Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Confucius for the modern world

At left, a portrait of Confucius from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  You can tell from the mug that he didn't get to where he did -- sage for the ages -- on his looks alone.
The calligraphy above him says, reading right to left, top to bottom
(my translation, so excuse the infelicities):

The spirits gathers from afar
The sage knows whereof all is come
the limits of heaven and earth
the passing brightness of the seasons
The Emperor sets an example
The Old and New in their place
Morality respects the ages
and The Way follows the Six Classics.

I came across this in an article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, March 25th.  Cotter seems to write a lot about classic Chinese stuff.  Now, I'd just been thinking what a relief it is, when one has spent months, years, wandering in the thickets and brambles of Islamic texts, to come upon a clearing, to raise one's head, see the world there, the non-Islam world, to look at other texts, other philosophies, and how it is indeed a relief.  For anything -- the Bible, the Torah, the Analects of Confucius -- is better, nobler, wittier, saner, more poetic, than then turgidly violent texts of Islam.  I say this even of the Bible, which I read, and dip into regularly, as an atheist of more than 50 years' standing.  The Bible, the New Testament, is a soft, loping poetry,  is pure, quiet literature after the cacophonous bloodiness, the intransigent infelicities of the Koran.  Yet it is Koran which has the self-obsessed gall to claim that there is "nothing like it" on the earth (thank god Allah for that!) -- an infamous (or famous, Muslims would say) challenge to write something better than it, failing which -- which of course one does if one is Muslim -- failing which, is "proof" of its divinity.
Anyway, back to the above potted summary of confucian thought.  I have in my library a slightly longer, more complete yet still succinct summary of confucian thought, in a piece called "The Way of the Great Learning".  It's in classical Chinese, which I studied some 30+ years ago, annotated by me, so I think I can get to it in due course and post the translation of that as well.
Meantime, here's what the sweet Mr Cotter has to say in his opening para about Confucius.  Rather better -- is it not? -- than "kill the unbelievers wherever you find them" (Koran Surah 9 et. seq.).  Especially that bit about "you be nice to me and I'll be nice to you", the confucian version of the golden rule, which every religion in the world shares with Confucianism.  Every religion in the world, that is, save for Islam, which alone amongst religions has no Golden Rule.
You be nice to me, and I’ll be nice to you. Doesn’t that sound like a smart way to run the world? The Chinese philosopher Confucius thought so some 2,500 years ago. He also believed that education, hard work and respect for the past were essential; that excessive anything — money, fun, religion — led to trouble; and that social harmony was best achieved when people interacted courteously, but basically minded their own business.
Amen to that!  Read on here.