A REVIEW OF JIYUAN YU'S
THE ETHICS OF CONFUCIUS AND ARISTOTLE:
MIRRORS OF VIRTUE
(New York & London: Routledge, 2007)
Shorter version published in The Journal of Chinese Philosophy vol. 35, number 4
by Nicholas F. Gier, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy
University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, 83843. E-mail: email@example.com
In a letter to a critic of his comparative sociology, Max Weber replied sarcastically: "Some may well sneer [that] dilettantes compare." While this may be an apt remark for some of us who attempt to do comparative philosophy, this definitely does not apply to Jijuan Yu in his ground breaking comparison of Confucius and Aristotle. Yu is thoroughly trained in both European and Asian philosophy and is a well established Aristotle scholar. In addition to articles comparing Greek and Confucian philosophy, Yu has a number of published papers on Greek philosophy, including a major work The Structure of Being in Aristotle's Metaphysics (Kluwer, 2003).
The successful comparative philosopher must offer a methodology that goes beyond superficial juxtapositions of texts and ideas. Yu proposes that Aristotle's concept of a friend as a mirror and a second self can serve as a key to unlock hitherto unrecognized insights that would escape those who study the Greeks and the Chinese apart from one another. Just as people require friends to know themselves better, so will Aristotle, with the help of a comparative philosopher, need Confucius as a friend to know himself and vice versa. Good friends also are aware of both the positive and negative qualities of the other. In the course of his study Yu finds ambiguities and inconsistencies in Aristotle and Confucius that, in the mutual reflection of mirroring, help him solve hermeneutical problems in each. This method will also avoid the tendency to take European philosophical categories as the norms by which Asian thought is evaluated.
Yu offers an answer to Alasdair MacIntyre's challenge that Aristotle and Confucius have such "crucially different and incompatible accounts" and they cannot be successfully compared. In his response Yu demonstrates that the incommensurability that MacIntyre finds between Aristotle and Confucius also applies, as MacIntrye argues in both After Virtue and Whose Justice? Whose Rationality?, to competing moral traditions within the European tradition. (Is MacIntrye trying to out do Derrida?) Yu shows, however, that MacIntyre turns around and claims that he can still use Aristotle as a response to "liberal modernity" (228, note 17). By so doing MacIntyre has himself undermined claims of incommensurability, and he appears to agree with Aristotle that languages and cultures, while obviously different, nevertheless arise from "affections of the soul" that "are the same for all" (De Interpretatione, 16a3-8). Yu also effectively uses a passage from Aristotle's Metaphysics (993a28-993b7) to reject the assumption in European philosophy, evidently promoted by MacIntyre, that thinkers are obligated to find the truth in their views and not in others. Yu would prefer a methodology in which one could find that Aristotle is right on some points and Confucius correct on others.
Aristotle's view of partial and tentative truths is particularly applicable to ethics where practical wisdom cannot give any precise results. This major point lays to rest the common charge that the Confucians offer no theoretical accounts and therefore cannot hold any philosophical ground against the Greeks and their successors. With regard to the question of human nature, the Confucian tradition actually has a fairly sophisticated theoretical discussion complete with arguments, which Yu has summarized (57-71). (My own summary is at the end of this URL.) Yu also praises Mencius for his "rich discussion of courage" and criticizes Aristotle's coverage of this virtue courage as "not easy to understand" (161). Furthermore, Aristotle's belief that rationality is what is unique to human nature is "poorly justified" (68). Yu reminds us that in general the Nicomachean Ethics "is not a paradigm of rigorous argumentation, logical consistency, and definitional clarity"(12).
The scope of Yu's book is comprehensive--including insightful discussions Socrates and Plato as well as Aristotle on the Greek side and Mencius and the Confucian classics on the other side. Socrates and Confucius share a view that the gods (heaven [tian] for Confucius) play a role in leading the good life. Socrates' daimon serves a check on his behavior, while tian is the source of Confucius' virtue (de) (Analects 7:23). Yu is quick to argue that in neither does this lead to a divine command morality. The moral imperative of the daimon is essentially prevention, and tian produces no positive moral content other than the potential to do good. At least Socrates' daimon cautions against action, but the Confucian tian says nothing. In both the field is cleared for a strong humanistic ethics. As Yu states: "The divine mission, for both Confucius and Socrates, is a self-conceived obligation rather than a direct prescription" (39).
It seems, however, that there is some divine prescription embedded in li, the traditional rites of the heavenly ordained Zhou dynasty, which Confucius wished to reintroduce. Yu is correct to say that "to take seriously Confucius' claim that he does nothing more than hand down the old . . . is just as naïve as taking seriously Socrates' claim that he knows nothing" (42). Although Yu would have to admit that the Socratic dialectic is much more rigorous, he is still correct to say that "finding the embedded way [dao] in traditional [Chinese] classics is a rational process of original inquiry and reflection" (43).
Yu observes that just as Socrates never uses the elenchus against the gods, Confucius never doubts heaven even while he cautions his disciples not to speculate about spiritual things. It is important to note that piety is a virtue for virtually all Greek and Chinese philosophers. In both traditions humans serve the gods by "improving the moral states of the human soul" (Greece) or by following the dao of heaven embedded in li (China). In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle states that piety "requires us to honor truth above our friends" (1096a11-16). Aristotle is quite in line with Confucius when he reminds us that moral truths can be found in "undemonstrated sayings and opinions of wise and experienced older people" (NE, 1143b9-13, Ostwald translation with the words rearranged).
Yu concludes that Confucius is much more like Aristotle than Socrates. Both Aristotle and Confucius reject the thesis that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness, and while they would agree that happiness comes about by a process of self-examination, they would not favor cross examination, at least not the sometimes brutal Socratic elenchus. Aristotle believes that Socrates misled the youth of Athens by implying that arguments alone could make one happy, when it fact practical wisdom is found in generations of wise elders who had never been introduced to dialectic but still have "an eye (nous) with which they can see correctly (NE, 1143b9-13). Yu states: "Similarly, Confucius must have a serious problem with Socrates. . . . In contrast to Socrates' hostility towards tradition, Confucius is characterized by his deep respect and affection for the rich cultural past" (50). For both Aristotle and Confucius habituation, ritualization, and emulating virtuous persons is essential for the good life.
Yu suggests that instructive parallels can be drawn between Confucius' study of li and Aristotle's collection of ancient constitutions (135-36). During one part of this life Confucius wandered from state to state offering himself as political advisor to Chinese rulers, insisting that only the virtuous prince was fit to govern. This demonstrates the necessary connection between ethics and politics which holds for both thinkers, a topic that Yu discusses in expert detail (50-51, 131-139). In this regard Yu reminds us that Socrates had a different view: "A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not public, life . . ." (Apology, 31d-32a).
With regard to human nature, the topic of Yu's second chapter, I have already mentioned Yu's observation that the Confucians, specifically Mencius, offer more extensive argumentation than does Aristotle. With regard to the ambiguities in the Analects Yu proposes that the passage "Man is born with uprightness" (6:19) and other indications lead to the conclusion that for Confucius human nature is good. Yu maintains that Aristotle is not clear on this point. On the one hand, we have "neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do virtues arise in us" (NE, 1103a24-25) or "for each of us seems to possess his type of character to some extent by nature" (NE, 1144b3-6), a view similar to Mencian virtue "sprouts." The Politics (125a31-37, 1318b38-1319a1) offers yet another view—that evil is inherent in humans and that they cannot become good without law and morality—which is the position held by Xunzi, who was never considered part of Classical Confucianism.
Yu speculates that the issue of whether human nature is good is subordinate in Aristotle to his teleology, where everything that is has its own function and the human function is reason. Offering wonderful insights left and right, Yu notes that just as some commentators have thought that Mencius' idea of innate human goodness is naïve, so too have scholars pointed out that Aristotle's assumption that reason and goodness are necessarily linked is undermined by the simple fact that reason can be used to perform evil acts. Yu responds that this challenge is "too hasty," and so is the criticism of Mencius, who makes it clear that virtue sprouts can wither and die in the ground if not tended properly. With regard to Aristotle, Yu states that "human good is not just the employment of intelligence, but the employment of intelligence in conformity with the virtues" (67).
Yu's third chapter "Virtue, the Mean, and Disposition" is a tour de force of comparative philosophy and etymological analysis. It is by far the best treatment of the ancient Golden Mean I have ever read. It is an excellent example of how Yu's methodology of mirroring demonstrates the power of comparative philosophy to provide new philosophical insights. Yu distinguishes between an inner and outer mean that he finds expressed in both the Aristotelian and Confucian texts. "The inner mean manifests itself by hitting the outer mean" with the former defined as an "inner state of character" and latter defined as an "outer expression of virtue in feelings and emotion" (80, 81).
The Aristotelian and Confucian doctrine of the mean is not, as conventional wisdom has it, a call for general moderation in all things; it "is not a notion of quantity or proportionality, but is identified with what is right" (79). Yu gives the example of Yen Hui's death. Confucius' disciples thought that his grief was extreme, but Yu contends that Confucius, given what Yen Hui meant to him, "did not think that a moderate response in this circumstance was appropriate" (80). Confucius' mean is just as relative as Aristotle's in which actions refer "to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, for the right reason . . . (NE, 1109a27-28).
Both Aristotle and Confucius use the skills of archery as an explanatory device. The Chinese zhong in the title of the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong) means, as a noun, either "middle" or "appropriateness," and as a verb it means "to hit the target." In a long passage Yu demonstrates the connection between zhong, archery, and hitting the target. He validates his distinction between inner and outer mean in several instances, with this passage from the Mencius (2a7) as an example: "Ren is like archery: an archer makes sure his stance is correct [inner mean] before letting fly the arrow" to the center of the target, the outer mean. Yu finds only one explicit mention of archery in Aristotle (NE, 1094a18-24), but he shows that the Greek phrase tou mesou stochastikÂ ("hitting the mean") has the meaning "to aim or shoot at" (86).
Yu claims that the archery model helps correct the received opinion that "vices of excess and defect cannot be understood strictly as two extreme points. Instead, they are two general headings under which all defective characters are grouped, and under each heading there is a range of characters and actions" (88). It also helps us "appreciate the fact that all vices cannot be equally bad. If point ten is the bull's eye, points nine to one are all deviant" but not equally deficient.
For over a century translations of a crucial Confucian term yi, particularly James Legge's "righteousness," completely obscured its meaning. Starting with Ames and Hall in Thinking Through Confucius and now Yu, the translation of yi as "appropriateness" leads Yu to make this essential clarification: "Ren is neither a matter of mechanically following and applying what the social rites determine nor a matter of blind love, but rather involves an intellectual aspect of understanding and judging" (94).
In my own work I offer the formula ren + yi + li =ren* following Ames' and Hall's convention of letting ren* to stand for Yu's "human excellence" and the homophone ren to take its meaning as physical human being. Without the yi in the formula one would get the impression that Confucians meant for people to conform to li in a strict and mechanical way. (Leaving li out of the equation would lead to Socrates' intellectualist fallacy.) The best example of doing what is appropriate or fitting is the famous one from Mencius: li requires that one not touch a woman who is not related to by blood or marriage, but one must surely extend one's hand to a woman who is drowning. Mencius goes even further in the range of personal choice when he justifies rebellion against evil rulers. (It must be said that Mencius does not use the word yi in these instances, but introduces quan as a term for moral discrimination and judgment.) Yu concludes that for Aristotle and Confucius "the most important feature of ethical wisdom is sensitivity to the actual situations of human life rather than universality and consistency" (157).
Taking yi to mean a personal appropriation of li allows Aristotle's practical wisdom (phronÂsis) and yi to mirror each other in instructive ways. Yi and phronÂsis are functionally equivalent; they enable people to choose the right person, the right reason, the right time, the right extent, and the right way to act. Expanding the parallel analysis, Yu proposes that ren as human excellence is a dialectical unity of li, the moral feelings of ren in its narrower sense of benevolence, and yi, and there is a similar dynamic among Aristotle's ethos, feelings, and phronÂsis. Yu's fifth chapter "Practical Wisdom and Appropriateness" unpacks and justifies the details of the tripartite parallel structure. Especially insightful is his proposal that "the Confucian wisdom (zhi)/appropriateness seems to correspond roughly to the Aristotelian knowing/choosing" (151).
Chapter Four "Habituation and Ritualization" demonstrates that intellectual judgment alone will not make us moral and that ethos and li are necessary conditions for the good life. Attesting to the fact that Confucius and Aristotle are doing virtue ethics, Yu states that "the goodness of actions is judged by reference to ethos and li rather than to some universal moral principles" (100). Taking a lead from the Politics—"men in general desire the good, and not merely what their fathers had" (126a3-4)—Yu proposes that ethos is descriptive and open to a multicultural future, while li is monocultural and backward looking (101). Yu tempers this conclusion with this statement: "Confucius' theory of ritualization is culturally influenced, but not culturally bound" (102).
Yu discovers instructive contrasts between Aristotle and Confucius on the issue of family and the state. Neither would have agreed with the impartialism of utilitarianism and Kantianism and both stress the importance of the family for moral development. (Confucians had already rejected the Mohists and their demand for impartial love for everyone.) For Aristotle the father-son relationship is crucial and the friendship between them is one that lasts a life-time. Sons learn how to use reason to control their passions from their fathers, and this training in reason and learning obedience to fathers prepare them for life in the polis. Yu concludes his analysis by stating that "although family is significant, neither children's love towards parents nor parents' love toward children constitutes the foundation of virtue ethics. Whereas filial love serves as the basis for ritualization in Confucius, the basis for habituation in Aristotle is human rationality" (129). Whereas for Confucius the state is the "family writ large," Yu contends that for Aristotle "the family is subordinate to the state, since the state's aim is 'the highest of all'" (130).
In his last two chapters Yu discusses the relationship between virtue and the highest good. He notes that Aristotle believes that the highest good is not a virtue; rather, it is eudaimonia, the state, literally, of having a good soul. Yu takes on the age-old challenge of how to reconcile this view of the middle books of the Nicomachean Ethics and Book X, where contemplation (theoria) and blessedness (makrios) take the place of a eudaimonia produced by phronÂsis. Yu's solution is to call theoria "primary happiness" and "the life of practical reason is secondary" (169). There is simply no space here for the details of Yu's ingenious solution to this knotty problem, which involves the issue of external goods and a distinction between a contemplative life versus contemplative activity.
Yu's choice of the highest good in Confucianism is, next to his discussion of the mean, the second most creative contribution of his book. Outside of the Chinese logicians, there is nothing comparable to theoria in Chinese thought, and this lack of a distinction between the theoretical and the practical is the strongest contrast between European and Confucian thinking. Yu chooses the virtue cheng as the highest good. As in the case of yi, previous translations of cheng have obscured its meaning and therefore a proper appreciation of this virtue. Taking a clue a passage from the Doctrine of the Mean—"cheng means the completion of the self (chap. 25)—Yu translates the term as "self-completion," which "is the highest manifestation of human excellence (ren)" (177). Yu is then ready to propose the parallel structure: "Just as cheng involves the unity between human beings and Heaven, contemplation involves the unity between human beings and God" (170). It is significant to note that only Confucius' highest good is moral, because there is no moral content in pure rational activity. At their highest state Aristotle believes that human beings are basking in divine intelligence, while the Confucian sages have perfected the virtue that Heaven has given them. I find it ironic that a comparativist methodology based on Aristotelian friendship tells us that it is the Confucian sage, not the Greek philosopher, who will look for friends.
Yu's book is the best book on comparative philosophy I have ever read. He has proposed a creative methodology and he applies his expert knowledge of Greek and Chinese philosophy with great care and insight. I recommend this book without reservation.