July 22, 2010

A respectful distance

Western thinkers were slow to recognize and appreciate Chinese thought. But when that finally did start to happen, Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire were great admirers of Confucius, whose ideas were quite free of the religious dogmatism and fanaticism they were fighting against. While respectful of spiritual things, his focus was very much on this world.

This attitude can be seen in several passages in The Analects, where he advised

Devote yourself earnestly to the duties due to men, and respect spiritual beings but keep them at a distance. This may be called wisdom.

In another passage, it is said that

Confucius never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorder, or spiritual beings.

His attitude is perhaps best expressed in this passage:

Chi-lu asked about serving the spiritual beings. Confucius said, "If we are not yet able to serve man, how can we serve spiritual beings?" [Chi-lu asked] "I venture to ask about death." Confucius said, "If we do not yet know about life, how can we know about death?

Those are pretty advanced views for someone who lived around 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Far be it from El Cabrero to knock religion (some days), but some folks could do with a dose of Confucianism.

Note: I'm on the road so there are no links for the next few days. This post has been scheduled in advance and won't reflect breaking news (in fact, I'm OK if there aren't any big stories for the next little stretch).

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