The Political Philosophy of Confucianism (I)

East AsiaOKAWA Shumei (1886-1957) was a Japanese religionist and class-A war criminal. In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he wrote an introduction to Islam and translated a book about the “perennial wisdom”. He was arrested by the Americans for his political leanings and faced certain execution. On the first day of the Tokyo Trials, upon entering the courtroom he yelled randomly in German and slapped Prime Minister Tojo on the head, and was shortly found to be insane. While in the mental hospital, he made the first Japanese translation of the Qu’ran.

In this essay, which first appeared in the magazine East Asia in October 1930, Okawa advocates for a radical break with Western political thought by reviving and revitalizing Confucian order.

To aspire to Confucianism is without a doubt to make clear the Tao. And since the Tao is nothing if not a principle for individual life, Confucianism is an attempt to expound how men might live a righteous life. Now, a righteous life is a principle that realizes the correct relation between what we call “I” and what we call “not I”. Confucianism divides what is “not I” into the Three Powers, Heaven, Earth, and Man. This is the Tao of Confucianism. To be precise, Confucianism is the principle that realizes the proper relations between Heaven, Earth, and Man. In China, the scholars considered least worthy were thought of as “lacking knowledge even of the Three Powers”. When the English poet Wordsworth versifies on the necessity of holding a proper idea of God, Nature, and Man, it corresponds to this precisely.

Now, Confucianism teaches that he who accords to Nature knoweth the Way. Mencius says that “you must possess the five virtues yourself and extinguish your selfish nature”, and this means the same thing. The autonomy of morality, which Kant outlined so carefully with his utterly precise logic, was not a unique discovery of the German philosophers. The Confucians rapidly grasped this truth based on their depth of experience. For example, Mencius’ Four Sprouts are none other than a study of the foundations of human morality. What he calls a “Sprout” is a “natural foundation” from which morality can be grown. And so, in Confucianism, to work for ethical completeness is called development, or self-growth, or self-discipline. This capacity is inherent in oneself–he who possesses infinite possibilities for future action must start with an education in what is good. Therefore, the Tao as it pertains to Heaven, Earth, and Man first and foremost is something that should be realized through growing the natural foundations of morality in the self.

What is Heaven? Heaven is the origin of our existence. Most directly, this is our parents, and above them is our kin and ancestors. The origin of our ancestors is in the race, and the origin of that is in the universe. The correct relation to hold towards Heaven, that is to say, “religion”, is called in Confucianism Honor. This means growing and refining our essential human feelings of reverence and respect.

What is Earth? It is Nature as regarded by the mind. The most personal encounter we have with this is through our physical bodies, as well as the accompanying feelings of desire in our minds, as well as the external changes that these desires demand. The correct relation to hold towards Earth, meaning first the establishment of control over one’s mind with regards to nature, and second the unification of one’s attitudes, which may narrowly be called “morality”, is called in Confucianism Right. This means disciplining and training the essential human sense of shame, so that we will face towards Heaven unashamed and have good expectations for our life on Earth.

What is Man? Men are the individuals of good character whom you value equally with yourself. A well-bred man reasons with logic and acts with morality. Using logic, he understands the limitless possibilities of the complete knowledge of the universe, and thus is endowed with infinite possibility to realize in our lives, according to our intentions, the meaning of all things that it is possible to know. This personal limitlessness is called in Confucianism “natural intellect, natural ability”. Therefore, the proper relationship towards Man is to constantly develop the capacities of our natural intellect and ability, to our mutual benefit. Saying that this is realized through a purification of our natural tendency for sympathy and sentiment, Confucianism calls this Virtue. However, the collective effort to develop many intellects and abilities according to the parts of each and every life of many human beings in community is usually called politics. That is to say, the term politics is nothing other than an attempt to objectivize, or systematize Virtue.

Confucianism is therefore a Tradition that clarifies the three interests of religion, morality, and politics. Rather than breaking up these three ideas into separate fields of specialization, it understands them to interoperate as a single whole, and endeavors to eluciate the “Tao” as a principle for all human life which contains all three. This is a point which has caused much outside confusion about the nature of Confucianism. One [Western Orientalist] will claim that Confucianism is a moral teaching, another will claim it chiefly conveys information about government, while still another lists it among the world’s religions, but all their interpretation began from this source. For example, one Prof. Douglas calls Confucius’ teaching nothing more than “a plain, matter-of-fact system of morality”. But Confucianism is not a religion in the Western conception of the thing, nor is it ethics or political science. Confucianism is not a single one of those, but is indeed all of them at once. Recognizing this as an internal structure, we can resolve the external confusion: this is a Tradition which we will understand nothing of from a Western perspective.

Part II will be up in a day or two.

A postwar revision of some parts of Part I, and further thoughts on the concept of “religion”, can be found on my website.

9 thoughts on “The Political Philosophy of Confucianism (I)

  1. Thanks. The correspondences between his views and Guenonian traditionalism reflect very well on both.

  2. This is too late at this point, but I’m sorry for my rather accusatory and grumpy comment. I thought about it a lot today, and I am certain my attitude stems directly from reading too many high-tempered Internet arguments.

  3. It’s a tricky matter. My grandfather was a rikuguntaisa in the Japanese army during the Greater East Asia War but after visiting Korea I feel as if I need to make penance for his misdeeds.

  4. The tripartite division of Confucianism presented here is interesting, but does it not focus more on the cult of the ancestors than the cult to Divinity? Or is this Divinity contained in the “universe” which births the race, ancestors and parents?

    The acknowledgement of Confucianism as an organic “living” practice, rather than just a philosophy is essential and something I am glad to see here. The western insistence on dividing learning, work, life, religion, and so on is a major sign of its degeneration. His comment on the western perspective is spot on, although I must agree with doubts expressed about using the Japanese rather than original Chinese perspective, particularly one coming from the Imperial era of the 20th century rather than pre-Meiji Ishin.

  5. I must disagree here…the extent to which a woman in poverty can really be said to be “willing” in her prostitution is highly debatable. The amount of freedom she really had once in the hands of soldiers, Japanese or American, even more so.

  6. I can’t really comment on your principle that the truthfulness of a text can be judged by the circumstances its author lived in, nor that military defeat is a sign of martial strength, but I feel obliged to at least correct your inaccurate claim of “sex slavery”; not only was no slavery involved in Japan’s military brothel system, but it was taken over by the Americans and used in the Korean War, and a similar system was set up by the Americans in Vietnam, purchasing women from impoverished Vietnamese families. Please see this academic summary of research into the subject.

  7. Honour also consists in admitting your sources. You don’t learn from China and Korea and then take their women as your sex slaves and their men as forced labour. Japan behaved with great dishonour during WW2 and was punished by Heaven for it.

    I strongly advise that in studying the Far Eastern form of the tradition, we should avoid the Japanese derivative forms and look to the roots in China and Korea…..

    For the record let me also say that the Koreans are a much stronger martial people than the Japs, they beat the French and Americans in the XIXth century and the Japs many times over the centuries, last time being WW2.

    I am presently preparing to be initiated into a Korean order…..

  8. Okawa unfortunately seems to have missed out on Guénon and his school. His leanings in that direction, though, are demonstrated by a book he translated for a man named Paul Antoine Richard, the husband of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual successor “The Mother”. Richard’s book is indistinguishable from Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy which was written 2 or 3 years later. After long conversations with Richard, Okawa became a big fan of Sri Aurobindo despite a lack of thorough reading into his philosophy.

  9. Did Okawa have any contact with Guénon or his school of thought?

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