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Monday, May 13, 2013

Confucius, Classics, and the Constitution Part I

If you want to learn from the great thinkers of mankind, it helps to seek out those who have thought deeply about them. Michael Austin has graciously answered questions that I sent him to help lifelong learners on this quest. His training as literary critic specializing in textual analysis of eighteenth-century political novels and poems has made him very familiar with language usage of that time. At present, he is a professor, vice president for Academic Affairs, and professor of English at Newman University. He is the author of six books including Reading The World: Ideas That Matter. This anthology of some of the great thinkers of Western and Non-Western Thinkers has been used as a required text for college courses.

Austin admittedly wasn’t always comfortable with his understanding of the most influential Chinese thinker, Confucius who lived from 551 BC to 479 BC during the spring and autumn periods of Chinese history. Subsequently, he has crystallized his teachings in three volumes on Confucius, Why Confucius Matters (Boys Named Tzu).

The Founding Fathers have occupied much of Austin’s thoughts as of late as he recently released his book, That’s Not What They Meant!  Reclaiming The Founding Fathers From America’s Right Wing. Austin is a centrist and a moderate on most issues and believes that many conservatives would agree with many of his views. He is also quick to point out where some of the people on the Left are guilty of poor scholarship. As a scholar, he believes you do the research before forming opinions rather than cherry picking the information to support your opinion.

After what to me was a very heated political season last year where people on the Left and the Right had strong rhetoric, I found Austin’s words to be most comforting. He has shown how similar much of today’s rhetoric on the Left and Right mirror the early days of our country and has much faith in the future of our country regardless of who is in the Oval Office. I have seen him provide traction to slippery slope arguments on both the left and right extremist and encourage people to find middle ground. He has shown me and others respect; where we differed in our opinions. He invites people to disagree with his opinion and feels that the exchanges of diverse ideas are important in a democratic society. The background provided by him regarding the Founding Fathers and the Constitution have increased my appreciation of the document that has stood the test of time. Rather than treating the Founding Fathers as a body who spoke in unison on issues, he has restored them to their respective places in history and never denigrates these diverse men.

Below are my questions and Austin’s answers to the Part I Series of "Confucius, Classics, and the Constitution."

Topic: Confucius 
Q: Why do you think Confucius believed that virtue was more important than wisdom?

A: For Confucius, the greatest good in human society was smooth human relations. This, for Confucius, is what it means to be human--to live in a society with other humans and experience the pleasures of good relations with them. "Virtue," for Confucius, consists of all of the things that go into making human relations smooth, such as respect for authority, respect for tradition, and willingness to reciprocate good with good. Wisdom, on the other hand, is something that one gains for oneself. It is a good thing to gain, and probably the best thing to gain for one's own use. But it is essentially selfish, and, therefore, superior to virtue, which is essentially other-directed, or selfless.

Topic: Confucius and Founding Fathers 
Q’s: Confucius places a lot of emphasis on relationships and our roles in life. What relevance does this have in our personal lives and also in the leaders? Did any of the Founding Fathers exemplify what Confucius meant by relationships?

A: For Confucius, relationships were not things that people entered into as people per se. Rather, "relationships" are social categories that we inhabit, such as "teacher," "student," "father," 'daughter," "king," "subject," etc. Each category has defined relationships within the social structure, kind of like a dramatic role that we are expected to play. Virtue, to a great extent, means acting according to the correct social expectations for the role that we are inhabiting at the time.

With this definition, the Founding Fathers are in deep trouble, as they were pretty much all bad subjects to the King of England. Among the Founders, the Federalists (Hamilton, Washington, Adams) paid a lot more attention to social roles. Washington, especially, was very concerned to look like a President, act like a president, and, generally, be presidential in all things. Even when he was a commanding general, he secured the loyalty of his troops by being faithful to the expectations that they had of him. This is a very Confucian attitude.

Others of the Founders were decidedly NOT Confucian. Benjamin Franklin loved to shock people with his unorthodox ideas and behaviors. And Thomas Jefferson believed that social conventions were stifling and inauthentic, so he regularly flouted them.

The big thing to remember about Confucius is that "good relationships" are not things that we use our own judgment about. Whatever society we live in has defined what it means to be a good teacher, or a good leader, or a good follower, or whatever. Even if these rules are not written down anywhere, they exist, and, if we are sensitive to our own context, we are aware that they exist. Confucius never defined these terms himself; he simply assumed that his audience would know what their own society expected of them. Meeting those expectations is the key to Confucian virtue, and, when everybody acts the way that they are supposed to act, you get social harmony.

Topic: The Classics 
Q’s: What are some of the lessons that you have gained from reading classical literature that influence how you view individuals, yourself, or society? Are there lessons about human relations that we can draw upon from classical literature?

A: As for the classics, I will say this: there is a lot more that connects human beings than divides us. Whatever culture we live in, whatever time period we are a part of, we have the same basic psychology, and we face a lot of the same sorts of problems. The advantage of the classics is that they are generally by people who had a good understanding of human nature. As a result, they can be very useful to us in identifying and solving the kinds of problems that human beings have. More modern literature can do this too, but the classic have survived for hundreds and thousands of years precisely because they have proven to be useful to all different kinds of human beings. This being the case, there is a very good chance that they will be useful to us, if we let them.

For example, it is from the classics that I have learned how conflicts usually start and how they can be best avoided (or, if they can't be avoided, how they can be won). I have also learned about the way that self-interest does, and does not color the behavior of most people. Classic literature shows me a whole host of human problems and a wide variety of potential solutions. But it also shows me that we CAN solve problems and that we CAN overcome grief and difficulty.

Watch next week's edition of  population-we™  for Part II, and the conclusion of the "Confucius, Classics, and the Constitution" series.

(Editor’s note: The more we seek out the teachings of great thinkers both past and present--the more we can learn to think for ourselves. Just a reminder to all of our population-we™ readers: we are all encompassing and welcome diverse political views here.)

- population-we blog post by Barb Bohan
© 2013 population-we, LLC
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  1. Thank you. This was very informative and interesting. My education on the above is sketchy to say the least.

  2. Nettie: We all agree, Barb did an excellent job with her Q&A with Michael Austin. I learned a lot, too! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Thank you, Nettie and Becky! I learned a lot interviewing, Michael!