The Political Philosophy of Confucianism (II)

In part II of his 1930 essay, OKAWA Shumei begins to make his departure from the basic principles of Western political thought obvious, deploying a slightly Hobbesian character from the 3rd century B.C., and demonstrating his Confucian orthodoxy. It is interesting to consider this contrast of rules vs. rulers in the modern cases of businesses, schools, etc.

The political thought of Confucianism is built on top of this fundamental spirit. Accordingly, most orthodox Confucianists could not be made to target politics as a thing standing alone and separated from religion and morality. The personal training for politicians, given names like “study of ethical use of authority” and “way to a virtuous nation”, was never a thing separated [from the basic texts and principles]. According to Confucianism, as politics is the embodiment or systematization of Virtue, so the most essential basic requirement of the politician is to amass much virtue in their hearts. So most Confucian political works are expositions of knowledge intended for the ruler or politician. That is, to explain to the ruler the correct attitude for his heart, and how to attain virtue and compassion in his heart, is the basic method of Confucian political science.

For example, the Han Treatise on Punishment and Law states, “An ancient saying has it that even if the whole room has been eating and drinking, if there is one person crying to herself in the corner, no one in the room can enjoy themselves. And for a ruler, just like the case of that room, if even one person in his realm is treated unfairly, one’s heart takes pity.” An edict of Emperor Zhang of Han states, “The sovereign must treat the people as if he were their father or mother, answering hardships with love, teaching loyalty and virtue, and administering appropriate punishment.” Throughout the Shi Jing, the ruler is portrayed as the mother or father of the people.

Indeed, as a consequence of understanding politics as the embodiment of Virtue in this way, the political ideal of Confucianism can be summarized in a phrase as “domestic tranquility”. Domestic tranquility means that for all of the people that exist in a nation, throughout their lives, negatively speaking they meet with no obstacle, or positively speaking, they are able to fulfill their respective functions. Nevertheless, regardless of the institution or organization, the expectation of true domestic tranquility does not mean that it is rigidly enclosed by [bureaucratic] considerations. At the top of Xunzi’s thesis on sovereignty, he uses the phrase, “Rulers, Not Rules“. And this phrase is the single clearest declaration of Confucian philosophy as it relates to systems and organizations, meaning that the aim of politics is not the rules, but the character of the politicians. Indeed, Xunzi’s full statement is as follows:

“Not a country in disorder, but a leader in disorder; not rules of order, but rulers in order. The methods of the archer Yi are not lost, yet such an archer does not appear generation after generation. The laws of King Yu of Xia still exist, yet the Xia could not continue their rule. Thus, laws cannot stand alone. Categories cannot apply themselves. If there are good men then the nation will survive. If there are no good men then it will be lost. Laws are the sprouts of order, and the man of virtue is the field in which that order grows. If men were virtuous enough we could even do without laws, but if no man is virtuous, no laws will suffice to save us, and we will fall into disorder. One who can simply count off the laws without knowing the Right behind them, no matter how learned you might call him, if he is given authority disorder will result. Therefore, a good king goes swiftly in search of good men, while a bad king seeks out power.”

“You ask how to rule a nation. You should first ask how to discipline yourself, before you can run a nation. The sovereign rules, and with his right rule comes right views. The sovereign is a bathtub, and his people are like the water. Water follows the shape of the tub. If he is a round tub, they will be round, and if he is a square tub, they will be square. It does not matter if it is the sovereign’s edicts or his mere whims. King Zhuang of Chu preferred slender bodies, so there was starvation at court. If you must ask how to discipline yourself, you do not yet know how to rule your nation.”

Mencius means the same thing when he says frankly that “without men of virtue, there can be no rule”, and a famous chapter from Confucius’ Doctrine of the Mean goes, “The government of Wen and Wu is recorded on tablets. Let there be such men and the government will thrive; but without such men, the government decays. With men who heed the Tao, government flourishes, just as agriculture flourishes when the Tao of the Earth is heeded; indeed, government matures just as reeds shoot forth from the soil,” expressing the same idea.

The theory being expounded in Doctrine of the Mean is as follows. An ideal government existed in the time of Kings Wen and Wu, which can be verified through various documents. People like them can govern splendidly, but without people like them, good governments can crumble. If good people are promoted to government, it is like plants growing from rich soil, and the results will come quickly. The rise and fall of individual politicians has immediate consequences in politics, just as a sudden change in soil quality has an immediate influence on the plant. Regardless of political system, our politics depends on the character of the people in it. And the type of people who will be appointed depends solely on the character of the ruler. Moral principles must be protected to establish good character. And virtuous love must be cultivated to possess those moral principles.

Translation notes: The term “man of virtue” means an educated elite, and is similar to how Julius Evola employs the term “Aryan”.

The Confucius translation is adopted from several English sources, rather than Okawa’s incomprehensible late medieval transliteration (which he re-translates in the next paragraph). The first fourth of the Xunzi translation, about the archers and the Xia, is derived from Kurtis Hagen, The Philosophy of Xunzi, Open Court Press, 2007. The rest is original and somewhat loose, but I swear to God he really does say the sovereign is like a bathtub.

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