yet another reason for great moderation in that respect: “Those whose courses are different cannot lay plans for one another.” (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxix.)

This also, which the “Analects” puts into the mouth of a madman, fixes the limits both of reproof and of the utility of reference to the past: “As to the past, reproof is useless, but the future may be provided against.” (Bk. xviii., c. v., v. 1.)

Confucius dwells upon the same idea in another place: “Things that are done, it is needless to speak about; things that have had their course, it is needless to remonstrate about; things that are past, it is needless to blame.” (Analects, bk. iii., c. xxi., v. 2.)

That one must watch carefully, lest he be misled by fair words, the sage shows, referring to his own experience: “At first, my way with men was to hear their words and give them credit for their conduct. Now my way is to hear their words and look at their conduct.” (Analects, bk. v., c. ix., v. 2.)

Simplicity and directness of discourse are commended in all that Confucius says of sincerity of thought, candour of speech, and earnestness of conduct; but he rarely, if ever, put it better than in the following (Analects, bk. xvi., c. xl.): “In language it is sufficient that it convey the meaning”—i. e., the precise meaning, not something other than what seems to be said or variant from it. To this, also, the sage refers, though to the part of the listener, rather than that of the speaker, when he says: “Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.” (Analects, bk. xx., c. iii., v. 3.) That is, one must accurately understand what a man says, though it is, of course, necessary to look beneath the mere words in many cases in order to discover the true character of the man. To this, also, the sage gives expression thus: “The virtuous will be sure to speak aright; but not all whose speech is good are virtuous.” (Analects, bk. xiv., c. v.)

In the “Li Ki,” this is said of the superior men of old: “They did not peer into privacies nor form intimacies in matters aside from their proper business. They did not speak of old affairs nor wear an appearance of being in sport.” (Bk. xv., 20.)

And the urgent reasons for care in speaking of important matters are thus presented in the “Yi King” (appendix iii., sect. i., c. viii., 47): “If important matters in the germ be not kept secret, that will be injurious to their accomplishment. Therefore the superior man is careful to maintain secrecy and does not allow himself to speak.”

Regarding candour it was well said, not alone of worldly success, but yet more of self-development: “I know not how a man without truthfulness is to get on.” (Analects, bk. ii., c. xxii.)

The craven character of deceit he often indicated and strongly condemned, as in these pregnant sentences: “Fine words, an insinuating appearance, and excessive respect; Tso-k‘ew Ming was ashamed of them. I also am ashamed of them. To conceal resentment against a person and appear friendly with him; Tso-k‘ew Ming was ashamed of such conduct. I also am ashamed of it.” (Analects, bk. v., c. xxiv.)

The contempt with which such conduct is to be regarded, is thus described in the “Li Ki”: “The Master said, ‘The superior man does not merely look benign as if, while cold at heart, he could feign affection. That is of the inferior man and stamps him as no better than the sneak thief.”’ (Bk. xxix., 50.)

However covert such dissimulation may be, Confucius finds it equally reprehensible and degrading. Thus, again in the “Li Ki” it is written: “The Master said, ‘When on light grounds a man breaks off his friendship with the poor, and only on weighty grounds with the rich and influential, his love of merit must be small and his contempt for meanness is not seen.’ ” (Bk. xxx., 21.)

And in the same book the more elusive hypocrisy of decrying what a man himself indulges in, is discovered and condemned, thus: “To disapprove of the conduct of another and yet to do the same himself, is contrary to the rule of instruction.” (Bk. xxii., 12.)

Here is yet another unflattering picture, taken from the “Analects,” of the unhappy and most undesirable state of the dissembler who is keeping up appearances: “Having not and yet affecting to have, empty and yet affecting to be full, straitened and yet affecting to be at ease, it is difficult with such characteristics to have constancy.” (Bk. vii., c. xxv., v. 3.)

And here a picture of yet another type of man, going about deceiving himself, rather than others, because what he is shows through: “Ardent and yet not upright; stupid and yet not attentive; simple and yet not sincere: such persons I do not understand.” (Analects, bk. viii., c. xvi.)

That such dissimulation must ever be unsuccessful in the end, Confucius asserted in many places, in no other perhaps more persuasively than in this: “See what a man does! Mark his motives! Examine in what things he rests! How can a man conceal his character?” (Analects, bk. ii., c. x.)

Or in this from “The Great Learning” (c. vi., v. 2): “There is no evil to which the inferior man, dwelling retired, will not proceed; but when he sees a superior man, he instantly tries to disguise himself, concealing his evil and displaying what is good. The other beholds him, as if he saw his heart and reins; of what use is his disguise? This is an instance of that saying, ‘What truly is within will be manifested without.’ ”

That without being continually on his guard and therefore constantly the slave of suspicion, the superior man, with his own mind open and sincere, should readily detect the attempt to delude him, however cleverly designed and executed, Confucius advanced as follows: “He who does not anticipate attempts to deceive him, nor think beforehand of his not being believed, and yet apprehends these things readily when they occur, is he not a man of superior worth?” (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxxiii.)

That the chief peril is to him who would deceive others, that is, that he will himself deceive, Confucius says in this: “Specious words confound virtue.” (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxvi.)

Precisely as in all else, none the less, it is in earnestness and candour possible to go to excess; in this as in everything, to go too far is as bad as to fall short. Thus there are hidden things of life, intimate relations, tender ties, too private and sacred to be talked of. Of such, it is said: “I hate those who make secrets known and think that they are straightforward.” (Analects, bk. xvii., c. xxiv.)

Candour may thus degenerate into indiscreet chattering. Obviously, when directed at the faults of others, it may also become incivility, unless tempered by considerate good-will and training in deportment. They, for instance, who would push their requirements as to frankness to a prohibition of the polite evasion, “Mr. So-and-so is not at home,” will find little encouragement in the following revelations as to the ancient custom upon similar occasions, with which Confucius complied, as with all other ceremonies, such constituting a language of their own: “Joo Pei wished to see Confucius, but Confucius declined to see him on the ground of being ill. When the bearer of this message went out at the door, he took the harpsichord and sang to it, in order that Pei might hear him.” (Analects, bk. xvii. c. xx.)

Mencius thus characterizes both the impropriety and the injudiciousness of over-candour: “What future misery do they have and ought they to have, who talk of what is not good in others!” (Bk. iv., pt. ii., c. ix.)

Confucius puts this in two ways, each illustrative of something which is wanting when such takes place: “There is the love of straightforwardness without the love of learning; the beclouding here leads to rudeness.” (Analects, bk. xvii., c. viii., v. 3.) “Straightforwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness.” (Analects, bk. viii., c. ii., v. 1.)

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