THE FIVE CONFUCIAN VIRTUES

A group of friends has been discussing the need for social change: for new ways to address injustice, environmental degradation, and other such matters.

One of them suggests that we should seek a change in pricing policy, so that poor producers should be properly rewarded.

I'm struck by the near impossibility, for a private individual, of achieving such a change; by the huge gulf between one person's longing and a vast global shift in many people's behaviour.

It reminds me of Confucius, who set out to transform a society riven by warfare: to find a way across just such a gulf.

Here is what I want to say to her:-

  1. You say (I think) that we need changes in hearts and minds. We need people to discover their own HUMANITY, their capacity for human-heartedness, for a large-minded sense of interbeing. You express the pain of being caught up in waste, injustice and environmental degradation, the sense of feeling yourself within a wider human and non-human community. (I like the way in which) you point to injustice and environment as a single inwoven complex.
  2. (I hear you say that) you also want us to think out and implement structural changes. You want us to take RESPONSIBILITY for our situation.
  3. You (seem to) experience yourself as enmeshed in a society, such that any change can only be worked out within the RHYTHM of that society.

    With reference to my points 2 and 3, it occurs to me that there is a place here for working on small action steps. Fair pricing is a good goal: but you and I simply do not have the power to take a flying leap to get there. That is a big social and political change, and we would be worn to shreds fighting the inertia of our society. But what can we do?

    Well, for a start (to take one of your own examples), we could simply refuse to do Christmas. If I were to send each of my people a friendly note, saying that I have added up what I just spent on Christmas, and next year I shall send that money to charity and not do Christmas, various things would happen:-

    (1) I would feel inside myself the huge discomfort of it, the little voice saying, "Well, of course, I still have to get something for A and B and C and D and ....."

    (2) I would have to deal with the effect on others, with their comments and their silence. I would be forced up against my emotional dependency.

    (3) I would drive a small wedge into the minds of others, such that they would be obliged to know that at least some people object to Christmas.

    (4) It might be fun!

    (5) Unexpected allies might crawl out of the woodwork!

    All this is just an example. Many other small do-able lines of social action could be found.

    But I think it is essential that any line of action must combine the 3 elements of:-

    We have to feel. We have to think. We have to act.

    Also, we have to watch very carefully for the effects of our actions, whilst knowing that a great part of our effects may never be known to us.

    Confucians traditionally speak of Five Virtues. "Virtue" here has its ancient meaning of "a source of strength". Let me say a few words about the last two:-

  4. Any attempt to influence the movements of society must rely upon HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.

    We want to be effective, and not to stir up a whole heap of shit by the way. So we have to minimise unnecessary disruption and thus minimise the arousing of hostility. Even small actions, even actions which are beautifully tailored to fall within the patterning of the existing society, will create fallout. People will react in complex ("irrational") ways, which we may not foresee, but must promptly notice and attend to. Without human understanding, action for social change may only bruise the actor.

  5. Finally, Confucius lays a huge stress on TRUSTWORTHINESS or sincerity. There's a story that he met an old hermit, who said, "This is foolish. You know it is both impossible and wrong to change the world. Retire from the world." And Confucius says, "Yes, I know. But you see, I can't help myself."

    It's like, it's not enough for parts of you sometimes to want a better world. You have to be a whole person, wholly attending. You have to be solidly on the ground, and (if possible) deeply unflappable, so that people instinctively trust you.

This is enough. It's just a point of view. I hope somebody enjoys reading it. But I can't claim to be either solid or unflappable, so you'd better trust somebody else!

I only want to add, by the way, that the day I was reading a passage about Confucius, and suddenly understood what he was up to (or maybe that should just be, "and suddenly met him"), I retreated to my bed and cried for the whole afternoon.

28th December 2001

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