The Timeless Wisdom of Confucius

I was reading a review of a set of essays by Simon Leys in the New York Review of Books (August 15, 2013) when Confucius jumped right out of the page. Leys is an expert on Chinese history among other interests. Here’s what caught my eye.

When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,’ that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained (in Leys’s translation):

If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language has no object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.

Confucius

He, Confucius, would have had a field day rectifying the meaning of sustainability. As used everywhere today, the word has nothing to do with reality. Our affairs are disintegrating as measured by the ever increasing unsustainable conditions all around us. And further, it is pointless to attempt to coordinate or manage what goes for sustainability today. The very idea that we can sustain our life style and associated economy that provides it is about as far from reality as one can get. The Earth has limits no matter how hard the technocrats and no-nothings keep trying to deny it. Their call for sustainability isn’t even about keeping things the same; it calls for sustaining growth indefinitely. Growth, they say, is the answer to human suffering and inequality. Even this is far from reality. Growth does lift some out of poverty but impoverishes others simultaneously. Who wins and who loses in still a question. This loosely hidden connection of sustainability to unrealistic growth would be at or near the top of Confucius’s list of words to rectify.

Confucius and many other wise men understood what qualities should be maintained and what words should be used to guide the management of people. All had quite similar views of what constituted a good life, that is, a life that exposed the full potential of human being (gerund, singular). Not of human beings (noun, plural), but about the process of living. He might also rectify the word “being.” It does not rightfully refer to an object, a person. It refers to the action of existing, of living. These two words, sustainability and being, are closely connected. All living creatures exist, but only humans be. Being is the act of intentional living, existing but within a meaningful life, and in the case of sustainability, a particular meaningful life, one of caring. Caring is what makes humans distinct from other creatures, except, perhaps, for our primate forebears. Confucius would correct the current sense of being as fulfilling our insatiable needs that has followed our historical trajectory especially since the Age of Enlightenment.

I have been reading the books of Antonio Damasio this summer to learn more about how the brain works. Damasio writes about the connections among, emotions, feelings, consciousness, and bodily actions (behavior). He calls out attention as the primary driver of cognition. It follows that behavioral patterns or routines arise out of whatever most occupies the attention of a human actor over time. Such routines are either instinctive, that is, operating without consciousness, or intentional, the result of some some conscious rational process, that is, the end of a series of linked cognitive acts. An observer looking down on early humans might say that they exhibited care, that is, intentional behavior directed at the various worldly objects that routinely came to their attention. To survive, they needed to care for—interact effectively with—these everyday situations. I can imagine how these cares began to be called simply needs, and over millennia became taken to be part of human nature (another concept needing Confucius’s attention).

The Master’s mentioning the pointlessness of trying to manage the affairs of men and women when the words being used to guide that effort fail to match reality is also relevant today. The primary coordinating mechanism today is the market, which is supposed to magically maximize well-being, another unrealistic term, based on the combined results of everyone acting to fulfill their needs, another way of saying acting in their own interests. But we know that it really doesn’t work that way; there are too many imperfection in both the humans and the system itself. The other primary mechanism comes at the hands of the state, which for us in the United States, operates even farther from the way it is supposed in theory.

As I write, I see that my list of words that need rectification keeps growing. There are many more I haven’t got time or space to add. I try my best to make the words connected with sustainability right so that maybe those who are concerned both about the way we live today and the possibility that we can flourish in the future can try to manage our worldly affairs. After reading the quote above, I will continue to emulate Confucius and his understanding that without the right words, our affairs will disintegrate and we will have little to do about that situation. If you will join me in rectifying our vocabulary, then perhaps we will start to pull our collective lives back together.

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