The Corner

The Master Speaks

Mike: I’d hesitate to tangle with Lin Yutang, having once actually done so when he was alive (in the Letters columns of the South China Morning Post) and got my head neatly bitten off for my trouble. Trying to imagine Confucius as a Christian, though, is too much of a stretch. I should be less surprised to hear that Chris Hitchens had converted to Islam.

One of the few things that is indisputably plain about the Master is that he had not a religious bone in his body. His teachings are seamlessly humanistic. He lived in a deeply superstitious time, when shamanism and animism were still practiced in country districts, and even the educated few spent much time trying to curry favor with spirits and demons. Confucius struggled against all that. He is for ever deflecting his questioners’ probings about supernatural matters—sometimes with visible impatience, even in the radically brachylogical diction of the Analects—to force the focus back towards human affairs and the governance of the self.

Ji Lu asked about serving the spirits of the dead.

The Master said, “You are not yet able to serve living men, how can you serve the spirits of the dead?”

Ji Lu ventured to ask about death.

Said the Master, “You don’t yet know life. How can you know about death?”—(11.xi)

The Master being very sick, Zi Lu asked leave to pray for him.

“Are such things done?” asked the Master.

Zi Lu replied, “Yes. In [name of a book now lost] it is said, ‘Pray for him to the upper spirits and lower demons.’”

[Confucius’s response—lit. “My praying long-since” + emphatic particle—is more than usually cryptic, but is taken by all the commentators to mean he declined to be prayed for.]—(7.xxiv)

The Master said, “Does Heaven speak? The four seasons pass, a hundred things come forth, but what does Heaven say?”—(17.xix)

And in fact, all this was discussed with exceptionally clarity and lucidity by Lin Yutang himself, in My Country and My People—still, for my money (which isn’t much—prices on Abebooks.com start at $3.53) his best book, and one of the best books for getting a grasp of the general Chinese cultural framework. MCMP seems not to be on either Google Books or Gutenberg, but if you can get a copy, I direct your attention to pp. 102-109. Sample:

This realism and attached-to-the-earth quality of the Chinese ideal of life has a basis in Confucianism, which, unlike Christianity, is of the earth, earth-born. For Jesus was a romanticist, Confucius a realist; Jesus was a mystic, Confucius a positivist; Jesus was a humanitarian, Confucius a humanist. In these two personalities we see typified the contrast between Hebrew religion and poetry and Chinese realism and common sense. Confucianism, strictly speaking, was not a religion: it had certain feelings toward life and the universe that bordered on the religious feeling, but it was not a religion. There are such great souls in the world who cannot get interested in the life hereafter or in the question of immortality, or in the world of spirits in general. That type of philosophy could never satisfy the Germanic races, and certainly not the Hebrews, but it satisfied the Chinese race—in general. We shall see below how it really never quite satisfied even the Chinese, and how that deficiency was made up for by a Taoist or Buddhist supernaturalism. But this supernaturalism seems in China to be separated in general from the question of the ideal of life: it represents rather the spiritual by-plays and outlets that merely help to make life endurable.

[Me] And you know, having typed all that out, I now think Mike may be on to something after all. Confucius would have made a pretty good Anglican…

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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