Notes from the field: Confucius and the universal human condition

universal human condition

I’m hoping that a second long holiday weekend in succession will give me enough time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s on my Analects of Confucius Book 12 content. You can find all the links to the translations, commentaries, and related articles on the resources page here.

One of the most common reasons given in the West for studying the Analects is for the insights it provides into Chinese culture. That’s OK as far as it goes (though it’s important to remember that it shouldn’t be the only source) but the more I study the text, the more deeply I’m struck by how much light it sheds on the universal human condition. The hypocrisy, greed, thuggery, and other frailties that the sharp-eyed Confucius observes in his contemporaries is every bit as virulent among all of us today. Indeed, it could be argued, these traits are actually accelerating thanks to the proliferation of digital technologies like social media.

When Confucius lashes out at people who seek celebrity over accomplishment in 12.20, he could just as easily be criticizing not just the legions of young YouTube, Tik Tok, Instagram, and Twitter influencers desperately fighting for their five minutes of fame, but also the smug establishment elite from politics, academia, media, and business that clog public physical and online spaces with their moral preening.

Confucius saw the fake “do-as-I say-not-as-I-do” morality of the elites of his day as the major cause of social instability and deprivation among the whole population. No doubt he would be just as appalled by the antics of their modern counterparts – if not more so.

Confucius’s answer to this problem was to call for members of the establishment to reset the tone by following the path to goodness through rigorous self-cultivation and ritual practice. In Book 12, he loses no opportunity to hammer home this message to his followers and prominent establishment members, urging them to strive to set the right example for the common people to follow.

Although important figures like Duke Jing of Qi nodded politely in agreement to his sagely wisdom, they instantly reverted to their decadent lifestyles the moment Confucius left the building. Faced with such indifference and in some cases outright rejection, it’s no wonder that in Book 14 we see even the usually ebullient sage become disheartened.

Such is the strength of his convictions, however, he immediately picks himself up from the ground and continues along his path. Perhaps this is the most important lesson about the universal human condition that Confucius teaches us in the Analects. No matter how disappointed or outraged we are by what’s happening around us, we should stay true to our values and never give up on ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *