Human societies vary in the degree to which their orientation tends towards the centripetal or the centrifugal. Centripetal societies revolve around a single point, while centrifugal societies fan out in multifarious directions.
At the extreme centripetal end would be the kinds of ancient Golden Age societies fondly evoked by fascist thinkers like René Guenon or Julius Evola, civilizations in which a straight and narrow path — or, more aptly, a divinely inspired, miraculously constructed pyramid converging from a wide base to a single point — leads from the slave to the king and from the human to the divine. In such a society, everything and everyone have their place, functioning like proverbial cogs in the machine. Explicit and implicit rules and norms govern all interactions, but such rules and norms, far from feeling restrictive or arbitrary, are natural emanations of a deep, transcendent purpose informed by a higher order. Such societies are religious through and through, and religious in the sense of the term that the anthropologist Clifford Geertz would have had, where religion combines and harmonizes a worldview and an ethos, creating a general conception of existence clothed in an aura of factuality and establishing abiding, pervasive human moods and motivations. Or, to quote Julius Evola, such a society is “ruled by principles that transcend what is merely human and individual, and … all its sectors are formed and ordered from above, and directed to what is above,” so that “every reality [is] a symbol and every action a ritual.” In a way that is difficult for us to appreciate today, those born — and it is born more often than not — into the bottom of the holy hierarchy, whether Egyptian slaves or Hindu shudras, did not feel themselves “oppressed” in anything like the anachronistic conception of such oppression our materialistic, post-Marxian mindset would impose upon them, but rather, understood they were discharging a critical function in a sacred order; their toil ennobled them, and for them to aspire to being anything other than what they were would constitute unnatural defilement, the kind of thing that, for instance, put one outside the caste system and made one “untouchable.”
The extreme centrifugal end of the spectrum should be more familiar to us moderns. The dissolute, open, fragmented environs of Weimar Germany or, indeed, of the contemporary West might be as far as we have traveled in this particular direction, though we can also draw on the models of dark ages in both East and West, when empires collapsed, the fabric of society unraveled, chaos reigned, and each man was a law and a church unto himself. Put more affirmatively, we can think, perhaps, of the kind of society built purely on free association envisioned by the anti-statist, anti-hierarchical, anti-theological 19th century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakhunin. And there is always Marx’s necessarily vague conception of the coming communist utopia, in which all values are immanent rather than transcendent, in which human beings no longer require rulers or managers to herd and hound them into compliance. Instead, the distinction between labor and leisure vanishes, as all labor becomes free and non-alienated, or, in terms articulated by the radical New Left theorist Herbert Marcuse, aestheticized play replaces our daily toil, and human sexuality is unleashed from the narrow, repressed channels into which it must currently flow, bringing about a new, glorious future in which every aspect of life is imbued with “polymorphous perversity,” a multivalent, all-encompassing sexuality liberated from shame. In all our choices in this world of tomorrow, we each live our own truth, and yet do so in harmony with the rest, all our dark sides and destructive, selfish tendencies falling away of their own accord.
More likely than not, neither the utopian extreme centripetal society nor the utopian extreme centrifugal society ever was or will be, and any attempt to realize such visions will result in some species of anarchy, totalitarianism, or barbarism. In fact, a different, more pragmatic approach to the matter might begin with the premise that humanity thrives most in a middle ground between these two extremes, striking a balance between the totalitarian tendencies of the centripetal and the anarchic tendencies of the opposite pole.
From this theoretical height we descend into the seething cauldron of contemporary America, a society in disarray, all its seams breaking apart, its social structure collapsing into a war of all against all, proliferating factions identifying with their particularity — race, gender, sexuality, religion, political tribe — to the detriment of the greater whole, long-standing common traditions under attack, monuments toppled alongside the reputations of the once-cherished folk heroes they represented, an overly simplistic but bolstering myth of a just and good free democracy founded by enlightened wise men leading the way towards a still greater future replaced by an overly simplistic and toxic myth of a hegemonic, capitalist oppressor state founded by sinister dead white male perpetrators and perpetuators of the original sins of slavery and colonialism. In such times, a centripetal lurch is what we desperately need.
Enter Confucianism. In the 5th-6th centuries B.C. — and here I follow the renowned scholar of religion Huston Smith in his descriptions of Confucius and his approach to the world — China, like America today, was coming apart. It was the Period of the Warring States, an age of continuous warfare, barbarism, mass slaughter, and moral collapse. What Hegel called “civil society,” the critical level mediating between individuals and the state and allowing people to form the kinds of voluntary associations and mutual understandings that bind them to one another, had withered away. A foundational crisis was at hand.
Defying both those idealistic dreamers who believed the mere preaching of universal love could save the day and those brutal realists who believed a forceful crack of the whip of subjugation was in order, Confucius saw a third way, practical but merciful. His answer was “deliberate tradition.” In a time when a natural traditional order had unraveled, the void had to be filled through the intentional inculcation of notions once taken for granted. The content of such deliberate tradition consisted of principles that Huston Smith breaks down into five key terms (others have offered a different breakdown, but the general spirit of the doctrine remains the same):
1. Ren (sometimes written as “Jen”)
The essence of this broadest, overarching principle is to treat both others and oneself with respect and humanity, not to be a barbarian or a jerk to one’s fellow human or do things to others that you would not want them to do to you. In our age of incivility, inability to countenance differences of opinion or dissent, demonization of political opponents, callout culture, name-calling, epithet-hurling, irresponsible accusations of racism, sexism and other such –isms and –phobias and bitter Twitter pile-ons over petty infractions of ever-shifting nomenclature and norms-of-the-moment, a bit of ren would do us a lot of good. Perhaps nothing captures our absence of ren more starkly than the fact that we, as a nation, instead of turning our collective attention to real problems, both internal and external, have now spent years mired in — and lavished our scarce attention and resources upon — two successive overblown investigations into rather insignificant issues (Hillary’s e-mails and Trump’s Russia ties) all-too-obviously stemming from political vendettas egged on by scandal-mongering hacks and yellow journalists, the ultimate goal of which is to “get” someone rather than to achieve any sort of higher purpose. A society that abides by the principle of ren doesn’t do stuff like that.
2. Chun tzu
Closely related to ren, perhaps even following from it, chun tzu is about how we treat other people. It is about being generous rather than petty, kind rather than mean-spirited. It is about being a good host (i.e., not kicking people out of our homes or our restaurants because they might have political views that differ from our own). But also, more fundamentally, it is about seeing people not as a means to an end but as ends in themselves, to put it in Kantian terms. It is about asking ourselves not what we can get from others but what we can do for them. It is the opposite of the attitude exhibited by the slick salesman, or, on a larger scale and, sadly, closer to home, by our parasitic, overly financialized economy and banking sector constantly on the lookout for clever ways of making a profit off of others’ ignorance or at their expense (see generally 2007-08 subprime mortgage crisis) or by our big corporations that, to make a quick buck, will get us addicted to tobacco, painkillers, sugary drinks, junk food, junk t.v., sensationalized “news,” clickbait, video games and social media or put asbestos in our homes, toxic chemicals in our food and our environment and carcinogenic, gut-destroying pesticides on our crops. Chun tzu, to say it another way, reins in our worst instincts and reminds us that the heedless, selfish pursuit of our own maximal advantage is unseemly.
Li consists of two closely related concepts: propriety and ritual. Propriety means, if it means anything at all, that various key relationships and interactions in our lives are governed by certain norms, a standard of decorum prescribing what is appropriate and what is not. In addition to stressing the general importance of respect for elders and for the institution of the family, Confucius identified five key types of relationships to which propriety is particularly applicable: parent-child, husband-wife, elder sibling-younger sibling, elder friend-younger friend and ruler-subject. For him, each of these relationships was asymmetrical, in that the kinds of duties owed by the “junior” member of each pair — loyalty, obedience, piety, respect — differed from the kinds of duties owed by the senior member — care, benevolence, consideration, loving-kindness. Today, of course, we balk at any notion of asymmetry in the husband-wife pairing, and yet we all know that, as the book title puts it, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Outliers aside, most men and most women still conform to certain gender stereotypes and have different needs and preferences in a relationship. We need not think of the relationship, as Confucius would have, as consisting of a junior and senior partner. Equality is perfectly fine, but what we must acknowledge is differences. An undeniable difference in physical strength inevitably gives rise to males playing the role of a protector, and this in turn, coupled with the traditional male role of pursuer, gives rise to a certain norm of male gallantry, carrying the heavier bags, holdings doors, and so on, something the vast majority of women readily accept and appreciate. The point is that, all considerations of seniority or superiority aside, each of the roles in the relationship pairs Confucius identifies has to mean something clear and defined.
In fact, Confucius, under this rubric of propriety, speaks expressly of what he calls the “Rectification of Names,” the idea that words like “father,” “daughter,” “wife,” or “ruler,” and so on, must have a stable meaning that is publicly known and widely grasped. Whether, returning to our own time, that meaning is written in the stars or socially constructed is — or could be — beside the point, so long as even those roles held to be socially constructed have clear parameters that are agreed upon and understood. What we cannot have is what we currently do have, a situation where each of us is left to fend for him- or herself, so that we must make it all up as we go along, dislodged from familiar roles and well-trodden paths, navigating through a whirling maelstrom of ever-shifting meanings, having to negotiate and justify each move against a backdrop of anomie. That is a recipe for perpetual conflict and misery. An occasional welling up of #MeToo mania or the like might be okay to correct certain wrongs and establish a new consensus, but what we cannot abide or survive is a wholesale demonization of one gender’s basic default mode of being (i.e., “toxic masculinity”) or, indeed, of the very concept of gender itself (i.e., “gender-neutral parenting” a/k/a child abuse, and the other extremes of non-binary/transgender ideology), which not only defies basic biology but also, and more importantly, leaves us all utterly unmoored. It is what happens, to return to Confucius’ formulation of the problem, when key terms lose their meaning.
Widening the frame beyond the issue of gender, it would not be such a bad thing if our society started to move in the general direction of according more respect to elders and rulers. Donald Trump, an extreme example, does not exactly comport himself in a manner that commands respect, and yet I truly believe that if we, and especially our hate-peddling media, began to treat him with the dignity warranted for the role he occupies — even while continuing to observe and report facts and issue thoughtful, measured critiques where warranted — Trump would find himself, without the need for consciousness or deliberation, as if propelled by a force of nature, elevated toward a higher, better, more dignified level of functioning. This is because manners and etiquette, themselves a component of li, simply work that way. They are viral. When we find ourselves in Rome, we are rapidly civilized out of our barbarousness. If everyone around us bows and curtseys, we will not be fist-bumping and high-fiving. If everyone around us speaks carefully chosen words in dulcet tones, we will not be shouting profanities. If our environment is well-manicured and spotless and everyone takes care to deposit trash in proper receptacles, we will think twice before being the first one to muck it up. The inverse, unfortunately, is also true, and it is the direction in which we have been heading for some time. The race to the bottom makes for easier running but has no winners, as the slope keeps getting steeper with each step until the pack-leaders, followed by much of the rest of the herd, tumble headlong into the abyss.
The second aspect of li, natural corollary to the first, is the element of ritual. The more our lives become a ritualized sacred dance, the more our everyday words and actions become meaningful rather than arbitrary. Our lives are haloed over by a patina of sacrality. The need to exert emotional and cognitive resources in fumbling about for fitting words and gestures to use for each person and occasion is replaced by a greater sense of a well-oiled machine, a blueprint for parts assembling into a coherent whole. The importance of private, but especially public, rituals is why something like the growing politicization of sports — the athletic contest is and has always been a public ritual — and of fundamental patriotic displays, such as the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem or the brandishing of the flag, are so concerning. Without such public rituals to bring nations together, a true nation does not exist.
For Confucius, power is not mere force or realpolitik. Power, rather, is wielded, first and foremost, through moral authority, the setting of a moral example. Our leaders, in this conception, should be the most virtuous among us. They are people we should not only follow but also emulate. On this score, I regret that I must be the bearer of sad news: that is not what we currently have. Indeed, almost none of our leaders falls into this exalted category of moral paragons. They are louts, boors, hob-nobbers, connivers, confabulators, panderers, shape-shifters, shouters, screechers, finger-pointers, and sententious scolds. They are, alas, a mere exaggerated reflection of everything we are. What I am implying is that we are unlikely to alter the moral complexion of our leaders unless we cultivate within ourselves, both in our private lives and in the public square, the very qualities we would want among those who lead us. We must be the change we want to see, as the saying goes. The more demands in the way of exhibiting virtue that we make upon ourselves as parents, educators, citizens, parishioners, employees, employers, and human beings, the more we can and will expect the same of those whom we choose to convey an ennobled version of ourselves. If, on the other hand, we spend our days looking for opportunities to express rage and take offense on social media, spewing epithets and profanities against those who disagree with us, we will elect to lead us merely the loudest and shrillest of us all.
Confucius should not be mistaken for Matthew Arnold, but I would like to think that Confucius would have valued “the best which has been thought and said in the world” as highly as the 19th century Englishman. Wen is about culture, the highest culture. Confucius held that in the war over hearts and minds, the laurel wreath will go to the society that brings to the table the most exalted culture, the grandest poetry, the noblest philosophy, the finest art. Greatness inspires admiration and imitation. It is worth quoting Huston Smith’s discussion of how China worked this magic time and again:
Having the most open frontier of all the great civilizations, China was subject to wave after wave of invasions by cavalried barbarians who were always ready to fall on the Earthbound agriculturalists. To their gates came the Tartars, whose one long-range raid inflicted a mortal wound on the Roman Empire. But what the Chinese could not fend off, they absorbed. Each wave of invaders tended to lose its identity through voluntary assimilation; they admired what they saw. Time after time an illiterate invader, entering solely for plunder, succumbs. Within a few years his foremost hope is to write a copy of Chinese verse that his teacher, who is likewise his conquered slave, might acknowledge as not altogether unworthy of a gentleman, and his highest hope is to be mistaken for Chinese. Kublai Khan is the most striking example. He conquered China but was himself conquered by Chinese civilization, for his victory enabled him to realize his lasting ambition, which was to become an authentic Son of Heaven.
We, in America, have strayed far from the goal. Crass commercialism appears to be our highest cultural value. Vulgar and stagnant pop and hip hop glamorizing materialism and degraded sexuality dominate the airwaves. The Hollywood elites and their boot-licking acolytes in the media labor to convince themselves and us that their flat, pat paeans praising (themselves for) diversity, Manichean morality plays condemning (the rest of us for) our prejudices and formulaic, adolescent superhero franchise flicks punctuated by explosions and one-liners constitute high art and are worthy successors to the expansive cinematic journeys of earlier decades. Literary culture is rotting on the vine, childish and simplistic Instagram poetry taking the place once occupied by the besieged classics of high modernism, the 19th century Romantics and all their illustrious predecessors in a canon perpetually under attack by those unworthy of it. Little wonder, then, that America today is not a respected cultural beacon to the world and is widely perceived, instead, as a big bully availing itself of its commercial and technological might to push its products and predilections upon the rest.
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These five principles — ren, chun tzu, li, te and wen — describe a coherent program of re-orientation and revival, one that could jolt our society off of its present-day trajectory of fragmentation and decline and lead us to regain the critical sense of collective trust and belonging without which a society cannot flourish. But principles do not implement themselves. The intellectual course laid out by Confucius took centuries to realize and was manifested only after, as Huston Smith describes it, “[a] class of scholars who believed in his teachings became China’s ruling elite,” with the result that “the Confucian texts were made the basic discipline for the training of government officials, a pattern that continued (with interruption during the political fragmentation of A.D. 200-600) until the Empire collapsed in 1905.” The message of these Confucian texts — the message of “deliberate tradition” — was “driven into people by every possible means — temples, theaters, homes, toys, proverbs, schools, history and stories — until they bec[a]me habits.”
Such developments today bear fruit at a far faster rate but, on the flipside, never last quite as long. Yet it is clear that what we need if we have any hope of salvaging this nation and its society from the radical and barbarous minions that assail it from all sides is a Gramscian “long march through the institutions,” a constructive counterpart to the destructive march that brought the current crop of resentful elements to the fore. It all begins, however, as I have already suggested, with each and every one of us demanding more of ourselves: more respect, more civility, more manners, more decorum, more propriety, more erudition, more culture, more pomp and circumstance, more generosity of spirit, more broad-shouldered humanity atop which new generations can ride the ascending wave.