Ancient chinese philosophy

Part One

The Analects of Confucius, translated by Ames and Rosemont

Kierkegaard wrote that faith is the highest human passion, and I think whether we measure it by either its difficulty to attain OR its benefits to the human spirit, mind, body, and heart, he was absolutely right. If it’s wild and dangerous to live without faith, or to live with bad faith, there’s so much wilderness to wander through these days! There are so many ways we’ve been failed in the process of growing up. The world is full of adult babies running around, responding to chaos with more chaos, performing “wellness” and “being present” when they are anything but that- there’s so much wilderness to get caught up in. 

But we have the capacity and responsibility to become truly healthy grownups. It’s not easy, and I’m most skeptical of anyone who thinks they’ve “arrived,” but we can reparent our inner selves, little by little, into people who embrace the full coherence of reality instead of being triggered in an endless cycle of falling apart and picking up the pieces. That is where my faith lies.

All of this is to say that my deep dive into philosophy continues (hooray!), and along with Spinoza, Kierkegaard, and Eliot, the next few months will be a study of ancient Chinese philosophy, starting with the Analects attributed to Confucius. 

Since there are so many threads of influence shared among the ancient Chinese philosophers and classical Chinese medicine, and since the purpose of philosophy shares an aim with the clinical work I do – namely, as Sartre put it, to grasp our time in thought – I’m planning to do a series of weekly contemplations on the Chinese texts.

Let’s start with the Confucian concept of sincerity: the willingness to “look straight into your heart” and act from there. We are told that “sincerity is the goal of things and their origin… the inborn nature begets this activity naturally, this looking straight into oneself and thence acting.” The character used to convey this concept is 中 or zhōng, which translates directly to the center, or within or among. Others translate it as loyalty.

The difference between our highly individualized culture and the very relationally oriented society of ancient China is important to remember here. When we think about having integrity or being true to ourselves, it’s not just about one person alone. Our truth actually shifts as we interact with our children, our parents, our supervisors, friends, and others. Our truth encompasses the place and circumstances of our birth, our innate talents and challenges, the way our environment influences and changes us over time.

“What heaven has disposed and sealed is called inborn nature. The realization of this nature is called the process… You do not depart from the process even for an instant… The person of noble character (君子 or jūn zî) comes into harmony with the process and continues his way… he pivots himself on the unchanging and has faith.” Our truth is a shimmering, undulating thing that we can nevertheless devote our energy to observing and following, even if we can’t completely grasp it and nail it down. Loyalty to yourself necessarily includes loyalty to those you love, and we know when that loyalty has been split and when it’s whole.

Your experiences and even your truth may change, but the part of you that continues to observe yourself through those changes will carry you through to the best possible outcome. It takes sincerity to stay close to that central part of each one of us, and faith. 

And these are best maintained in conversation with other sincere people. If you follow along over the coming weeks, I hope you’ll share your thoughts and responses!

We are all together in developing our characters into true grownups. Thank you for sharing your journey with me!

The noble person’s way consists in sincerity and sympathy, and that’s all.
– Confucius, The Analects, Book Four, XV

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