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Confucianism: an American professor and believer on its insights about life and how to apply them

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 19/02/2022 Peter Neville-Hadley
  • Stephen Angle is an American professor of philosophy and a believer in Confucianism. His new book is a prospectus for the ... the what, exactly?
  • Neither religion nor philosophy, the code to live by that Confucius supposedly bequeathed the world is made up of commonplace ideas anyone might have

Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life By Stephen C. Angle pub. Oxford University Press

As its title suggests, Stephen C. Angle's new book is not simply an introduction to Confucianism - although it functions very well as that - but a prospectus for it.

Angle, professor of philosophy and East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University, in the United States, introduces a personal note at times, remarking on the impact his Confucian beliefs have had upon his own life. Nevertheless, he admits that in the competition to survive in the world of ideas Confucianism has not proved to be the fittest, even in its Chinese homeland.

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Most self-identified Confucians now live in South Korea, and even there they are a small percentage of the population.

But as any first-year philosophy student will tell you, neither the number of people who believe a claim to be true nor the antiquity of that claim have any logical implication whatsoever for its validity.

And Angle is keen to dignify Confucianism as a philosophy, although it quickly becomes clear that this is a title it does not merit. But his main purpose in doing so is to distinguish it from religion, unless "religion" is understood in a far broader sense. Confucius was not a prophet. Confucianism contains no supernatural element, and it has a distinctly unreligious willingness to coexist with other schools of thought.

Stephen C. Angle. Photo: Handout © Provided by South China Morning Post Stephen C. Angle. Photo: Handout

Like his near-contemporary Socrates, Confucius left no written record of his own, and is likely not the originator of the ideas bundled together under his name. Even he supposedly remarked in the Analects, a compilation of sayings attributed to him: "I transmit rather than invent."

"At the heart of the tradition, though," says Angle, "are profound insights into the human condition that have much to teach us today."

The problem is that Confucianism's key ideas are largely commonplaces, and are arrived at quite independently by most of us without any need for the framework Confucianism requires, and which is quite unnecessary to them.

Respect for parents, being considerate of others, realising the interconnectedness of things, looking for harmony, employing what has now been trendily repackaged as "mindfulness", reading deeply, and conforming to society's norms wherever you happen to be are entirely familiar ideas.

Angle introduces Kongzi (551-479BC - Latinised thousands of years later to Confucius by Jesuits enthusiastic about his family values) and his later followers Mengzi (Mencius) and Xunzi, followed by 12th century neo-Confucian Zhu Xi, and the revisionist Wang Yangming of about three centuries later. But none of these writers provides the reader with any revelation, or even much in the way of mild surprise.

The cover of Angle's book. © Provided by South China Morning Post The cover of Angle's book.

Angle spends time elucidating technicalities such as "sages" (those in whom good behaviour is a reflex action), "sprouts" (innate moral tendencies that must be nurtured) and the "heartmind" ("the seat of thought and reflection"), although this conceptual framework seems superfluous.

Philosophy that fails to make itself clear is just bad philosophy, not that Confucianism is philosophy as we understand it. It addresses none of the fundamentals even in the area of ethics, such as how to derive statements about what ought to be done from statements about what there is.

Instead Confucianism is more like the Ten Commandments without any god, interleaved with an etiquette guide and remarks in the style of Deepak Chopra.

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But the familiarity of its underlying ideas, as well as the proposal that we can all be moral if we work at it, does make them appealing, and there seems little argument that if they were more widely put into practice then the world would be a better place, even if "better" is simply taken for granted as meaning people being nicer to each other.

Such a position does require the same sort of careful selecting of ideas as the religious tend to practise with their often blood-drenched holy books in order to claim that they are peaceful.

Angle spends considerable space offering apologia for classical Confucianism's authoritarian and related misogynistic tendencies, although he does himself no favours by offering the fallacious mitigation that other early religious and philosophical systems were just as bad. He certainly rejects such tendencies, and explains how Confucianism, like most other belief systems, has matured and developed.

But probably not enough to make you any more Confucian than you already are.

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