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Lecture 4: One Body

Lecture 4: One Body

I discuss the Neo-Confucian metaphor of being one body with all other things, and focus on one dimension of that metaphor, which is our interdependence with all things. I argue that this is an important rationale for the ideal of harmony and in particular the dimensions of accommodation and contest for which I have argued in the previous lecture. At the same time, I argue that a realistic view of the extent to which one can analogize from what is true of one-body organisms (such as individual human beings) to larger social bodies containing such organisms will lead us to differentiate degrees and kinds of interdependency.

I will also take from the Neo-Confucians, and Zhū Xī in particular, the emphasis on zhōng, which I understand as “doing one’s best in serving others, and shù, which I understand as “sympathetic understanding.” For Zhū Xī, shù is a crucial method for realizing the virtue of rén. Though this method became de-emphasized in the classical era after Confucius and only partially given renewed attention in the Neo-Confucian era, I propose a renewal of contemporary attention to it, especially in connection to extending the unmediated and intimate response to the suffering of one’s child, as if it were one’s own suffering, to the suffering of those outside the family. One idea from the Analects that did continue to receive great emphasis going forward, especially in the Mèngzǐ, is that the path to developing rén must go through extending the caring between family members to others outside the family. At the same time, it seems to me that one of the greatest weaknesses in the impressive body of writings of Confucians on moral cultivation is precisely the failure to specify practical educational and ritual practices that could accomplish this extension of care beyond the family. The path to finding new practices to accomplish this kind of extension, I shall argue, is to be found in practices that promote zhòng and shù more effectively when applied to relationships with others outside the family.

This method is also applied to better understanding of why others disagree with us, and I discuss rituals of protest as channels for communication from others who feel that they must contest with us. Since the conception of harmony in the one body articulated in these lectures goes considerably beyond anything that can be found in the Chinese literature, I draw attention to the internal diversity and fluidity of great traditions of thought as embodied in their texts, each text containing within itself and in relation to each other more than one viable set of coherent meanings.  These meanings are eligible for fusion with meanings from other texts. Each set of meanings represent somewhat different directions of development for the tradition. Some emerge as dominant, but others may later receive renewed attention because the problems of the times prompt attention to them. Confucianism shows itself to be a living and still-viable tradition to the extent that its interpreters draw from the different possible lines of development with an eye toward their applicability to their own current situation.

I apply this conception of tradition not only to the articulation of a conception of harmony in the one body, but to the need to articulate a new basis for the human interdependency with the natural world. We cannot rely on any pre-existing Pattern for the articulation of the kind of interdependency we need, I argue. We must enhance and promote the kind of interdependency that will enable us to save ourselves and the planet.