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The Ethics of Confucius: General Human Relations

After instruction in self-development, men need to know their relation to their fellows. First in importance of our social duties, and intimately connected with individual character, Confucius placed propriety.

confucius the teacherThe Rules of Propriety. “Let the superior man never fail reverentially to order his own conduct; and let him be respectful to others and observant of propriety. Then all within the four seas will be his brothers.” (Analects, bk. xii., c. v., v. 4.)

Thus Confucius in the “Analects” emphasizes the importance of the due observance of propriety. The rules of propriety were, in the mind of the sage, of much the same order as the positive commands which make up the ordinary man’s only system of morality. They were the things enjoined, which the superior man must observe, not in order to become or even to be a superior man, however, but because he is such. Therefore it is said: “If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with the rites of propriety?” (Analects, bk. iii., c. iii.)

Yet propriety has its office, also, and that not a small one, albeit the real character, the open mind, sincerity, purity of purpose, will, courage, poise, and all the rest, must first have been attained; else mere outward conformity with propriety is nothing. Its office is thus described: “It is by the rules of propriety that the character is established.” (Analects, bk. viii., c. viii., v. 2.) “Without an acquaintance with the rules of propriety, it is impossible for the character to be established.” (Analects, bk. xx., c. iii., v. 3.)

This is indeed sufficiently obvious upon consideration since character can be evinced only in speech, conduct, deportment, and demeanour, each of which must have its own canons of propriety. The utility of these rules in this respect is adverted to in the “Li Ki,” thus: “The rules of propriety serve as instruments to form men’s characters. . . . They remove from a man all perversity and increase what is beautiful in his nature. They make him correct, when employed in the ordering of himself; they ensure for him free course, when employed toward others.” (Bk. viii., sect. i., 1.)

In another place in the “Li Ki,” the following is said concerning the depraved state of men who have no conception of propriety: “But if beasts and without the rules of propriety, father and son might have the same mate.” (Bk. i., sect. i., pt. i., c. v., v. 21.)

And in yet another place in that book the following tribute to the superlative utility of propriety and especially to its usefulness in forming character appears: “Therefore the rules of propriety are for man what the yeast is for liquor. By the use of them the superior man becomes better and greater. The inferior man by neglect of them becomes smaller and poorer. (Bk. vii., sect. iv., v. 7.)

Mencius thus laid bare the very foundation for the sense of propriety: “The sense of shame is of great importance to man.” (Bk. vii., pt. i., c. vii., v. 1.)

The Chinese tradition was that the rules of propriety had been established by the ancient kings and embodied their conception of right. The following account, also in the “Li Ki,” which is devoted to a discussion of these rules, is given, both of their origin and of their construction: “The rules as instituted by the ancient kings had their radical element and their outward, elegant form. A true heart and good faith are their radical element. The characteristics of each according to the idea of what is right in it are its outward, elegant form. Without the radical element, they could not have been established; without the elegant form, they could not have been put in practice.” (Bk. viii., sect. i., v. 2.)

That an observance is to be judged, not only by its general acceptance as “good form,” but also and, if need be, exclusively by what is right, is urged in this passage from the same book: “Rules of ceremony are the embodied expression of what is right. If an observance stand the test of being judged by the standard of what is right, although it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings, it may be adopted on the ground of its being right.” (Bk. vii., sect. iv., v. 9.)

Mencius thus rebuked the notion, yet prevalent in more than one quarter, that mere “good form” is propriety although it be the cover for wanton cruelty and wrong: “Acts of propriety which are not proper and deeds of righteousness that are not righteous, the great man does not do.” (Bk. iv., pt. ii., c. vi.)

The untoward consequences, if the rights of propriety are neglected, are strikingly set forth by Confucius in these words: “Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness.” (Analects, bk. viii., c. ii., v. 1.)

Several of the nine things which he names as worthy “of thoughtful consideration” are of this nature. The pronouncement, already once quoted, will bear repetition: “The superior man has nine things which are subjects with him of thoughtful consideration: In regard to the use of his eyes he is anxious to see clearly. In regard to the use of his ears he is anxious to hear distinctly. In regard to his countenance he is anxious that it should be benign. In regard to his demeanour he is anxious that it should be respectful. In regard to his speech he is anxious that it should be sincere. In regard to his doing of business he is anxious that it should be reverently careful. In regard to what he doubts about he is anxious to question others. When he is angry he thinks of the difficulties his anger may involve him in. When he sees gain to be got he thinks of righteousness.” (Analects, bk. xvi., c. x.)

In another place he says: “If you are grave, you will not be treated with disrespect; if you are generous, you will win all; if you are sincere, people will repose trust in you; if you are in earnest, you will accomplish much; if you are kind, this will enable you to employ the services of others.” (Analects, bk. xvii., c. vi.)

Each of these has reference to a rule of propriety.

Again, when asked what constitutes perfect virtue, he said: “It is in retirement to be sedately grave, in the management of business to be reverently attentive, in intercourse with others to be strictly sincere.” (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xix.)

Among the repulsive characters which he holds it the duty of the superior man to hate, is this: “He hates those who have valour merely and are unobservant of propriety.” (Analects, bk. xvii., c. xxiv., v. 1.)

Perhaps in nothing are the real qualities of a man more frankly exhibited than in his conduct toward those who are subject to his orders and must obey him. The petty tyrannies which the small mind invents under such conditions are familiar to every observer, but few have had the penetration to discern what Confucius illustrates in the following passage: “The superior man is easy to serve and difficult to please. If you try to please him in any way which is not accordant with right, he will not be pleased. But in his employment of men he uses them according to their capacity. The inferior man is difficult to serve, and easy to please. If you try to please him, though it be in a way which is not accordant with right, he may be pleased. But in his employment of men he wishes them to be equal to everything.” (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxv.)

This is but a shrewd practical application of this observation from the “Li Ki”: “Propriety is seen in humbling one’s self and giving honours to others.” (Bk. i., sect. i., pt. i., c. vi., v. 25.)

But this humility must be such as comports with true dignity; for, as the Duke of Shao says in the “Shu King” (pt. v., bk. vi., 2): “Complete virtue allows no contemptuous familiarity.”

This combination of humility and dignity, which has ever characterized the Chinese conception of propriety, is cleverly adverted to in these significant and weighty sentences: “Gan P’ing Chung knew well how to maintain friendly intercourse. The acquaintance might be long, but he showed the same respect as at first.” (Analects, bk. v., c. xvi.)

This combination of humility and dignity is yet more pointedly and convincingly outlined in this pithy sentence: “Condemning none, courting none, what can he do that is not good?” (Analects, bk. ix., c. xxvi., v. 2.)

Though Confucius was so insistent that his disciples should learn and practise the refinements of polite behaviour, he held the balance even, and at all times urged the greater importance of the real things of character. Complete sanity is in these discerning sentences: “Where the solid qualities are in excess of the accomplishments, we have rusticity; where the accomplishments are in excess of the solid qualities, we have the manners of a clerk; when the accomplishments and solid qualities are equally blended, we then have the man of complete virtue.” (Analects, bk. vi., c. xvi.)

In the “Li Ki” the urgent need that one give reverent attention to propriety is thus phrased: “The superior man watches over the manner in which he maintains his intercourse with other men.” (Bk. viii., sect. ii., v. 14.)

It is, however, not desirable that over-emphasis be laid upon unimportant details; for as Tsze-hea says in the “Analects”: “When a person does not transgress the boundary-line of the great virtues, he may pass and repass it in the small virtues.” (Analects, bk. xix., c. xi.)

There is, notwithstanding, something near to vehemence in this urgent adjuration that propriety is on no account to be neglected either in passive or in active moments: “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety!” (Analects, bk. xii., c. i., v. 2.)

This glowing picture of what the superior man, conversant with propriety and following its rules with discernment, sympathy, and enthusiasm, may become, already quoted from the “Doctrine of the Mean,” is so illuminating in this connection that it is here repeated: “The superior man does what is proper to the station in which he is; he does not desire to go beyond this. In a position of wealth and honour he does what is proper to a position of wealth and honour; in a poor and low position, he does what is proper to a poor and low position; situated among barbarous tribes he does what is proper to a situation among barbarous tribes; in a position of sorrow and difficulty, he does what is proper to a position of sorrow and difficulty.

“The superior man can find himself in no position in which he is not himself. In a high situation he does not treat with contempt his inferiors, in a low situation he does not court the favour of his superiors; he rectifies himself, and seeks for nothing from others, so that he has no dissatisfaction.” (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xiv.)

The influence and the value of such a man to his community he thus rates, when told that the tribes of the East, with whom he purposes to live, are rude: “If a superior man lived among them, what rudeness would there be?” (Analects, bk. ix., c. xiii., v. 2.)

Propriety of Demeanour. “Always and in everything let there be reverence, with the demeanour grave as when one is thinking deeply and with speech composed and definite.” (Li Ki, bk. i., sect. i., pt. i., c. i.) “If the heart be for a moment without the feeling of harmony and joy, meanness and deceitfulness enter it. If the outward demeanour be for a moment without gravity and reverence, indifference and rudeness show themselves.” (Li Ki, bk. xxi., sect. ii., 8.)

These two passages from the “Li Ki” illustrate the high estimate which the Chinese justly placed upon the value of grave demeanour. The idea is that between two superior men there is a communion of souls and a commerce one with another which results inevitably from virtuous purposes, high resolves, and the reflection of these in the attitude of one toward the other. This association the superior man values not merely for the opportunities for benevolence and influence which it affords, but also for that which it means for himself as well.

It was not for nothing that the Greek poets located the gods aloof from one another on the peaks of mountains, silent for the most part though in communion each with the others, and breaking the silence only when concerns of great import called for expression.

It is something like this which Confucius sets before the superior man, as the ideal. It is for this reason that he strongly affirms that the superior man should be grave and serious. Of this he says: “If the scholar be not grave, he will not call forth veneration, and his learning will not be solid.” (Analects, bk. i., c. viii.)

By manners, it is almost needless to say, he did not mean anything at all similar to the mere gloss of one who is conversant with the rules of social behaviour, and who adroitly manipulates them to please this person or vent his spite on that; for one of his aptest texts runs: “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.” (Analects, bk. i., c. iii.)

Mencius thus illustrates the reward for frank demeanour and the sure detection of the contrary: “Of all the parts of a man’s body there is none more excellent than the pupil of the eye. The pupil cannot hide a man’s wickedness. If within the breast all be correct, the pupil is bright. If within the breast all be not correct, the pupil is dull. Listen to a man’s words and look at the pupil of his eye. How can a man conceal his character?” (Bk. iv., pt. i., c. xv.)

This concerning the demeanour of Confucius is related in the “Analects”: “The Master was mild but dignified; commanding but not fierce; respectful but easy.” (Analects, bk. vii., c. xxxvii.)

Tsze-hea in the “Analects” thus depicts the demeanour of the superior man: “Looked at from a distance, he appears stern; when approached, he is mild; when he is heard to speak, his language is firm and decided.” (Analects, bk. xix., c. ix.)

In another place Confucius contrasts the poise of the superior man with the pose of the man with low ideals, the one dignified without being conscious of it, the other constantly striving to show that control over himself and confidence in himself which he really does not possess. But the idea is better apprehended from the sage’s own words: “The superior man has dignified ease without pride; the ordinary man has pride without dignified ease.” (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxvi.)

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