No Talk in Bed

Owen Flanagan

  • The Analects of Confucius translated by Simon Leys
    Norton, 224 pp, £9.95, February 1998, ISBN 0 393 31699 8
  • The Analects of Confucius translated by Chichung Huang
    Oxford, 224 pp, £35.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 19 506157 8

According to the best estimates, Confucius lived from 551 to 479 BCE. The Analects is the name given to the short book of his wisdom, consisting of proverbs, maxims, memorable advice, short parables and keen observations about how best to live. The text is the result of an editing and compilation process involving two generations of Chinese disciples, and completed around 400 BCE, possibly in the same year that Socrates met his end in Athens. Analects, meaning ‘literary gleanings’ or ‘miscellaneous pieces and passages’, was chosen as the title for this collection of Confucius’ sayings by a 19th-century British translator, James Legge. The title is obscure, but it has stuck. Chichung Huang, in his literal translation, makes a strong case that the original title, Lun Yu, is best translated as Ethical Dialogues. Thinking of it in this way, as a book of ethics, presented mostly in the form of sayings that begin ‘The Master says’ or with questions followed by answers from the Master or one of his disciples, on matters of virtue and vice, moral education, the way of life of the good person, seems just right.

Confucius’ style of presentation is close to that of the Book of Proverbs, albeit more pithy and less poetic than that of Solomon and it shares with The Baltimore Catechism an inordinate amount of dogmatic pronouncement and argument from authority.

As revealed in these dialogues, Confucius had little taste for metaphysics or religion. Although ‘heaven’ is often invoked, the word appears to refer to the world, to all of creation, to everything that there is, and not to God’s home or to the place that good souls go to after death. You will not find a theology, or any talk of miracles or an afterlife in these sayings. Not only should we avoid thinking and speaking of evil, since bad thoughts lead to bad character and bad action, but, anticipating Wittgenstein, when human understanding reaches its limits, silence is called for. We can speak the truth only when we use language correctly, when we have our words meaning what they should mean, and referring to the things to which they truly refer. Simon Leys writes that Confucius’ ‘silence was an affirmation: there is a realm about which one can say nothing.’

Confucius is asked what his first initiative would be, were he to be entrusted with the government of a country; he replies: ‘It would certainly be to rectify the names.’ His disciple, Zilu, is puzzled and asks, ‘what is this rectification for?’ Confucius rarely expresses annoyance or impatience but this question arouses both: ‘How boorish can you get! Whereupon a gentleman is incompetent, thereupon he should remain silent. If the names are not correct, language is without an object. When language is without an object no affair can be effected ... rites and music wither, punishment and penalties miss their target [and when they miss their target] people do not know where they stand. Therefore, whatever a gentleman conceives of, he must be able to say; and whatever he says, he must be able to do.’

I would not want to defend the view of language implicit in the project of ‘rectifying the names’ to a group of analytic philosophers of language, since it sounds suspiciously like the widely rejected view that words comprise an ontologically basic system for referring to a ready-made-world of facts and values, whereas, according to the currently dominant view, language comprises a system of artifacts, created as required for communicating about a world that has been carved-up according to local needs, customs, habits and history.

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