Saturday, August 04, 2007

Father and Ruler: Twin Foundations of Human Life?

There is no life without a father, no supports through life without a ruler. Yet for generations people say, "Loyal duty and filial piety are not equally perfectible." How can this possibly be true? Ruler and father provide the grand foundation for human ethics, loyalty and filial devotion constitute cardinal principles for vassals. How inconceivable that the two, rather than complements to be practiced together, might actually prove mutually harmful! The problem lies, quite simply, with whether the motivation is selfish or selflessly righteous: when acting selfishly, both virtues are diminished; when acting righteously, both virtues can be attained.

Should a son, if his father deploys armies against his ruler, follow his father or follow his ruler? I say, "It is enough that one's physical being honor its dwelling place, while one's ethical will abide by righteous principle." A person who physically dwells with the monarch should abide by the monarch; one who physically dwells with the father should abide by the father. The follower of a ruler must then decline his ruler's charge, indicating, "A son cannot injure his father, so I wish not to receive a command." He should protest to his father as well, "Can you not relinquish your army and revert to our ruler?" Then, if his ruler suffers defeat, the subject dies honorably for him; if his father falters, the son completes mourning duties for his father before resuming service to his monarch. The person who follows his father, on the other hand, must warn him, "As my ruler cannot be targeted for assault, can you not leave your army and revert to our ruler?" Then, if the ruler suffers defeat, he dies honorably for him; if his father fails, he submits to punishment and awaits the pardon of his ruler, resuming service after completing mourning for his father.

No person in ancient times understood filial devotion like Shun, none understood righteous principle like Confucius and Mencius -- men meticulous about ruler/subject, father/son relations. Had they tragically confronted such dilemmas, they would have acted only in this manner. With reference to Congjing and the Zhuangzong emperor, the former accepted death as the cost of abiding by his ruler -- an event to lament! (Ouyang Xiu, trans. Richard Davis, Historical Records of the Five Dynasties, p. 151).

This short essay encapsulates in brief form so many themes, I can only briefly touch on two of them here.

1) Are there real moral dilemmas? Is public virtue and private virtue the same thing? Here Ouyang Xiu states his emphatic belief that no, there are no real moral dilemmas and no there is only one virtue, which is appropriate for both public and private life. "Only after a man serves his parents with filial piety can he serve the ruler with filial devotion," he says elsewhere (p. 233). Can we dismiss this as merely the "Chinese" view? Can we say that not having ever heard the Machiavellian insight that private virtues can be public vices and vice versa, he was simply a dogmatic thinker put forth his ideas without any vivid experience of opposition. Obviously not since, the whole point of the essay is that many practical Chinese of his day were convinced that private and public morality did not coincide, that sometimes to be a good public official or general, one had to be a bad son (a rather extreme example of that is here).

As I've written before, Ouyang Xiu is typical of the Neo-Confucian in the intensity of his belief in the complete congruence of morality at all levels and his resulting emphasis on duty. (One of the most arresting examples of this is the life of Lian Xixian, from which a tidbit can be found here.) Sima Qian, on the other hand, is much more willing to admit the idea that public and private morality might not be totally congruent, or that what is right might be adjusted to some degree according to circumstances.

2) Is government something that appeared late in the history of humanity, an invention or formation of the bronze age, or is it something as fundamental as fatherhood? Ouyang Xiu expresses here the assumption that government is necessary for life and equally fundamental. Ibn Khaldun, the famous fourteenth century Arab historian thought the same:

Consequently social organization is necessary to the human species. Without it the existence of human beings would be incomplete. God's desire to settle the world with human beings and to leave them as His representatives on earth would not materialize. This is the meaning of civilization . . .

When mankind has achieved social organization, as we have stated, and when civilization in the world has thus become a fact, people need someone to exercise a restraining influence and keep them apart, for aggressiveness and injustice are in the animal nature of man. The weapons made for the defense of human beings against the aggressiveness of dumb animals do not suffice against the aggressiveness of man to man, because all of them possess those weapons. Thus something else is needed for defense against the aggressiveness of human beings toward each other. It could not come from outside [the human race], because all the other animals fall short of human perceptions and inspiration. The person who exercises a restraining influence, therefore, must be one of themselves. He must dominate them and have power and authority over them, so that no one of them will be able to attack another. This is the meaning of royal authority*.

It has thus become clear that royal authority is a natural quality of man which is absolutely necessary to mankind. The [Greek] philosophers mention that it also exists among certain dumb animals, such as the bees and the locusts . . . . However, outside of human beings, these things exist as the result of natural disposition and divine guidance, and not as the result of an ability to think or to administer (Ibn Khaldun, trans. Franz Rosenthal, The Muqaddimah, pp. 46-47).

It is one of the major changes in modern thought since the nineteenth century that very few would no assert that royal authority (=sovereignty) is a "natural quality of man which is absolutely necessary to mankind." Ibn Khaldun recognized, as Ouyang Xiu would as well, that there were places where sovereign authority was weak or even virtually absent, yet he did not think that such places were the remnants of mankind's original condition (the legendary "hunter-gatherers" that are our touchstone of natural humanity) but aberrant examples under unusual conditions. One can only speculate about the immense importance of this assumption, that government is some late appearance on the human stage, not part of essential human nature, to the nineteenth and twentieth century libertarian and insurrectionist theories of government.

Ironically, the notions of the eons of government-less "hunter-gatherer" existence defining human nature was first created by anthropologists, and yet the whole enterprise of such deductions about human society in the prehistoric period (for that is what they are -- deductions) has been declared to be an illusion by more than one prominent anthropologist. If that is the case then the viewpoint of Ouyang Xiu and Ibn Khaldun may be worth a new look.

*That is, sovereignty (which Ibn Khaldun knew only in the monarchic form).

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