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Confucius Say

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I am having one of those days when I just can’t seem to settle down no matter what I do.

That sounds all angsty and portentious, like one of those movies where some woman just can’t stand her successful New York life anymore and goes off traveling to Cordoba and Tibet in search of meaning.

What it most likely is, in actuality, is the one flaw in my favorite tea.

My favorite tea is what’s called Double Bergamot Earl Grey from the Stash Tea Company out in Oregon somewhere.  They have a web site at


although there’s no particular reason you should check it out.  It’s tea.  It’s really good tea at a moderately reasonable price.

It is not ragingly gourmet tea that has to be talked about in the kind of language most people use for wines.

And no.  I don’t get the wine thing either.

At any rate, it’s very decent tea and I love it, and every morning I take two tea bags, put them in a 60 ounce cup, pour boiling water over them and steep the whole thing for 15 to 20 minutes.

All of this being the result of the fact that I don’t much like the taste of coffee, but I like the effects of caffeine very much.

Okay. I like the taste of those frappucino things you can get at Starbucks.

The not being able to settle down problem is usually the result of that one little flaw, and that is that the Stash company, being conscientiously environmentalist, uses some kind of material for its tea bags that will, every once in a while, leak.

It will leak little chips of dried tea, which float around in the liquid and which I sometimes swallow without realizing it.

It’s like having a continually steeping tea bag right in your gut, and the caffeine it puts out after a while is truly remarkable.

Of course, Stash tea bags are paragons of structural integrity compared to the tea bags from REAL hippie tea providers, some of which explode on touch. 

I say that if I’d wanted to use a strainer, I’d have bought the tea loose.

One way or the other, Stash is the best Earl Grey I’ve found yet, and one of the few that offers double bergamot.   It’s not like I’m going to give it up.

The tea jumpiness was exacerbated this morning by the fact that I’ve been reading, over the last two or three days, the Penguin Classics edition of Confucius’s Analects.

I’m stressing the edition because Penguin Classics editions always have at least an introduction, an often have other explantory matter having to do with the work.

In the case of the Analects, there has been more explanatory matter than actual work, which turns out to be a very good thing.

Confucius turns out to be one of those writers of whom I had a vague sense without ever having actually read, but whom I still was convinced I “got.”

Well, not “got” as to specifics.

“Got” as to:  this is THAT kind of thing.

The THAT kind of thing I thought Confucius was came under the heading “one of the great religious and moral writers of all time.”

I was aware that Confucius was more moral than religious–that he did not write about God or the gods as much as about the right way to live.

I also had vague ideas about “ancestor worship,” but my sense of that was that Confucius was in favor of it because reverence for ancestors helped keep order and discipline.

What I was expecting–sincerely and honestly expecting–was something like the Buddhist scriptures.  Lots of emphasis on self abnegation, doing good to others, being one with our fellow man.

There is, indeed, a fair amount of emphasis in the Analects about what we owe to our fellow man, but it turns out that our fellow man isn’t all other human beings. 

People fall into categories in Confucius’s universe, and the two main categories are “our fellow man” and “the common people.”

“Our fellow men” are people like ourselves, born into the educated and cultivated families, destined to take part in government. 

“The common people” are everybody else.

Our job, and the job of “our fellow man” is to take care of the common people like a mother takes care of a nursing infant.

There is no other category here–nothing to suggest that Confucius or his disciples even considered the possibility that somebody born poor, or somebody of great wealth who came from a merchant family rather than a government one, could have enough going on in his head to run his own affairs, never mind that of the country.

And this at the time when the Chinese merchant class represented the greatest international traders the world had ever seen.

If you want a possible explanation for why the Chinese invented so much, discovered so much, conquered so much, and never did anything with it–Confucius would be a good place to start.

Socrates was a sage because he taught people to know themselves.  Christ was a sage because he taught people to know the mind of God.  Confucius is a sage because he knows the principles that, properly followed, will result in our being able to take part in government, at high levels or low.

A lot of what Confucius apparently taught–I say apprently, because there’s actually very little in the Analects about specifics–had to do with what is usually translated “the rites,” but seems to be something more like etiquette.

It is enormously important that the proper format for each and every kind of meeting and contact be carried out exactly.   It is so important that someone who fudges this kind of thing is deemed to be unfit for government service, and ONLY government service allows you to be classed among “our fellow men.”

It says something about human nature that a society so constituted could last so long–and it did last long.  It certainly lasted longer than the Roman Empire.

My head says that this thing must have operated with more flexibility in the day to day, or it would have fallen apart in no time–but possibly I’m wrong.

China gave us the first of the great bureaucracies, and bureaucracies have a staying power I sometimes find Satanic.

Virtually everything Confucius stresses is about externals. 

Where most of the world’s great religions stress the substance rather than the form, the intent rather than the practice, Confucius makes one’s interior life of secondary importance to one’s outward observance.

God rejected Cain’s sacrifice because he didn’ like what he saw in Cain’s heart.

Confucius rejects the most sincere supplicant if the external rules of the ceremony aren’t exactly right.

This is less like moral advice than a networking seminar at the Harvard Business school.

Right now, I’m trying to tell myself that I may be getting this entirely wrong–and I may be.   This is not an area I know a great deal about.

Confucius stressed always that the state and the individual (of the right classes) must follow the Way, and the Way seems to be the Tao. 

It’s been an unbelievably long time since I read Lao Tzu, and I don’t remember it.  Possibly the moral insight I expected to find in the Analects is there, and if I can unearth the thing from the piles of books in this house, all this will begin to seem less bizarre.

Perhaps, but my guess is–probably not.

Christ says that when a man hits you, you should turn the other cheek.  Buddha didn’t countenance violence of any kind against anyone or anything.

Confucius says that if somebody does you a bad turn, you should retaliate. 

Not only does the person who did you a bad turn need to be punished and corrected, but if you return good for bad, what can you later return for good?

There’s a lot that’s eminently practical in all that.

But it really wasn’t what I was expecting.

Written by janeh

July 23rd, 2014 at 10:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Confucius Say'

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  1. As I understand it, “tao” just means “the way.” It’s commonly transliterated rather than translated into English to denote that particular “way.”

    But as for wealthy powerful people who despise businessmen and see only government officials as their fellows–well, I think I can find you a batch without a trip to China. Keep going south on I-95 until until you hit the I-495 Beltway, and look around you. But where are the Mongol hordes when we really need them?


    23 Jul 14 at 7:13 pm

  2. There have been other thinkers who proposed an expert governing class to rule over the rest of us – Plato, for example, and the idea is found in many systems based on an aristocracy too. The idea clearly has an appeal to many people.

    So how does one identify good rulers? All systems seem to have their flaws.


    23 Jul 14 at 7:56 pm

  3. Unfortunately, the only guaranteed way to identify a good ruler is in retrospect. Preferably posthumously.


    23 Jul 14 at 10:48 pm

  4. The problem is not good rulers, but good institutions–finding that elusive sweet spot of a government powerful enough to prevent anarchy and foreign conquest without being so powerful as to become the problem.

    I think, once you decide that what you need instead is the perfect ruler, you’re doomed. The first idiot or madman wrecks everything, and all known systems install one sooner or later. I would try for two things, though.

    First, the ruler ought to have a wide variety of experience before he comes to power, and–there’s no tactful way to say this–education as such is not that experience. Even fairly high levels of education too closely resemble the old Chinese Civil Service exam–giving the examiners the answers they want or expect. If you have to build a bridge, start a business or command a rifle company, there is only success or failure, not a “book answer.”

    Second, the ruler–indeed, the ruling class–cannot be immune from the consequences of their actions. Campbell modified Lord Acton, and I think Campbell was right: “Immunity tends to corrupt, and absolute immunity tends to corrupt absolutely.” When your rulers know they can wreck lives, ruin economies and lose wars and still look forward to generous pensions, six-digit speaking fees and multi-million dollar book advances, you’re not just betting on their collective competence, but on their conscientiousness as well.

    Shouldn’t care to make that bet, myself.


    24 Jul 14 at 4:47 pm

  5. ‘Confucius rejects the most sincere supplicant if the external rules of the ceremony aren’t exactly right.’

    There might be a good reason why that would work. Scientists have done studies that show things like smiling can make you feel happy. The physical can cause the emotions and mind to follow it. If a visiting official is not sufficiently calm enough to complete a given ritual then that would tell you something about what is going on under the hood.

    My behavioral psychologist taught me something called calming the center which was to relax a certain area of my belly. This seems to calm the nervous system because that area is one which is tense when one is going to fight or run away from a threat. It sends a message through the nervous system saying things are fine no need for activation.

    Susan Nash

    29 Jul 14 at 4:51 pm

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