rites revisited

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子曰:「恭而無禮則勞,慎而無禮則葸,勇而無禮則亂,直而無禮則絞。君子篤於親,則民興於仁。故舊不遺,則民不偷。」
Confucius said: “Reverence without the rites descends into indifference; cautiousness without the rites descends into timidity; boldness without the rites descends into disorder; frankness without the rites descends into hurtfulness. If a leader is devoted to his family, the people are inclined towards goodness; if he doesn’t forget about his old friends, the people will not shirk their obligations to others.”

It’s been a while since I last mentioned the rites (禮/), the unwritten rules, rituals, and conventions that glue a society together by providing an overall context for individual behavior. As Confucius points out, without this context it can be very easy for people to cross the invisible line and indulge in undesirable behavior.

Unlike the law (法/), the rites are largely unwritten and unspoken. This makes it critically important that a leader sets the right example for people to follow. If he can’t set the right tone by, for example, looking after his family and friends, how can less exalted souls be expected to conduct themselves in the right manner?

“Do as I do” should be the motto – not “do as I say”.

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