We come together for this Summer Institute to address a serious predicament and in common cause.We might say that we are living in the best of times,and in the worst of times.We can assert that it is the best of times because of what we humans as a species have become.That is,a fair claim can be made that world hunger is no longer a problem for us.This magnificent animal called the human being has now developed the science and the technology that could enable a global initiative to quickly address the world’s hunger problem in all of its parts.We do not have a problem if we already have its solution.Our present predicament,then,is not a technological one;it is ethical.While we clearly have the science to solve world hunger,we lack the moral resolution to act upon it.
On this score then,it is the best of times.But it is also the worst of times.Our recent and dramatic geopolitical reorientation has remained largely entrained within the troubling dynamics of a“perfect storm:”global warming,pandemics,food and water shortages,environmental degradation,massive species extinction,international terrorism,proxy wars,nuclear proliferation,and the list goes on.Our unprecedented scientific and technological successes are mixed with ever-amplifying environmental,political,and social challenges.Indeed,this perfect storm has several underlying conditions that might encourage us to view our current predicament as requiring a shift from prioritizing technical solutions for world problems to giving privilege to what is ultimately an ethical dilemma—that is,for us to acknowledge our lack of commitment to do what we know is right.After all,the fundamental difference between problems and a predicament is that where problems are to be“solved,”a predicament can only be“resolved”by effecting a radical change in human intentions,values,and practices.Human beings as a species,if we are to survive,will need to live and to think differently.
One pernicious source of this predicament is an ideology of a zero-sum individualism that has fragmented humanity at a personal,social,political,and comic level.Given this predicament,we need access to and an understanding of all of the world’s cultures as a resource for shaping our human response.What then,does Chinese philosophy and culture have on offer?From its origins in the prehistoric past,an ever-evolving Chinese culture has been unique among the world’s civilizations,both in terms of its unbroken continuity,and in the rich and varied institutional,material,and conceptual artifacts its peoples have produced.Upon entering into China’s past,certain major themes emerge as they are repeatedly expressed in different facets of Chinese life.One of these themes is the centrality of the family that has thoroughly permeated the socio-political,economic,metaphysical,moral,and religious dimensions of Chinese history since at least the early Neolithic period.A fair argument can be made that all relationships within a Chinese world—social,political,and indeed cosmic relations—are conceived of as familial.Physical evidence of ancestral sacrifices has been found in archaeological remains from as early as the fifth millennium BCE.It should therefore come as no surprise that family reverence(xiao孝)was one of the most basic and defining values of the Chinese people,especially the early Confucians.Indeed,one may even go so far as to say that for them,filial reverence was a necessary condition for developing any of the other human qualities of excellence.In the Confucian tradition,human morality and the personal realization it inspires is grounded in the cultivation of family feeling.
Zhao Tingyang赵汀阳reflects on how first setting the root,and then on that basis,pursuing growth is the beginning and the projected end in the Confucian way of becoming consummately human:
The primary issue for the human way is that of generation and regeneration,and the first step herein is growth.This is the starting point for the evolutionary thread of Chinese thought.The“doing”of growth must seek what a thing relies upon to be“deeply rooted and firmly planted”in its growth.Therefore,growth first of all requires putting down roots.The two metaphors of growth and putting down roots set out the path for Chinese thought.
In the Confucian project of personal growth,the root must be set and firmly planted within the family itself.In reflecting on Confucian philosophy as a resource for an ecological geopolitical order,we must give full weight to the perceived isomorphism that obtains among the familial,political,and global orders as they are rooted in and emerge from a regimen of personal cultivation within the family.In Expansive Learning(Daxue)as the first among the canonical Four Books that sets the Confucian project,we read:
The ancients who sought to display their brilliant virtuosity to the whole world first effected proper order in their states;in seeking to effect proper order in their states,they first set their families right;in seeking to set their families right,they first cultivated their own persons...From the emperor down to the common folk,everything is rooted in personal cultivation.
This same organic symbiosis is described in a second of the Four Books,the Mencius:
There is a popular adage heard among the people who all say:“The world,the state,the family.”The world is rooted in the state,the state in the family,and the family in one’s own person.
The idea that the root of governance lies in the institution of family is made explicit in the Book of Documents as one of the Five Classics.Confucius is making an astute observation when he asserts that within this cultural tradition,the proper functioning of the institution of family is integral to the production of the sociopolitical order of the state:
Someone asked Confucius,“Why are you not employed in government?”The Master replied,“The Book of Documents says:‘It all lies in family reverence.Being filial to your parents and finding fraternity with your brothers is in fact carrying out the work of governing.’In doing these things I am participating in governing.Why must I be employed in government?”
From earliest times,“family reverence”has served as the Confucian tradition as its prime moral imperative.Morality as it is cultivated through the commitment to“consummate conduct in one’s roles and relations”(ren仁)is thus an extension and expression of immediate family feeling.In the Analects we read:
Exemplary persons concentrate their efforts on the root,for the root having been properly set,the vision of the moral life will grow therefrom.As for family reverence and fraternal deference,they are I suspect,the root of consummate conduct(ren仁).
In this Confucian process of world-making,persons are imbricated as unique,relationally-constituted perspectives within family,polity,and cosmos.Through dedication to the cultivation of deliberate growth in their own relations,every person has the capacity for bringing resolution and more distinctive,meaningful focus to the roles and relations that constitute them.At the center of this personal project,the meaning of the family is implicated in and dependent upon the productive cultivation of each of its members.Then by radial extension,the meaning of the community,polity,and the entire cosmos is in turn implicated in and ultimately derived from the cultivation of each person as a family member.
To clarify this organic,ecological root metaphor,while allowing that all levels of order are ultimately derived from personal cultivation,we must avoid the inveterate habit of separating root as cause from the order as effect.Rather,root and canopy grow together symbiotically,with the tree spreading its roots outward beneath the earth and simultaneously stretching its branches upward towards the sky.While the root is certainly growing the tree,the tree is also in turn growing its roots.The root and its flourishing canopy are aspects of an interactive and organic whole that grow together symbiotically,or not at all.Importantly,while existential narratives themselves are certainly rooted in the lived lives of particular persons in particular families,they are also the unbounded and interpenetrating stories that in sum constitute their natural,social,and cultural ecologies.The isomorphism means that order at every level is inflected symbiotically in every other,where personal cultivation expands the meaning of the cosmos,and a more meaningful cosmos in turn provides an important resource for personal cultivation.
The argument is not that China’s Confucian culture can solve all of the world’s problems.It cannot.But at this juncture in the human experience,it is perhaps Confucian philosophy’s emphasis on“family feeling”that can provide the minimalist morality we can draw upon for a desperately needed sense of human solidarity.