Human Nature, Literature and Culture:
Moral Purification and Social Transformation
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PURIFICATION IN CONFUCIAN PHILOSOPHY
1. THE PROBLEM OF HUMAN NATURE
Is There a “Human Nature”?
Mencius’s Theory of Human Nature
Hsun Tze’s Theory of Human Nature
Education as a Way to Morality
The Concept of Purification in Confucian Education
Language as a Vehicle for Morality
The Teaching of Ethics
2. THE PROGRESSIVE APPROACH OF MORAL PURIFICATION
Cultivation of Individual Virtue
The Value of Sincerity
“KO”: Changing is Purging in Social Structure
Unity of Knowledge and Action: Lao Tzu’s Way
Unity of Heaven and Man
3. PROPRIETY AND RIGHTNESS: A SOCIAL ORGANIC ETHICS
Social Values in Confucianism
4. THE POPULAR VERSION OF THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PURIFICATION IN CHINESE LITERATURE
The Chinese Literary Tradition
Purification of Individuals
Purification in Traditional Chinese Folk Tales
The Purification of Society
Celestial, Legal, and Moral Disorder
Low Morals in High Society
The Quest for Purification
A Lesson from History
THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PURIFICATION IN CHRISTIAN TEACHINGS
5. POLLUTION SEPARATION AND PURIFICATION
The Source of the Pollution
The Means of True Purification
6. PERSONAL SALVATION AND A COMMUNITY OF SAINTS
From Sinner to Saint: Augustine’s Spiritual Progress
Religious Education: A Beginning to Salvation
The Bible Teaching and Purification
The Exemplary Pastor: Richard Baxter Reformed a Community
7. PRACTICAL ETHICS AS MORAL KNOWLEDGE: ST. THOMAS AQUINAS AND NICOMACHEAN ETHICS
From Aristotle to Aquinas in Ethical Thinking
The Path to Purification
8. PHILOSOPHICAL IDEAS OF MORAL PURIFICATION IN ELIZABETHAN AND PURITAN ENGLAND
The Puritan Age and Puritan Ideas
9. POETRY PROMOTES THE NOTION OF MORAL PURIFICATION
Is There Any Puritanism in Shakespeare?
The Concept of Purification in the “Dark Lady” Sonnets
The Dark Lady: Who She Is and What She Does
The Dark Lady and Dark Lust
The Concept of Purification Among Other Poets
The Puritans’ Poet: John Milton
10. PLAY IS THE THING ADVOCATES MORAL PURIFICATION
Will as a Christian and Puritan Element
The New Role of Will in Shakespearean Characters
The Importance of Purification in Political Life
From The Tempest to Calm Seas: Temptation, Purification, and Reconciliation
The Puritan Imprint
Seeking happiness in life is a goal as old as mankind itself. But most of us are quite unsure about what the word “happiness” means or should mean to us.
To Chinese people, and to Confucianists in particular, happiness does not mean hedonistic and self-centered pleasure or immorality, not even self-enlightenment. Happiness involves freeing one’s heart from the enslavement of bodily desire, so as to lead a righteous life for the benefit of others. The Chinese word-character “heart,” used here, traditionally is synonymous with “mind.” However, it does not mean “head” as a brain kept separate from feeling, as in the mind/body dichotomy imposed by Western civilization. The Chinese “heart” combines both thinking and emotion.
To Christians, in contrast, true happiness means eternal and ultimate bliss. This state of being originates from God’s prevenient grace, which reveals the Truth and thus initiates one’s acceptance of Christ as one’s personal Savior. The result is salvation, spiritual rebirth, and renewal by the Holy Spirit – thereby transforming and purifying man’s sinful nature and selfish desires. Living now for God’s glory enables one to carry out the Cultural Mandate before entering the everlasting Heavenly bliss.
Modern technology born of science can send our bodies up into outer space; yet our souls may not soar with them, for they are held down to Earth. They are captives of a plodding philosophy that tells us that we are made of molecules only, each cell its own mini-universe of bits of electromagnetic charges that attract and repel each other for so long as they adhere or collide.
We have been informed by this science that no longer is there an eternity, the promise of immortality in bliss, or an all-seeing and all-knowing God Who rules both Heaven and Earth and in so doing sets the immutable rules for humans to live by. Deprived of divine guidance, since we are told that this small, fleeting life experienced daily is the only reality we will ever have, we must seize our bodily pleasures and desires to possess things this – very instant wresting them from others if need be. Nobody and nothing holds us to toe a fine ethical line. We are not schooled to be sensitive to others’ needs and rights. We are assigned few responsibilities in fashioning our conduct within the human community surrounding us or in the natural world. We want whatever we want – now. Who is there to deny us? Not God, certainly.
Religion traditionally has given values and moral codes and explicit answers to human beings who require or request them. Religious beliefs and philosophies as well as practices are found among all peoples, from small tribes in jungles and deserts to huge populations in vast, sprawling metropolises. Even a political system can operate as a state-prescribed religion. It educates its people accordingly to worship prophet-saints who espoused particular tenets dealing with the relationships of man to society, among the persons within that society, and between that society and an outside world of nonbelievers – usually considered and treated as hostile, ignorant and less than fully human.
Whenever and wherever a religion or system of political thinking has reigned supreme, doubters arise who must question it. Some daringly defy and revolt against the status quo. If they are charismatic and determined, they attract others who join their cause. Their dedicated efforts, when reform-minded, often bring about beneficial changes within a system that recognizes the need for positive response. At other times, especially when rulers or leaders refuse to heed their warnings, reformers bring down the entire system. If they then attempt to replace outworn creeds by imposing their own truths and codes, they risk becoming tyrants themselves. They are also social agitators who die prematurely, whether martyred while asserting some cause they consider noble and just, or killed because they prove no better than the rulers of the system they oppose.
The histories of both East and West are full of legends, factual or mythical, of attempts to establish or restore morality in society. The most powerful tales, tales with moral lessons, are embedded so deeply in a culture’s history that it is difficult to decide how much are facts, how much fiction. We hear and read these stories of heroic efforts to make people pure in thought and deed — models that set the highest standards of morality against which we are expected to measure ourselves. In these terms, proclaimed in various forms by all world religions, human culture has gone badly astray from its intended route toward the perfection that civilization originally was poised to bring.
In the Bible, God promised such perfection only to those who labored toward it in the long and hard journey taken by each soul, sometimes in the dark, with unsure footsteps on paths unseen but felt. This view tells us that we will not be handed true happiness upon some silver platter conferred to us. To obtain them, there is much work for us to do. The work goes on within our individual souls, and it also goes on in community with others.
In China, Confucian philosophers and Confucius-inspired writers for two and a half millennia have been giving much the same message to the world. They have done so, however, without the same theological base in God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, who offer a plan for spiritual redemption.
As individuals and as a society we cannot live satisfactorily on a regimen of amoral scientific information and methodology alone. Each of us needs to achieve a beatific wisdom that will enable us to live meaningfully and morally, within ourselves and with others in the world. Descriptive knowledgeknown to and espoused by science is neither the means nor the end to individual human happiness and societal well-being. We need a prescriptiveethical knowledge to guide toward a perfectibility that Divine Providence holds out to us. However, most of us usually fail to achieve happiness because we take the wrong pathway while pursuing goals that satisfy selfish desires or are corrupted by a lust for power and control over others.
It is time to retrace ancient paths taken by others before us – to seek within documentary records of the human past some potent solutions that will serve us today… if, indeed, understanding and interpreting our distant past will aid us in the awful predicament we find ourselves in. For we are wandering, lost and bewildered, without signposts or guides, in a moral wilderness. Sometimes we do not even know where the cardinal points are: north, south, east, west – up or down, Hell or Heaven.
How might we be reoriented, away from dark moral chaos and toward our innate perfectibility?
Our age has very few bona-fide leaders – untainted heroes or heroines who proclaim and live out great moral truths. So we must look to the past to find wisdom and some models who both exemplified and elucidated it. These are people who traveled long before us through this benighted wilderness. And whether after years of stumbling they suddenly encountered The Way, or were carried along intuitively by strong inner visions, they achieved their goal: true happiness.
I propose here a journey, a course of reconsidering ancient wisdom issuing from two founts, East and West: Confucianism and Christianity. Specifically, I will search for a concept that is known as moral purification.
Purification rites are known in all cultures. They serve to remove perceived taints and then to restore or elevate people to an acceptable or honorable status. The “unclean” or corrupt condition may be considered physical, moral, or spiritual. It may be inherent or acquired. Most frequently the rites involve water or fire as symbols, but sometimes they may be pure feeling states, undergone by an individual in solitude, which effect a spiritual purification that reorganizes one’s ethical thinking and redirects his or her future moral behavior.
Here, however, I will only deal with moral purification. By this means, people – and through them the society in which they dwell – can be regenerated, to find morality, meaning and mission in their lives. Such purification is the way to attain the ultimate bliss that all human beings inherently seek.
The wisdom accrued from the past – from philosophers, prophets, preachers, and writers – has much to give us as we seek to regenerate ourselves and human society. For if we do not measurably improve, a cataclysm awaits us all.
First of all, the author wishes to express his sincere gratitude to God for His grace and guidance through the course the course of life and throughout this study; he is also thankful for the Bible and spiritual guide and inspiration.
Thanks are surely due to Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, whose incisive writings have benefitted and enlightened the author’s understanding of the vital importance of ethical science to society.
Grateful thanks and appreciation go to all his teachers in the past, who taught him in one way or another and enhanced his learning.
Lastly, the author conveys a special thanks to his loving wife, Elizabeth, for her sacrifice and support during the course of the undertaking this studey.
As a philosophy of life, Confucianism teaches people that living well or morally means to use one’s own personal assets and skills to help others in society. In other words, we must not aim simply to make ourselves happy, but should always try to enrich the lives of others in ever-widening circles, thereby potentially benefiting the whole of humankind.
This altruistic belief system, originating in the sixth to fifth century B.C. with Confucius – the “Great Master,” or K’ung-Fu-tzu – has been deeply rooted in Chinese social thought. For many centuries its humanistic principles bore nourishing fruit in the daily life of China. Confucianism even extended its influence far beyond that ancient land’s national boundaries.
But then the mighty trade winds blew in from the Western world, bearing materialistic values that were tied to technological advantages. The long-enduring Confucian culture, with its high ethical standards based on kinship and friendship, could not compete economically or militarily. As it simply withered and nearly disappeared, exploitation and corruption plagued Chinese society. In the midst of a series of debilitating civil wars and foreign invasions, a political tidal wave was engulfing the mainland with its strong anti-religious and anti-Confucianist propaganda.
As for the Western civilization that had altered China’s destiny, Christianity had inspired and then dominated its philosophy, education, and literature for almost two millennia. Now it too has been overtaken: by the rising tide of science and technology. Religious beliefs were challenged during the Age of Enlightenment by ideas that promoted rationalism over spirituality. As God became outmoded, sentiment moved toward almost deifying the “scientific method.” Inductive and objective thinking have been elevated into unquestioning adherence, while deductive and subjective thinking are devalued and ridiculed. When this exclusionist coterie assumes the tone and posture of a cult, it becomes “scientism” – the worship of science.
If science had triumphed over the notorious omnipresence of human immorality, individual and societal, during the four centuries since its rise to eminence, its worth would be well proven. Science has indeed brought us a golden age of technologies that have utterly transformed the planet’s material culture. Civilized people – at least those sufficiently advantaged – currently conduct their daily lives, at home, at work, and at play in ways unimaginable to previous generations. Amazing and multiple are the products we utterly depend upon now for sustenance, for comfort and ease, for communicating with each other, and for transporting goods as well as ourselves.
But where is the “soul” of our culture, our society? No longer does the citizenry seem to obey any moral code held in common, dictating what is good and therefore right to do between self and others, while also spelling out exactly what is wrong or evil and hence must not be done. In fact, society may not even possess anymore a collective or public conscience that gets replicated in each new generation of its members through moral training and education instilled during childhood.
Worldwide, this “postmodern” age of ours is marked by deceit, violence, and greed in every walk of life. Relentless materialism reigns – this craving for desirable material goods and personal power in the mistaken notion that they will bring happiness. And along with that chimera goes the traffic in forbidden substances consumed to give one some transient and deceptive feeling of well-being, even of being godlike.
But here no Garden of Eden is revisited. The ever-ascending crime rate accompanies moral decline in public and private behaviors. Children stalk and kill each other, and is it any wonder? For whether they are abused, indulged, or just ignored and allowed to drift by their parents and community, they are not learning from birth how to love one another: that is, how to treat some other human being as one hopes to be treated oneself. They cannot learn such basic moral lessons from the television screen, but instead are gradually desensitized to both cruelty and suffering. They are dumb witnesses to some coming Armageddon but do not know it.
We are not safe in our streets, our schools, our places of work… even in our own homes. Insecurity, a feeling of being perpetually unsafe or under siege, has become a common disease. Is there a God who protects the good and smites the wicked? We cannot be at all sure nowadays.
We cannot learn morals from a system that is amoral. It is amoral because it declines to set values and judgments upon behavior. All is relative; all acts harmful to others can be explained in terms of preceding data – removing any semblance of individual guilt, or any reason or right to impose either shame or punishment upon the offenders of moral codes. Sin begets crime, and crime begets sin, over and over in unending cycles that spiral downward toward a new vision of Hades. This happens because effective societal intervention at some early stage of hatching evil has not been possible or even allowed. God does not rule from on high, and all is not right with our world.
In recent decades, the idea of “pursuit of happiness” has turned into a different pathway, seeking hedonistic and self-centered pleasure instead of ultimate spiritual bliss. This relentless materialism, by impoverishing people’s souls, leads to the disintegration of both culture and society.
The much-vaunted science has not yet invented a way to incorporate the teachings of ethical science into human beings. It is not as easy as splicing a microscopic chromosome to replace a faulty gene or injecting some preventative vaccine to rid humanity of its faults while instilling or bolstering virtues that contribute to the social good.
Many people agree that our culture is diseased and our society imperiled, but they cannot concur on what caused these conditions. Nor have sure remedies been offered to cure the ills. Scholars like Mortimer J. Adler recommend a diet of prescriptive knowledge: a pedagogy that probes the great books of the past for both inspirational and practical ethical teachings.
On the other hand, scholars like Bertrand Russell maintain that since no specific religion or ethical code is universal, such things are therefore not essential to society. In any case, these thinkers do not believe that the definite but differing footprints of spiritual beliefs and moral behavior, surviving in the great literature of other times and places, cannot be taken as objective knowledge – worth accepting as valuable truths for mankind to live by. This relativism implies that morality itself should have nothing to do with education.
Moral relativism accompanied the rise of scientific knowledge. Its effect is to “reduce moral judgment to merely opinion,” and get rid of moral value of absolute right and wrong. 1 Obviously, this is a very dangerous move in terms of preserving a just and equitable society that allows each inhabitant certain basic human rights and a chance to fulfill his or her best human potential. Possessions and power over others often belong to those persons least capable of exercising a social conscience – in which moralistic thinking comprehends and lives by the simple formula of the Golden Rule.
To correct the inevitable trend toward immorality, Mortimer Adler prescribed a basic principle of moral philosophy: “We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.” 2 What is truly good for us is not necessarily how we first might envision it, superficially and selfishly. Only after obtaining the correct prescriptive knowledge and establishing moral judgment can we set high goals for ourselves and then work to make this earthly life of ours a meaningful endeavor.
Since moral philosophy is a branch of knowledge, the proper way to obtain this knowledge is through the process of moral education. This instruction is scarcely new, for its role is traditional, virtually as old as human history. Its function is clearly seen in the realm of religious education, which takes place first in the setting of the family home. It then continues in the outer environment through a more formal schooling that teaches and enforces private and public ethics.
It is obvious that any society which lacks a coherent system for this basic moral instruction for the inculcation of ethical precepts in the young, and its reinforcement through time, will become weakened and even diseased. It will be endangered both from within and without.
The project I have undertaken here looks at both the Chinese philosophical tradition and Christian religious teachings to determine whether they offer any certain way of rectifying individual as well as social problems. Within this context, I will search for evidence of “moral purification.” I use this term because it parallels traditional medicine’s belief that the healing arts involve the process of purifying the human body, of cleansing or purging it of impure and toxic materials that cause disease and suffering.
I shall restrict myself to dealing with the “soul healing” of both self and society. Therefore, I will not look at literal purification through hygienic or physical means, nor even ritual purification, whose rites may benefit the spirit while addressing the body. I will concentrate strictly on purification in moral or spiritual terms, viewing it as a pathway for first cultivating ethical thinking and behavior in one’s own life and then applying them to society.
Let me now define three key terms used in my study, before proceeding further. Etymologically, the word “ethical” is derived from the Greek ethika orethikos, akin to ethos, which means character or custom. “Moral,” coming from the Latin mos or mores, generally carries a similar meaning: “a custom determined by usage, not by law.” 3
According to Webster’s Dictionary, “ethical” means “a man’s normal state”; “having to do with ethics or morality; of or conforming to moral standards.” And “moral” means “pertaining to manners or morals”; “relating to, dealing with, or capable of making the distinction between, right and wrong in conduct.” As for purification, it is defined as “the act of purifying; the act or operating of separating and removing from anything that which is polluted or foreign to it”; “a cleansing from guilt of the pollution of sin.” 4
It is my belief that despite all the scientific knowledge and technological inventions and advantages that have utterly transformed our material culture in the last two centuries, we should not abandon the ancient wisdom that comes down to us through the literature of the past. In fact, the more immersed we become with the evolving physical world, the more we urgently need to have beatific knowledge. In the future, such inspired wisdom could guide physical and social sciences, and the technologies that they have devised, in ways that will finally serve humanity’s virtues, and not expand its vices.
Science is a great boon vouchsafed by the true Source of wisdom. Unfortunately, however, humans have misused empirical knowledged acquired from scientific investigation. Thinking it the only valid genre of knowledged, they may deny any imperative ethics and exalt themselves as the measure of everything in the universe. By freeing themselves from moral obligations and caring only for material gains, they have produced a bane on mankind’s divine destiny.
I will venture the assertion that the future of civilization depends upon a system of moral purification that will transform the way human society provides for and maintains the moral education of its citizenry. The transmission of ideas as well as technology invariably changes society. Education has cardinal importance in transmitting either material or immaterial culture. Here, we are concerned foremost with immaterial culture, and with ethical and social values in particular.
Superficially, Confucian teachings and Christian moral philosophy have many differences. For example, Confucianism has no concept of redemptive grace; its morality is based on the law of nature and on human effort. Christianity, in contrast, stresses a providential grace and spiritual rebirth that God foreordained to produce individual righteousness.
Yet the two belief systems also have a common moral ground. Confucius teaches “not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself.” 5 Also, someone “wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, seeks also to enlarge others.” 6 The Christians’ guiding moral principle, the Golden Rule – “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” 7 – conveys a similar message, both altruistic and pragmatic.
In application, these concepts seem like the two sides of the same coin. All moral philosophy implies that there are standards of right and wrong. Therefore, if one errs or fails to honor one’s obligations to others, only repentance and purification will remove the pollution from wrongful deeds.
How have these basic moral teachings been conveyed to people through the centuries? The Chinese customarily have revered their literati – the authors of great works, whether profoundly philosophical or popular in appeal. The Confucianists particularly have used the ancient texts to provide new generations with moral instruction.
The concept of purification is neither innovative nor unilateral. Indeed, it runs as an underlying theme through a number of works produced in both East and West. The Chinese philosophers and other writers discuss the idea of purification when presenting ways to cultivate ethical rules to live by. However, few works address the relationship of moral purification to educational theories and practices or that are concerned with investigating the spiritual components that can effectively shape and transform human conduct. This may be because Confucianism, the dominant philosophical school through the centuries, is basically anthropocentric. It focuses on human and societal issues, not spirituality.
Confucianists have no notion of a Holy Spirit who imparts and infuses grace into human souls. Therefore, though some Confucianists may express a sense of divine inspiration or even guidance, their beliefs do not encompass the spiritual rebirth or purification known to Christian theologians and believers. They may recommend rites for seasonal religious purification but do not go beyond a bath or restricted diet. This makes a distinctive difference between the Chinese and Christian writers and philosophers when considering the implications of moral purification.
In Western civilization during the past two millennia, Christianity was so closely woven into the culture and daily life of the people that one can scarcely draw a clear line between general education and religious didacticism. Its central text, of course, has been the Bible – notably the New Testament portion that deals with the life of Christ and then the potent and durable effects of his moral and spiritual teachings following His crucifixion. Until the Renaissance period beginning in the sixteenth century, most of the literature produced in the developing Western civilization revolved around Christian teachings. To study this literature without knowledge of and reference to the Bible and Christianity is senseless.
In both East and West, wisdom and ethics traditionally have been considered inseparable. Philosophers saw little purpose in pursuing the first one without seeking the other as well. What was the purpose of attaining wisdom if it would not be applied to human conduct? Their texts, or their followers’ writings that preserved their ideas, show the connection between them. We should expect to find evidence of purification concepts within such literature. But we can also seek it elsewhere.
Since literary entertainments – narrative poems, folk tales, novels, and dramas – were intended to instruct while pleasing audiences or readers, they naturally became another means for education in ethics because they popularized philosophical ideas and religious teachings. Therefore, we can look at such works of literature too, in both East and West, for the concept of moral purification.
In the West, writers tended to become preoccupied with the origin, manifestations, and necessary expulsion of hamartia.
Aristotle asserts that the protagonist of a tragedy should be “a man who is not eminently good or just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” 8
In a literary sense, the Greek word means a “tragic flaw” – some great error or character frailty in a protagonist or antagonist. For instance, a hero exercises authority without responsibility, or a villain takes action without concern for morality. Because of it, the hero of a tragedy encounters misfortunes. The Occidental focus on this hamartia as a sinful condition that ultimately may require purging by God often skews literature in a religious direction more than an ethical one.
In Western philosophy and literature, there are ample secondary sources in the terrain of moral purification to consult, along with the numerous historical studies of the Puritan period. Generally immersed in moral-purification principles, the English people in the seventeenth century revolted against a corrupt ruling class and fought a great war to overthrow the monarchy. They then established a controlled society, a protectorate to be guided by a theocracy made up of Puritans of various sects who in their own terms had already undergone moral purification. This rule, though short-lived, was an interesting political experiment.
Little scholarly investigation, however, has been done on the concept of purification and its effect on philosophy, religious teachings, and creative literature during the time leading up to the Puritan regime. In my research on Shakespearean literature, for example, I found to my surprise that purification is seemingly a path as yet untrodden by Shakespearean students. The main reason for this phenomenon might derive from the English Puritans’ well-know disapproval of the fine arts, which they considered trivial at best. Yet they also recognized the arts’ potentially powerful influence: they could either reinforce those vices that required uprooting, or undermine the strict morality to which humans were now expected to adhere when seeking salvation.
Because Puritans particularly disliked plays, judging pubic performances as an evil to be avoided even if they could not be altogether eradicated, scholars apparently assume that there was no connection at all between Puritanism and the popular Elizabethan dramatists. Yet I find abundant evidence that, coexisting in a cultural milieu hostile to the growing sect of Puritanism, the concept of moral purification had deeply penetrated into the writers’ thoughts and thence was manifested through their pens.
Also, as Bertrand Russell noted, the Puritanism that ultimately met defeat in its British homeland enjoyed a resurgence, in both political and creative terms, on this side of the Atlantic, in the formation of what became the United States of America. Although it has long been fashionable for Americans to decry their culture’s Puritan roots, it is possible that much that has been good, and remains good, in American life and society actually derives from this sturdy moral foundation.
The concept of moral purification, within the individual and in society itself, clearly needs further exploration and elucidation by other scholars. When probing the many areas of literary and philosophical expression throughout the literary annals of human history, surely they will find remarkable gems of wisdom to impart to us within our own morally troubled era.
Notes for the Introduction
1. Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987, pp. 108-127.
2. Adler, p. 125
3. Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House, 1983.
4. Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
5. Confucian Analects, XII:12.
6. Analects, VI:28.
7. Matthew 7:12.
8. C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook To Literature. Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1972, p. 247.
THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PURIFICATION
IN CONFUCIAN PHILOSOPHY
THE PROBLEM OF HUMAN NATURE
Confucius, named K’ung Ch’iu (551-479 B.C.), is the foremost Chinese philosopher. His teachings, which included the books he edited, molded Chinese civilization. He was basically concerned with ethics, not with metaphysics or religion. “His discourses about man’s nature, and the way of Heaven, cannot be heard,” one of his disciples said. 1 Actually, Confucius did explicitly mention man’s nature once — when he said that “by nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.” 2
But, he did not further discuss what that “alikeness” is, good or evil. Thus that on statement is wide open to interpretation.
Confucius did not write much, and after his death, his school did not flourish. It was Mencius, or Meng K’o (c.371-c.289 B.C.), who revived theConfucian School by proclaiming Confucius as the greatest sage. He systematized the Confucian teachings and expanded them. Another notable Confucian philosopher, Hsun-Tzu — aka Hsun Tze, named Hsun Ch’ing – came later (c.298-230 B.C.) to promote Confucian philosophy further.
Mencius was a disciple of Confucius’s grandson Tzu-Ssu; Hsun-Tzu was later than Mencius. Both of them did not know Confucius personally. The great historian, Ssu-ma Chien, Wrote a biographical sketch in Shi-Chi, called it “Biography of Men and Hsun”, thus put them together.
Interestingly enough and rather ironically, Mencius and Hsun-Tzu both gave great attention to the matter of human nature, in contrast to their Master. Their views, however, differed widely. And it is these views we will examine now, for they are relevant to considering the concept of moral purification.
Note: In the forthcoming discussions, please remember that in Chinese, as in many languages derived from ancient patriarchal societies, including English, the word “man” ( 人 ) applies not only to a single male person, but also to human beings in general or humankind, and to a generic individual (like “one”), whether male or female. When the word refers to women in general or in the singular and particular, it is specially indicated.
Is There a “Human Nature”?
When discussing the importance of education to human life and society, two assumptions must be established: (1) human nature is educable; and (2) there is a need for education. In the twentieth century, however, a trend was initiated that denies even the existence of such a universal entity as “human nature,” which sets Homo sapiens apart from other Earth-dwelling species and assigns to it certain mental, behavioral, and spiritual characteristics.
Mortimer Adler states that this relativism is the existentialists’ root error.
Merleau-Ponty, for example, has declared that “ It is the nature of man not to have a nature.” … [T]he denial of human nature is a profound mistake – one with extremely serious consequences for philosophy, especially moral philosophy. 3
Any meaning or purpose in education is based on the fact that human beings do have something in common. This distinctive identity can be called human nature, and from ancient times to now, and from one contemporary culture to another, little variation can be discerned among the inherent physical and psychological needs of individual persons. The same needs, in much larger ways, exist in human societies.
When certain principles and behaviors are acknowledged as important for learning, education becomes a purposeful undertaking. It takes place intensively among the young in the socialization process, but it also lasts throughout one’s lifetime. We can never learn too much about anything or everything. Especially, as co-dwellers in society, we can never learn too much about how best to treat other people, so that we in turn will be well treated by them.
However, if we do not believe that things in the same category have certain traits in common — meaning the same nature, whether this involves physical aspects or behavioral responses — we cannot then make the accurate predictions we need for success in our endeavors, whether this involves scientific studies or building or maintaining a healthy society. If we do not believe that there is something called human nature, it follows, then, that we cannot find a common moral ground for humanity. If we do not acknowledge the presence of good and evil, in ourselves and in others, and seek prescriptive knowledge for improvement, there will be no sure way for us to better ourselves and society through education.
Now let us examine in some detail how Confucian philosophers looked at human nature.
Mencius’s Theory of Human Nature
Chinese philosophers in the Confucian school never questioned whether or not human nature exists. Instead, they argued about the nature of human nature ( 性 ) — whether it is essentially good or evil. The character 性 , when used in this context, means human nature, both individually and universally.
Mencius made a clear and workable definition of this word:
1. Nature needs to be categorized. It cannot be that “what is inborn is called Nature.” That is too general: the nature of a dog, or of an ox, is not the same as the nature of a man. And the nature of man would be the object of study. 4
Thus Mencius narrowed down and limited the scope of his discussion to human nature. As for what it consists of —
2. This nature should not judged by the situation. For instance, if in the winter we drink things hot, in the summer cold, we do so because of the temperature change outside; but our need to drink remains the same. 5Which is to say: although people act differently from each other, this does not mean that their basic natures are not similar.
Then the question inevitably arises: Why are there so many types of people in the world? Even descendants of the same father differ from each other like day and night. Some distinguish themselves by moral excellence and ability, like the good Shun; whereas others are morally rotten to the core and seemingly incurable, like Shun’s half-brother, Hsiang. Such discrepancies in morality imply that human nature is neither good nor evil. Mencius’s answer to this is —
3. Human nature is not neutral, nor should it be judged by the behaviors of particular individuals. Such differences are caused by outside influences. As to the goodness of human nature per se, we originally have it with us, “only we do not think [to find it.]” 6
Thus it follows that —
4. Everyone has the potential to be a “superior man.” “It is not only the worthies alone who have this moral sense. All men have it, but only the worthies have been able to preserve it.” 7
But this potentiality for worthiness is far from the discouraging reality of defective humans whom we encounter daily. How might we explain this experience and also bridge the chasm between inferior and superior beings? Mencius’s theory of the development of human goodness provides the answer. For a plant to develop, there must be a seed or stem. Mencius offers just that:
5. There are “four-stems” of human nature. “The sense of commiseration [misericordia], is the stem of humanity; the sense of shame and dislike [evil] is the stem of righteousness; the sense of respect and reverence is the stem of propriety (Li); the feeling of right and wrong is the stem of wisdom.” If we follow this four-stem aspect of our original nature, we are naturally able to do good. 8
Then Mencius indicates how one might develop these stems to full fruition:
6. Above all, we must realize the importance of learning, repent for our misdeeds and return to the right way. We start from here: “The way of learning is none other than finding the lost heart [mind].” 9
To Mencius, the most lamentable thing in the world is someone who has gone astray but has no desire to return to the right pathway.
But he is not so naïve as to leave us here. He exhorts people to make plans, cultivate and persevere — and hence carry forward this aim to grow into full maturity. He points out that although grains may be good seeds, after their planting and before harvest time, the plants that sprouted from them seem worse than tares and weeds. The way leading to maturity, according to Mencius, is —
7. The right methodology. He uses the analogies of archery and carpentry for learning. An archer must set a target (his will) and then put full effort into hitting it. Just as a carpenter uses a compass and square to do his work, one must have moral standards, who are the sages and superior men. 10
Though he himself has made many futile attempts to teach his contemporaries, Mencius cautions us to persist. This exhortation to keep the correct positive attitude is based on his firm conviction that human nature is intrinsically good. He believes that–
8. The goodness of human nature will prevail. Mencius’s confidence in human goodness makes him an optimist. Goodness is like water, while evil and desires are like fire. Because of its very nature, goodness will ultimately conquer evil. He likens the moral state of the world to a wagonload of fuel on fire. How can one pour a cup of water on the flames and expect to quench them all at once? Yet we have the obligation and responsibility to try to put the fire out, somehow. If we sit back and give up altogether, this attitude will only to help the evil grow. Doing nothing, then, should be counted as cruel. 11
This analogy sets the basic tenet of Confucianism: develop the goodness in oneself to the fullest, and then improve society with all one’s wisdom and might. Enlightened Confucianists therefore regard tending to the well-being of society as a personal duty.
Hsun Tze’s Theory of Human Nature
Diametrically opposite to Mencius’s theory is that of another famed Confucian philosopher. Hsun Tze, or Hsun Ch’ing, insists that human nature is originally evil. He says:
The nature of man is evil; the goodness is only acquired training. 12 The original nature of man to-day is to seek for gain. If this desire is followed, strife and rapacity results, and courtesy dies. Man originally is envious and naturally hates others. If these tendencies are followed, injury and destruction follows; loyalty and faithfulness are destroyed. Man originally possesses the desires of the ear and eye; he likes praise and is lustful. If these are followed, impurity and disorder result, and the rules of proper conduct (Li) and justice (Yi) and etiquette are destroyed…. Therefore the civilizing influence of teachers and laws, the guidance of the rules of proper conduct (Li) and justice (Yi) is absolutely necessary. 13
Unlike Mencius, who believes that man is capable of doing good “just as water flows downward naturally,” Hsun Tze maintains that man’s doing good comes only from working to make it go upward — which is unnatural to its intrinsic nature. This effort to keep humans morally in order can be undertaken through education, imposed by laws, or reinforced with religious or ceremonial rites. Therefore Hsun Tze exhorts people to learn how to develop in the proper way – which is actually against human inclination:
Now the original nature of man is really without the rules of proper conduct (Li) and justice (Yi), hence he strives to learn and seeks to have it…. Then only are they developed. 14
Why does not everybody try to develop in the right or moral way? Because, says Hsun Tze, one must have the will to cultivate oneself and gradually develop proper conduct. Hsun Tze likens the nature of man to a horse: to be made docile, it requires training. Bits and bridles must be used to rein in the animal spirits; also whips must be applied at times. And to run in the right direction, a horse must have a master guiding and controlling it. For this reason, the sage kings of antiquity set the laws and directives.
On the other hand, to instill moral codes internally, people need an effective education and beneficial socialization. So when determined to cultivate a moral character, one must choose friends wisely and search for good teachers.15
Like Mencius, Hsun Tze emphasizes that righteousness and justice (yi), should be the goal of education. Any desire for materialistic profit or ambition for high position should be purified:
If a person’s will is cultivated, then he can be prouder than the rich and the honorable; if he has emphasized the right way (Tao), and justice (Yi), then he can despise kings and dukes; he can contemplate that which is within him and despise other things. It is said: the superior man employs things; the small-minded man is the servant of things — this expresses what I mean. 16
Hsun-tze never did claim himself to be a prophet from God. Yet he exhibited that he had an exceptional analytical power, something like John Calvin, and is no less than a poet-seer. However, Hsun-Tze lacked the insight of “original sin”, thus he did not see the human total corruption; therefore, he could not reach the height of salvation.
Education as a way to Morality
We have seen how Mencius and Hsun Tze greatly differ in their theories of human nature and their methods of achieving goodness. Yet their goal is almost identical. Fung Yu-lan has aptly summed it up:
According to Mencius, man is born with the “four beginnings” of the four constant virtues. By fully developing these beginnings, he becomes a sage. But according to Hsun Tzu, man is not only born without any beginnings of goodness, but, on the contrary, has actual “beginnings” of evilness. In the chapter titled “On the Evilness of Human Nature,” Hsun Tzu tries to prove that man is born with inherent desire for profit and sensual pleasure. But, despite these beginnings of evilness, he asserts that man at the same time possesses intelligence, and that his intelligence makes it possible for him to become good. In his own words: “Every man on the street has the capacity of knowing human-heartedness, righteousness, obedience to law and uprightness, and the means to carry out these principles. Thus it is evident that he can become a Yu.” … Thus whereas Mencius says that any man can become a Yao or Shun, because he is originally good, Hsun Tzu argues that any man can become a Yu, because he is originally intelligent. 17
However, we should avoid making it appear that Hsun Tze is more pragmatic than Mencius. Both Mencius and Hsun Tze value virtue highly and make it the goal of education. We should also be aware that Hsun Tze has no intention of giving man over to the state or to an institution, subject to whatever ends they assign to him. Hsun Tze does not devalue or dehumanize man. Even though he asserts that human nature is basically wicked, he aims to educate and elevate man to a higher, if never quite perfect, level.
His general thesis is that everything that is good and valuable is the product of human effort. Value comes from culture and culture is the achievement of man. It is in this that man has the same importance in the universe as Heaven and Earth.18
Hsun Tze is unmistakably a Confucianist. While he tries to define Confucian theory in another light, he does not deny the ultimate goal of the Great Harmony, which carries on the spirit of Confucius. In fact, with a zeal no less great than that of Mencius, he sets forth to promote it.
As Hsun Tzu says: “Heaven has its seasons, Earth has its resources, man has his culture. This is what is meant [when it is said that man] is able to form a trinity [with Heaven and Earth].” (Hsun-tzu, ch. 17) 19
Here we can see that despite the wide difference between their theories regarding human nature, the two Confucianists’ approaches to instilling virtue in people arrive at the same end: it can be done through education. Mencius’s emphasis on the goodness of human nature naturally better suits human pride. But in the practice of education, moral purification, even by chastisement if necessary, should be applied at all times. After all, who can tell whence comes the evil to be purified or corrected?
The Concept of Purification in Confucian Education
After Confucius, Mencius is unquestionably the greatest philosopher of China. His effort in promoting the Confucian course, especially his theory of human nature, has been exceedingly important, and his influence is wide and long lasting. Yet, when it comes to the philosophy of education, Hsun Tze is on an equal footing with Mencius. In fact, his approach seems more systematic and coherent. The first chapter of his collected works is virtually a Confucian canon of education, a Summa Educatio. At the beginning he states:
The superior man says: Study should never stop. Green dye is taken from blue, but it is nearer the color of nature than blue. [or, Indigo comes from the color of blue, yet turned out darker than blue. J.Y.] Ice comes from water, but is colder than water. If wood is straight, it conforms to the plumb line; steam it and bend it, and it can be used for a wheel, but its curvature must be in accord with the compass. Although it were dried in the sun it would not again become straight — the bending made it that way. For wood must undergo the use of plumb-line to be straight; iron must be ground on the whetstone to be sharp; the superior man must make his learning broad and daily examine himself in order to have his knowledge exact and his actions without blemish. 20
Through these analogies Hsun Tze is declaring that the purpose of education is to transform human nature: to bend it so as to fit either a norm or an ideal standard. This means that education has a twofold mission: academically, to provide a wide and acute knowledge; morally, to induce one to act properly — “without blemish.”
Homer H. Dubs rightly states that “Hsuntze has perhaps been popularly known for his philosophy of education.” 21 The book bearing his name begins with “An Encouragement to Study” (bk. I: Introduction). From beginning to end, the book demonstrates a remarkably comprehensive and systematic value. In his view, “Study from first to last is ethical in character, but it is in conformity to standard, not free self-development.” 22
Here comes a notable difference between him and Mencius. To the latter, since human nature is good, to develop properly is to follow the nobler part of one’s nature, or “to nourish hao-jan-chih-ch’i ( 浩然之氣 ). 23 Then, goodness comes naturally just like water flowing downward. 24
But Hsun Tze says that this is not so. He points out:
Mencius states that man is capable of learning because his nature is good, but I say that this is wrong. It indicates that he has not really understood man’s nature, nor distinguished properly between the basic nature and conscious activity. 25
Since Hsun Tze considers human nature as basically evil, he maintains that if left to itself, it tends toward social evil, and hence will beget more evil. Yet he does not deny its potentiality for doing good as well. He admits that “this evil tendency does not prevent the development of goodness; every man has the capacity of rising to the height of the perfection of a Sage,” 26 Thus, Hsun Tze’s solution is to concentrate on suppressing evil energy in humans, and bend it toward good.
If the works of Hsun Tze are considered as a curriculum of education and character formation, it is clear that to apply his instructions, one must emphasize ridding people of the wrong theories and practices, or virtually purifying them in order to develop the correct ones. In other words, to pull out the weeds so that the wheat can grow properly. This is particularly necessary in the areas of moral conduct, knowledge and politics. 27 Hence, Hsun Tze attacked the superstitious practice of physiognomy (bk. V) and the “twelve philosophers” (bk. VI) — men little known to us today. He also promoted correcting erroneous theories (bk. XVIII), removing prejudices (bk. XXI), and rectifying terms (bk. XXII).
Language as a Vehicle for Morality
Hsun Tze regards misconceptions as elements that becloud the mind, causing one to lose the path of learning itself, as well as the chance for ethical and political advancement. Hence his most remarkable proposal is probably his “Rectification of Terms” ( 正名篇 ). (Today we might call it “Semantics,” but this was its title in the original version, done before any known dictionary was published.)
Actually, considering the impact of words is not a new task for education. Confucius mentions it in only one sentence. 28 However, other philosophers of Hsun Tze’s time also discussed this issue, though none dealt with it with Hsun Tze’s seriousness and thoroughness.
Recognizing the link between language and thought, he sees the importance of communication in the human community. Not only is language a medium for communication, but it also can originate concepts. Hsun Tze says:
For when Kings had regulated names, when they had fixed terms and so distinguished realities, and when this principle (Tao) was carried out hence their will was everywhere known; they were careful to lead the people and so the people were unified. Therefore with distinguishing words and making unauthorized distinctions thus confusing the correct nomenclature, caused the people to be in doubt and bringing about much litigation which was called great wickedness. It was a crime like that of using false credentials or false measures.29
Thus, in Hsun Tze’s view, clearing up terms in language will help to purify people’s thinking. If people then understand the true meaning of words, they are more apt to act rightly. This noble and deep theory is akin to the thinking of modern linguists like Benjamin Lee Whorf and Ludwig (Josef Johann) Wittgenstein. They maintain that if we can redefine key terms through linguistic study and elucidate their true meanings, most, if not all, of the problems in religion and philosophy will be dissolved. Hsun Tze asserts this idea by quoting the ode:
The long night is endless;
My ever-flowing thoughts are nimble;
They do not disesteem the ancients;
They do not vary the rules of proper conduct (Li) and justice (Yi);
What care I for people’s talk? 30
Hsun Tze acknowledges that words form thoughts and, ultimately, a value system. “The terms he uses and his speech are the messengers of his meaning.” 31 Therefore, when wayward words and thoughts are corrected, one will be able to distinguish between right and wrong, and have the moral courage to stand firm against universal darkness.
Furthermore, Hsun Tze says:
When the steelyard [scale, or balance] is not held properly, a heavy article will cause it to swing up high and people will think it is light; a light thing will cause the steelyard to hang down low, and people will think it is heavy. In this way people are misled about weights. When the standard [i.e., the iron bob of the steelyard] is not right, calamity is mixed with desire and people think it is happiness; or happiness mixed with hatred, and people think it is calamity. In this way, too, people are misled about calamity and happiness. 32
Here, Hsun Tze makes clear the danger of words being used as devices for manipulating or deceiving people. Just as a seller in the marketplace who holds a scale improperly can cause buyers to get erroneous ideas about the weight of goods they wish to buy, people can get cheated by misleading words; or they may assign wrong values to them, misinterpret them, and act improperly.
In today’s world, we too face this frustration. Changing word usages also changes their meanings as measures of moral standards. For example, adultery becomes “love affair” and fornication, “alternative life-style”; avarice is called “necessity,” indebtedness “credit,” and guilt “low self-esteem.” Thus by introducing new words or phrases we reduce negative connotations and moral judgments, or eliminate them entirely, making the conditions referred to as neutral, or more acceptable and even attractive — blurring their exactness and moral significance.
What should we do then? How should we then live? Hsun Tze goes on to offer a safeguard and some guidance: “The Way (Tao) is the correct standard in ancient times and in the present.” 33
Tao, the Chinese word used here well known in the West, is often linked with the Greek word (and concept), Logos. This is more than mere coincidence. Both words can mean logic, and both are applied to ideas and to language and literature — all of which can transmit and even transform the character of man. Therefore, Hsun Tze believes rectifying terms provides a crucial way to purify people’s thinking, guiding a person toward becoming the superior man proclaimed by Confucius. Such a person is “one who makes his personality important and makes material things [desire] his servant.” 34
Hsun Tze, a man of words, frequently quotes The Canon of Odes throughout his book. The volume of his own work, too, contains a collection of poetry. Six of his own poems are included: “Propriety” (Li), “Wisdom” (Chih), “Clouds” (Yun), “Needle” (Chen), and “Silkworm” (Ts’an). 35 Even though only a fragment of his poetical writings, they are significant. Through allegories, Hsun Tze expresses his ideals, wishes, ambitions, and expectations for society — hoping to influence his princely students and other readers.
In the sixth poem, at the close of his book, he explicitly talks about “The Crisis of Our Age.” He paints a sorry picture of a culture lacking ethical decency; social disorder reigns in the midst of spiritual decline, when even the sun and moon are eclipsed. Those who study the Old Testament will be familiar with Isaiah’s description of a similar time, when people “called evil good and good evil, putting darkness for light and light for darkness, bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter,” 36 which condition shows an equally senseless state caused by manipulating words.
Gazing at this mess of value-system abnormalities, Hsun Tze says pedagogically: “You lads do learning with diligence, / For Heaven will forget you not.” 37 With this exhortation, the Master shows his high hope on linguistic rectification as a chief way to purify one’s thinking and to advance in education.
The Teaching of Ethics
Undeniably, Hsun Tze recognizes, one must consider the social effects of human aspirations and longings:
When desires are not satisfied, then one cannot be without a seeking for satisfaction. When this seeking for satisfaction is without measure or of limit, then there cannot but be contention. When there is contention, there will be disorder; when there is disorder, then there will be poverty. 38
Hsun Tze’s work seems overly pedantic at times, even unnecessarily emphatic on “the rules of proper conduct” [Li, or Propriety]. Confucianists oppose the School of Legalism, which prescribes a ruthless use of law. They prefer to use Li (Rites) as a means for moral and social education. This code of conduct, Li, to Hsun Tze, has cardinal importance. He even attributes a cosmological principle to Li.
Li is that whereby Heaven and Earth unite, whereby the sun and moon are bright, whereby the four seasons are ordered, whereby the stars move in the courses. Whereby rivers flow, whereby all things prosper, whereby love and hatred are tempered, whereby joy and anger keep their proper place. It causes the lower orders to obey, and the upper orders to be illustrious; through a myriad changes it prevents going astray. But if one departs from it, he will be destroyed. Is not Lithe greatest of all principles? 39
Hsun Tze cannot overemphasize the importance of Li. Taking a prophetic and pragmatic tone resembling the passage in Proverbs in the Old Testament that admonishes wisdom, he says:
When the country follows it, there is good government and prosperity; when it is not followed there is anarchy and calamity. He who follows it is safe; he who does not follow it is in danger. He who follows it will be preserved; he who does not follow it will be destroyed. 40
Today, this line of absolutist thinking is not readily accepted. But in a different context, most people in the Western world, as late as the Middle Ages, accepted and absorbed this kind of generalization. And certainly at any time in history, a person who loves law and order, and believes in absolute right and wrong, can readily make such a statement. Hsun Tze also links music (which for him included dance) to proper conduct. He regards music as an expression of emotion and a reflection of people’s living conditions. It is also useful as “group therapy,” attuning people to harmony and moving their hearts toward virtue: “From the way in which they move in groups and adapt themselves to the music, the arrangement of the rank is made correct, and their advancing and retreating are together.” 41 Furthermore –
In the Way (Tao) of the early Kings, the rules of proper conduct (Li) were exactly that in which they excelled….
Now sound and music enter deeply into people; their influence is rapid. For the early Kings carefully made it beautiful. When music is moderate and even, the people are harmonious and do not degenerate; when music is reverent and dignified, the people are tranquil and not in turmoil. When the people are harmonious and tranquil, the armies are strong, cities are secure, and enemy countries dare not attack. 42
Hsun Tze, of course, is not the first Chinese philosopher to declare the importance of music. Confucius, before him, knew music very well. Commenting on Shao, a piece of music composed by Emperor Shun, he had declared that “It was perfectly beautiful and also perfectly good.” 43 This shows Confucius’s standard for the ideal of music, which Shun’s masterpiece attained. Regarding Confucius’s subjective appreciation of music, it is recorded that —
When the Master was in Ch’i, he heard the Shao, and for three months he did not know the taste of flesh [meats]. “I did not think,” he said, “that music could have been made so excellent as this!” 44
Though the music may not really have put Confucius on a special diet, this statement does demonstrate music’s powerful effect on the Master himself.
In his time, Hsun Tze really seemed to know how to use the spirit of music in education:
Its indirect and direct appeals, its manifoldness and simplicity, its frugality and richness, its rests and notes, to stir up the goodness in men’s minds, and to prevent evil feelings from gaining any foothold. 45
This passage shows Hsun Tze’s deep understanding of music, which even surpasses modern-day standards in degree and sophistication. He calls music “the greatest unifier in the world, the bond of inner harmony.” 46
But not all music is good, in the sense that it induces proper conduct. Hsun Tze distinguishes good music from bad, in moralistic terms. He declares: “When music is pretty and fascinating, it is dangerous; then the people degenerate and are negligent, turmoil will begin; if they are mean and low, they will wrangle.” On the other hand, good music “can turn people’s hearts to goodness. Its influence is great; it changes people’s custom [from bad to good].” 47 People will then be peaceful and virtuous. This makes “the Way (Tao) of the Kings … very easy.” 48
It may appear to those of us living today that both of the principal Confucianists presented here, Mencius and Hsun Tze, over-idealize the function of education in structuring individual and civic morality. Certainly history confirms that the Confucian theory of education did not deliver the dawn of “Great Harmony,” as it had promised. From our vantage point, then we may justify a skeptical attitude. However, our hindsight scarcely proves that we are any wiser than they on this side of the chasm, with some twenty centuries between the two eras. During this long period, human society has gone through enormous cultural changes.
Meanwhile, the Chinese people, and China as a country as well, have held together for several millennia. Following Confucius, a rich, multifaceted culture developed, making undeniable contributions to humankind. This cohesion, strength, and durability in the Chinese way of life are in good part attributable to the Confucian learning system — especially its moral philosophy. So surely there is great merit in it.
It would seem, however, that Confucianism made China peculiarly vulnerable to the attractions of Communism’s political and social ideals, with a rigid legal system and perpetual purge and coercion. Most unfortunately, in their basic documents and important pronouncements no place can the word “moral” be found. Obviously, a moral life is too idealistic to fit within the parameters of the focus on materialism and the anti-religious stance that Communism notoriously promotes.
At the same time, our present world, descending from the progression of Western civilization, is undeniably in a stage of distress and social disintegration. The sensate culture seems to be nearing its sunset. It is the right time now to re-evaluate the ancient wisdom of the Orient, especially its moral education that was passed from one generation to the next. And even more importantly, to examine it alongside the Occident’s major ethical force, both historically and currently — Christianity.
Albert Einstein, in “The Need for Ethical Culture,” said with almost a prophetic tone that —
The frightful dilemma of the political world situation has much to do with this sin of omission on the part of our civilization. Without “ethical culture,” there is no salvation for humanity. 49
We have an urgent need for ethical values and resolve. Moral education enables people to transform themselves into ethical beings. It proceeds from the concept of purification — cleansing away all that is impure or noxious. What can be done with the physical body as a health measure may also be done in a different way with the community, to introduce or restore moral responsibility and an ethical sensibility. Our society notably lacks both.
Notes for Chapter 1
1. Analects, V:12.
2. Analects, XVII:2.
3. Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987, p. 157.
4. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, trans. & comp., Wing-tsit Chan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. “Mencius 6A:3,” p. 52.
5. Chan, 6A:5, p. 53.
6. Chan, 6A:6, p.54.
7. Chan, 6A:10, p. 57.
8. Mencius, 2A:6.
9. Mencius, 6A:11.
10. Mencius, 6A:20.
11. Mencius, 6A:20.
12. “Acquired training,” T’ang Dynasty commentator Yang Ching noted that, from the Chinese character Wei, it could mean “action,” “effort,” or “artificial.”
13. Hsuntze, The Works of, trans. Homer H. Dubs. London: Arthur Probsthain, 1928, bk. XXIII, p. 301.
14. Hsuntze, XXIII, p. 307.
15. Hsuntze, XXIII.
16. Hsuntze, II, p. 47.
17. Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, ed. Derk Bodde. New York: The Free Press, 1948, p. 145.
18. Fung, p. 144.
19. Fung, p. 144.
20. Hsuntze, I, p. 31.
21. Homer H. Dubs, Hsuntze: The Moulder of Ancient Confucianism. London: Arthur Probsthain, 1927, p. 184.
22. Dubs, p. 195.
23. Mencius, 2A:2.
24. Mencius, 6A:2.
24. Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1954, p. 158.
26. Dubs, p. 184.
27. As I examine the contents of Hsun Tzu’s 32 chapters, I find it, generally speaking, can be categorized as following:
I An Encouragement to Study
III On Integrity
IV On Honor & Shame
VII The Virtue of Confucians
VIII Confucianism in Application
XXVIII Principle of A Scholar
XXIX Filial Piety
XXX On Standard of Behaviors
XXXI On Several Kind of People
XXXII On the Effect of Personality Influence
V Against Physiognomy (anti-superstition)
VI Against the 12 Philosophies XVIII The Correction of Erroneous Theories
XXI The Removal of Prejudices
XXII On the Rectification of Terms (Linguistics)
IX Kingly Government
X Wealth of State
XI Kings & Lords
XII The Prince
XIII The Officials
XIV To Obtain Worthies
XV On Military Affairs
XVI To Strengthen A State
XXIV The Sage King
XXV On Vicarship of the State
XIX On the Rules of Proper Conduct (Li)
XX On Music
XVII Concerning Heaven (Nature)
XXIII The Nature of Man is Evil
XXVI Poems (Express His Wish by Allegory)
Note: The New Sung Version arranged the book in different order. The last, bk. XXXII, is “Poetical Writings.”
28. Analects, XII, iii.
29. Hsuntze, trans. Dubs, XII, p. 282.
30. Hsuntze, trans. Dubs, XXII, p. 292.
31. Hsuntze, XXII, p. 292.
32. Hsuntze, XXII, p. 297.
33. Hsuntze, XXII, p. 297.
34. Hsuntze, XXII, p.297.
35. Hsuntze, XXVI.
36. Isaiah, 5:20.
37. Hsuntze, XXV.
38. Hsuntze, trans. Dubs, XIX, p. 213.
39. Hsuntze, pp. 223-224.
40. Hsuntze, p. 234.
41. Hsuntze, XX, p. 249.
42. Hsuntze, XX, p. 250.
43. Analects, III:25, p. 164.
44. Analects, VII:13, p. 199; III:23; IX:14; XV:10; XVII:4.
45. Hsuntze, trans. Dubs, XX, p. 248.
Emperor Yao said, “K’wei, I appoint you to be Director of Music, and teach our sons; so that the straight forward will be with the mild, the magnanimous will be with the dignified, the tough will be without the tyrannical, and the simple will be without the arrogant.” (“Shun” in The Canon of Chronicles.)
46. Hsuntze, XX, p. 249.
47. Hsuntze, XX, p. 251.
48. Hsuntze, XX, p. 258.
49. Albert Einstein, “Letter read on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Ethical Culture Society, New York, January, 1951,” in Ideas and Opinions, trans. & rev. Sonja Bargmann. New York: Bonanza Books, 1954, pp. 53-54.
THE PROGRESSIVE APPROACH OF MORAL PURIFICATION
The Great Learning is a Confucian classic. Its authorship is attributed to Confucius’s grandson, Tze-ssu (492-432 B.C.). Its title comes from its opening sentence: “The Way of learning to be great.” The book instructs students in how to follow the path toward learning which it offered, so that they could achieve the goal of true wisdom in life.
Actually, the book remained an obscure Confucian text until the eleventh century A.D., when Ch’an Buddhism threatened to overturn Confucianism’s popularity among the Chinese people. Mainly because of the need to combat the Ch’an Schools and to promote the traditional notion of virtue, distinguished scholars elevated The Great Learning to a new status and even built their own philosophies around it. Perhaps for the same reasons they also turned their attention to the ancient text of I Ching, or The Book of Changes — especially to the commentaries about it provided by its editor, Confucius.
It is widely acknowledged that Ch’an Buddhism amalgamated Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism (Lao-Tzu’s philosophy, not Taoism as a religion), and Confucianism. The new Confucian scholars, pragmatically following this fusion pattern, employed Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism as secondary ingredients in Confucianism, which resulted in a substream called Li-hsueh, orSchool of Principle. In the fifteenth century another substream appeared, known as School of Mind. These two schools were later collectively called Neo-Confucianism. However, all their philosopher-proponents essentially regarded themselves as Confucianist scholars.
Cultivation of Individual Virtue
The Great Learning contains the basic philosophy of Confucianism. At the very beginning, it declares its theme: “What the Great Learning teaches, is — to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.” 1
Thus the essential character of the book is established: it deals with education, and especially the process of cultivating virtue to form the “superior man.” Encouraging people to attain this high state of morality will assure the greatest good of the country. The aim fulfills the Confucian ideal. According to Ch’eng I-Ch’uan (1033-1107), “It was to learn the way of becoming a sage.” 2
Because this method’s goal is great, it is called The Great Learning. The book lists this program to achieve it:
The ancients who wished to illustrate virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things [ko-whoa]. 3
Here we can see a ripple effect. Virtue springs forth from a sincere mind, first to cultivate the deeds of a single person, then a family, afterward the state, and finally extending to the whole kingdom. (The word “sincere” in Chinese means earnest, honest, simple, pure; sincerity encompasses these qualities, along with conviction and singleheartedness.)
But at the center or stem, the mind should be controlling human action. Then, what does ko-wu ( 格物 ) have to do with “sincere in thought”?
The term ko-wu in the text could mean “investigate” (ko 格 ) “things” (wu 物). Yet, etymologically, ko could mean “ward off,” even “to combat,” wu could mean “things” or “materials”; thus ko-wu should be interpreted contextually as “purify the material [desires].” 4
This concept of purification in some ways resembles that of the great English Renaissance scholar Sir Francis Bacon — which will be discussed in a later chapter, when we compare the concepts of Confucian moralists with Biblical expressions and those of Elizabethan and Puritan authors.
If Confucian Great Learning is the learning of the superior man, where then is the essential greatness? It is found in one’s mind, or in an attitude toward the universe. If one always looks at or thinks about oneself, the mind stays small. This kind of person is therefore small-minded — an inferior man. On the other hand, if one looks continuously at humanity and thinks of its ultimate goodness, one’s vision is great, making the mind also grand. A great-minded man is a superior man. He is a man of Jen, of humanity.
But how does one achieve this goal? The first step is to eliminate or “ward off” desires for material things, which distract and occupy the mind. Then one works to remove prejudices and see things clearly — gaining the ability to discern right from wrong ( 格物致知 ).
This is what Lao Tzu says of this endeavor:
To pursue learning is to increase [knowledge] daily.
To practice the Way is to decrease [desires] daily.
Decreasing and more decreasing,
One arrives at non-action [desireless]. 5
This is to say, only after getting rid of this problem of double vision, then one can see clearly. Obtaining high knowledge comes only after single-focusing, within a state of desirelessness. Then, effortless action comes naturally. In Great Learning, it follows then that —
Their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated…. Their families being regulated… their States being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy ( 意誠，心正，身修，家齊，國治，天下平 ). 6
In this progressive, comprehensive ideal of “Great Learning,” we can see a philosophy of education that heavily emphasizes self-cultivation. Only after a person’s mind is purified of selfish, evil or of incorrect will, and knowledge or morality is balanced with utility, can one set out on the royal highway of the highest good for humankind. This means that one’s will, mind, and heart are in tune with the Absolute Soul, or near to it, transcending the narrow self. This is akin to a Neo-Confucian concept of establishing a Mind for Heaven and Earth.
The Value of Sincerity
To start with the infinite and eternal task of Great Learning, the key acquisition is sincerity. The quality should not be treated here as a general term. In another Confucian classic attributed to Tzu-ssu, The Doctrine of the Mean, sincerity is almost a state of mind.
Sincerity is the way of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity, is he who, without an effort, hits what is right, and apprehends, without the exercise of thought; — he is the sage who naturally and easily embodies of the right way. He who attains to sincerity, is he who chooses what is good, and firmly holds it fast. 7
The concept of sincerity ( 誠 ) to Confucianists is neither attitudinal, in the way Buddhists use it, nor equivalent to Buddhist enlightenment. It is more like “the pure in heart” in the Beatitudes of Jesus. It is unique and dynamic.
Buddhist thinking, though it seems intriguing and mysterious in metaphysics, when touching upon real life, inevitably becomes hollow and broken down. But as to the “sincerity” in The Doctrine of the Mean, it is not so. If one says that the Buddhist concept of “emptiness” has the effect of purifying karma, then the concept of “sincerity” is far beyond “emptiness” in its positiveness and effectiveness. 8
During the course of Chinese intellectual history, this concept of sincerity changed. When responding to the challenge of Buddhism, the Neo-Confucianists divided the function of sincerity into two sections: (1) in personal cultivation, use “Ching” ( 敬 reverence and seriousness); (2) in acquiring knowledge, follow the principle of investigation ( 格物 ). 9
Wang Yang-Ming (1472-1529), the great Neo-Confucian philosopher of the Ming dynasty, emphasizes the unity of knowledge and action. He talks about the eight steps in The Great Learning in this way:
While each of them has its own place, they are really one thing. Investigating, extending, being sincere, rectifying, and cultivating are the task performed in the procedure [for the highest good]. Although each has its own name, they are really one affair. 10
If we judge only by this statement, it appears that Wang denies that steps must be taken to achieve the highest good. But it is not so, because this concept of progress applies only to the ideal of superior men. In practice, even if one advances to the position of governing a state, it is still possible that one may have unwanted desires that need to be banished or purified. Nevertheless, the primary object is to have sincerity:
If one sincerely loves the good known by the innate faculty but does not in reality do the good as we come into contact with the thing to which the will is directed, it means that the thing has not been investigated and that the will to love the good is not yet sincere. 11
Sincerity is crucial: it can translate a belief into action, and knowledge into practice. In this context, it takes another etymological meaning, equal to actualizing. “If sincerity is within, it will be manifested without.” 12 This means that sincerity has the power to perform. Therefore, “It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that exists under heaven, who can transform.” 13 Because sincerity is such a critical factor in building great morality, one must examine oneself constantly.
It is said in the Book of Poetry [i.e., Canon of Odes] “Although the fish sink and lie at the bottom, it is quite clearly seen.” Therefore the superior man examines his heart, that there may be nothing wrong there, and that he may have no cause for dissatisfaction with himself. That wherein the superior man cannot be equalled is simply this — his work [of self-examining and purifying] which other men cannot see. 14
Just as the foundation is to a building, or root and sap are to a plant, what cannot be seen is quintessential to the visible. That “which other men cannot see” is the purifying of will within the superior man; its result is promoted and preserved in sincerity.
Sincerity, when it is applied on knowledge, is diligent in learning; when applied on humanity, is keen in practicing; when applied on courage, it shuns from dishonour. So, all of these virtues spring from sincerity…. All religion, politics and ethics hang on this one pivot of sincerity. 15
Wang Yang-Ming says:
A sincere will is in accord with the Principle of Nature…. At the same time it is not attached in the least to selfish thought…. Knowing this, you know the state of equilibrium before feelings are aroused. 16
In this case, Wang regards perpetual sincerity as the state of equilibrium without attachment. Furthermore, he regards what the Buddhists claim to be enlightenment as merely escape from human responsibilities. He clearly ridicules it. To him the very thought and practice is rank selfishness, and thus subject to purification.
Only this “sincerity” enables us to build up the other-me relationship to unite knowledge and action, to produce the actualizing power of all virtues and it will not become empty words. 17
Sincerity begets real belief, and then goes forth to realize what one believes. It is not self-deceptive, nor is it an escape from the real world and human relationships. At the heart of human problems is the condition of the human heart. Sincerity, then, might be the simple way out; at least, it is the starting point on the right way to reform.
To work toward reforming something, one must have a conceptual Form, if we could use Plato’s term, as model. The Chinese Confucian philosophers provided two forms: an individual should aim to be a superior man, and society should aim to achieve the Great Harmony.
The Confucian plan for promoting “illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom,” usually known as “great harmony,” often seems no more than persistent wishful thinking. Nonetheless, during the course of history, sincerity remains a basic virtue to the Chinese. We are all expected to possess it, and our expectations of a positive human future rely upon it — if indeed we happen to believe humankind has a future, in one way or another.
“KO”: Changing is Purging in Social Structure
I Ching, or The Book of Changes, is the oldest book among Confucian classics. Its authorship is attributed to the ancient sage, King Wen of Chou. Confucius, intrigued with it, served as a notable editor and commentator.
The book presents eight elements, which originally symbolized letters, combined into 64 hexagrams. It is believed that these hexagrams contain messages that will enable one to understand things or even determine future events, if they are correctly interpreted. Each hexagram has six lines. A line may be either unbroken or broken. An unbroken line is called yang; a broken line, yin. Yang symbolizes positive, superior, masculine, strong, creative, etc.;yin, negative, inferior, feminine, weak, receptive, etc.
In the cultural history of Chinese feudalism, a well was the source of water supply, and people built a community around it. Therefore, the word or image of “well” can also symbolize society. 18 Thus, saying someone is “leaving his well behind him” means that he is leaving his homeland.
Since human beings are susceptible to corruption, vices, and follies of all kinds, changes are needed if a state of purity is to be achieved. This is as true for a government or society as it is for a person.
For persons, the means for purification is education. In I Ching, the hexagram Meng ( 蒙 ), when “the young fool [ignorant] 19 seeks me,” opportunity and potentiality meet. “To make a fool [ignorant] develop / It furthers one to apply discipline. / The fetters [follies] should be removed.” 20This is moral purification applied to an individual child: to rebuke, to correct, even physically chastise if necessary, in order to make a docile disciple.
With a government, the hexagram takes up the symbol of Ting ( 鼎 ), the Caldron, a Tripod; “Nothing transforms things so much as the Ting.” As a cooking utensil, a Ting, transforms raw meat into cooked dishes, so should government transform and cultivate its people. After a while, however, accumulated food left inside the Ting gets corrupted. In the same way, social establishments tend to become stagnant.
So purification is needed. The way to do it is to overturn that political system: “A Ting with legs upturned / Furthers removal of stagnating stuff.” 21Then a new governmental system can be established.
Yet another type of change is possible: social change. It is symbolized by the 49th hexagram, Ko. fundamental and widescale, therefore harder — and most important.
The setup of a well must necessarily be revolutionized in the course of time. Hence there follows the hexagram of REVOLUTION. REVOLUTION means removal of that which is antiquated. 22
Unlike the hexagram Meng, a society ( 井 ) cannot be chastised. Because “The town may be changed, / But the well cannot be changed.” 23 A well by its very nature is immovable and indissoluble. It must be converted from within. The revolution is total; it is deeper and far more than mere structural renovation, though this change may co-operate with and be enhanced by a political change.
Such transformation is comprehensive purification. Therefore, the hexagramKo ( 革 ) is characterized by its comprehensiveness. One must seek it with sincerity, constantly, until it is believed by people and all conditions meet; 24then “remorse disappears.” 25 This means a time of need, and a real situation that calls for action. 26
The prime meaning of “revolution,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, is “movement of a [heavenly] body, as a star or planet, in an orbit or circle.” This astronomical term coincides with the Chinese concept that a superior man’s great deed accords with Heaven: the Sage Kings “T’ang and Wu brought about… revolutions because they were submissive toward Heaven and in accord with men. The time of REVOLUTION is truly great.” 27
The reading of the six lines of the hexagram Ko is as follows:
1. Nine at the Beginning:
Revolution is truly a great affair. Therefore, it must take place at the right time, in the right position, with the right ability. It must be conceived and considered with extreme caution before action; then there will be no remorse; “Girded with the hide of a yellow ox.” 28 Yellow is middle color, and the cow’s character is patient and docile. So one must be prepared at the beginning and strengthen oneself with moderation and endurance. Do not act until time and tide are ready.
2. Six in the second place:
Six is a Yin line, in an inferior position. Thus it corresponds and should follow the superior line — i.e., the fifth line. The waiting period is now over. It is the right time to proceed. This means a revolution should not be led, but must have a healthy and harmonious base for the process to be properly executed.
3. Nine in the third place:
The revolution theory has already been publicized three times, meaning that it is thoroughly known to the society. He who is bona fide, believable, and has the fidelity of the people should now act with confidence. Although starting a revolution may bring misfortune, in this case the cause is right. One who does not act out of selfish interests should decisively push ahead. Dangers in revolution demand courage, and should be cautiously dealt with. But the purpose and end of the action will sharpen the character of one’s perseverance. 29
4. Nine in the fourth place:
“Remorse disappears. Men believe him.” 30 This means the purpose of revolution has been fulfilled. Advancing from the third place to the fourth place is in a new section, which means to bring new beginning, new form and new order. With corruptions and vices corrected and society purified, good fortune comes.
5. Nine in the fifth place:
“The great man changes like a tiger. / Even before he questions the oracle / He is believed.” 31 If the person in the superior position is changed — purified — people would not doubt him, so seeking an oracle is unnecessary. Because sincerity has been manifested in his deeds, his influence on society would exceed the usual bounds. As Confucius says, “clouds (the breath of heaven) follow the dragon [Lung], wind (the breath of earth) follows the tiger. Thus the sage arises, and all creatures follow him with their eyes.” 32 Which is to say that people set their hopes on their leader, and willingly follow in his footsteps.
6. Six at the top:
“The superior man changes like a panther. / The inferior man molts in the face.” 33 The superior man’s change is in his life within, and the result of this purification is manifested in his deeds. The effort of this change must be much more than skin deep. (As the Bible says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” 34) Hence the “inferior man” (common people) may only follow the superior changes on the surface, the outer layer, sometimes out of flattery. Just in as Confucius’s saying, “The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass. The grass must bend when the wind blows across it.”35
Revolution is an incomplete process. The leader must be content to dwell within this imperfect state, letting his virtue shine forth through good deeds and examples, to transform and reform his society. If insists on pursuing his goal further, saying that he must continue to purge because the revolution is not yet comlete, he will become self-willed — a tyrant. The consequences to him as well as to society are dangerous; he himself will become the very object to be purged. This is why the top line is a Yin line.
In summary, the hexagram Ko in The I Ching shows that the ancient Chinese people believed in revolution only when the necessity for one arises. When the fundamental moral and social tenets of society decay, then revolution takes place. Since it requires a great transformation, it must be well planned and done with extreme caution.
To evoke social awareness, the cause must be well publicized in advance. The place and time, as well as the person who executes the revolution, should all be correctly chosen. Then everything and everyone will benefit from the revolution and the purification it brings. The people, religious and human affairs, and material and moral conditions will all be in good order.
Mencius often pointed out that the exemplary King T’ang and King Wu both led revolutions that brought about much-needed social changes. They did this not for selfish political gains but with mandates from Heaven.
The remarkable theory of revolution in The I Ching came much earlier (by 26-27 centuries) and went far deeper than the theories of the two best-known political philosophers of Western civilization, Machiavelli and Locke.
Unity of Knowledge and Action: Lao Tzu’s Way
Someone lost his axe and thought that it was the neighbour’s son who stole it. He observed that the walk of the boy looked like one who stole the axe. His complexion, his talking, his movements and behavior showed nothing but like one who could have stolen the axe. Later on, he dug up a forgotten corner; there the axe was discovered. Next day, again he met with the neighbour’s son, and saw his actions and behavior, but found nothing that looked like one who stole the axe. 36
This story demonstrates how bias distorts vision, to make one see things differently and then judge them wrongly. The phenomenon is not just a problem of epistemology; it is very much a problem of human moral relations as well. Therefore, to gain an accurate vision of reality, it is essential to purify one’s mind. The question is, as Lao Tzu put it, “To wash and clear the mysterious vision, can you eliminate all flaws?” 37
While Lao Tzu talks about restoring the “mysterious vision” into darkness, the Confucianist talks about “manifesting the bright virtue.” 38
There is an almost Platonic aspect in Lao Tzu’s stern advice of Confucius, containing implications for education:
I have heard that a wise merchant hides his treasures as if he has none. The sage who has abundant virtue has an appearance as if he is stupid. Therefore, get rid of your pride and multi-desires, your high style and immoderate will; all those will not benefit yourself. This is the only thing I can tell you. 39
According to a biographer, when Confucius paid Lao-Tzu a visit, the visitor got the above mentioned uncomplimentary advice. Confucius accepted Lao Tzu’s admonishment, and afterward spoke about Lao Tzu admiringly. 40 He altered his behavior and teaching methods accordingly, some later commentators observed. 41 Here is evidence that Lao Tzu’s theory of the function of purification in education obtained approval from none other than Confucius — one of the great educators of all time.
If the above-recorded episode can be taken as factual, then the statement in the opening chapter of The Great Learning seems to have similar advice to later readers: warding off material desires ( 物欲 ) is the beginning of true knowledge or wisdom. Confucian wisdom, after all, is not far from the Lao Tzu’s wellspring. Yet carrying it out in daily practice is quite another matter altogether.
The author of a recent article attributes China’s woes throughout history to the Confucian way of teaching: one teaches others as if he is a sage, behaves like a guru, and presumes that he monopolizes all wisdom and truths. In contrast, the Socratic method of teaching, by questioning and interaction with students, is approved. 42 The author may be overdrawing his case; yet he does affirm that the foundation of sound education lies in purging human follies and flaws.
But how can one possibly do this? Lao Tzu offers a solution: “By not being self-opinionated, he becomes enlightened.” 43 On the other hand, “One who is self-opinionated is not enlightened.” 44 That is to say, to know reality, one must search out the principles of all things. One must also purify oneself first and abandon one’s selfishness; otherwise one’s own shadow will blind one’s reason.
Then Lao Tzu provides another principle of observation:
Practice emptiness to its ultimate.
Maintain tranquility sincerely.
All things rise together: I only can contemplate their return.
All things flourish; Each returns to its root.
To return to the root is tranquility, It means to return to life.
To return to life is constancy,
To know constancy is enlightenment. 45
In other words, to observe the function of things objectively, tranquilly and sincerely, one can find a constant law, not phenomena, but nomena, which leads to knowledge.
In Chinese philosophy, Lao Tzu is a great systematizer. He believes that what is true in Nature can be applied as well in ethics, in epistemology, and in politics: “The great system [of Tao] will not cut apart.” 46 He arranges it neatly into a cord of three strands:
Knowing the male and keeping to the female,
One will be the stream-bed of the world.
To be the stream-bed of the world,
One will not depart from the constant virtue,
But will turn again to infancy.
Knowing the white and keeping to the black,
One will be the pattern of the world.
To be the pattern of the world,
One will not deviate from the constant virtue
But will return to the non-ultimate.
Knowing the honor and keeping the mean,
One will be the valley of the world.
Being the valley of the world,
One’s constant virtue is complete:
One returns to simplicity. 47
This three-stranded system, in its ambiguous and dialectical style, is the function of “constant virtue”: returns to infancy, to non-ultimate (non-extreme), and to simplicity.
溪 and 谷 constitute 谿 . Therefore, a stream cannot flow without its bed; conversely, a stream-bed which goes without a stream is a valley ( 谷 ). Therefore, just as female follows the male and infants depend on parents, knowledge goes with experience. This is how the non-separation principle is constituted.
White and dark are interrelated terms. One cannot always be prominent and notable. If one is not, then he should be content being obscure and modest. This is the non-extreme principle.
Then comes the consideration of honor and dishonor, as the antithesis of the co-related terms, mountain and valley. One cannot have the one without the other. One cannot be at the peak all the time, so has to be content with dishonor. This means being desireless, and hence returns one to the simplicity principle.
Lao Tzu’s three-strand cord is ethically as well as epistemologically interdependent. To conceive and understand certain subjects, the antithesis of each is constantly needed. Without darkness one cannot know light. Similarly with black and white, yin and yang, death and life, chaos and order, which are all co-related ideas. 48 Pushing to the extreme, one misses the antithesis — and thus the understanding goes with it. 49
Here Lao Tzu demonstrates that if one desires to lead, he will become like a stream leaving its bed. If one desires to be extreme, he will miss the path to understanding. If one desires to have glory, he will become discontent. Therefore, purging these desires is the way to perfect life and understanding, individually as well as collectively. This is the way to attain sagacity; the ideal society will come from the accumulated virtues and wisdom of many sages.
Lao Tzu’s system is both a self-salvage and self-reliance plan. While it may not prove workable in ethics and politics, it seems valid in epistemology. That is, purifying one’s desires will “clear the mysterious vision” that leads to deep understanding. Still, it provides a link between Tao ( 道 ) and Teh ( 德 ), and can serve as a path from knowledge leading to action, from principle to practice.
Etymologically, the character Virtue ( 德or惪 ) means ascending, which achieves a certain elevation and also elevates others. Therefore, its built-in progressive nature implies that it is not a type of pure theoretical knowledge, but is a praxis, or formula for regular conduct. It is only in the Ming dynasty that the scholar-philosopher Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) developed this concept fully.
Aware of the weakness of both Ch’an Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, Wang draws inspiration from the wisdom of Lao Tzu. He believes that the moral decay in society is not only an intellectual matter, but is also due to separation of knowledge and practice. The way to remedy this condition is to manifest “the inner knowledge of the good.” Wang calls this the doctrine of “Unity of Knowledge and Action.”
According to him, knowledge is the beginning of action and action the completion of knowledge. No one really knows food unless he has tasted it. 50
However, Wang did not develop his theory in terms of empirical science. His emphasis was on political and moral philosophy. Like most Chinese philosophers, he believes that morality is more relevant to people than pure reason in leading a happy life. His basic principle and purpose are: “The faculty of innate knowledge is to know good and evil. The investigation of things is to do good and to remove evil.” 51
To state this concept metaphorically: calming and clearing the springs so that clean water will flow out, and the community and beasts can then drink from it. As to what the benefit to the self will be, he sees it in a larger perspective:
Master Wang said: The great man regards Heaven and the Earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between the self and others, they are small men. 52
To Neo-Confucianists, the term “small man”, which bears a negative connotation, means inferior, infamous, and even has the connotation of immoral. So, the unity of knowledge and action, orthodoxies and orthopraxies, is a way of moral purification that leads to the ideal society. It is the meaning and mission of life for a superior man. It comes from a purified vision and purified mind.
Unity of Heaven and Man
Nowadays the I Ching is a book uncommonly popular in the West. It is used for divination. It is used for eliminating the mounting doubts and anxiety of modernity. It is used for selfish gain and all kinds of purposes but the common good with others. Thus it makes us wonder about the original objective of I Ching: The Book of Changes. Here I evoke Confucius’s statement:
The Master said: The [Book of] Changes, what do they do? The changes disclose things, complete affairs, and encompass all ways on Earth, and to determine all fields of action on Earth, and to settle all doubts on Earth. 53
Undoubtedly, the Master set up a noble goal here, a great expectation high enough for everybody to attain. Yet he suggests a humble beginning close enough for one to set foot on the way.
In this way the holy sages purified their hearts, withdrew and hid themselves in the secret. They concerned themselves with good fortune and misfortune in common with other men. They were divine, hence they knew the future; they were wise, hence they stored up the past. 54
To put it simply: the benefit of The Book of Changes is to use it to purify one’s heart, i.e., “to purge away desires, prejudices, attachments and selfishness.” Then one can attain Confucius’s stance of being entirely free from four things: “no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary determinations, no obstinacy, and no egoism.” 55
Although Chinese generally do not particularly care for spiritual purification, they do not deny religion altogether.
Mencius said, “If the lady Hsi had been covered with a filthy [head-dress], all people would have stopped their noses in passing her. Though a man may be wicked, yet if he adjusts his thoughts, fast, and bathe, he may sacrifice to God.”56
Here we can see that Mencius believes in the importance of repentance and purification. However, what Confucius meant here is not quite the same. In his view, one applies humanity (Jen) to the people, identifies oneself with the people, seeks benefit for the people. For this purpose, the sages ward off desires, concentrate and purify their minds, and fast — in order to obtain a divinely clear nature. Only then can the “good fortune” they acquire become the people’s also.
The sages will not rob the people to enrich themselves, nor will they rape the people’s will to fulfill their own ambition. No one would be able effectively to oppose such men of Jen, because they are “in common with other men.” This is the mandate of heaven. The “misfortune” they avoid also benefits the people. They will not escape from danger in cowardice, to leave the people suffering, as some self-acclaimed “great leaders” so often do in times of expediency.
Confucius sees this cardinal importance of the “heart.” He constantly emphasizes this point. Only a good tree can bear good fruit; only from a pure heart can good words and deeds spring forth. He even goes beyond Herbert Spencer’s “social organism” theory when advocating a cosmic application:
Words go forth from one’s own person and exert their influence on men. Deeds are born close at hand and become visible far away. Words and deeds are the hinge and bowspring of the superior man. As hinge and bowspring move, they bring honor and disgrace. Through words and deeds the superior man moves Heaven and Earth. Must one not, then be cautious? 57
Though Confucius himself does not use the term “unite heaven and man” (天人合一 ), he did initiate an idea of a universal man. He believes that superior man can “move Heaven and Earth” because of the far-reaching chain reaction he creates.
The Master said: Is not The Book of Changes supreme? By means of it the holy sages exalted their natures and extended their field of action.
Wisdom exalts. The mores make humble. The exalted imitate Heaven. The humble follow the example of the Earth.
Heaven and Earth determine the scene, and changes the effect within it. The perfected nature of man, sustaining itself and enduring, is the gate-way of Taoand justice. 58
Here Confucius says that to establish his great task, the superior man must make his virtue lofty and his deeds vast. The human position lies between Heaven and Earth, so man must observe his position, the changes that affect it, and then act rightly. Thus he perfects his nature and preserves the virtue he already has ( 成性存存 ). By going through the gate of Tao and justice (righteousness), he puts his attributes into practice.
In this sense, what is the nature that one already has and which needs “sustaining and enduring” to preserve? My answer is Ch’eng (sincerity). Confucius, in commenting on the Ch’ien hexagram, says that one must do away “with what is false [or evil] and preserve his integrity [or, sincerity] ( 閑邪存誠 ).” 59
By reducing vices and evil desires and increasing virtue, one can perfect one’s own character or nature. But even if virtue is achieved in abundance, it needs to be renewed day by day. With metaphorical warning against evil, on the bathtub of the ancient Sage King T’ang were engraved these words:
If you can renovate yourself,
Do so from day to day.
Yea, let there
Daily renovation be. 60
Therefore, Confucius’s disciple Tsang Tzu daily examines himself thrice to see if any wrongdoing has occurred. If evidence of any is found, remorse and then rectification will ensue.
If good does not accumulate, it is not enough to make a name for a man. If evil does not accumulate, it is not strong enough to destroy a man. Therefore, the inferior man thinks to himself, “Goodness in small things has no value,” and so neglects it. He thinks, “Small sins do no harm,” and so does not give them up. Thus his sins accumulate until they can no longer be covered up, and his guilt becomes so great that it can no longer be wiped out. In The Book of Changes it is said: “His neck is fastened in the wooden cangue, so that his ears disappear. Misfortune.” 61
There is the saying that little bits of soil and earth create a huge mountain and drops of water flowing together make a vast river. Also, if one does not mend a tiny crack on the dike, eventually a huge rift will occur, with a disastrous flood following. So The Book of Changes urges people to purge their little flaws, while there is still time to avoid calamity. In this sense, thisBook of Changes can also be read as a book of purges.
The Bible says, “There is not a just man upon earth, that does good and sinneth not.” 62 So does Confucius. By no means does he naively believe that people are to attain the plateau of perpetual sinlessness. The Book of Changesindicates the need for change, and causes the expected change of man’s deeds.
“Good fortune” and “misfortune” refer to gain and loss, “remorse” and “humiliation” to minor imperfections. “No blame” means that one is in a position to correct one’s mistakes in the right way…. The urge to blamelessness depends on remorse. 63
Thus, if we care about our moral condition and notice what blemishes and faults we have, are then remorseful and repentant, a potential misfortune can be avoided. But if we let these flaws remain and grow, catastrophe surely will come. “Then after desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” 64
From this vivid picture, we can see that the most desirable abortion is to abort desire before its maturity. But there is a standard for the matured moral person. It is to follow Heaven and Earth.
Since man in this way comes to resemble Heaven and Earth, he is not in conflict with them. His wisdom embraces all things, and his Tao brings order into the whole world; therefore he does not err. He is active everywhere but does not let himself be carried away. He rejoices in Heaven and has knowledge of fate [i.e., destiny], therefore he is free of care. He is content with his circumstances and genuine in kindness, therefore he can practice love. 65
Here Confucius portrays the ideal superior man, who mirrors the virtues of Heaven and Earth. “Therefore it is the order of the Changes that the superior man devotes himself to and that he attains tranquility by.” 66 He models himself in accordance with the constancy of these two elemental existences. He has the unity of knowledge and action: knows all things and puts them into practice to benefit all people — just as Heaven and Earth is kind to all without discrimination. Furthermore, he possesses three universal virtues: courage (yung), to hold fast the principle of rightness without fear; wisdom (chih), to know his destiny and rid off anxiety; and humanity (jen), to do good actions for people out of love. 67
Lastly, one needs to maintain these virtues lastingly. “The Image” of theCh’ien hexagram says: “The movement of Heaven is full of power. Thus the superior man makes himself strong and untiring.” 68
The Book of Changes is not a book for amoral modern fortune hunters. It was never intended to be used for frivolous purposes. To use the book in the right way is to change one’s way, toward right action. This is what “good fortune” means. As it did in the past, this ancient wisdom today calls for a moral purification.
“The Great Harmony,” the Confucian ultimate ideal society, can be called the community of Jen, or a Beatific Society. Since the superior man’s mind is in tune with this Great Harmony, he is great. Conversely, the small-minded man who aims only for self-interests is inferior. Theoretically, this Great Harmony seems similar to a “super-ego,” but only in an altruistic sense.
The Neo-Confucianists enlarge the scope of the mind even further. In contrast with the Buddhist’s “all-emptiness,” Chang Tsai (1020-1077) emphasized all-realism and all-inclusiveness. While fellow philosophers of his time attacked the Buddhists’ escape from the social and ethical responsibility, pursuing only their selfish desire for personal quietude, Chang Tsai criticized them for breaking the unity of Heaven and Man. 69 What he said in “The Western Inscription” sounds much like St. Francis of Assisi:
Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst.
Therefore that which fills the Universe I regard as my body, and that which directs the Universe I consider as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions. 70
Since Buddhism lacks a cosmology and attributes the cosmos to merely coincidence, existing without beginning or end, the Buddhists viewed karmaas the source of evil.
The Buddhist doctrine of karma is not deterministic, but conditional and generative. Karma is not a mechanical but organic power. It grows, expands and even gives birth to a new karma. Our present life is the result of the karma accumulated in our previous existence, and yet in our practical life the doctrine of karma allows in us all kinds of possibilities and all chances of development.71
In this sense, though their universe appears harmonious in its spatial and temporal essence, to them it is nothing but a vast, multidimensional, pre-established ensnarement. A Buddhist illustration likens it to an ocean of suffering. When the Chinese Buddhists translated the sutra, they coined a term “ 大千世界 ” to describe this complicated hopeless entanglement, literally meaning “thousands of generations and worlds.” If we calculate the rate of coincidence and causality, it will be no less than a nightmarish googolplex beyond imagination, but the concept will also induce a moral relativism.
Up to this point, we cannot help but see why Buddhist theory meets head-on with Chang Tsai’s moralistic philosophy. Someone who wishes to escape from universal harmony is diametrically opposite to a person who full-heartedly wants to establish.
Thus Chang Tsai eloquently pronounces his great ambition:
To establish a mind for Heaven and Earth:
To establish the life for the people;
To continue a lost teaching for the past sages,
To bring peace to the ten thousand generations. 72
In Raphael’s painting School of Athens, “Plato points to heaven and Aristotle to the earth, but as far as historical influence goes Aristotle points straight ahead.” 73 In the above ambitious slogan, Chang seems more elegant than either of them — waging a Sisyphean struggle of Anthanasius contra mandum. This position would raise no interest for the Buddhists, but also might be a source of horror to those who resist snares. After all, to them any ideas of somehow synthesizing Heaven and Earth are but illusion and karma.
To the Neo-Confucianists, however, combining the ideal and the real are part of a social organic ethical system — meaning that in human existence, one not only has moral responsibilities as an individual, but has obligations toward humankind as a whole. By giving meaning and mission in life, this is best way to preserve and to perpetuate culture and society.
Notes for Chapter 2
1. The Great Learning, in The Four Books, trans. James Legge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895, p.356.
2. Ch’eng I-Ch’uan, “A Treatise on What Yen Tzu Loved to Learn” in Chan,Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, pp. 547-550.
3. Great Learning, I:4, pp. 357-358.
4. According to one source, from Han times (206 B.C. – A.D. 220), there have been seventy-two explanations of the term ko-wu. Four of these become prominent. The first is the interpretation by Cheng Hsuan (127-200), who tookko to mean to come, the idea being that when one’s knowledge of the good is perfect, good things will come. His interpretation became standard. The second interpretation was given by Ssu-ma Kuang, who asserted that ko meant to ward off or resist. “Only when external things are warded off can ultimate truth be known,” he said. The third interpretation is that of rectification orCheng, as used in the Analects and the Book of Mencius. The fourth interpretation is that of ko as a model or measure, as given in the Yu pien(Book of Jade), a dictionary of A.D. 1386. The important thing to note in these interpretations is that they are all ethical. Furthermore, they all have one thing in common; namely, they stressed the point that knowledge is to be achieved by the mind without the aid of external things. Cheng I and Chu Hsi, however, took a completely new approach. See, “Comment on Cheng I,” in Chan,Source Book, pp. 561-562.
5. Lao Tzu, trans. Yi Wu. San Francisco: The Great Learning Publishing Co., 1989, ch. 48, pp. 172-174.
6. Great Learning, I:5.
7. The Doctrine of the Mean, trans. Legge, p. 413.
8. Yi Wu, The Concept of “Ch’eng” ( 誠 , Sincerity) in The Doctrine of The Mean. Taipei: Univ. of Chinese Culture Press, 1974, p. 110.
9. Cf. Wu, Concept of Ch’eng, pp. 104-106.
10. Wang Yang-Ming, “Inquiry on the Great Learning,” in Chan, p. 664.
11. Chan, p. 666.
12. Great Learning, VI:2.
13. Doctrine of the Mean, ch. 23, p. 417.
14. Doctrine of the Mean, ch. 33, pp. 431-432.
15. Wu, Concept of Ch’eng, p. 37.
16. Wang Yang-Ming, “Instruction For Practical Living,” in Chan, pp. 678-679.
17. Wu, Concept of Ch’eng, p. 136.
18. The I Ching: Book of Changes, trans. Richard Wilhelm / Cary F. Baynes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977, p. 631.
19. Cf. Wu’s Lecture Notes on I Ching.
20. I Ching, p. 408.
21. I Ching, p. 643.
22. I Ching, p. 635.
23. I Ching, p. 630.
24. 元亨利貞 all appearing in a single hexagram is rare. I think they mean 人天物己 .
25. I Ching, p. 636.
26. Cf. 易程傳 , p. 437.
27. I Ching, p. 636.
28. Cf. 易程傳 , p. 439. I disagree with Wilhelm’s translation “Wrapped in the hide of a yellow cow.” Girding one’s loin means be prepared, cautious, ready to act. Obviously, nine is a yang line. So, should be “ox” instead of “cow.”
29. 貞厲. 厲 also means to sharpen ( 礪 ).
30. I Ching, p. 639.
31. I Ching, p. 639.
32. I Ching, p. 9.
33. I Ching, p. 640.
34. Jeremiah 13:23.
35. Analects, XII, xviii.
36. Cf. Lieh Tzu.
37. Lao Tzu, Ch. 10, trans. Wu, p. 34.
38. Or, “to illustrate illustrious virtue,” see Great Learning, I:1.
39. Ssu-ma Ch’ien: “Lao Tzu,” in Shih Chi.
41. Yi Wu et al.
42. Liu Xiao-Po, “Proud and Vain Invites Heaven’s Retribution,” in Hong Kong: Ming Pao Monthly, Aug. 1989.
43. Lao Tzu, Ch. 22.
44. Lao Tzu, Ch. 24.
45. Lao Tzu, Ch. 16.
46. Lao Tzu, Ch. 28.
47. Lao Tzu, Ch. 28.
48. One should not treat these terms as opposites; e.g., If we constantly have chaos, then it turns to be order. “Much apparently random behavior in nature is now known to possess hidden patterns governed by mathematical rules and geometric forms.” Cf. Ian Stewart: in “Chaos: Does God Play Dice?” in 1990 Year Book Science and Future. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, pp. 54-73.
49. Lao Tzu, Ch. 67. These three principles: non-separation, non-extreme, and non-desire, are called “Three Treasures” i.e., “not daring to be ahead of the world,” “compassion,” and “thrift,” respectively. They have a very similar meaning, only worded differently (order re-arranged).
50. Cf. Chan, p. 656.
51. Cf. Chan, p. 688.
52. Chan, p. 659.
53. The I Ching, p. 136. The word “changes” here means The Book of Changes; also could mean the Hexagrams. The portion called “Ta Chuan,” or “The Great Treatise” is written by Confucius which gives the book a new dimension of moral application.
54. I Ching, p. 136.
55. Yi Wu, A Commentary on The Great Treatise of I Ching. Taipei: Confucian Journal, 1989, p. 159. Cf. Confucian Analects, trans. Legge, IX:4, p. 217.
56. Mencius, IV B:25, p. 330.
57. I Ching, p. 305.
58. I Ching, pp. 302-303.
59. I Ching, p. 380.
60. Cf. Great Learning, ch. 2; I Ching, “The Great Treatise,” ch. 5.
61. I Ching, pp. 340-341.
62. Ecclesiastes 7:20.
63. I Ching, pp. 291-292.
64. James 1:15.
65. I Ching, p. 295.
66. I Ching, p. 289.
67. Analects, IX:28; XVII:23.
68. I Ching, p. 373.
69. Cf. Chan, p. 516.
70. Chan, p. 497.
71. Masao Abe, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” in The Emptying God, ed. John B. Cobb, Jr. & Christopher Ives. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990, p. 39, quoted D.T. Suzuki.
72. C. C. Chang & Yi Wu, The Story of Chinese Philosophy. Taipei: Tung Ta Book Co., 1989, p. 326.
73. Northrop Frye, Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1982, p. 9.
PROPRIETY AND RIGHTNESS: A SOCIAL ORGANIC ETHICS
Historians frequently attempt to characterize the main organizing theme of a society or even an entire civilization, whether it is their own or some other time and place. Sometimes a single word appears to suffice. “Li ( 禮 ), as propriety or rite, has had a central role in Chinese philosophy, culture and history.” 1
The Chinese people used to take pride in the fact that they were “the country of Li and I” ( 禮義之邦 ).This was said with an air of self-sufficiency. The Chinese contrasted their refined culture with they considered the barbarism of other countries. They assumed they had attained the pinnacle of virtue. For many centuries, the principle of Li became the self-image of the people ofChina, to the extent of its representing the country’s collective soul.
Since Confucian philosophy is a philosophy for living, its vocabulary has to be dealt with in life situations.
What, then, does this term Li actually mean? Some history of Chinese culture will be useful here. According to Mencius’s view, before the ancient Sage King Yao’s time (c. 2255 B.C.), neither nature nor beasts had yet been tamed. The land had not been cultivated, let alone become civilized. Human nature was still undeveloped. During Yao’s reign an agricultural and administrative society was properly established. The next Sage King, Shun, turned his attention to the need of educating the people in Li:
Men possess a moral nature; and if they are well fed, warmly clad, or comfortably lodged, without being taught at the same time, they become almost like beasts. This was a subject of anxious solicitude to the Sage Shun, and he appointed Hsieh to be the Minister of Instruction, to teach the relation of humanity: — how, between father and son, there should be affection; between sovereign and minister, righteousness; between husband and wife, attention to their separate functions; between old and young, a proper order; and between friends fidelity. The highly meritorious Sovereign said to him, “Encourage them; lead them on; rectify them; straighten them; help them; give them wings: — thus causing them to become possessors of themselves. Then follow this up by stimulating them and conferring benefits on them.” 2
From then on, Li was adopted as a core curriculum by the state-run educational, religious, and ethical system. In the course of history, it became deeply rooted in the social organism. Thus, “Li is a key to the doors of ethics, politics, and religion; it is a medium that integrates social system, moral behavior and mind.” 3
Li is not superficial manners as modern scholars commonly assume. It is much deeper and more complicated than that. It used to thought of as immutable principles ( 禮者，理之不可易者也 ). People also called it by compound terms: “Li-chiao,” and “Li-fa” ( 禮教 禮法 ), which shows its dual identity as both pseudo-religion and pseudo-law. Confucius says: “Look not at what is contrary to propriety (Li); listen not to what is contrary to propriety (Li); speak not what is contrary to propriety (Li); make no movement which is contrary to propriety (Li)” 4 The concept he advocates here is a life according to Li and purifying whatever deed is contrary to Li.
Now, as for the word I ( 義 ) linked with Li: it means justice or rightness. Having I is “to act up to the standard” ( 宜 ). The prime meaning of the key Greek word hamartia, in Western Christian tradition, is “missing the mark”; therefore it became a condition of sin. In contrast, I implies right on the mark; therefore it is correctness or righteousness. When applied to human behavior, it means how one acts fittingly. “Righteousness is the way, and propriety is the door,” Mencius says, “but it is only the superior man who can follow this way, and go out and in by this door.” 5 This means I is the manifestation of the superior man’s benevolence or humanity.
I is something close to the “golden mean.” It is rather difficult to understand except from its opposite meanings. The word Jen is a similar case. When asked about it, Confucius would not give a direct definition. His answers are related to the inquirer’s position.
Jen is the ideal man or the norm of what a man should be…. Jen is the key virtue of all virtues. In the Analects, when the students asked about jen, Confucius told them to act according to their individuals characters…. For example, when Yen Yuan asked about it, Confucius said, “To restrain oneself and to return to propriety is jen.” (Analects, XII, 1). When Fan Ch’ih asked about jen, Confucius said, “In private life, be serious; in managing affairs, be respectful; in dealing with others, be loyal. Even if you are living among barbarians, these virtues may not be neglected.” (Analects, XIII, 19.) And when Tzu Chang asked, Confucius said, “One who is able to practice five things can be a man of jen.” Tzu Chang asked what they were, and the Master replied, “Seriousness, generosity, sincerity, earnestness and benevolence.” (Analects, XVII, 6.) All of these virtues are aspects of jen. We may say that jen is to love people and to respect others, but we cannot say that to love people or to respect others is jen; jen is not any one virtue…. Jenis the perfect virtue, its practice is in everyday life. 6
Social Values in Confucianism
In Confucian organic social ethics, to act properly and fittingly means applying one’s action rightly to the interrelation of all elements in society, implying a virtual oneness and a pre-established harmony. Obviously, such a society will offer stability and mental security to its members. On the other hand, if incentive and independence are lost, the society could easily become stiff and stagnant.
For instance, filial piety ( 孝 ) has been considered an important virtue for the Chinese people, equivalent to the Biblical commandment of “Honour thy father and thy mother.” 7 But an ever subservient and obedient attitude toward parents becomes a problem in modern society. Today’s Western culture, at least, presents a very different aspect than the ancient Chinese culture. In many social activities nowadays, people usually do not invite or engage parental participation. When it happens, it is may be at odds with the social norms. In domestic life, even if the old folks share living quarters with their offspring, they are expected to behave like guests. They are definitely not the paterfamilias and super-hosts as parents were in ancient China.
The biggest difficulties occur in the political arena. Unwilling ever to be left by the wayside, a leader frequently assumes the position of emperor for life. When this happens in an agricultural society, where people’s lives go on unchanged for generations, things will usually fare well enough with people putting up with an outdated ruler; one accepts the situation as fate and simply waits for time to take its own course. But this patience is not possible in a society undergoing rapid changes. Allowing an aged, entrenched leader to guide the nation would be like a ship’s crew agreeing to an ancient mariner’s insistence on piloting a computerized aircraft carrier on his own. Anyone could foresee the inevitable disaster.
How does the political dilemma of the outworn ruler or aged parent apply to human relationships in daily life? That is to say, if all parties involved are acting improperly, what function will propriety have? In Chinese organic social ethics, or any other culture with similar systems, propriety means that the society expects everyone to act properly and fittingly: that is, they do what they are expected to do in their particular positions.
If everyone behaves rightly, a harmonious society is achieved, as in this vision of one:
The Duke Ching of Chi, asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, “There is government when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.” 8
Such interrelationships are built upon mutual accordance to actions in kind. In other words, all members in the harmonious society should be fulfill their obligations. Conversely, if one neglects his obligations, misuses or abuses position and power, others will dissolve their own obligations toward him. Thus Mencius warned the Ruler:
When the prince regards his ministers as his hands and feet, his ministers regard this prince as their belly and heart; when he regards them as his dogs and horses, they regard him as any other man; when he regards them as ground [dirt] or as grass, they regard him as a robber and an enemy. 9
Then he added that, for this kind of unprincipled prince, no one laments his death: “What mourning can be worn for a robber and an enemy?” 10
In another case, Mencius gave a good lecture to a prince by warning him that,
He who outrages the benevolence [proper to his nature], is called a robber; he who outrages righteousness, is called a ruffian. The robber and ruffian we call a mere fellow. I have heard of the cutting off of the fellow Chau, but I have not heard the putting of a sovereign to death [in his case]. 11
It is remarkable that Mencius apparently said such things directly to princes, courageously evoking regicide as a way of purging evil. Mencius’s concept of moral purification is bold and comprehensive, advanced far ahead of his time, considerably predated the European Puritans’ advocacy of revolt. His justice existed without prejudice; the moral purification he espoused ignored position.
But for the Chinese people ever to execute that kind of political and social purification, what are the standard situational requirements? The book ofMencius often refers to the ancient record of The Shoo King: The Book of Historical Document. In that text, whenever a military expedition took place, almost inevitably the leader would either make a speech or declaration. He used high moral overtones, invoking Heaven’s mandate and calling people to participate in the action — as by saying: “God has conferred even on the inferior people a moral sense, compliance with which would show their nature invariably right.” 12
Consider the case of King Wu of Chow’s celebrated revolution to overthrow the dynasty of Shang (c. 1122 B.C.). At Meng-tsin he made “The Great Declaration” – stating in his accusation that “ Shou, the king of Shang, does not reverence Heaven above, and inflicts calamities on the people below.” 13That is to say, by violating the social and political order, Shou also caused cosmic disorder. Clearly, this expressed the concept of the unity of Heaven and Man.
Again, Mencius had King Wu declare that —
The ancients have said, “He who soothes us is our sovereign; he who oppresses us is our enemy.” This solitary fellow Shou, having exercised great tyranny, is your perpetual enemy. 14
Both King T’ang’s and King Wu’s deeds of revolt were exalted by Mencius, who not only whitewashed their acts of usurpation, but praised them, by asserting that execute a “solitary fellow” did not caused regicide, and legitimated their cause by calling it a “just war” of revolution.
Chinese philosophy heavily emphasizes a moral standard, which is based on a tightly knit, interrelated ethics. It is little wonder that people put so much effort on moral purification in the country of Li and I. But as the record shows, it has more success in social tranquility, and much less so in politics.
It is exactly in this sense that Kuan Chung (7th cen. B.C.) asserts, “Li, I, Lien, Chih” ( 禮義廉恥 ) are “the four leading and controlling ropes of a net” to a country. 15 Lien means integrity; chih, shame. To put these four characters together here is to say that everyone is expected to do one’s duty, properly and rightly. If one does not, it is a flaw that tarnishes one’s integrity. And if one has a sense of shame or guilt, he will be subject to purification.
By naming and practicing the concepts of degree and order, these principles entered deeply into the people’s minds. The Chinese followed the same line of thinking in music. The five musical scales and tunes symbolize the five relationships, i.e., sovereign/subject, parent/child, husband/wife, brother/brother, and friend/friend. The Chinese harp’s five strings also symbolize the same, but two extra strings are added as Heaven and Earth, thus completing the Great Harmony again.
When this principle of harmonious order and balance is applied to the healing arts, holistic or integral healing is developed. The body as a whole is perceived as needing a balanced total health. Expectably, the same principle pervades social organic ethics in ancient China.
A most significant domain of moral standards is in the family system, which extends to the clan. One always identifies oneself as part of a certain family, for the glory of “the gate of family, or clan” ( 家門 ), entails much concern. Family exerts an invisible pressure that provides moral backup and obligation. Until recently, the sap of the family tree supplied the glue that held Chinese culture together.
Unfortunately, as in elsewhere in the civilized world, the Chinese family system is disintegrating. With its demise goes a strong ethical value system. Cultural anthropologists generally agree that family membership is essential to the preservation and perpetuation of humanity. It is the basic building block for any social order, without which no culture can endure for long. I believe that the deterioration of the traditional family system ought to be a prime issue in our own society. As the Bible warns, “If the foundation be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” 16 Home front is the first front. We have to mend the breaches and rebuild the moral foundation. 17
During the past century, China suffered many defeats. They are mostly attributable to foreign military and economic invasions and to internal political strife and corruption. One can scarcely blame the country’s woes on the long procession of Confucian philosophers, despite some defects they had. Quite the contrary: misfortunes from without and within were possibly caused because the Chinese people neglected the Confucian concept of moral purification.
The Confucianists, with few exceptions, were not people who go around philosophizing. They were scholars, literati, and government officials whose main concerns were to transmit the Tao and to put their learning into practice, whether by spoken or written word.
This tradition of practicing a mission in life can be traced as far back as to Confucius. Since Confucianism is a philosophy of living, this mission gets carried along during the course of history, from one generation to the next. When many lives get changed significantly for the better, moral purification of society has occurred.
The T’ang dynasty scholar Han Yu (768-824) is a prominent case of such a missionary of moral transformation. He was a court official who was highly opinionated. An argument with the emperor caused him to be demoted and then banished to a remote southeastern region which was notoriously barbarian. He put his exile into excellent uses. In a few short years, he managed to educate the people there, purify them of their evils, turning the area into a cultured society. Other notable moralists on missions were the Neo-Confucian scholar-philosophers, Chu Hsi and Wang Yang-ming, who achieved similar morally elevating results.
Actually, according to the Chinese, if a particular ethical philosophy does not bring moral purification, it hardly deserves any consideration at all. 18 How and why this moral purification takes place has much to do with the condition of society at the time, as well as the disposition of individuals toward reforming themselves and others for the good of the whole social fabric.
Let us now examine how Chinese philosophers and writers in past centuries combined to induce awareness of interior and exterior conditions that might impel people toward the state of moral purification, inside and outside.
Notes for Chapter 3
1. Yi Wu, Chinese Philosophical Terms. San Francisco: Great Learning Publishing Co., 1990, p. 168.
2. Mencius, III A:4, pp, 251-252.
3. Wu, Philosophical Terms, p. 169.
4. Analects, XII:1, p. 250.
5. Mencius, V B:7, p. 391.
6. Wu, Philosophical Terms, pp. 14-16.
7. Exodus 20:12.
8. Analects, XII:11, p. 256.
9. Mencius, IV B:3, p. 318.
10. Mencius, IV B:3, p. 319.
11. Mencius, I B:8, p. 167.
12. The Shoo King, trans. James Legge. rpt. Shanghai: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949. “The Announcement of T’ang,” III, ii, 2, p. 185.
13. Shoo King, p.284.
14. Shoo King, p. 286.
15. Kuan Tzu, “Shepherding the people.” Kuan Chung (d. 645 B.C.) was the prime minister of Ch’i, whom Confucius greatly admired. q.v. Chan, p. 252.
16. Psalm 11:3.
17. James C. M. Yu, Bible and Family: House Upon a Rock. Berkeley: Evangel Literature, Inc., 1989, pp. 41-44, 273-276.
18. Chang & Wu, chs. 19, 22, 24.
THE POPULAR VERSION OF THE CONCEPT OF
MORAL PURIFICATION IN CHINESE LITERATURE
During the T’ang dynasty (seventh century A.D.), Buddhism began to flourish in China. Later, the Ch’an Buddhism developed in the north and east spread to southern China. The infusion of different belief system changed the Chinese cultural map in three significant ways:
1. Chinese thought was impacted. Confucianism, Taoism, and Ch’an Buddhism were amalgamated into Neo-Confucianism. Adherents of this new school of philosophy usually denounced Buddhism, though its essence often appeared in their writings, even to the extent of occasionally using Buddhist vocabularies. There is a saying “Sung-Ju-Fei-Ju” ( 宋儒非儒 ): Neo-Confucianism is Non-Confucianism. Therefore, the charge may not be totally unfounded.
2. The Chinese language was affected by Buddhism. When a forceful new religion or set of major philosophical tenets is imported into another land, it inevitably alters the native language to some degree. In the Western world, such an invasion may simply influence and enrich a native language by adding a number of provocative concepts to its vocabulary: e.g., karma, tao, logos, praxis. However, this is not practicable in written Chinese, with its limitations on available characters. Existing signs are therefore given new meanings, as happens with translation and transliteration. This extending of words’ capacities creates an added stress on the language. Moreover, new terms and phrases in the spoken language often result in confusion.
3. Chinese literature was impacted when it absorbed the new materials. As a rule, changes in thought and language are imprinted on writings produced during and after transmittal. Chinese literature began carrying innumerable traces of the potent new influences on ethics.
The propagation of Ch’an Buddhism, as a migrant movement from north to south, coincides historically with a period of social unrest. At that time,Southern China was a relatively uncultured region. To make a comparison with another migration scenario, it resembled the American westward expansion from New England to the Pacific frontier; in carrying out Manifest Destiny it also had a quasi-religious motivation, along with its economic thrust.
The Chinese Literary Tradition
Thought, language, and literature never come to us separately, one after another, like the apocalyptic Four Horsemen. In fact, the three intermingle as closely as organic molecules. Through literature, religious and philosophical thoughts penetrate into human minds, spreading into all strata of society, interweaving and interacting as they run through the course of history. Thus literature becomes the most effective media of transmitting ideas. 1
To the Chinese people, the land and the race perpetually exist, and there is no boundary between moral principles and practices. This is especially true in popular literature.
Traditionally, the Chinese people greatly revere their native literati. Both prose and poetry in Chinese literature developed initially among the intelligentsia, who wrote for their peers, not for the common folk. Aristotle’s opinion of the proper literary role, however, is quite different. He stated that —
The poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary…. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do — which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters. 2
The Greek philosopher clearly recognized the importance and effectiveness of poetics — that is, the power of creative or imaginative writings. Chinese popular literature, however, historically lagged far behind in this form of literature. Until Ch’an Buddhism gained a foothold in China, precipitating the eclectic Neo-Confucianism, little attention was paid to developing a popular, “lowbrow” or leisure literature that educated while it entertained. Thus literature composed in a more democratic genre came rather late and slowly.
To publicize any new idea widely among a populace, popular language must be used. In China, therefore, the vernacular (demotic) language was adapted to literary needs. Neo-Confucian scholars like the highly reputed Master Chu Hsi, the Ch’eng brothers, and Lu Hsiang-shan followed the trend. Mixtures of the vernacular with the classic style appeared in all their writings. This approach had never been taken before by scholars; previously they had written for a highly cultured, relatively small audience.
Purification of Individuals
The Chinese Ch’an Buddhism was manifested and propagated by its famous Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713). His most celebrated verse is related to the story of the establishment of the Ch’an school.
The story tells how one day Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch, announced a verse competition as the way to examine his pupils’ understanding of the dark mysticism of Ch’an Buddhism. The Head Monk, Shen-hsiu, composed a verse and wrote it on a corridor wall:
The body is the Bodhi-tree [i.e., perfect wisdom],
The mind is a bright mirror stand.
Wipe it diligently day by day,
To keep it from getting dust.
But a novice monk came from the rice-pounding area. Hui-neng had composed another verse. Because he was illiterate, he asked someone else to write it on the wall:
Bodhi in origin is not a tree,
Nor is the bright mirror a stand.
Originally there is nothing at all,
What could get dust? 3
As the story goes, Hui-neng subsequently got a robe and a bowl from Hung-jen, the symbols of authority transmitted, and became the Sixth Patriarch. But the divergence in philosophical approach behind the two verses has never quite been settled.
From our vantage point in time, we may see the matter differently. While Hui-neng’s verse claims the superior amoral tone of emptiness, there is merit in Shen-hsiu’s wish to “wipe” desires from one’s mind and diligently keep it bright. And to be fair to Hui-neng, we must admit he is not so naïve as to mean that everybody is nobody; he simply stresses that all ideals spring from a state of mind, or self-nature.
For Hui-neng it was sufficient to “Simply purify your mind; your self nature is the Pure Land.” 4 This aim sounds attractive enough. Yet in practice Shen-hsiu’s emphasis on daily cultivation is more down to earth, more in line with the basic Chinese concept of moral purification. Nevertheless, Shen-hsiu’s school was less popular than Hui-neng’s because of its high demands on the individual and the difficulty of practicing its doctrines.
Chinese literati of that era, however, are inclined toward Shen-hsiu’s side . As a result, in traditional Chinese literature, Shen-hsiu’s ideas are prevalent, whereas Hui-neng’s are less so. Especially among the Neo-Confucianists the concept of moral purification can be found. Its presence among them is scarcely surprising, since it originated in Confucianism itself.
The Neo-Confucianists unhesitatingly attacked Buddhism. Yet believing it an effective way to combat the religion, freely and enthusiastically they borrowed Buddhist ideas, especially terms and the vernacular style of writing. In most cases, they grafted Buddhist ideas together with their own. They could do this with ease, sometimes gracefully, because Ch’an Buddhism has few religious elements thus reducing any exclusive nature and is essentially philosophical, making it easier to merge with other ideas. Another factor contributing to this fusion was the common vocabularies shared by all the people of the land, regardless of religious belief.
In literary form at least, the Ch’an Buddhist bent toward the cultivation of mind and the Neo-Confucianist emphasis on moral purification became so intermingled that one does not even sense the need for any separation. One of these examples is Chu Hsi’s poem:
A square pond of half-an-acre opened a mirror
The heaven-light and cloud-shadow walking with me to and fro:
“How could you be kept so clean and clear?”
“Because there is coming from the fountainhead
The living water flow.” 5
One can draw inspiration and support here from either a Confucian or a Buddhist point of view. Yet the poem itself has literary merit. Although it apparently pictures an idyllic life of leisure and ease, it does more than that. Beneath the surface the poem is rich in metaphors, showing a similarity to allegorical Buddhist literature. The images of “mirror,” “clouds,” etc., are key words among Buddhists, and this walking to and fro with them symbolizes one’s life. The pond’s square shape is the traditional Chinese metaphor for the human environment, providing the four directions of the Earth. (The ancient Chinese believed the Heaven is round and the Earth is square in shape.)
For the Neo-Confucianists, whether in shadow and delusion or in reality, what really matters is cultivating and purifying one’s mind. The poem conveys the message that the individual must eliminate desires or karma so as to keep the mind — the fountainhead of human actions — clear. One thereby can achieve moral purification. Thus the author’s mental reflection furnishes a beautiful vision of the unity of Heaven and human kind.
Purification in Traditional Chinese Folk Tales
For an untutored populace, however, this concept of purification may be too rarefied. So for them many stories were created with the purpose of encouraging people to strive for what is morally good — akin to the medieval morality plays. One such story is that of Chou Ch’u ( 周處 ), who was a village bully. As a young man, he chose to employ all his high ability and might not for doing what is right, but for doing evil. So he ranked among the Three Detrimentals of the region; the other two were a tiger in the SouthMountain and a dragon under the Long Bridge. One day, an old man unintentionally talked to him about Chou’s ill reputation as one of the “great sorrows” in the locality, which shocked Chou to his senses. Morally awakened, he determined to purify himself from all evil behaviors and transform his existence. Having changed from a vicious to a virtuous person, he eventually became a scholar and loyal official, ending his life gloriously in the cause of defending his country in righteous duty. 6
Actually, the most celebrated story of all is the one told about Mencius. As a youth, he drifted among ignorant companions and formed bad habits. Only after receiving his prudent mother’s severe admonition did he purify himself, abandon all his follies, study hard, and then become the most revered and renowned sage of all times, second to none but Confucius.
There are many similar stories which have scant literary merit. During the Sung dynasty and afterward (tenth century A.D. on), especially the Yuan dynasty (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), popular themes appear first in drama form, then in novels. As time went by, the trend continued, and it developed a vast body of literature. Only in this century did this development come to a halt, and turn in a striking different direction. Political propaganda and sentimental literature take over. The former has ample public funding to support it, and the latter feeds off commercial gain. Thus the weeds and tares began choking the literary field, to carry the day. However, since both of these genres are basically amoral or immoral, one can predict the quality of the harvests reaped from them.
Purification of Society
During the Sung dynasty, to spread their teachings among the populace, the Chinese Buddhists developed a new literary profession. Its practitioners somewhat resembled public lecturers. They usually integrated a moral theme into a simple tale, which they presented using a special technique called Pien Wen ( 變文 ), which means “versatile style.” 7 This genre, accommodating the need for new themes as time goes by and audiences change, appeared on the Chinese literary scene as vernacular prose, with mixed rhymed verses in the opening, middle, and ending. In a period when people had ample leisure time but few pastimes, this community entertainment naturally was welcomed. 8
Justice Pao (or Magistrate Pao) is the Chinese people’s all-time favorite folk hero. Pao Cheng ( 包拯 ), a historical personage, was Lord Mayor of the imperial capital city Kaifeng during the Sung dynasty. As a court official, his exemplary dignity, integrity, austerity, and extraordinary sense of morality, made him a legendary figure in his own lifetime. Said to be wholly blameless and incorruptible, Pao was idealized and idolized. He supported only what was right, gave no special respect to anyone, and showed no favoritism – for which he earned the nickname of “The Iron Faced.” The emperor himself revered and feared Pao. Even the rulers of Hades had to yield to him, and he obtained the privilege of searching the secret files of all souls. But Pao’s principal tasks were to straighten out mundane affairs by using his Solomon-like wisdom, to purge social evils, and to execute justice throughout the empire.
Many centuries have passed since Pao’s lifetime, and in the course of history the Pao legends roll on like a snowball, becoming ever larger, much grander than life-size. And with today’s media adding wind to its wings, Justice Pao’s story has now spread over all continents, appearing on TV screens to draw an audience of many millions.
Kuan Han-ch’ing ( 關漢卿 ca. 1220-1307), probably the first person to write Pao stories, was almost certainly the greatest Yuan-dynasty dramatist. Kuan’s drama The Butterfly Dream ( 蝴蝶夢 ) is well known. 9 The story tells of three brothers who avenged their father’s death by killing the local bully, Keh Piao. When the widowed mother appeared in court with her three sons, Justice Pao noted their good behavior and mutual love. He recalled a recent dream in which he had found three little butterflies that were caught in a spider’s web. Taking pity on them, he had freed them — just as he did now with the three men. Restored to good fortune, eventually all three became officials. In the simple plot the theme of rewarding good and purging evil is abundantly clear.
Later on, a much enlarged version appeared in The Strange Case of Magistrate Pao ( 包公奇案 ). A longer book by Shih Yu-kun ( 石玉崑 ), The Legend of the Three Knights and Five Rats ( 三俠五義 ), includes 120 chapters. The Ch’ing dynasty (19th century) scholar Yu Yueh ( 俞樾 ), who praised the book highly, edited it and changed its title to The Legend of Seven Knights and Five Rats ( 七俠五義 ). In this book, in addition to the celebrated Magistrate Pao Cheng, are various Robin-Hood-type figures operating within a self-styled underground justice system. Interweaving epistemological with moral stories, the stories’ overall message is to purge evils in court and in society. In these ways public interest in morality was created. More and more legends along these lines were added in the course of time.
But why this popular literary phenomenon? Because the promised “Golden Age” envisaged by Confucianists never materialized. Chinese moral philosophy had given people high ideals of what their society could and should be. Unfortunately, they were disappointed with how things really were. Officials and society had become hopelessly corrupted, and ordinary citizens, frustrated and exploited, craved justice. The corruptible human nature was everywhere, like weeds growing all over the land. The people felt like the attendees at Tantalus’s feast — always having the ideal civic morality above them, but never being able to attain it. Their only consolation was to hold onto the figure of Justice Pao for comfort and hope. Their attachment also indicates an innate attraction to what is right and a revulsion against what is wrong, which expects people to act accordingly. This simple disposition is truly the basis for morality. It also explains a periodic upsurge of interest in moral purification.
Celestial, Legal, and Moral Disorder
The early masterpiece of folk fiction is Shui-hu Chuan: A Saga of the Marshes ( 水滸傳 , The book has appeared in various translations; the best-known one in English has translator Pearl Buck’s title, All Men are Brothers.) The first 71 chapters are written by Shi Nai-an ( 施耐菴 ), the later part by Lo Kuan-chung ( 羅貫中 ). 10 The book is based on stories of Sung-dynasty bandits. However, its characters increased from the historical 36 to 108, also many subplots are introduced. The armed dissenters, portrayed as enlightened discontents, were idealized into heroes.
In the novel, this gang of bandits robbed the rich to give to the poor, and protected the weak from the strong. One such episode is told in “Wu Yung Took the Gift-Treasure by Guile.”
In the East Capital, a birthday celebration was announced. Therefore Governor Liang sent his congratulatory gifts of “ten thousand strings [coins] worth of treasures” to the prime minister. Captain Yang Chih was sent with a team of soldiers to guard the essentially ill-gotten treasure, and they set out on their trip on a hot summer day. In a pine forest, they fell into a trap set by the “Great Intelligence,” Wu Yung. Gang leader Ch’ao Kai, and their fellow bandits robbed the corrupt treasure by guile. During this episode, the disguised bandits sang a song revealing their sense of injustice:
“The sun burns with a fiery hand,
The rice is scorched on the dry land.
The farmers’ hearts are hot with grief,
But idle princes must be fanned.”
With his mission now a failure, Captain Yang Chih himself joined the gang — a result that satisfied everyone. 11
In contrast with an aristocratic court reflecting sheer moral corruption, the “all men are brothers” of the marshes seemed an ideal society. Ironically, when robbers and bandits have halos on their heads, would the wicked officials be adorned with devils’ horns and carry pitchforks? The sharp contrast between the two groups hints at the dreadful moral condition within the state, which surely calls out for purification. Therefore, these narrated deeds convey a symbolic or imaginary moral purification to readers.
In Shui Hu Chuan, government officials are presented in a highly uncomplimentary way. It is an archetype of kakistocracy in which the worst sort of people rule. The Chief Minister of the Military, Tai-Wei Koa Chiu, was originally a vagabond. He “knows nothing about humanity, righteousness, propriety and wisdom, and [is] without any virtue of loyalty, goodness, and faithful deeds”; and he loves bribery and villainy. 12
In fact, the whole story of these “Brothers of the Marshes” was initially generated by a Chief Minister of the Military, Hung, who had factually opened a Chinese Pandora’s Box to let out 108 demons — which became the heroes of Mount Liang. 13 Nonetheless, this demonic gang became quite benevolent. The author purposefully makes this story appear in the first chapter of the book as an introductory note. It serves a double purpose. Symbolically, the message is that social evils are given fertile ground by government officials. Realistically seen as individual humans, the bandits are contrasted with the officials, demonstrating that the latter are more diabolical than demons.
As to the bandit-heroes of Mount Liang, they are ordinary people from all walks of life, who suffered injustice and got more than their fair share of grievances. Though having weaknesses and shortcomings, they are still generally honest. Committed to each other, they are never unfaithful to comrades. They do not indulge in adultery or other immoral actions. Such qualities qualify them as defenders of social ethics and purgers of evil. Oppressed and persecuted, they were forced to become outlaws.
They [the bandit-heroes] have different backgrounds, different personal traits and appearances, different experiences, and contacts; they share, however, a common lot in life as the victims of official persecution that forced them to tread together the path to Mount Liang [their base of rebellion camp]. 14
All these people, in one way or another, had trouble with the law, but generally they were not at fault. Now, because of the hopeless corruption of officialdom, they have taken justice into their own hands. Consider, for instance, the case of Wu Sung. When his sister-in-law had an adulterous affair with a rich country gentleman and the good-natured lawful husband protested, both culprits conspired and poisoned the husband. Wu Sung indignantly killed the couple in revenge for the evil committed. Though he was strong enough to kill the fierce tiger to purge that menace from the region, he could not effectively combat social evil, and thus had to flee into the green forest.
In the book, the bandits often are regarded as “administering Tao on behalf of Heaven.” Chieftain Sung Chiang is dubbed, by public favor, “Opportune Rain [at a time of draught].” He loves his comrades and empathizes with the unfortunate; he uses gold as dirt and has a sense of righteousness; he possesses versatile virtues. In spite of suffering much ill treatment by the officialdom, from time to time he expresses his yearning to redeem himself, together with his followers, through loyalty and meritorious service to the utmost in behalf of the country and the throne. Needless to say, to do this requires the right time and environment is needed, but this has never come to pass.
Another major figure is Lin Ch’ung. The prodigal son of Chief Minister Kao had tried to seduce his beautiful wife, but failed. So the father teamed up with the son and falsely accused Lin, his subordinate, and imprisoned him. He even conspired to assassinate him. However, with others’ help, Lin managed to escape, joining the gang on Mount Liang. 15
In the background, the novel’s elaborate purpose is to expose the social and political evils. It makes the bandits the real executors of justice, and the moral laws of their “green world” superior to the “red-and-white world,” so to speak. Because the plot is so suspenseful, the characterizations colorful and deep, and descriptions lively, Shui-hu Chuan: A Saga of the Marshes has all the elements of a superb novel. Therefore, its idea of moral purification is implanted in the reader’s mind.
The narrative of the novel is realistic, and the language is vernacular and plain. The personae seem to exist among our neighbors and can be seen at any corner of the streets. In short, they represent every fiber of human society. From the leader, Sung Chiang, and Lu Chun-Yi, to many other in the bandit group, a great contrast is made with the officials, who are all rotten to the very core. This comprehensive picture is enough to arouse the expectation for purification.
The reversal of fortune – the wealthy exploiters are ultimately punished and the pure-of-heart rewarded — make the stories perennially appealing to readers, who not only identify with the Brothers of the Marshes psychologically but feel a kinship that bonds author and readers. The implicit assurance conveyed is that officials are corrupted, but “we” are all right.
The novel conveys a simple moral message: if we restrain our insatiable desires and fulfill our obligations, then the social organic ethics will be well tended, and we shall someday have a harmonious, ideal society, to which the bandits’ own community seems a microcosm. The outer society delineated in the novel, reflecting the actual situation at the time of writing, is diametrically opposite to this model. In it the upper classes stretch their hands greedily over their neighbor’s fences; they devour the poor and powerless. They disobey moral laws to the extent that nothing seems wrong to them; nothing right can be expected of them.
Thus within the reader’s heart echoes the warning call: If this dynasty does not meet with perdition, there is no retribution! The retribution did come at last. The very rottenness of the kingdom invited the invasion of the Juchen tribe. Like a mighty whirlwind, the dust of a host of horsemen came from the northeastern region, Manchuria. Emperors Hui Tsung and Ch’in Tsung were taken away by their captors, which ultimately resulted in the decline and fall of the Sung dynasty. This was the first time in history that the Chinese people were conquered by a foreign power. Generally speaking, history demonstrates that no country is ever truly overrun by invaders from outside; inward decay of society brings on its collapse. Thus the moral purification is called for.
Low Morals in High Society
Shui Hu Chuan: A Saga of the Marshes is written from the viewpoint of oppressed people who are under the heel of an evil upper class. In contrast,Hung Lou Men: Dream of the Red Chamber ( 紅樓夢 ) figuratively lifts the roof off to reveal what really goes on behind the well-mannered life of high society.
Hung Lou Meng is a multifaceted gem. Running to 120 chapters, it was written by Ts’ao Chan ( 曹霑 雪芹 , 1715?-1763) and completed by Kao E (c.1791).
In the Dream of the Red Chamber is drawn a vast panorama of Chinese family life, represented by the great house of Chia with its two main branches … some thirty main characters flanked by four hundred or more minor ones. This immense body of material, presented in a realistic manner…. 16
Like most Chinese novels, Hung Lou Meng scarcely intends to glorify the lifestyle of the rich and famous. The Confucian philosophy that has influenced to some degree or other everyone born in China has no connection with hedonism. Not surprisingly, Chinese novels always make a moral statement.
While immersed in the enormity of the plot and the story’s romantic nature, the reader should remember to be aware that the word “dream” has a negative connotation. The story “follows the declining fortune of a wealthy family of officials, providing an ominous setting of decaying luxury and extravagance….” 17 Since the tale is semi-autobiographical, readers should consider the author’s intention in telling it, and thus pay attention to the theme of decadence, which calls then for purification.
Writing now in a situation of poverty, the author admits his moral failure as “forsaking instructions of parents and elders, and neglecting the advice of teachers and friends, which causes him to become in this state of good for nothing.” 18 Reading the book, one witnesses the moral decay of the great Chia clan, which is the backdrop of the author’s confessional. Actually, early in the book, the network of corruption was already displayed, and Chapter 5 foreshadows the inevitability of a tragic end.
Takuanyuan (The Grand View Garden) and the Chia Mansion show off the Chia family’s pomp and prosperity in grandiose buildings and lushly elegant landscaping. But beneath the outward mannerism, the place is inwardly in moral decay. “Chia Gen, the nominal head of the clan, is far from being above reproach himself.” 19 The chief executive de facto, Phoenix, an unusually able shrew, accumulates money, asserts her power, and practices usury. Using her prestige and influence, she interferes with law suits, resulting in some people’s deaths.
Meanwhile, year after year, the great house has been running on high deficits. All kinds of vices and irregularities are commonplace. A relative, Hsueh Pan, acts as local tyrant by associating with gangsters and beating people to death. 20 And as if that is not enough, gambling, orgies, drunkenness and debauchery go on; even pornographic materials are found in the garden among the artificial mountain rocks. 21 Homosexuality, far from being a glorified “life style”, but treated as mischievous deed and abnormal, a forbidden subject to the Chinese, can also be read between the lines. These are the images of personae in the dream.
The reader cannot fail to notice that such immoral behaviors are only the tip of the threatening iceberg. No great seer is needed to foretell the end of this debauched clan. Except for the pair of stone lions outside the gate, nobody is clean at the Takuanyuan mansion. 22 Is this condition to be pitied and despised, or should one feel awe and admiration?
As to the lives and livelihoods of the common people, nobody in this well-mannered, high-class family cares to investigate them. Farmers and tradespeople are country bumpkins, to be ridiculed or despised, and trampled underfoot. The Chia family’s corruption affects its household staff. There are still some faithful servants, such as Pao Yung and Chiao Ta (Elder Chiao), who are honest and have integrity; but in such an environment, they are both naturally out of favor. 23 Both of them are treated with hostility and despised by fellow servants, and meet with the disfavor of their masters because they reflect the wrong value system of this ingrown group.
While heeding the characters who are seemingly successful and in power, the reader should pay special attention to the honest lower-class representatives, whose voice serves as the ominous handwriting that appears on the wall: The Chia clan, as the Bible would judge it, “… art weighed in the balances and art found wanting.” 24 Words issue from the mouth of Chiao Ta when he is drunk. Yet he is sober in mind, and his character and moral judgment are far superior to that of all others. When not in a drunken rage, he might not utter such upright speeches; but, intoxicated, he becomes the conscience of the Chia clan. On one occasion, he strives to unveil the truth, making a great show with fearless spirit:
He cried and begged to be taken to the ancestral hall so that he could tell his grievances to the spirit of his master. “I shall tell Tai Lao-yeh [the late Great Grand Father] what beasts his children have turned out to be. Do you think that Chiao Ta is blind? He is not, I assure you. He knows who is carrying on with her younger brother-in-law and who is crawling in ashes [adultery with one’s daughter-in-law]. You cannot hide a broken arm in your sleeves. It will come out….” 25
Indeed it came out. Everything disgraceful that is hidden will eventually be exposed to the light. This is the way of purification.
Nevertheless, Chiao could do nothing to correct the situation. Nor can the master of morals, Chia Cheng, remedy such ills. So we watch the horizon and wait for the prophesied storm to come. Then one day, during an extravagant feast when the hosts and guests are in merry spirits, the ruthless Imperial Guards surround the mansions; Chia Sheh and Chia Gen are arrested and their properties confiscated. 26 This pitiable downfall of the clan at Takuanyuan has been brought about by corruption. And corruption calls for purification.
A thematic subplot concerns a pretty young Buddhist nun, Miao-yu, who lives in an immaculate environment. She drinks tea brewed with boiled water made from melted snow. One day she is found in a state of mental disorder. After her recovery, during the dead of night, she is apparently abducted by, but some say eloped with, robbers. 27 People inevitably asked why all these incidents happened to her. It is then revealed that, despite appearances, she had been impure of heart and mind. The basic sinfulness needs purifying; outward cleanliness is not enough.
Despite the Chia family’s disdain for the lower class, after their ruination a rustic village woman Liu Lau-lau saves Phoenix’s innocent orphaned daughter, Ch’ao-er, from being sold into slavery. Then symbolically, at the end of the book the sentimental hero of the novel, Chia Pao-yu, after experiencing great havocs, escapes from the filthy world as a way of purifying himself. 28
The author delineates in detail the ugly side of the picture of wealth and luxurious living. Not for the sake of a novel of manners or of sensibility he presents his moral message, which is in line with Longfellow’s universaltheme: “The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail.” 29
The Quest for Purification
In another notable genre, Chinese popular novels contain an important leitmotif – a moralistic quest.
What causes the urge for a quest? A simple answer: some deep-rooted dissatisfaction. Being dissatisfied with one’s lot in life sometimes encourages people to take spiritual pilgrimages or enlist in seemingly religious crusades, as the Medieval Crusaders did in Europe; or else find other ways to enter some heroic military campaign. Dissatisfaction with one’s environment may propel people into traveling, or to emigrate — as the seventeenth-century Puritans did when making their transatlantic voyage to America. Feeling dissatisfied with the condition of others may causes a person to assume some passionate or altruistic mission.
Ordinary people with scarce means, serious commitments to families and jobs, and little ambition or confidence often do not go on such quests. However, they can vicarious experience them by identifying with a certain character as alter ego, thereby acquiring temporary satisfaction.
One of the best-known novels of this quest genre is Ching Hua Yuan ( 鏡花緣 ) by Li Ju-Chen ( 李汝珍 , 1762?-1823?). The title means “Coincidences of Flower in a Mirror,” setting up the primary metaphor of the mirror for the story’s meaning. The novel resembles Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in various ways and is also partly satirical in spirit.
Ching Hua Yuan presents three men as its main characters. One is a literatus named T’ang Ao. (One may have reason to interpret, from the original Chinese, “T’ang” as “China” and “Ao” as “pride”.) He is accompanied by a merchant, Lin Chih-Yang, and a naturalist-type named Tua Chiu Kung. They set out together on a voyage of exploration.
Among all the strange places which they visited, the most curious was the Country of Gentlemen, where they landed and proceeded at once to the capital city. There over the city gate, T’ang and his companions read the following legend:
“Virtue is man’s only jewel!”
They entered the city, which they found to be a busy and prosperous mart, the inhabitants all talking the Chinese language. Accordingly, T’ang accosted one of the passers-by, and asked him how it was his nation had become so famous for politeness and consideration of others; but, to his great astonishment, the man did not understand the meaning of his question. T’ang then asked him why this land was called the “Country of Gentlemen,” to which he likewise replied that he did not know. 30
“Truly this is the behavior of gentlemen!” T’ang exclaims. What to the people of this near-heavenly city seems like normal behavior, to our travelers is extraordinary virtue, reflecting a different value system. Because of the dialectical nature of language, if one sees a certain behavior as virtuous, then the antithesis means an inferior moral state. If others see the esteemed “virtues” are nothing more than normal, then obviously they are at a higher moral level.
This reversed version of morality, like a mirror image of one’s own face, lets one view one’s own moral state and that of the society as well from a different perspective. These discoveries dwarf the Chinese travelers’ egos by showing them what an ideal society should be, and how unworthy their own standards really are. This insight sobers them, and their chauvinistic pride slowly melts away. As they progress through their travels, they learn more about others, and they know more about themselves as well.
Yet more revelations and humbling and even humiliating experiences are to come. A conversation mirrors another side of the image, which is that things taken for granted in the travelers’ own country and accepted as being normal now start to seem abnormal, even vicious. As this reflection dawns on them, they have reason to question those practices.
Our travellers then fell into conversation with two respectable-looking old men who said they were brothers and accepted their invitation to go and take a cup of tea together. Their hosts talked eagerly about China, and wished to hear many particulars of “the first nation in the world.” Yet, while expressing their admiration for the high literary culture of its inhabitants and their unqualified successes in the arts and sciences, they did not hesitate to stigmatize as unworthy of a great people to have certain usages which appeared to them deserving of the utmost censure. They laughed at the superstitions of Feng-Shui, and wondered how intelligent men could be imposed upon year after year by the mountebank professors of such baseless nonsense. “If it is true,” said one of them, “that the selection of an auspicious day and a fitting spot for the burial of one’s father or mother is certain to bring prosperity to the survivors, how can you account for the fact that the geomancers themselves are always a low poverty-stricken lot? Surely they would begin by appropriating the very best positions themselves, and so secure whatever good fortune might happen to be in want of an owner.” Then again with regard to bandaging women’s feet in order to reduce their size. “We can see no beauty,” said they, “in such monstrosities as the feet of your ladies. Small noses are usually considered more attractive than large ones; but what would be said of a man who sliced a piece off his own nose in order to reduce it within proper limits?” 31
As the saying goes, seeing is believing. Since they are now in the Country of Gentlemen, the small party themselves can observe and examine the behaviors and practices of the people there, and they had little trouble finding out the reason for gaining such a wonderful name. At the marketplace, they see common people in everyday economic transactions with others. Instead of arguing for a lower price, the buyers insist on paying more; and conversely, the seller desires to accept less money or to give more merchandise.
“How very funny!” whispered T’ang to his friends. “Here, now, is quite a different custom from ours, where the buyer invariably tries to beat down the seller, and the seller to run up the price of his goods as high as possible. This certainly looks like the ‘consideration for others’ of which we spoke just now.”32
While the people of the Country of Gentlemen regard this form of bargaining as normal, the travelers observe this alien custom of “consideration for others” as “very funny” and strange. We can sense that one of the two sides is in the wrong. The more the traveling trio observes, the more reduced their peacock plumage becomes. The qualities that Chinese take such pride in, such as humanity and empathy, propriety and righteousness, seem gone with the wind.
As its title connotes, Ching Hua Yuan mirrors human follies to its readers. An experiential story, of course, is a most effective device for doing this. One must be put into another’s shoes; and the novel does just that, literally. Indeed, others’ shoes prove far from comfortable: which happen when our travelers land in the Country of Women and find the women’s shoes too tight for them.33
The nation has a matriarchal system, where women run everything. Of the three travelers, the handsome Lin Chih-Yang has the fairest complexion, so he is chosen to be a male concubine of the matriarchal monarch. Preparing him for entry into the harem, the bearded palace attendants pierce his ears and put on earrings. Then they bind his feet by force. Mr. Lin cannot help but protest with raining tears and loud cries which sound like killing hog, as the novel says. However, before the nuptial takes place, he gets out of harm’s way and rejoins his little group. And so they continue their journey.
Because Ching Hua Yuan aptly mirrors the social evils of polygamy, greed, foot-binding, and especially the hypocrisy of Chinese society, it lets readers see for themselves the need for moral purification. However, it took more than a century after this prophetic novel had been written for some rectification to come.
Though the author of Ching Hua Yuan did not attack the foundation of the Confucian theory of goodness of human nature, evidently he had strong doubts about the claim that China is a “Country of Li and I.”
A Lesson from History
Another popular historical novel that became a classic is Shuo Yueh: The Utmost Loyal Yueh Fei ( 精忠說岳 ). It is developed out of the poetical works of Ming dynasty (14th-17th centuries) authors Yao Mao-liang ( 姚茂良 ) and Li Mei-shih ( 李梅實 ), and is based on historical accounts and legends.
Yueh Fei ( 岳飛 1103-1141) was a general of the Sung dynasty. During the northern nomadic Juchen invasion, the capital city of Sung, Kaifeng, was overrun. The conquerors carried off the abdicated emperor Hui Tsung together with his son, the reigning emperor Ch’in Tsung. Commanding a small Sung force, Yueh Fei maneuvered and defeated the Juchen invaders and recovered some of the occupied territory. He was hailed as a hero, and for some time the future outlook for the dynasty seemed bright. Yueh even planned to launch an expedition that would push north to recover all the lost territory, and then restore the captured emperor to the throne.
Unfortunately, Yueh, a patriotic soldier, could not see that this prospective restoration was not welcomed by the reigning emperor for an unutterable reason. The minister Ch’in Kuei and his peace party in the court influenced the emperor to sign a peace treaty with Juchen. Falsely accused of treason, Yueh Fei was imprisoned and then executed.
The novel, extolling Yueh as a hero, popularized the idea of civic morality. Ch’in Kuei came to be viewed historically as a traitor himself. So as the novel has it, Ch’in and his wife, along with two of his fellow conspirators, received retribution and were condemned to hell. Hence justice ultimately prevailed. Today, Ch’in’s “gang of four” have been replicated in iron statues. Placed kneeling in front of Yueh’s mausoleum, at the scenic lake-side of Hangchou, they passively receive the ugly cursing and spitting that issue from the mouths of the visiting public.
Intentionally or unintentionally, politicians and warlords traditionally operate with this principle in mind: To propose peace with neighboring countries, especially when accepting seemingly unfavorable terms, is to become submissive, which to them is traitorous and immoral. Conversely, being bellicose and pursuing war is moral, even godlike. Under such terms, the conclusion is not hard to reach: if a war is won, one gets gold and glory; and even if the other side wins the war, those who fight and die for the cause still get the glory and deserve to be enshrined and worshiped as “god.” This is a no-lose, self-centered and self-served proposition. As a result, many people lose sight of the ethical basis for truly heroic deeds, and become influenced by their emotions. They then lose sight of the need for moral purification in their own society.
Moral purification, when skillfully publicized through literature, goes far beyond poetic justice. It formulates a climate of opinion and ethical standards in a given culture, and through the hearts of members of the society demands social justice.
Human history amply demonstrates the omnipresent corruptions in societies. There are also parallel corruptions in families and in individuals. So there is always a need for purification to cleanse moral disease on every level of human life. This diseased condition, whatever its origin, is a factual reality.
Chinese philosophy proclaims the importance of purification as general theory. Chinese popular literature manifests it, carrying this concept of moral purification along and propagating it, generation after generation, even though it may not be totally consistent with the philosophical idea. Because the approach to purification becomes individual and subjective, there can hardly be a perfect harmony between concept and means. And since human society is ever evolving in its belief systems and morality-training mechanisms, no solution for the delivery of purification can be final. But the need for it will always be with us.
While the Chinese people’s interest in private and public morality evolved through the centuries, on the other side of the globe other political and cultural systems were designing different ways of establishing, maintaining, and regulating human behavior. Only Christianity, however, really devised a way by which individuals could achieve direct contact with God through a spiritual transformation, the fruit of which is moral purification.
Paralleling the Chinese Confucian codes of humanistic ethics, Christians added a religious connection that gave morality a potent thrust. As with the Confucianists and Neo-Confucianists, it was largely written words that carry Christian teachings – the exhortations and messages – down through the centuries, continuously purveyed into people’s minds and hearts. It is no coincidence that both the religious and literary apex came at the Puritan Age.
Notes for Chapter 4
1. Yin-shen Yang, A History of Chinese Literature. Singapore: Commercial Publishing House, 1979, pp. 140, 152-154, 165.
2. Aristotle, On Poetics (De Poetica), trans. Ingram Bywater, in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 9. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, p. 686.
3. Yi Wu, The Mind of Chinese Ch’an (Zen). San Francisco: Great Learning Publishing Co., 1989, pp. 23-26.
4. Wu, Mind of Chan, p. 25.
5. Chu Hsi, “Reflections On Reading Books.”
6. Cf. the source from Chin Shu, with various folklore versions.
7. From Tun Huang Caves Pien Wen were discovered, including “Maha-Maudglyazana Delivered His Mother From Hell,” “The Ultimate Filial Piety of Shun,” etc., showed a syncretism of Buddhist episodes with Chinese traditional ethics.
8. Yang, pp. 301-302.
9. William McNaughton, ed. Chinese Literature. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1974, pp. 472-498.
10. All Men are Brothers: A Saga of the Marshes, trans. Pearl Buck. New York: John Day, 1968.
11. All Men, ch. 15.
12. All Men, ch. 2.
13. All Men, ch. 1.
14. Liu Wu-Chi, An Introduction to Chinese Literature. Bloomington, IN:Indiana Univ. Press, 1966, p. 208.
15. Shih, Shui Hu Chuan: A Saga of the Marshes, chs. 7-11.
16. Shih, p. 238.
17. James Robert Hightower, Topics in Chinese Literature. Cambridge, MA:Harvard Univ. Press, 1965, p. 108.
18. Tsao, chs. 1, 4, 5. Some commentators argue that this arrangement is a misplacement of Kao’s version.
19. Dream of the Red Chamber, trans. Chi-chen Wang. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958, ch. 3, p. 37.
20. Tsao, chs. 3, 86, 99, 15, 16, 105.
21. Tsao, ch. 73.
22. Tsao, ch. 66, in Liu Hsiang-lien’s words.
23. Tsao, chs. 107, 105.
24. Daniel 5:5, 25-28.
25. Hung Lou Meng, chs. 7, 105. trans. Wang, pp. 62-63.
26. Hung Lou Meng, ch. 105.
27. Hung Lou Meng, chs. 87, 112.
28. Hung Lou Meng, ch. 120.
29. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Christmas Bells,” in George Gesner, ed.,Anthology of American Poetry. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991, p. 126.
30. Herbert A. Giles, History of Chinese Literature. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1923, p. 316.
31. Giles, pp. 321-322.
32. Giles, p. 317.
33. Li, Ching Hua Yuan, ch. 33.
THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PURIFICATION
IN CHRISTIAN TEACHINGS
POLLUTION SEPARATION AND PURIFICATION
Etymologically, the word “religion” means “rejoined” or “to bind again” — hence, “to bind strongly.” The word’s origin thus indicates that religion is a system of beliefs intended to hold a society together. On the other hand, it implies that some separation exists, which requires a rejoining or reconciliation. It also indicates that the group holding such beliefs are separate from others within the larger community.
My main focus in this section is on how moral purification functions in Christianity, within both individual experience and social structures. As Northrop Frye says:
The Biblical religions [i.e., Judaism and Christianity] are strongly moral and voluntaristic, and throw their main emphasis on salvation, whether individual or social. The two forms are interconnected, of course, and social organization and individual duty keep alternating with each other. 1
The Source of the Pollution
According to the Bible, at the time of creation, man was in perfect communion with God. But after the “Fall of Man,” which took place in the Garden of Eden, “sin entered the world through one man… consequently… as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men.” 2 Because of this original sin, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden and separated from God. Hence came the distinction between holiness and uncleanness, the sacred and the profane. The human need to be rejoined with the Divinity was, and still is, perpetually raised in individual lives after receiving divine grace.
This sense of impurity or uncleanness comes from a complex sensation of separation: from God, from other humans, and from one’s own “higher” self or soul.
First, let us ponder the alienation from other people. Sometimes this is imposed by one’s own faith. When possessing what they believe is the divine Truth and guidance — whether inherited by birth or acquired through indoctrination and practice — people are often persuaded that others, those who are nonbelievers, are impure. For instance, historically Jews considered other ethnic or national groups such as Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Phoenicians gentiles, equivalent to our understanding of the word “heathen.” Muslims regard those who do not subscribe to their own faith as infidels. Such persons who exist outside one’s own group of firm believers are considered likely to contaminate one by association, especially when possessing their own entrenched religious doctrines and practices.
At the same time, “dread of the impure… is in the background of all our feelings and all our behavior relating to fault.” 3 This inner sense is related to violations that trouble one’s own conscience. This problem causes separation in two directions: one transgresses against a fellow human being and does what “thou shalt not” do, or one neglects his obligation of “thou shalt,” and thus impairs human relationships. These involve ethical-code transgressions for which we feel guilty and unclean, or sinful; they may involve thoughts or feelings as well as actual deeds.
On a spiritual level, one sins against God. The fault – whether by thought, word, or deed, by action or inaction — puts us in association with Satan. Yet this archfoe of God and mankind works as an accuser against us.
It is with the “fall” that the legal metaphor begins that persist all through the Bible, of human life as subject to a trial and judgment, with prosecutors and defenders. In this metaphor Jesus is the counsel for the defense, and the primary accuser is Satan the diabolos, a word from which our word devil comes, and which originally included a sense of the person opposed to one in a lawsuit. 4
The accusation in this great lawsuit is sin. At the Heavenly court, man is clothed in sin-stained “filthy garment.” 5 Sin causes the separation between God and human beings. In the Judeo-Christian traditional teachings based on the Old Testament, the relationship to wholeness can be restored through atonement. Yet not all people are entitled to have this renewed rapport with God — only those privileged to be among the holy people or “chosen” race. After all, God established the Covenant for them. Others outside this arrangement are considered to be polluted or defiled.
Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas… whose key-stone, boundaries, margins and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation. 6
The Old Testament contains many Levitical Laws which detail this separation. Sternly and repeatedly Jehovah commands His people to keep these laws and not to mix with other people. There are moral, ritual, and physical laws, including daily living, hygienic, and dietary laws, altogether numbering 613. The systematic dietary laws especially have few casuistic explanations to account for their existence. But certainly adhering to such rigid laws marks one’s lifestyle as significant different from that of heathens.
However, the purification here is ritualistic. For the Israelite, these celebratory laws are highly important; many have been observed for many generations, through time immemorial. But the nonbelievers, the “Gentiles,” cannot see much sense in adhering to them. Though they have their own serious moral problems, internally and in relations with others, their sense of spiritual alienation from God demands repairs that go far beyond the reaches of purification rites proffered by Levitical Laws.
The Means of True Purification
The New Testament ushered in the dawn of the Christian era. The resurrected Christ commissioned His disciples to “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations [heathens].” 7 They did as their Master bid them.
While the Apostle Peter was at Joppa, the very place from which the prophet Jonah fled God’s order of carrying the message of salvation to the Gentiles, 8he “went up upon the housetop to pray.” In a trance, he saw heaven opened, and “a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let to the earth”; there were all kinds of living creatures, which were considered to be abominable and unclean according to the dietary laws. 9 Although it was a vision, Peter’s mind and memory was clear; he rejected the bidding voice which asked him to kill and eat. After doing this three times, men sent by the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, came to the door and invited Peter to teach them the way to salvation. Now the Holy Spirit then told him explicitly not to consider these Gentiles unclean, but to go with them. He went. He taught. He succeeded. The Holy Spirit confirmed that his deeds were right, and Peter himself, as well as the Church in Jerusalem, never regretted nor negated this action. 10
In his subsequent testimony, when reporting the results of his effort, Peter said that “God… showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them… he purified their hearts by faith.” This is to say, through Peter’s preaching the gospel to them, the Gentiles accepted the message. They then believed in the atonement of Christ that could reconcile them with God; and through God’s grace they were purified and accepted. 11
Though eating is a simple and necessary action in daily life, throughout human history it has rich social meaning and religious significance as well. Already in Abraham’s time in the Bible and in Homeric literature, to dine together meant attaining a state of peace and mutual acceptance.
From a hermeneutical perspective, however, the Levitical Laws on diet in essence prescribe a state of separation between God’s chosen people and heathens; they should not and would not dine together. In this aspect, then, the vision of Peter at Joppa, which pertains to eating, signifies purification by the Holy Spirit and grace through ministering of the Word. Once people accept the same faith, separation should no longer exist between them and meaningful communication should begin. The “eating” and “drinking” in the sacrament of Holy Communion therefore symbolizes fellowship and sharing. Jesus Christ explicitly says this is so:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, ye have no life [eternal] in you…. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him… even he shall live by me. 12
The statement explains the intimate fellowship between Christ and the Church, which is the collective universal body of believers.
The wholehearted acceptance of Christ’s message becomes the means of a spiritual purification. It has meaning to individual believers, but still does not have enough power to convince others to think and live differently, in a morally elevated way. Therefore, another kind of purification is needed, namely “Repentance” — which means change of direction, or change of heart. The result of this spiritual metamorphosis is transformation. The Bible says, “Let us cleanse ourselves from the filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” 13 This is the call for moral purification. Only one who has this conversion experience or “rebirth” can demonstrate a pure and godly life which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Through the initial purification experience, separation from God ends and communication with Him starts. This purification has often resulted in moral transformation, even in mass conversions in which social vices were significantly reduced. 14 Historians, for instance, believe that the Methodist movement changed the moral tone and social conditions of eighteenth-centuryEngland, and averted a bloody revolution like the one occurring in France.
The phenomenon of religious conversion, accompanied by moral purification, can thus be regarded as an historical event, whether they affected individuals in positions of leadership or a large enough portion of the citizenry to influence the course of events. Certainly, too, memoirs and biographies display ample traces of its potent effects on individuals who took crucial roles in directing civic life or in creating imperishable works of art that possess transformational abilities long after their own lifetimes.
The concept of moral purification imbued the early Christians as well as subsequent reformers with a conviction and active faith. To them, an inactive faith is inconceivable, just as an impure church is unacceptable. As the Bible says:
Now in Christ Jesus ye who once were far off are made near by the blood of Christ… therefore, ye are no more strangers and sojourners but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” 15
This declaration explains how the Apostle Paul, when communicating the meaning of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthians, brought Gentiles into this holy communion and converted them to Christianity. In other words, they now belonged to the community of faith and therefore must remain in holy communication with the other members.
Here brings us to the idea of koinonia, a Greek word which means “fellowship,” “communication,” or “sharing.” The rebinding implies a strong sense of togetherness and solidarity, brotherly love, even comradeship. Within this community, each member is to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep,” and “be of the same mind one toward another.” 16
The genuine religious bond among believers supplies one of the strongest relationship ties, similar to blood kinship. Holding the same beliefs and ideals, they join together to worship and to act in unity. Members of the early Christian church thus shared the same faith, hope, and love. Together they endured severe persecutions, demonstrating this dynamic power of cohesion unto martyrdom. Because of this extraordinary dedication, they were ultimately able to penetrate and conquer the ruling class that had oppressed them. Through bringing about conversions, they changed the Western half of the civilized world.
Again in the Reformation, those Protestants who rose against the long-entrenched, hierarchical power of the established Church and also desired to instill a firmer moral fiber in the populace, often demonstrated the same kind of focused reformational power, especially the Puritans in England.
The relationship of man to man in society, and of man to God, is governed by polity, rules, and regulations — within the explicit Christian belief system. The most important binding factors, however, are internalized and subjective, yet held in common by believers. Even so, this organic social relationship among individuals can be damaged if impure or insincere elements exist to defile the group’s esprit de corps.
The threat of contamination from within is why Paul warned the church to be cautious against false doctrine or “old leaven.” He had “godly jealousy” over them and wanted them to be as “a chaste virgin.” 17 If they remained in this condition of consistent purity and unity, with no division or separation between members and members, and members and God, then the church would be a strong fortress standing firmly against the enemy — a city on the hill shining forth in front of a watching world.
The three-dimensional relation, encompassing God, Church, and the believer, is inseparable and inevitable. As Angelus Silesius (1624-1677) proclaimed:
Tho Christ a thousand times
In Bethlehem be born,
If He is not born in thee
Thy soul is still forlorn. 18
Similarly, in the Bible, St. James, sixteen centuries earlier than Silesius, said “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead also.”19 That is to say, merely professing faith is not enough. One needs to put one’s beliefs into practice as fruit of faith, for only through moral action is one’s faith fully demonstrated.
Therefore, in leading a fully Christian life, moral purification is called for. It is pivotal. Without moral purification, rites become meaningless, spirituality cannot be manifested, and even unity cannot be maintained. With moral purification, religious belief becomes a living force that will first transform one’s own life and then move out to transform society into a healthy social organic unit through applied ethics.
Let us now move on to examine the lives and teachings of a number of individuals in recorded history who exemplified, through their writings and other works, the origin and ramifications of this special condition of spirit that known as “moral purification.”
Notes for Chapter 5
1. Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982, p. 106.
2. Romans 5:12, 18. NIV.
3. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967, p. 25.
4. Frye, Great Code, p. 110. Cf. Zechariah 3:1-5.
5. Zechariah 3:4.
6. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1966, pp. 41-58.
7. Matthew 28:18.
8. Cf. Jonah; Acts 10:1-48.
9. Leviticus 11:1-47; Deuteronomy 14:1-21.
10. Acts 11:1-18; 15:7-11. NIV.
11. Romans 5:11.
12. John 6:53-58.
13. II Corinthians 7:1.
14. All ancient civilizations, according to archeology studies, valued cleanliness. Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, had their baths nearly 5,000 years; Romans somewhat later (cf. Simthsonian, Feb. 1991, pp. 126-135). The ancients, not only for hygiene’s sake, but for ritual’s, take their bath. Mencius says: “Though a man may be wicked, yet if he adjusts his thoughts, fasts, and bathes, he may sacrifice to God” (q.v. Mencius, trans. Legge, IV B, xxv). In India, bathing in the Ganges River, has become a great festival. In Philadelphia, African American faithful have mass baptism, “experience the washing away of their sins,” as “celebration of Life” (q.v. National Geographic, vol. 178, No. 2, Aug. 1990, pp. 66-91). But my discussion here is limited to moral purification.
15. Ephesians 2:13, 19.
16. Romans 12:15, 16.
17. II Corinthians 11:2.
18. Frank S. Mead, ed., 12,000 Religious Quotations. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, rpt. 1989, p. 74.
19. James 2:26. James here is not asserting deeds is superior to faith; he is only pointing out the inseparableness of both.
PERSONAL SALVATION AND A COMMUNITY OF SAINTS
Religious education usually involves the spiritual, intellectual, and moral faculties all together. It comes from God’s revelation through human agents. In fact, the patient proselytizing and teaching by mentors usually initiates the long process by which a Christian gradually acquires faith.
Religious education, then, is a form of transmitting knowledge which is expressed in practice. As St. Paul’s admonition to Titus put it:
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present age, looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a people of His own, zealous of good works. These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee. 1
This passage shows that though religious education originates with God, it is the human responsibility to teach it to others. “The grace of God” changes human nature. It opens our minds, allows us to know right from wrong — enabling us at the right time to say “no” to the wrong things, and thus deny all that is displeasing to God.
At the same time, Paul asks Titus to “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine,” 2 and “these things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority.” 3 Furthermore, this duty to educate, to teach others, is to be exercised not only by the pastors of congregations but also by other mature persons in the Church who are committed to their faith. 4 This religious education can be done directly by the spoken word and face to face, or it can take place through the written word. Thus Paul, the great communicator through epistles, enjoins the faithful:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 5
In the Bible, even before the promised land was possessed by Israel, the importance of conveying religious doctrines was stressed: “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently… teach them to thy sons.” 6
Again, God spoke through His servant Moses:
And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart, and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. 7
Thus the Bible depicts a God who promotes a comprehensive and consistent religious education. Later, of course, in the New Testament the Bible shows how Christ Jesus came to the world not only as the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the Savior of mankind, but also as a religious teacher — the greatest of all time. He was so considered by His contemporaries and disciples. 8 After His resurrection, Jesus Christ commissioned His disciples to evangelize and convert people, and also to “teach all nations” — “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” 9 The Holy Spirit effectuates the teaching. The New Testament church, from its very beginning, was devoted to “the apostle’s teaching and fellowship.” 10
From Sinner to Saint: Augustine’s Spiritual Progress
From time to time, people in the Church employ the Bible to reject the need for a disciplined religious education. They may quote that “the anointing [Holy Spirit, or Divine Grace] which ye have received of Him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you.” 11 Exactly for such people, who misuse the Scripture in this way, St. Augustine wrote these words:
I would such persons could calm themselves so far as to remember that, however justly they may rejoice in God’s great gift, yet it was from human teachers they themselves learnt to read…. They must surely grant that everyone of us learnt his own language by hearing it constantly from childhood, and that any other language we have learnt — Greek, or Hebrew, or any of the rest — we have learnt either in the same way, by hearing it spoken, or from a human teacher. Now, then, suppose we advise all our brethren not to teach their children any of these things, because on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the apostles immediately began to speak the language of every race; and warn everyone who has not had a like experience that he need not consider himself a Christian, or may at least doubt whether he yet received the Holy Spirit? No, no; rather let us put away false pride and learn whatever we can from man; and let him who teaches another communicate what he has himself received without arrogance and without jealousy. 12
This kind of argument may now seem far removed from the minds of most of us; yet it was from this kind of ground that religious education, even Western education in general, has emerged.
As John Donne says: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of Continent, a part of the Maine.” 13 The close association or communion of like-minded people ensures human survival as well as the duration of the soul’s life beyond death. Since human thinking and feeling are ever active and generative, this socialization is not a reality that is static and unchanging, but a dynamic process that evolves through time. Human associativity is never neutral, but educational in nature. We are ever forming and transforming our thinking, which then affects our present and future actions, often with reference to the people around us.
St. Augustine’s writings provide an exemplary demonstration of how religious education influenced his early life. Later on, after his conversion, he took religious education as his lifelong ministry, and so influenced many others.
St. Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus, A.D. 354-430) was born to middle-class parents at Tagaste in North Africa (now part of Algeria). His father, Patricius, was a pagan and remained so until late in his life, when he was converted to Christianity. However, Augustine’s mother, Monica, was known as a godly Christian woman with simple faith.
While still a child, Augustine was enrolled by his mother as a catechumen in the Catholic Church. Although not baptized in his infancy, because of Monica’s early teachings, he revered the Name of Christ all his life. Her religious instruction to her son might not have been as intense as that of Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice. 14 Yet there is no doubt that a moral and spiritual education begun in a mother’s lap always has a permanent impact.
After finishing his basic education at about age sixteen, Augustine went toCarthage to study a course in rhetoric. At that time, rhetoric, in Aristotle’s words, was the art of persuasion; this education in communication prepared young men for legislative and judicial positions in government.
In Carthage, Augustine lived there for some time with a mistress, ignoring his mother’s advice to maintain chastity. For more than fifteen years afterward, this sin of concupiscence haunted him. As Augustine himself described this early phase of his life:
… with what companions I walked the street of Babylon, and wallowed in the mire thereof as in a bed of spices and precious ointments. And that I might cleave the faster to its very centre, the invisible enemy trod me down, and seduced me, for that I was easy to be seduced. 15
During the years he studied in Carthage, Augustine read the treatiseHertensius by Cicero (now lost), and his interest in philosophy was kindled. He also read the Bible, but to his proud heart its simple language and mysteries seemed unworthy of attention. In the same period, he fell under the influence of the Manicheans, a dualistic religious sect of Gnosticism. When he met the reputed Manichean orator Faustus, Augustine found his eloquence, “pleasing and seductive”; yet he judged him “utterly ignorant of liberal sciences” and unable to solve whatever queries he posed. 16 Because the Manicheans proved incapable of answering Augustine’s penetrating questions, his quest for gnosis or enlightenment did not last long. Disillusioned, he gradually left the Manicheans and turned to agnosticism.
At the age of twenty-nine, Augustine went to Rome to teach rhetoric, but things did not work out well for him there. When some officials from Milanwere sent to Rome to recruit a rhetoric reader or public orator for the city, Augustine applied for the position and was accepted. That was how he came to know St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. 17 Their relationship is described in Augustine’s own words:
That man of God received me as a father, and shewed me an episcopal kindness on my coming. Thenceforth I began to love him, at first not as a teacher of the truth (which I utterly despaired of in Thy Church), but as a person kind to myself. And I listened diligently to him preaching to the people, not with that intent I ought, but, as it were, trying his eloquence, whether it answered the fame thereof, or flowed fuller or lower than was reported; and I hung on his words attentively; but of the matter I was as a careless and scornful looker-on. 18
At that time, Augustine was yet fully educated about Christianity, but he showed himself to be educable. He described the process of change which took place:
For though I took no pain to learn what he spake, but only to hear how he spake (for that empty care alone was left me, despairing of a way open for man to Thee [God]); yet, together with the words which I would choose, came also into my mind the thing which I would refuse; for I could not separate them. And while I opened my heart to admit “how eloquently he spake,” there also entered “how truly he spake”; but this by degrees. 19
Some time later, when Monica arrived at Milan to join her son, Augustine then “discovered to her that I was now no longer a Manichee, though not yet a Catholic Christian.” 20 What remained for him was the task of subjecting his carnal life to the teachings of the Bible. That is to say, he had to promote goodness in life and purify his sin and guilt. This proved no small task. Though he sincerely desired to do so, he simply could not lift himself from the deep moral mire he had long been in.
In his Confessions, Augustine recalled his struggle with his lustful nature. Wishing to lead a morally upright life but not yet capable of attaining it, in despair, he cried to God:
Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous! repair Thou it! It has within which must offend Thine eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? Or to whom should I cry, save Thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare Thy servant from the power of the enemy. 21
In some respects, Augustine’s conversion resembles that of St. Paul. (Paul always knew how to differentiate between right and wrong.) Augustine discussed his problems with his companions. Yet this knowledge of the soul’s pathology could not offer any remedy for his disease.
Wherefore, the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good…. For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I understand not; for what I would, that I do not; for what I hate, that do I.… For I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not…. Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 22
This passage vividly describes the human condition: one has the innate idea of sin, which results not only in a guilty conscience, but also problems with “law and commandment.” That is to say, one has prescriptive knowledge, which imposes moral obligation. Yet it prescribes without remedy; it gives direction without paving a way to reach that objective. This is the very nature of law. Obviously, this prescriptive knowledge only does half the job.
Now, whence comes this knowledge? It comes from early childhood training, moral education, and reading. These origins can be seen in both St. Paul’s and Augustine’s experiences.
Augustine became evermore desperate and determined to correct his moral condition and to purify himself. In all the turbulence of heart, Augustine came to a point one day when he uttered these sorrowful words: “How long? How long? Tomorrow, and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?” 23
His torment was ended not long afterward.
When Augustine wrote of his conversion experience some twelve years later, he undoubtedly still remembered it vividly: “When a deep consideration had from the secret bottom of my soul drawn together and heaped up all my misery in the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, bringing a mighty shower of tears.” 24 Then he went to a corner of the garden and sat under a fig tree, to be in solitude. There he let the flood-gate of tears open, and all the while he prayed.
So was I speaking, and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; take up and read.” … I began to think most intently, whether children wont in any kind of play to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So… I arose; interpreting it no other than a command from God, to open the book, and read…. Eagerly then I returned to the place where… I laid the volume of the Apostle, when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section, on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh” in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away. 25
From this reading of the Bible, Augustine both literally and symbolically “turned over a new leaf in life.” His experience is a classic case of purification. Not only does this event have biographical interest, but it is also historically significant, for it influenced the future course of Christianity.
Furthermore, Augustine’s conversion experience, which took place in his thirty-second year, relates to religious education. He acquired this concept of purification from the early education received from his mother, then through pastoral teachings, group discussions, and reading.
In the later part of his life, after serving for thirty-five years as Bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa, Augustine retired. He proceeded to write a book entitled On Christian Doctrine. In it he discusses how to read and understand the Bible, and emphasized how to do teach others to do the same.
Augustine’s personal history enables us to see the value and effects of religious education.
Religious education: A Beginning to Salvation
It is commonly held that the most crucial part of the socialization process begins at home. Instruction in living in human society should begin in early childhood, within the family setting. The seventeenth-century French philosopher Montaigne agreed with this idea heartily. He stated that such guidance should be “communicated to children betimes.” Do not wait until a later time, he said, only for them to regret that “They begin to teach us to live when we have almost done living.” Instead, he called for an early education that would mold children rightly at a stage of plasticity. He quoted the Stoic poet Persius: “The clay is moist and soft: now make haste and form the pitcher on the rapid wheel.” 26 Although Montaigne was talking about philosophy and education in general, his words also apply to moral and religious education.
Augustine’s religious education started at infancy, nurtured by his pious mother, Monica. The impression doubtless had a deep and permanent influence. Whenever Augustine was away from home, however far he strayed from the path of righteousness, deep in his heart he always heard his mother calling and appealing to his conscience.
Ignorance is never a virtue. A liberal education had considerably influenced Augustine in terms of teaching him how to think in a rational manner. Though during the period of his advanced studies in Carthage he embraced the Manichean heresy, education itself was not to blame. Liberal education in fact had equipped Augustine with reasoning power and logic, which he later used to refute the same heresy and to purge it. Education had also opened up his mind to metaphysical learning, initiating the course that led to both his spiritual development and his life as the great philosopher of Christianity.
The most important means of episcopal teaching comes from the pulpit. InMoby-Dick, or The Whale, Herman Melville says that the pulpit to the world is as the prow to the ship: “For the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part… the pulpit leads the world.” Melville describes Father Mapple’s pulpit as built “in the likeness of a ship’s bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship’s fiddle-headed beak. What could be more full of meaning?” 27
St. Ambrose’s sermons proved greatly significant in Augustine’s conversion. From them Augustine not only became aware of the treasures of Christian truth, but he also received the key that opened the treasure house — by learning how to read and interpret the Sacred Scripture.
Because sermons are preached from the pulpit, however, they are aimed for the public’s edification and may not be tailored to meet individuals’ needs. Therefore, personal, one-on-one counseling should be sought. Since Ambrose, a busy bishop, was unable to spend much time with him, Augustine turned elsewhere for mentoring in receiving God’s grace. Simplicianus had served as Ambrose’s spiritual father, and with him Augustine could share the mazes of his soul’s past and present wanderings. Together they also discussed philosophical learning, and Simplicianus approved of Augustine’s study of Platonistic philosophy. He also told Augustine about Victorinus’ experience of the path to salvation.
That aged man [Victorinus], most learned and skilled in the liberal sciences, and who had read and weighed so many works of the philosophers; the instructor of so many noble Senators; who also, as a monument of his excellent discharge of his office, had (which men of this world esteem a high honour) both deserved and obtained a statue in the Roman Forum. 28
From Simplicianus, Augustine not only learned discreetness: how to differentiate between valuable and invalid philosophical ideas, and also how to purify mind and deed. As a result he “was on fire to imitate” Victorinus, and decided to become a Christian. (Decision is an act of will, whereas conversion is a change of heart and usually comes with spiritual experience.)
Augustine’s writings also reveal how sacred music may play a part in purification. Augustine loved music: so did his son Adeodatus, born out of wedlock from a woman with whom Augustine had associated while inCarthage. Augustine reported how one time in Milan he “was sated in those days” absentmindedly in an audience, and not “with the wondrous sweetness of considering the depth of Thy [God’s] counsels concerning the salvation of mankind.” Yet he had no mental barrier as defense against the spiritual advance of music:
How did I weep, in The Hymns and Canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church! The voices flowed into mine ears, and the Truth distilled into my heart, whence the affection of my devotion overflowed, and tears ran down, and happy was I therein. 29
The experience he related shows the transforming power of music, which can attune the human mind toward salvation. Though he did not go as far as Socrates, who said that rhapsody is divinely inspired, as the prophets are, 30he acknowledged music’s profound effect on him.
Another factor in religious education that Augustine stressed as having been important to him was group discourse. When people discuss great things, they themselves grow to greatness. Among Augustine’s group of friends during the earlier years of his adult life were Alypius, Nebridius, the boy Euodis, and his own son Adeodatus. They formed a group of about eight people who discussed together the Bible and other questions concerning their beliefs and behaviors. Moral problems were often the topic.
This practice of focused conversation, though not resolving all life’s problems, did help them dismiss some “empty vanities, and betake ourselves to the one search for truth.” 31 It also resulted in Augustine’s rejection of astrology, kept him from marrying, and gradually purged away the “old leaven,” as he called Manicheanism 32 — using this phrase to characterize the belief held over from the past.
But, above all, the cardinal effect on Augustine came from the reading of the Holy Writ. 33
Augustine in The Confessions has provided us with one of the fullest accounts from any writer of his intellectual and spiritual development and of the course which led to his becoming a thinker and a writer. The steps and stages along that course are carefully singled out, identified, and described; and most of them, it turns out, were related to, if not in fact instigated by, his reading. 34
Through studying the Bible Augustine progressed in wisdom and made his decisive turn toward the Christian faith. It was fitting that as a man of the Word, Augustine valued reading highly. He had done so even as a young man. He recalled an incident told to him by his mother. When he had become a Manichean and his mother was very much concerned about his soul, she went to see a certain bishop, who was well versed in the Bible. She beseeched him to talk Augustine into conversion. Of this incident Augustine wrote:
“But let him alone,” saith he; “only pray God for him, he will of himself by reading find what that error is, and how great its impiety:”… which when he had said, and she would not be satisfied, but urged him more, with entreaties and many tears, that he would see me and discourse with me, he, a little displeased at her importunity, saith, “Go thy ways, and God bless thee, for it is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.” 35
This prelude to Augustine’s conversion shows not only the great faith of both the bishop and his mother had, but also how they placed their faith greatly in reading. And of course Augustine in time did not disappoint their trust in its ultimate efficacy.
The Bible Teaching and Purification
Augustine regarded each human being as eternal, the “house of God,” and “partaker” of God’s eternity.” 36 Unfortunately, however, this house is sin-stained and thus unfit for that very reason. But though man had failed, God’s plan would not be foiled. Yet who can purge man from such a miserable condition? The Incarnate Word became the Savior and sacrifice for mankind, and His blood was shed on the cross purifying us from our sins. 37 God’s written Word, “the perfect Book,” can purify human pride and make man’s eyes clear. Augustine stated:
For we know no other books which so destroy pride, which so destroy the enemy and the defender, who resisteth Thy reconciliation by defending his own sins. I know not, Lord, I know not any other such “pure” words, which so persuade to confess, and make my neck pliant to Thy yoke, and invite me to serve Thee for nought. 38
Augustine therefore paid more attention to the reading of the Bible than to any other book, and more than to any other activity as well. This study became the main theme in his book, On Christian Doctrine. In it Augustine declared:
The soul must be purified that it may have power to perceive that light, and to rest in it when it is perceived. And let us look upon this purification as a kind of journey or voyage to our native land. For it is not by change of place that we can come nearer to Him who is in every place, but by the cultivation of pure desires and virtuous habits. 39
But since mankind’s overall moral condition is so totally corrupted and hopelessly sunk in sin, how could this purification be possible in individuals? Augustine’s response was that “we should have been wholly incapable” by ourselves to do that; but “Wisdom condescended to adapt Himself to our weakness, and to show us a pattern of holy life in the form of our own humanity.” 40 That is to say, the Incarnate Word, Christ, made Himself “our home, He made Himself also the Way by which we should reach our home.”41
Furthermore, to achieve this goal, Augustine set up a seven-step “pilgrim’s progress”: first, the fear of God; second, a heart subdued by piety; third, the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures; fourth, strength and resolution; fifth, the counsel of compassion; sixth, purification of heart; seventh, wisdom. 42
Since the primary theme of his book On Christian Doctrine was religious education, Augustine mainly considered the third step – the reading of the Holy Scriptures. He regarded the words of Scripture as road signs. In order to know God’s way, one must understand God’s word. 43 By the same token, to purify oneself, one must know what to purge. This need leads us to acquiring knowledge of what the Scriptures teach.
The Scriptures have two types of language: literal and figurative; i.e., direct signs and indirect signs. How does one tell the difference between them? Augustine provided a useful rule:
Whatever there is in the Word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life, or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbour; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbour. 44
Knowing how to discern the meaning of the Scriptures enables us to know, and be absolutely sure about, the distinction between right and wrong. 45
Very much like St. Paul, Augustine categorized human actions as either the fruit of lust or the fruit of charity.
Again, what lust, when unsubdued, does towards corrupting one’s own soul and body, is called vice; but what it does to injure another, is called crime. And these are the two classes into which all sins may be divided…. In the same way, what charity does with a view to one’s own advantage is prudence; but what it does with a view to a neighbour’s advantage is called benevolence. 46
Thus from reading the Bible, one knows definitely and distinctly what charitable actions should to be pursued and what lustful thoughts or wicked deeds must be purified.
Only after knowing the truth can one make it known to others. Only after being purified and edified can one properly proceed to purify and edify the Church.
Therefore, thus saith the LORD, “If thou return, then will I bring thee again, and thou shalt stand before me; and if thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth; let them return unto thee, but return not thou unto them.”47
The Bible depicts three steps in the calling of Jeremiah, a major Hebrew prophet, in serving God: namely, conversion, conviction, and commission. In other words, this process was to know, to act according to what was known to him, and then to make the truth known to others. What was true for Jeremiah is also true to others, including Augustine.
Religious education, when successfully instilled, has an inevitable effect: it awakens the sense of sin an guilt inherited from Adam’s original trespass and down through human history in individuals’ lives. Thus the sense of needing purification arises, and it performs this role without discrediting the divine revelation.
As we have seen, Augustine believed in the value of Christian teaching, asserting it is similar to that how one learns any language through the assistance of a human teacher. Thus he discouraged the belief that one couldabandon one’s duty, and takes obtain the knowledge of the Bible by Divine Grace alone. 48
From Augustine’s own experience, then, we can appreciate the need for a religious education, which provides the moral knowledge of right and wrong, pure and impure, and the concept of purification. This is why, at an advanced age, he determined to write his book On Christian Doctrine. For the very same reason, religious education is much needed in today’s world, in which increasingly people lack the most basic sense of morality.
After experiencing individual salvation and being purified morally, Augustine served as a revered bishop and presiding judge. But he is best known as a great doctor of the Church, and in it his teachings were highly influential for many centuries.
Another person living in a very different time and place is best known for a ministry in which he carried out the Cultural Mandate. At any time in history, the caliber of his work would demonstrate exemplary pastoral care.
The Exemplary Pastor: Richard Baxter Reformed a Community
Among the pastors in seventeenth-century Protestant England there was one exceptional figure. Richard Baxter transformed the seemingly hopeless habitants of an area into citizens of a model parish. This community of saints, which then shined forth much as the Bible’s termed “city on a hill,” became a social model of moral purification. Thus he actualized the powerful Puritan metaphor of an ideal society.
Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was ordained into the Church of England in 1638 after studying divinity. These were the conditions that he encountered:
The state of religion and morals at that period in the country and neighbourhood was extremely low; nor was he more favourably situated with respect to his school-masters. They were neither distinguished for learning nor morals. The genius and industry of the youth, however, surmounted these untoward circumstances. 49
In 1641 the Reverend Mr. Baxter was assigned to a ministry atKidderminster, Worcestershire. In his words, this parish at the time “included part of the town of Bewdley… near twenty miles about, consisting of about three or four thousand souls, or eight hundred Families.” 50 An area largely inhabited by handloom workers and their families, it was notorious for drunkenness and moral decay. In spite of all the apparent faults of his parishioners, Baxter considered them as honest as any townspeople. Knowing their weaknesses and sinfulness well, he determined to do something to change that condition.
Not only did Baxter work hard, he did so in earnest. He warded off the temptation of desiring results; instead, he attended to laying spiritual foundations and the application of doctrine to daily moral living. Within his parish of over 1,800 potential communicants, he accepted only about 600 into communion.
A peacemaker by nature, Baxter had to fight against great odds all his life. In ill-health ever since childhood, in spite of being physically weak and constantly in pain, Baxter worked diligently. A poem of his reveals his dedication to his calling:
I preached as never sure to preach again,
And as a dying man to dying man!
O how should preachers men’s repenting crave,
Who sees how near the Church is to the grave?
And see that while we preach and hear, we die,
Rapt by swift time to vast eternity. 51
When he completed his work in Kidderminster in 1660, what Caesar Augustus was said to have done to Rome may also apply spiritually and metaphorically, to Baxter: “He found it in mud, and left it marble.”
Later in life, Baxter wrote The Reformed Pastor, in which he looked back on and analyzed the success of his work. Though he attributed it to God’s grace, there were definite human elements to be considered.
“Our unity and concord was a great advantage to us,” Baxter reflected. 52This referred to the Pastor’s Association of Worcestershire, an organization that included all clergymen in the region. That it did not discriminate against any particular sect shows the tolerant temperament of its founder — Richard Baxter. This association fostered a spirit of love among the various churches. For many, good testimony and harmony was maintained, while preventing heresies.
“Another help to my success was that my people were not rich,” 53 he wrote. Though one may argue against the Puritans’ notion that material wealth always hinders the soul’s journey heavenward, records indisputably show that the pious saints always have few worldly possessions. This proved true in Baxter’s parish. Converts to the path of righteousness generally remained faithful, paying attention mainly to spiritual matters.
Another source of Baxter’s success was his continuing to labor in the same region. He said, “I stayed still in this one place near two years before the war and above fourteen years after.” 54 Thus he knew almost everyone, and in return everyone in town knew him.
He also believed that his “single life” was benefitted his ministry. Baxter could love the parishioners as his children, while they regarded him as a father to them all. He remained single until he left Kidderminster, after Restoration. (In 1662, at age forty-seven, he married a pious twenty-three-year-old lady, Miss Chalton.) 55
A man of letters, Baxter wrote prolifically. He was the author of over 200 works; among them are devotional manuals, pastoral handbooks, and doctrinal writings. 56 Undoubtedly, he used some of them while he did his pastoral visitations. He paid great attention to composing his sermons. He said, “Another advantage which I found to my success was by ordering my doctrine to them in a suitableness to the main end, and yet so as might suit their dispositions and diseases.” 57 He mentioned that he always put something they did not know in his sermons. He did this to “keep them humble” and to maintain their spiritual hunger, which he regarded as essential to learning.
There are additional factors for Baxter’s success at Kidderminster. One was his impeccable moral life. In his autobiography Baxter stressed that the success of ministers’ labors “materially depends on your taking heed to yourselves.” 58 In the presence of a watching community, Baxter’s life was beyond reproach. Even those who falsely accused him of legal, political, and moral transgressions later confessed that Baxter was actually a saintly person.
Baxter also stuck with his convictions. Once he knew what was right to do, he worked to achieve it with all his strength, no matter what the cost. Therefore, though an Anglican clergy, during his early ministry he often sympathized with the Puritans’ point of view, and called for toleration of their beliefs and practices. Later, he promoted the Puritan’s cause and then found himself on the winning side. But he always upheld the right to hold separate positions on issues. He believed in a universal Christian love, unity without uniformity. Thus he worked for the liberty of all: Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and all other sects. For this reason, Baxter has sometimes been dubbed the first Ecumenist.
As to his methods of ministry, he excelled in pastoral theology. He cared greatly for his flock and their welfare. Both his pulpit power and public ministry were of a high order. He was also diligent in visitations — much like St. Paul in Ephesus, who “taught publicly, and from house to house,” and “kept back nothing that was profitable” to them. 59 He prepared a schedule of the parish families, and divided them into groups in order to visit every family at least once a year. Thus he was visiting 14 or 15 families a week. As a dutiful shepherd, he insisted that he “must know every sheep, and what is their disease, and mark their strayings, and help to cure them, and fetch them home.” 60
In fact, he went so far as to say, after he had tried this program for a long time, that he knew by experience that some had received more benefit from a half hour’s conference that from ten years’ public preaching. 61
Because of his concern for people’s souls, he could talk earnestly with them. His house-calls really combined family worship, Bible study, and counseling. This routine was truly remarkable, but he did even more. When visiting, he personally brought catechisms and other books for every family in his congregation, whether rich or poor. He suggested that, to handle the costs involved, “if the minister be able, it will be well for him to bear it; if not, the best affected among the rich class of his people should bear it among them.” Or a special collection could be started for the purpose of purchasing the religious books. 62 He reasoned that if people were expected to purchase the materials, perhaps half of the families would not get them. Once copies were put into their hands, however, they had no more excuses for not reading them. Like a responsible teacher, he would then teach them and examine their comprehension.
Thus Baxter wisely practiced the Bible’s two-track teaching — verbal and literal, “by word” and “epistle.” This way, using “two wings of evangelism”63 is both important and effective. As he put it, “To say, therefore, that they will not be taught by His ministers, is to say they will not be His disciples, or are not Christians.” 64
Baxter believed deeply that ordinary people can be admitted into the enlightened and purified “society of the saints,” or the Elect. Enjoying the blessed indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they must now live out a holy life worthy of their calling. To purify his flock from evil doings and to edify and equip them for spiritual maturity, he tirelessly dispensed instructions and moral teachings. As a result, his work brought moral purification to the whole community in a manner without parallel elsewhere in Great Britain. “The happy effects of his labors lingered there for more than a century.” 65
Never satisfied with statistical figures alone, Baxter regarded his parishioners as real and individual living souls. Therefore, he wanted to see their behavior transformed as evidence of their salvation.
As Atheism is the sum of wickedness, so all true religiousness is called by the name of godliness or holiness, which is nothing else but our devotedness to God, living for him, and our relation to him as thus devoted in heart and life. Practical atheism is a living as without God in the world. Godliness is contrary to practical atheism, and is a living as with and to God in the world and in the church, and is here called a walking with God. 66
To Baxter, then, merely professing faith is not enough; a false Christian is a true practical atheist. In other words, a Christian in praxis is a one “walking with God,” and through him God does His work.
The atheist in life, or outward practice, is he that lives as without God in the world; that seeks Him not as his chief good, and obeys Him not as his highest absolute Lord; so that indeed atheism is the sum of all iniquity, as godliness is the sum of all religion and moral good…. 67
To be a true Christian in Baxter’s view, one must also have Christ-like conduct that springs from a pure heart. Baxter stated that “It is not the tongue, but the heart, that is the man.” 68
Again and again, Baxter stressed the importance of Christians leading a moral life. As he put it, to be moral is to be normal. Sin is sickness, so to be immoral is abnormal or diseased, which requires healing and purifying. Dis-ease also comes when one seeks only ease. These concepts were essentially Puritan ones.
When comparing sin with sickness, Baxter spoke rather like St. Augustine:
You must have all the corruptions of your natures healed, and your sins subdued, and your hearts made new by sanctifying grace, and the image of God implanted in you, and your lives made holy and sincerely conformable to the will of God.69
Of course, this moral transformation cannot be done by human effort alone. Because human nature is corrupted and sin-stained, only by the grace of God can one be “born-above” and purified. God’s grace places one in the state of good spiritual health. Then, and only then, can one do God’s will — which is normal and reasonable.
Nothing can be more reasonable than that the reasonable nature should intend its end, and seek after its true and chief felicity: that it should love good as good, and therefore prefer the chief good before that which is transitory and insufficient. 70
Baxter obviously implied here that “good” means fully and eternally good. Insufficient good lacks perfection, while transitory good lacks the quality of enduring. Thus the privation of good is evil.
Baxter also emphasized that to be normal and reasonable is to be in right order or in balance. Hence he said:
Nothing can be more rational and agreeable to man’s nature, than that the superior faculties should govern the inferior, that the brutish part be subject to the rational; and that the ends and objects of this higher faculty be preferred before the objects of the lower: that the objects of sense be made subservient to the objects of reason. 71
It is not mere coincidence that this statement sounds much like Augustine. Baxter knew well the principles and praxes of spiritual and moral purification, and perpetually strived for them. Throughout his lifetime, he labored devotedly and diligently, and achieved much, in spite of great personal hardships during his ministry and afterward.
This process of purification always involves making the body subject to spirit or heart. It is a Christian belief distilled from the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. It is also, as we have seen, fundamental to the ethical teachings of the Chinese Confucianists and Neo-Confucianists. In both East and West, proponents of these two very different belief systems shared a common trust: that of the importance of early training and education in morality. In Christianity, it had a strong religious base; in Confucianism, an ethical and social one.
The Christian idea of moral purification was perpetuated through literature as well as from the pulpit’s sermons. Both St. Augustine and Richard Baxter wrote directly about providing or acquiring a religious education as the necessary structure for the developing conscience. The Chinese philosophers in the Confucian tradition strove to inculcate ethical values through lectures and literatures; their ideas were then passed along and popularized by writers of fiction. So, too, Christian writers — whether or not they were philosophers — continuously composed prose, poetry, and dramas that elucidated the cause and the process of moral purification.
Notes for Chapter 6
1. Titus 2:11-15.
2. Titus, 2:1.
3. Titus, 2:15.
4. Titus, 2:4, 7, 8; II Timothy 2:2.
5. II Thessalonians 2:2.
6. Deuteronomy 4:9.
7. Deuteronomy, 6:6-9.
8. John 3:2; 13:13.
9. Matthew 28:19-20.
10. Acts 2:42.
11. I John 2:27.
12. St. Augustine, “Preface” On Christian Doctrine, trans. J. F. Shaw.Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, pp. 621-622.
13. John Donne, “XVII. Meditation,” in Poetry and Prose. New York: Random House, 1967, p. 339.
14. II Timothy 1:5.
15. St. Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, II, iii, 8, pp. 9-10.
16. Augustine, Confessions, V, vi, vii, pp. 28-30.
17. Augustine, Confessions, V, xiii, pp. 33-34.
18. Augustine, Confessions, V, viii, pp. 33-34.
19. Augustine, Confessions, V, viii, pp. 33-34.
20. Augustine, Confessions, VI, i, p. 35.
21. Augustine, Confessions, I, v, 6, p. 2.
22. Romans 7:12-24.
23. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, xii, 28, p. 60.
24. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, xii, p. 60.
25. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, xii, 29, pp. 60-61.
26. Michel De Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children,” in The Essays.Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, p. 72.
27. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale. New York: Library ofAmerica, 1983, p. 836.
28. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, i-v, pp. 53-55.
29. Augustine, Confessions, IX, vi, 14, p. 65.
30. Plato, “Ion,” The Dialogues, trans. Benjamin Jowett. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 7, pp. 142-148.
31. Augustine, Confessions, VI, ix – VII, xxi, pp. 40-51.
32. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, i, 1. p. 52.
33. Augustine, Confessions, VII, xx-xxi, pp. 51-52.
34. Otto Bird, “Saint Augustine on Reading,” in The Great Ideas Today 1988, ed. Mortimer Adler. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1988, p. 135.
35. Augustine, Confessions, III, xii, 21, p. 19.
36. Augustine, Confessions, XII, xv, 18-19, p. 103.
37. Augustine, Confessions, XIII, xix, pp. 116-117.
38. Augustine, Confessions, XIII, xix, pp. 116-117.
39. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, I, x, p. 627.
40. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, I, xi, p. 627.
41. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, I, xi, p. 627.
42. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, II, vii, pp. 638-639.
43. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, II, iii-iv, p. 637.
44. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, III, x, 14, p. 661.
45. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, III, xiv, p. 663.
46. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, III, x, 16, p. 662.
47. Jeremiah 15-19.
48. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, “Preface”, pp. 621-622.
49. “A Memoir of Richard Baxter,” 1863 ed. in Richard Baxter, The Practical Works. rpt. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981, p. xxii.
50. Geoffrey F. Nutall, Richard Baxter. London: Thomas Nelson, 1965, p. 46.
51. Richard Baxter, Poetical Fragments, 1681. rpt. London: Gregg International Publisher, 1971.
52. Richard Baxter, The Autobiography. Totowas, NJ: Rowan & Littlefield, 1974, p. 80.
53.Baxter, Autobiography, p. 82.
54. Baxter, Autobiography, p. 83.
55. Baxter, Autobiography, p. 80.
56. Baxter was a prolific writer. His style, though rather wordy, was influential in his time, becoming a pattern for many ministers. Some works are still of interest; e.g., The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, The Reformed Paster. q.v. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
57. Baxter, Autobiography, p. 82.
58. Baxter, Autobiography, pp. 125-133.
59. Acts 20:20.
60. C. F. Kemp, A Pastoral Triumph: The Story of Richard Baxter and His Ministry at Kidderminster. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1948, p.31.
61. Kemp, p. 31.
62. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 1656. rpt. New York: American Tract Society, 1829, pp. 328-329.
63. James C. M. Yu, The Bible and Literature: A Flying Scroll. Berkeley: Evangel Literature, Inc., pp. 439-445; II Thessalonians 2:15.
64. Yu, Bible and Literature, p. 328.
65. “A Memoir of Richard Baxter,” in The Practical Works, p. xxvii.
66. Baxter, Practical Works, p. 190.
67. Baxter, Practical Works, p. 201.
68. Baxter, Practical Works, p. 201.
69. Baxter, Practical Works, p. 207.
70. Baxter, Practical Works, p. 223.
71. Baxter, Practical Works, p. 223.
PRACTICAL ETHICS AS MORAL KNOWLEDGE:
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS AND NICOMACHEAN ETHICS
Aristotle’s sound moral philosophy has been known for many centuries. He asserted that “moral virtue is a disposition to will the right end and to choose the means for achieving it in the right way” 1 Moral virtue is distinguished from intellectual virtue: “Philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral.” 2
Though scientific knowledge and practical wisdom are neither inferior nor unimportant, we cannot neglect moral philosophy. That is to say, though we need to know things to survive, only moral virtue can equip us to make the right judgment, upon which our actions are built. 3
Partly for this reason the Roman Catholic Church, by utilizing the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, incorporated aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy into its own theology.
Though Aquinas’s moral philosophy is widely accepted, his notion of purification is strongly inclined toward the intellectual faculties, whereas that of both St. Paul and Augustine decidedly leans more to the spiritual, or supernatural.
From Aristotle to Aquinas in Ethical Thinking
Augustine believed that no human beings by themselves can obtain the truth manifested by divine grace. Augustine’s view derives in part from St. Paul, but it was also influenced by Plato.
On Plato’s death in 347 B.C., Aristotle wrote an elegy praising his late Master as “the man whom it is not lawful for bad man even to praise, who alone or first of mortals clearly revealed, by his own life and by the methods of his words, how to be happy is to be good.” 4
Despite of some differences in details, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics also reasons that happiness is the ultimate goal of ethics. To enjoy a happy life, one must have good physical health, and must be in good moral condition as well. Thus the art of teaching and the art of healing have much in common.
It seems as if Aquinas baptized Aristotle just as Augustine christened Plato. But Aquinas differed from Aristotle in the way he characterized happiness. What the Greek philosopher considered happiness Aquinas would call imperfect happiness. For him, with perfect happiness “the ultimate end is not to be found in any created thing, but in God, who is Himself the supreme and infinite Good… the universal Good.” 5
Thomas Aquinas was not a syncretist, but he was a great systematizer. He knew well that Aristotle was a philosopher of common sense. So he adopted Aristotle’s concept of pursuing happiness rightly. To do that, one must first conceive and then know what happiness is, then make that choice. Thus arises the need of a moral standard of right and wrong; and then to perpetually purge away the wrong and form the right habit of moral choice. To Aquinas, the power to break the evil cycle of wrong choice comes from God’s grace. When we know the distinction between right and wrong, and then assume moral responsibility, we become capable of moral purification.
Following Albertus Magnus, at the University of Paris, Thomas Aquinas embraced Aristotle’s philosophy. Almost all his life (1224-1274), Aquinas wrote commentaries on Aristotle and defended his philosophical position. There is little wonder that he adopted the same terms which Aristotle used. He also divided virtues into moral and intellectual. 6 Obliged to stay in line with the official Catholic doctrine, Aquinas added the theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity [agape love]. 7 He quoted Augustine by saying that “the soul needs to follow something in order to give birth to virtue. This something is God; if we follow Him we shall live well.” 8
Here we can see Aquinas’s moral philosophy as a two-tier edifice: the lower level is human natural effort, to form the character; the higher, supernatural, bestowed by the grace of God.
Nevertheless, on the subject of human virtues in relation to actions, Aquinas relied heavily on Aristotle. Since human beings live together in this world, we need to apply these virtues in daily life. Aquinas said: “All the moral virtues that are about operations agree in the one general notion of justice, which is in respect of something due to another.” 9 This means that justice, as the moral system governing a human community, should be internalized and mutually observed. The reign of justice can then be extended to external operation, forming the basis of legal systems and politics.
As for the relation between intellectual and moral virtues, Aquinas, though far from regarding ignorance as virtue, did not equate knowledge with virtue either. He believed that –
Moral virtue can be without some of the intellectual virtues, namely, wisdom, science, and art; but not without understanding and prudence. Moral virtue cannot be without prudence, because moral virtue is a habit of choosing, that is, making us choose well. 10
Aquinas thereby regarded prudence as a balancing liaison between two kinds of virtues: moral and intellectual. Though one may have all good intentions, to bring them into full operation judgment, discernment, etc. are essential – so as to know what is good, and then to perform what one knows to be good. That is to say, to will something is one thing, but to do it is quite another. Therefore, prudence is needed to fill in the gap.
Evoking Augustine once again, Aquinas stated that among moral virtues there are four cardinal ones: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. He further divided them as political virtues, cleansing virtues, virtues of the cleansed soul, and exemplary virtues. By their functions and their degree, virtues will reach “the summit of perfection.” As Jesus says, ‘Be ye… perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48).’” 11
Then, what is it that man can and should do and what makes man have to depend on God? Aquinas stated that moral virtues and intellectual virtues can be acquired by human action. It is a human obligation, and within human ability to acquire them, whereas theological virtues come only by infusion from God. 12 For this reason, Aquinas emphasized moral virtue. He believed that the concept of moral virtue stems from the Latin word mos, which means custom and manner.
In Aquinas’s reasoning it follows, then, that one must educate or cultivate oneself when aiming for “a natural or quasi-natural inclination to do some particular action.” 13 By this notion, Aquinas viewed virtues as “good habits,” and vices as “bad habits.” This is why we need moral education alongside intellectual education.
Aquinas made it clear that although he recognized man’s educability, he was far from being deluded about mankind’s perfectibility — as philosophers in the upcoming Age of Enlightenment would be, in the eighteenth century. In his view, by his natural powers alone and without God’s grace, man cannot fulfill the Commandments of the Law, and thus cannot merit everlasting life. Therefore, God’s infusion of grace is for the remission of sin and guilt, and for the justification of the ungodly. 14
Dante wrote his masterpiece the Divine Comedy based on Aquinas’s concept. The great epic is told as a first-person narrative. In the early part, the poet Virgil guides the narrator through a visit to Hell. It is the idealized lady Beatrice, however, who takes him to Paradise. Allegorically, Virgil symbolizes human efforts of moral and intellectual teaching, while Beatrice symbolizes the blessed divine grace that leads man to God’s place. The combination of these two elements results in man’s purification and perfection. 15
Finally, I would like to point to an oft-quoted passage from St. Paul’s writings which is commonly misunderstood:
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 16
Paul says, in effect, that though moral education is purposeful, it is quite powerless. One should not misinterpret Paul and see him as a habitual evil-doer. Quite the contrary, for he himself testified that as “touching the righteousness which is in the law, [he was] blameless.” 17
What Paul really meant is that he did know, and had the will, to do what he understood to be good, but could not perform it. In other words, through moral education, he understood mentally and intellectually what was good, and wanted to do it, but only met with unexpected defeat when he tried. He found that his body held a sinful element that influenced his flesh, leading him to do otherwise than the good he had willed.
Therefore, though Paul did not negate the importance of moral teachings, he emphasized that, above all, one needs God to vouchsafe His prevenient grace empower one to produce the fruit of the Spirit, i.e., to practice good deeds at will. 18 Moral teachings and purification meant a lifelong exercise, just as one needs to wash one’s feet often to always stay clean. 19
Although Thomas Aquinas’s success in combining reason with faith is significant, his philosophical fusion of the two encountered many controversies during his lifetime, and afterward. His exalting of Aristotle as “the philosopher” made many Catholics uncomfortable. Near the very end of his life, when urged by his companion to complete his Summa, Thomas left these famous words in reply: “I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as straw….”
Nevertheless, Aquinas was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323, about a half-century after his death. His works earned a special place at the Council of Trent. His theology may be akin to facere quod in se est — to do the best that is within one’s natural power – thus earning the infusion of divine grace.
The Path to Purification
St. Augustine stated that members of the human race, which is descended from Adam, are doomed unless persons among them choose to adhere to the only universal means of deliverance: believing that Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection enables one to become a citizen in the City of God. “This way purifies the whole man and prepares the mortal in all his parts for immortality.” 20 For Augustine, God is the Blessed righteousness and perfection. Since human beings are defiled at birth and ordained to live in spiritual darkness unless reunited with God, then purification is a necessary process.
The soul must be purified that it may have power to perceive the light, and to rest in it when it is perceived. And let us look upon this purification as a kind of journey or voyage to our native land. 21
But to go to that land, we must first know the way. Jesus Christ is the Way — the Son of God, and the Incarnate Word, who came into this sin-stained world, and “condescended to adapt Himself to our weakness, and to show us a pattern of holy life in the form of our own humanity.” 22 Thus Christ established the very pattern of purification.
The real intention of this purification process is not to produce exemplary saints who will show the world how good they are as individuals, but to purify the Church as a whole, into a holy community — to become a healthy body eligible to be the perfect Bride of Christ Himself.
Augustine saw God in terms of the art of bodily healing: “As the use of remedies is the way to health, so this remedy took up sinners to heal and restore them… [Christ] being Himself healer and a medicine both in one.” 23Christ cures some people by His example of virtue, e.g., His love, holiness and righteousness, etc.; others, by suffering, and persecutions. All of these are to serve toward His good purpose of purification, then perfection.
To the Reformation thinkers, and to Calvin in particular (the English Puritans were generally Calvinists), man’s goal in life is to know God and glorify Him. One ought to do good. This is not because it is the way of obtaining happiness, but because it is the way to fulfill one’s obligation — i.e., to glorify God. However, as the fallen race, we are wont to do evil until we receive God’s saving grace, and the sustaining grace that comes with it. The responsibility, then, of the saved race — or saints — is to do God’s will. Failure to do so causes guilt. To clear one’s guilt requires moral purification; the alternative is being purged away by Divine retribution.
Let us look now at some products of this purity-promoting mode of thinking and acting as it moved into the center stage of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Notes for Chapter 7
1. Mortimer J. Adler, “A Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,” inThe Great Idea Today 1988. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1988, pp. 290-31.
2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. I, 13, p. 348.
3. Aristotle, Bk. VI, pp. 387-394.
4. W. D. Ross, “Biographical Note” Aristotle, trans. E. M. Edghill, et al.Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984.
5. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1985, vol. I, p. 399.
6. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. English DominicanProvince. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, Vol. II, Q LVIII, pp. 41-45.
7. Aquinas: II, Q LXII, pp. 59-66.
8. Aquinas: II, Q LXI, p. 58.
9. Aquinas: II, Q LX, p. 51.
10. Aquinas: II, Q LVIII, p. 44.
11. Aquinas: II, Q LXII, p. 59.
12. Aquinas: II, Q LXIII, p. 65.
13. Aquinas: II, Q LVIII, p. 41.
14. Aquinas: II, Q CIX-CXIV, pp. 338-375.
15. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. Charles Eliot Norton.Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984.
16. Romans 7:16-25.
17. Philippians 3:6.
18. Galatians 5:22-23.
19. John 13:2-17.
20. St. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, X:32, p. 321.
21. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, I:10, p. 627.
22. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, I:11, p. 627.
23. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, I:14-16, pp. 627-628.
PHILOSOPHICAL IDEAS OF MORAL PURIFICATION
IN ELIZABETHAN AND PURITAN ENGLAND
Martin Luther’s Reformation movement against the Church of Rome in the early part of the sixteenth century set down the first important doctrines for the Protestant Reformation. Among them were some political principles. Politics, however, was not the prime concern of his thought. The revolt that Luther unleashed let loose a broad stream of reformers of all kinds. The only thing they had in common was a desire for change; hence the mode and motto of the age were reformation and purification.
England’s geographical situation made it more independent from Rome, especially after Henry VIII’s noisy rupture in 1534 with the Rome Catholic Church which gave Protestantism a safe haven and both civil and theological acceptability in England.
England became the place where the Protestant principles were carried to their ultimate political test in the brief reign of Puritanism (1649-1660), which had overthrown the monarchy. By colonizing New England in the early seventeenth century, the Puritan exiles set the stage for experiment in North America.
England was also a land in which independent and sometimes even iconoclastic thinking and expression was generally allowed. The most advanced original English thinker of the age is Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) — the Renaissance Man personified. Though he was a lover of order and aphorism, he tried to be cautious against over-systematization, superficial cleverness, and other flaws in thought and action, so as to gain a full and clearer understanding of the world as it was, comprising both nature and human society.
Bacon’s intellect tended toward purifying the dross. He called people to “ward off and expel idols.” He named them: “The idols of the tribe are inherent in human nature and the very tribe or race of man”; “the idols of the market, from the commerce and association of man with each other”; finally, “the idols of the theatre: for we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictions and theatrical worlds.” 1
Bacon proposed that people needed to develop a new logic in order to discover the “forms” of simple nature, and to collect a comprehensive natural history. Since his main concern was to advance in scientific knowledge in general, he left to others around him much of consideration regarding the proper conduct of political life and morality. Yet ultimately the modern science he helped to formulate would have benefitted from giving a better attention to both.
The Puritan Age and Puritan Ideas
The paradigm of the Age of Reformation was moral consciousness. It became a driving force behind the new social, political, and economic movements. Because the Bible was made available to the common people for the first time in history, through translations that were then conveyed into printed books, Christians could access standards for making moral judgments, on their rulers (including priests as well as kings) as well as themselves.
Since the Bible appeared in translations into vernacular English, circulating rapidly and widely. Everyone who could read therefore might make his own interpretation of the Bible’s instructions. Not only did this new, direct relationship between individuals and God result in the growth of individualism in religious thought, but it also brought on the spirit of independence in church polity and democracy in politics. 2 This implies that for the good of the commonwealth, the people have as much right as the magistrates to purge the evil, whoever that might be. Underlying this theory is the danger that if everyone assumes he is as good as his master, it may be permissible to exercise tyrannicide. Unpopular monarchs might then face ceaseless rebellions.
John Knox (1514-1572) was a chief foster father of English Puritanism. The Presbyterian Church, originally the Church of Scotland, evolved from his theological and political tenets. In 1554 Knox had issued his Faithful Admonition. It “included a direct attack upon the Queen [Mary Tudor] as more bloodthirsty than Jezebel.” 3 Instead of stressing the obedience of subject citizens, “pray for a Jehu to remedy the situation,” 4 Knox at this point referred to the Old Testament military chief-captain of Israel, who engineered a coup, killed Queen Jezebel and purified the nation. One can easily understand why Elizabeth (reigning from 1558 to 1603) regarded Puritans as a dangerous revolutionary force within her kingdom and therefore never showed her favor to this thought and sect.
In its early period especially, Puritan theology differed little from other sects of Protestants. Justification by faith, the Bible as the only supreme authority for Christian thought, Christ as the only mediator between God and mankind – these doctrines were (and are) generally shared by all Protestants. But the Puritans, significantly, stressed the additional concept of Purification.
According to the Puritans, God’s Elect are the true Christians — saved by God’s implanted grace and motivated by an in-dwelling Holy Spirit. Having obtained salvation and sanctification, these saints are predestined for good works in society.
There is always the question of how pure saints should dwell within an impure world. Some people enter monasteries to escape from the world, leading an ascetic life that is cut off from the impure. Others find the only hope rested on the new Jerusalem, the new Heaven and new Earth to come. The Puritans prescribed another way: to live a pure life on Earth, and to treat the daily experiences of life as a process of purifying oneself. 5
“Thus saith the LORD” was no longer a phrase that belonged to a privileged few, who uttered it as God’s oracles, but to everyone who could read the Bible. Consequently, when Puritanism emerged in England, it was not only a religious or philosophical concept, but one that had everything to do with daily life. 6 Puritanism 7 was a sect of Protestantism that originated in sixteenth-century England. 8 Its aim was the immediate and thorough reformation and purification of Church polity and religious practice from anything not specifically authorized by Scriptures. Puritans therefore enjoined the strictest purity in every walk of daily life.
As time passed, the Puritans grew in number. By the time Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, the spirit of this segment of society had acquired considerable power — even though it had not yet acquired its distinctive, special name. Less than a year after Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the advocates of political reform made a vocal political stand:
A joint statement of faith presented to the Queen by returning exiles… contained such phrases as these: A tyrant or evil magistrate… is a power ordained of God, and is also to be honoured and obeyed of the people in all things not contrary to God, as their magistrate and governor. It is not lawful for any private person or persons to kill, or by any means to procure the death of, a tyrant or evil person, being the ordinary magistrate. All conspiracies, seditions, and rebellions, of private men, against the magistrates, men or women, good governors or evil, are unlawful and against the Will and Word of God. 9
This statement, interestingly, unlike the standard oath of allegiance taken by subjects to their newly enthroned queen, voiced that: 1) private citizens, including Christians, should obey their liege so far as such action is “not contrary to God”; 2) private citizens shall not kill any persons, so they should not kill their ruler, thus implying a sense of equality of ruler and ruled, giving no special status to those holding office; 3) Parliament may have the right to deal with a tyrant; and 4) God is above the ruler. However, the crucial point made was that if the civil government or ruler is ever “contrary to God,” then the people are not obliged to obey and can act on their liberty of conscience.
But how does one know God’s Will? Both God’s Word — the Bible — and His Will leave much room for interpretation. Luther’s principles stressed justification by faith, the Bible as the source of Christian knowledge, and Christ alone as the mediator, not the prelacies. This claim had significant political implication.
The year of 1569 is a landmark in the growth of Puritanism, for in that year many Puritans turned to Presbyterianism, in part doubtless because they now thought of the bishops as their opponents. 10
Even so, there were people among the Puritans who showed their moderate stand. Instead of arguing on church polity, they emphasized on the purifying of the “two pestilent fountains, self-love and ambition,” 11 by pointing out these vices as most fearful, able to “wound and destroy the society of the saints and the polity of kingdoms.” 12 That is to say, though the majority of Puritans shifted their theological stand towards Calvinism, their central concept of purification remained. For John Knox, John Hooper and Thomas Cartwright to William Perkins, Thomas Gataker, Thomas Hooker, and even John Milton, this concept was generally held true and unvarying.
Generally speaking, the earlier Puritans sought reform within the Anglican Church. Their revolutionary attitude only appeared in the later period, when they began to make political declarations and then become involved in forcing changes in religious practices, in public morality, and in the government.
The Puritan Revolt in seventeenth-century England resulted in the capture and eventually beheading of King Charles Stuart II. To justify this regicide, poet John Milton, as Latin Secretary of the Protectorate government, pennedThe Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Eikonoklasles, and The Second Defense of the People of England. 13 The Puritans tended to regard this deed as necessary to purify morally a corrupt political state.
The concept of purification is not altogether unknown in the Bible. 14 But for the Puritans it was extremely important, serving as a central concept to synthesize different theological and philosophical views and to draw the people of different thoughts together. It takes away people’s resistance to and fear of change, by assuring them that purifying is not a degenerate change, but a path of evolution, a means of getting rid of the dross and moving toward a promising perfect ideal. Thus emerged the twin concepts of individual purification and social purification, which were easily adapted to St. Augustine’s City of God, the historic conception of progress which underlay the climate of opinion of the Tudor-Stuart era.
Purification is a powerful idea because: 1) it offers a hope of perfection and removes people’s mental inertia, making “change” not only desirable but irresistible; 2) it elevates the criteria of right and wrong above the old criteria of degree and order; 3) it links the theology and ethics of Christian conduct with political philosophy. This important development finds varied expression in the literature of the age, not only among the Puritans, but in the other camps as well.
The significance of this concept, I believe, led to a change in the dominating concern for the social order, to a concern for the moral health of individuals. That is to say, the concept of the Great Chain of Being, or, the Ladder to All High Designs, gradually loses its power. Instead of seeing society as a collective body requiring order, right and wrong become essentially an individual moral concern. Vice, regardless of the social or political position of its agent, needs to be purged. Therefore, the need for moral purification became a significant part of the thought and expression of the age and the century that succeeded it.
We can look now for evidence in English literature, from the sixteenth through the seventeenth centuries, for the concept of moral purification. Just as the ethical ideas within Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism, which included a form of moral purification, were spread in China through literary works, so in England we might expect to see the Puritans’ emphasis on purification promoted from the pulpit, but also expressed in more private and personal forms, such as poetry.
However, subtle traces of it can also be encountered in unexpected quarters.
Notes for Chapter 8
1. Francis Bacon, Novum Organum. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, pp. 109-110.
2. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors. Carlisle,PA: Banner of Truth, 1987, pp. 150-152.
3. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, p. 116.
4. Cf. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, p. 117. But Knox’s suggestion of revolution implied divine leadership of an unusual and extraordinary type. He did not think in terms of a popular or national uprising without such assistance. The message which made James I furious and led him to denounce The GenevaBible was its note on Exodus 1:19, “Their disobedience herein was lawful; which referred to the midwives fearing God and disobeying Pharaoh; and in vs. 20-21: “God therefore prospered the midwives… and because the midwives feared God, therefore He made them houses.” Another note that did no little to irritate His Majesty was “on II Chronicles 15:16, which stated that King Asa’s mother should have been executed, and not merely deposed, for her idolatry.” Such was the spirit of Puritanism. q.v. Bruce, History of The Bible in English, pp. 96-97.
5. Max Weber sees this Puritan “Worldly asceticism” as attributing to the rise of capitalism. Cf. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958, ch. IV, pp. 95-154.
6. “Puritans [were] noted for a spirit of moral and religious earnestness that determined their whole way of life, and they sought through church reform to make their lifestyle the pattern for the whole nation.” q.v. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984.
7. The term “Puritan,” was first used by a Catholic, Thomas Stapleton. It seems to have occurred in Catholic attacks on the official Anglican policy statement. In an attack on Jewel, Nowell and the Protestant’s claim to represent the primitive church in general; Stapleton referred to “the Puritans” and the vestment controversy in a book published in 1565. Cf. Leonard J. Trinterud, Elizabethan Puritanism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971, p.7.
8. The Puritan movement in England became a dynamic social force in the latter half of the sixteenth-century. William Haller marked its starting at the time of Thomas Cartwright’s expulsion from Cambridge University in 1570. Marshall Mason Knappen, on the other hand, dated the beginning of the Puritan movement as early as 1524, almost right after the Reformation took place in the Continent, and even before England became officially Protestant. In 1524, William Tyndale decided to go to Germany in order to prepare an English translation of the Bible and in the hope of bringing reform to his native country. As to the term “Puritan,” it was used around 1563-1567. D. M. Lloyd-Jones asserted that John Knox was the founder of Puritanism. Cf. William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism. New York: Harper & Row, 1957, p. 5. Marshall Mason Knappen, Tudor Puritanism. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1963, pp. 3-30. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, pp. 260-281.
9. Knappen, p. 172.
10. Everett H. Emerson, English Puritanism: From John Hooper to John Milton. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1968, p. 15.
11. Emerson, p. 105.
12. Emerson, p. 107.
13. Cf. John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1957, pp. 750-838.
14. As to the purification of God’s Elect, it is a subject not uncommon in the Bible, e.g., Malachi, 3:2-3: “He is like a purging fyre, and like fullers sope. He shall sit down to try and fine the siluer.” I Peter, 1:22: “Seing your foules are purified in obeing the trueth through the Spirit…” (quote from The Geneva Bible).
POETRY PROMOTES THE NOTION OF MORAL PURIFICATION
“Poets to be Seers…” The vision behind that expression by the archaic Greeks became an unspoken but acted upon principle in Puritanism. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, its social application was to spread the idea of moral purification.
Writers, of course, are often the primary purveyors in society of new or newly challenging ideas. The spoken word and the written word propagate these ideas not only among the intelligentsia, but also among the general populace. What may have initially seemed strange or difficult or even abhorrent can be made to seem, through artistry, into something reasonable and acceptable.
Is There Any Puritanism in Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare wrote during the period in which the English Puritans were developing their political and theological might. That the concept of purification appeared in Shakespeare’s work should not be totally unexpected, since he lived and wrote in the Elizabethan period, at a time when Puritanism was gaining great strength in England.
George Bernard Shaw expressed a deep antagonism to Shakespeare’s mental acuity when he said:
Shakespeare’s weakness lies in his complete deficiency in that highest sphere of thought, in which poetry embraces religion, philosophy, morality, and the bearing of these on communities, which is sociology. His characters have no religion, no politics, no conscience, no hope, no convictions of any sort. 1
Actually, this anti-Stratfordian sentiment is not without some lineage; Samuel Taylor Coleridge had stated it in his highly celebrated Lectures on Shakespeare nearly two centuries ago (1811-12). These critics were descendants of Voltaire, in that they were fundamentally secular and anti-religious. 2 They were inherently ill-disposed to look for and appreciate any spiritual elements in Shakespeare’s writings.
I am not a laudator temporis acti; yet I have a disposition that appreciates Shakespeare’s artistry. I also believe that his thought and belief are closely associated with his era. Victor Hugo said: “England has two books: The Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare and the Bible made England.” Clearly, the cultural milieu had cardinal importance in shaping Shakespeare’s thought. He is far from having “no convictions of any sort.” As an author, he was bound to express them through some favored characters in his plays; and more intimately, he would reveal them in his poems.
We have no way to categorize Shakespeare as a religionist, much less a Puritan. Yet while he lived, the Puritan concept of purification was becoming the dominating thought of the age and the land. To my knowledge, no one has previously attempted to establish the proposition that Shakespeare could not avoid being influenced by it. The reason for this, I think, may be the belief that since “many of the playwrights were employed to write plays by noblemen; an obvious sympathy to degree and order might be expected”; therefore, the playwrights, including Shakespeare, “had every reason to be thoroughly out of humour with the rising group of Puritans so anxious to shut the theatres.” 3
There is evidence that Shakespeare might have ridiculed or detested Puritans, as in his depictions of Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure. Nevertheless, he could not escape the penetrating and pervasive influence of Puritan thought that underlay and surrounded the ebullient Elizabethan spirit. After all, he was a fellow believer in the same basic religion of Christianity, used the same version of the Bible, 4 and shared some of the Puritans’ concerns.
As we shall examine in some detail in this chapter and the following one, though the Bard may have rejected specific doctrines of Puritanism, he definitely adopted Puritan themes. What seemed true or important to others may be equally true and important to Shakespeare: “No man can step clear of his time any more than he can leap over his own shadow.” 5 Even if he consciously rejected the Puritans’ ideology, it does not necessarily follow that he rejected all Puritan concepts.
Let us look, now, for ways in which Shakespeare may have dealt with the Puritans’ idea of moral purification in his own personal life.
The Concept of Purification in the “Dark Lady” Sonnets
William Shakespeare occupies a position above all other English writers and ranks as a prime luminary in world literature. Therefore, scholars the world over, year by year, examine every miniscule facet of his works, probe into what few remnants there are of his personal life, and speculate endlessly about who he was, what he really felt or meant by writing such-and-such, and indeed, whether he existed at all. Above all, inquirers try to make an intimate connection between the author’s identity and a particularly compelling character.
Among the most popular scholarly pursuits has been trying to catch the elusive female in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Sonnets 127-154 constitute a series which stands by itself. Known as the “Dark Lady” sonnets, 6 they show the poet’s internal discord. Shakespearean students have quite different opinions regarding this personage.
In the late eighteenth century, “The game of the identity of the dark lady began in earnest…. Mistress Davenant has, then, been proposed as the dark lady.” Among other candidates there are two maids of honor to Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Vernon and Mary Fitton. 7 Some stories even suggested that the dark lady was no other than Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I! But these are merely guesses which lack supporting evidence. Other scholars also believe that there was actually a dark lady but do not point their fingers at a specified person. As Philip Martin stated, “The dark woman indeed is everything the Petrarchan mistress is not, except in one particular: her capacity to obsess the poet’s imagination.” 8
Still others have gone even further, imagining that the “dark lady” in fact was a “dark lad.” Among them, Oscar Wilde maintained that the dark lady was a Mr. W. H., to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets were originally dedicated, “a wonderful boy actor of great beauty” whom Shakespeare loved, named Willie Hughes. 9 (Of course, this reflected Wilde’s own character rather than Shakespeare’s.)
The wild guesses have gone on and on, with the title of the “dark lady” falling upon the heads of William Herbert, William Hathaway, William Hall, and William Harvey. But the difficulty is that among the records of Elizabethan acting companies there is no trace of any actor named Willie Hughes, though the records are fairly complete. 10
As to other names linked to the “dark lady,” there has not been enough known connection between them and the Bard to establish a verdict of anything conclusive. D. Barnstorff even suggested, rather ingeniously, that the W. H. stands for “William Himself” (i.e., Shakespeare). 11
This kind of literary sleuthing also happens with other successful authors. When Gustave Flaubert was asked about the model for the tragic heroine in his famous novel, Madam Bovary, he uttered his famous statement: “Madam Bovary is me.” Actually, Flaubert was echoing one of his favorite authors, the Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes. According to the story, Cervantes was asked on his deathbed whom he meant to depict in Don Quixote. “Myself,” he answered. 12
It is quite possible, then, that if one asked Shakespeare the identity of this notorious “dark lady,” he might answer in the same way: William Himself. Thus we could regard these poems of his as soliloquies, much as we tend to quote Shakespearean monologues and attribute the ideas expressed as belonging to the Bard himself.
On the other hand, the great appeal and value of Shakespeare’s art, whether in his plays or poems, lie in their universality. So let us examine the “dark lady” sonnets first in terms of Shakespeare’s own life, as others may conjecture it. Then let us look at them in wider ways: as creative products of the era in which Shakespeare lived and, beyond that, in terms of human feeling and thinking through the ages — elements that may exist in all people, at all times.
The Dark Lady: Who She Is and What She Does
In Sonnet 127, Shakespeare introduces his “dark lady”:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name,
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
This shows that “black” is not the ideal of beauty of “the old age,” which hints that aesthetic values, along with the Christian value system, have degenerated. With a cynical tone one can hardly miss, Shakespeare connoted that “now” is a “dark” age, the “black beauty’s successive heir” rules. Thereby the typical Puritan reasoning pattern is set: while there is darkness, the light is needed; corruption calls for purification.
However, in Sonnet 132, Shakespeare even suggests that black is a mourner’s color, and speaks of “two mourning eyes.” Yet, he says, “Then will I swear beauty herself is black,” and “this black is fairest in my judgment’s place.” Obviously, this means he is haunted by the woman’s beauty — an atypical beauty — though it is at odds with the ideal of beauty, of course, in contrast with social and ethical norms.
According to Shakespeare’s own feeling, this “dark lady” is far from kind to him:
Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel.
For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel. (Sonnet 131)
Indeed, this is a very strange love affair. More than that, Shakespeare knows her faults well enough:
Oh, call not me to justify the wrong
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart…
What need’st thou would with cunning when thy might
Is more than my o’erpressed defense can hide?…
Here, the Bard had a clear sense of right and wrong, but was overpowered by the lady’s strange power and had on way to defend himself. That is to say, “Will” (N.B., William) is defeated. Shakespeare even says, she “makes me sin, awards me pain” (Sonnet 141). This means he had done something immoral and he should have been rewarded with suffering; i.e., it was bound to cause remorse and inner conflicts.
That Shakespeare would have willingly put up with such an unbearable lover is problematic to me. Thus, we might search for some other explanation for his “dark lady.” Had the “dark lady” really existed, it would probably have been hard for Shakespeare to resist her temptations. In Sonnet 131 he gives us another clue:
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think proceeds.
The “dark lady,” then, is not really black in color of skin, in appearance, nor in apparel; she is black in “deeds.” In other words, the reader should not take her black complexion literally. Her darkness is dark deeds. This is apparent also in Sonnet 147:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night.
Obviously, a lady, or a human being, should not be both “fair” and “black,” “bright” and “dark.” Therefore, the word “black” or “dark” really refers to ill influence or evil inclination. This will be discussed more fully later. If one could possibly miss these remarks, the Bard plainly pointed out the eternal and universal danger: “Hell” and “night.”
Then, we come to another basic question: what does “lady” mean? We assume it is simply defined as a woman. However, according to conventional Christian thought, woman is “the weaker vessel,” 13 and originally it was “the woman [who] was deceived, and was in the transgression.” 14 Moreover, in the Bible, the “whore” also means the temptation, by which “your minds shulde be corrupt from the simplicitie that is in Christ.” 15
Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Marlowe, in his play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, used female figures to symbolize “The Seven Deadly Sins.” 16 If Marlowe employed woman as a metaphor for evil, there is at least an equal probability that the “dark lady” is also a metaphor in Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Stephen Booth offered a provocative suggestion when he asserted that Sonnet 146 is “The Internal Dialogue between the Soule and Body.” 17 But he seemed reluctant to move further by extending the metaphor and carrying through the “Dark Lady” series as a whole. Booth was basically “concerned with the speaker’s relationship to a brunette.” 18
My conviction is that the “Dark Lady” sonnets series is a story of soul-body discord. It shows passions warring within the speaker — Shakespeare. He chose a figurative woman to serve as his alter ego so that he could dramatize the ongoing turbulence.
The cause of this internal conflict in classic philosophical or theological terms is known as “duality.” It occurs when a person’s soul and body have lost their concordance, and are no longer in harmony. Such a condition, which is neither normal nor moral, is revealed in the “Dark Lady” sonnets.
I will narrow down this discussion of the “dark lady” of the sonnets to my assumption that she embodies the duality conflict. I do not regard her as a historical figure.
The Dark Lady and Dark Lust
The duality point of view establishes a basis for interpreting the “Dark Lady” sonnets. In them are successive portraits of conflict between the ideality and the reality of life. The ideal life is order and harmony; 19 the reality of life is disorder or chaos. This ambiguity is caused by the co-existence of duality.
The idea of right order, or harmony, is basic to the Christian thought which dominated European Christendom down to Shakespeare’s age. Briefly, it means reason guiding passion and spirit controlling body. This duality can be traced as far back as the ancient Hellenic age. In Christendom, it comes mainly from the thought of St. Augustine, who wrote:
… soul is not the whole man, but the better part of man; the body not the whole, but the inferior part of man; while a man is alive, and body and soul are united… speaking of the soul as the ‘inward man’ and of the body as the ‘outward man.’20
Unfortunately, the realities of the human situation make it hard to follow this ideal. Since the fall of man, “then began the flesh to lust against the spirit, in which strife we are born….” 21
This “strife,” and the discontent engendered by it, shows up as a continual struggle in Christian theological thought, culture, and literature. In civilization,
… every race which has deeply impressed itself on the human family has been the representative of some great idea — one or more — which gives direction to the nation’s life and form to its civilization… among the Hebrews it was purity…. The Anglo-Saxon is the representative of two great ideas, which are closely related. One of them is that of civil liberty… the other is that of a pure Spiritual Christianity. 22
In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare gave us a full description of his “mistress”:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red than her lips red.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun,
If hairs be wire, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks….
In the Song of Songs chapters 4 and 7, in the Bible, there is a picture ofperfection, faultless beyond that which human beauty can reach. It is an idealistic description of human perfection. Here Shakespeare intentionally used similar terms but applied them ironically to their opposite: a brunette, according to the Renaissance standard, was far from ideal; furthermore, there is nothing which seems fair of her. Still, he seemed bewitched by his mistress, saying:
And yet, by Heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
That is to say, he became willing to deceive himself: to see the truth of the whole world as false in comparison to his passion and to deny all accepted aesthetic valuation. If one is blind to black and white, disregards moral norms and absolutes, then he is in real trouble indeed.
Shakespeare could not subject himself to the dark lady’s tyrannous rule forever. He was discontented with his situation. Moreover, the “dark lady” not only imprisoned and enslaved Shakespeare himself, but hurt the heart of his “friend” also (133, 11. 7-10). This means that the Christian enslaved by flesh grieves the Holy Spirit 23 at the same time. Therefore, he longed for freedom and a harmonious life.
This expectation of living in harmony is linked to the thought of Shakespeare’s age, as is the Christian’s ideal and obligation as well. It means that after redemption from sin by Christ, and having been free of sin, one should lead a life of righteousness and no longer for oneself, but for one’s savior. This state is shown in Sonnet 134:
So, now I have confessed that he is thine
And I myself am mortgaged to thy will,
Myself I’ll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore, to be my comfort still.
But thou wilt not, nor he will not be free,
For thou art covetous, and he is kind.
He learned but surety-like to write for me,
Under that bond that him as fast doth bind….
The “dark lady” represents temptation to be resisted. In this sonnet “thou” and “he” get confused; both seem to fight to have ruling authority over the poet. Here is what the Bible says: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contraries one to the other, so that ye cannot do the same things that ye wolde.” 24
In the poem, “he” (Christ Jesus) knows fully what the human condition is like: “He learned but surety-like to write for me,” means that he became the “mediator” and paid the ransom for atonement, but unfortunately, “He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.”
Then in Sonnets 135 and 136, a great “Will” conflict goes on. Even from the word alone, we can sense the feeling of confusion. Obviously “Will” is Shakespeare’s name, William. But it means Will’s will also. When it says, “thye will,” therefore, it could mean “Will, who belongs to thee”; yet there is “thy large will,” which makes me think it suggests the Will of Heaven, and “me” in that one “Will.” The most confusing part reads:
“Will” will fulfill the treasure of thy love —
Aye, fill it full with wills, and my will one…
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me, for my name is “Will”.
Apparently, the last line should clear the confusion; instead, it makes things even more confused. It can mean the dedication of the poet’s will to the Will of Heaven, or it can mean “my name” (i.e., myself) is “Will” — self-willed desires and even lusts.
In Sonnet 144, Shakespeare took one step further in revealing the complexity of duality:
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still.
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colored ill.
To win me soon to Hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell,
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s Hell.
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
The relationship is: both angels are friends to him; but they are enemies to each other at the same time — coexistent, but not in peace. In this struggle, the “ill-colored” lady or “ill angel,” 25 seemed to triumph; the poet was deeply afraid that his friend would be overpowered by the “ill-colored woman,” and turned to a “fiend.” As Northrop Frye observes, “The dark lady is an incarnation of desire rather than love.” 26
Actually, this is a foreseeable bitter fruit, which the poet himself stated earlier in Sonnet 129:
… as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad…
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe.
Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the Heaven that leads men to this Hell.
The poet not only regards vain pleasure as a “dream,” but also “as swallowed bait,” which may result in his sufferings — as of a fish that swallows bait and loses its life. Though he realizes that “the world well knows” this, he cannot resist this tragedy. It is repeated again and again: man rises to the bait of temptation, the “dark lady.” Then he pleads for a cure, to help to ease the pain.
In Sonnet 147, he begs for the remedy from “Reason”:
… My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic — mad with evermore unrest.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are….
Since “Reason” offers no help to him, angers him, and leaves him, this incurable disease drives the poet to and fro. In fact, it is not that he did not want to keep the “prescriptions,” but that he could not; the prescriptive moral rules, i.e., the letter of the law, simply do not help a person to purify or conquer his passion. In great pain, nearly mad, he desires death for release. In this mental state of anguish, he is “so vexed with watching and with tears” (Sonnet 148). That is to say, the Bard spent sleepless nights, with tears flowing down his cheeks, just like what Augustine did before his conversion in seeking for salvation. He struggles incessantly with his guilty conscience. It shows more explicitly in Sonnet 151:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My noble part to my gross body’s treason.
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love, flesh stays no farther reason….
Of course, “My noble part” refers to St. Augustine’s “the better part,” and the body or “flesh” is the “inferior part of man.”
However, at last, in Sonnets 153 and 154, the solution comes:
Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep.
A maid of Dian’s this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground,
Which borrowed from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And drew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
Here, Diana, the goddess of virginity from mythology, has some ancient but continuing relationship with the image of the Virgin in the Catholic church. Therefore, her “maid” might represent an angel. 27 The “holy fire of love,” means the heavenly love coming from the Holy Spirit, which has the power of purifying. Finally, the one who was fond of causing the trouble of love affairs, Cupid, has been overcome by “a virgin hand.” The way of harmony is restored now.
And so the General of hot desire
Was sleeping by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased. But I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.
Here the turning point of victory rests in the hands of a virgin — the way leading to a chaste life. Instead of water-fire contradiction, comes love-sublimation. The fire heats up the water; the man immerses himself in the heated water. This is a religious ceremony of purifying, and it means going through the baptism of death and coming up as fresh as a new born babe — becoming a new creation.
Thus the “dark lady” is ultimately resisted; the dark side of the poet’s nature is overcome through the Virgin (Christianity). Duality becomes unity and harmony — the ideal chaste and beatific life.
Duality is the source of tragedy in human life, which causes disorders and pains, but it is the source in literature too. It gives aesthetic value to literature and gives ethical value in Shakespeare’s work, as is commonly believed. Therefore, one may say that because of Shakespeare’s greatness people’s curiosity about his “dark lady” is created; at the same time the existence of the “dark lady” created Shakespeare’s greatness. Shakespeare was not victimized by his “dark lady.” Instead, she became his benefactor — by tormenting him to the degree that he learned to quell his lustful body and summon forth his spiritual side, she enabled him to resolve the duality.
The dark enables us to evaluate the light; we must have the one in order to understand the other, and only by God’s grace is the triumphal purification made possible. The ideal of purified love toward God was portrayed in the Bible, to serve as the Puritan conception dominating Shakespeare’s age:
Loue not the worlde, nether the things that are in the worlde. If any man loue the worlde, ye loue of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the worlde, (as the luste of the flesh, the luste of the eyes, and the pride of life) is not of ye Father, but is of the worlde. 28
To fight impure lusts is to purify one’s love toward God. This lifelong and universal war could also be seen in Shakespeare’s plays. These ideas of purity and spirituality, common to the literature of Shakespeare’s day, were hardly limited to him or to his time.
The Concept of Purification Among Other Poets
Although Shakespeare’s duality was metamorphically resolved in his “Dark Lady” sonnets, the duality of human nature as a whole remains. We can find the same problems existing in other poets’ works during Shakespeare’s time, well after it, and running down through the ages.
John Donne (1572-1631), a contemporary of Shakespeare, was the dean of the “metaphysical poets”; he then became Dean of the Anglican St. Paul’s Church. Donne was not at all pro-Puritan, yet he prescribed to the concept of moral purification.
He wrote in “A Hymne to God the Father”:
Wilt thou forgive those sinnes through which I runne,
And do them still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou has not done.
For I have more. 29
Here, obviously, is another prototype of duality. Donne led a restless life, perpetually wrestling with “another self.” This rise and fall not only shows the same miserable situation, but the poet even makes puns on his own name: a undone “Donne” (done), which is very similar in manner to Shakespeare’s use of “Will.”
Though an Anglican, John Donne often used the metaphor of purification in his poetry, especially purification of moral imperfections by fire, as in “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward”:
Burn off my rusts and deformity,
Restore Thine image so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou may know me, and I’ll turn my face. 30
Again, in “Holy Sonnets: Divine Meditation X”:
… O’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make menew. 31
In this time period, educational institutions were largely run by the church; their primary purpose was to educate clerics for service. Ministers were aware that verse could be a more effective means than sermons to convey a message. They could draw upon a university background steeped in literary classics.
Hearken to a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice. (“The Church-porch”) 32
The validity of the above statement, which was written by the parson-poet George Herbert (1593-1633), can hardly be doubted.
The idea of using poetry for moral purification was always conscious in scholarly clerics’ minds. Mankind, regarded by Christians as living under the bondage of sin; its state is so miserable that it will lead to perdition unless cleansed. Acknowledging the need to be purified from a state of pollution brought forth versification.
Herbert, for example, wrote a poem entitled “Sinnes Round” in The Temple. It states:
Sorrie I am, my God, sorrie I am,
That my offences course it in a ring.
My thoughts are working like a busie flame,
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring:
And when they once have perfected their draughts,
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts.
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts,
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian Hill.
They vent the wares, and passé them with their faults,
And by their breathing ventilate the ill.
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions:
My hands do joyn to finish the inventions.
My hands do joyn to finish the inventions:
And so my sinnes ascend three stories high,
As Babel grew, before there were dissensions.
Yet ill deeds loyter not: for they supplie
New thoughts of sinning: wherefore, to my shame,
Sorrie I am, my God, sorrie I am. 33
The poem is written in a circle form: the last line repeats the first line which symbolizes the cycle effect of sin; the last line of the first stanza begins the second stanza, the last line of the second stanza also starts the third, and the last line of the third stanza repeats the starting line of the first stanza. The poem is composed in three stanzas: the “inflamed thoughts” produce evil “words,” and “words take fire” and motivated “hands” — thoughts, words and actions, or, spirit, soul and body. Thus built a tower of “Babel” 34 — rebel against God, and “supplie / New thoughts of sinning.” This chain reaction of repeated sin is metaphorized as “cockatrice” — i.e., “a fabulous creature hatched by a serpent from a cock’s egg.” The wicked “hatch cockatrice eggs… he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper.” Here Herbert wittily applies the etymological hermeneutics, 35 taking “trice” literally, which means “hoist” or “lash,” that is to say, sin has an effect of binding man. This circle form also indicates the punishment of sin is suffering eternally.
With such a view in mind, Herbert’s demands on himself were never other than extreme, so much so that even he himself was conscious of the external severity of his conscience, scratching at him tooth and nail, as he says in “Conscience,” carping and catching at all his actions. 36
This aptly described the significance of a Puritan mind-set. However, George Herbert was not in the Puritan camp. From an English family of nobility, he studied at Cambridge and then became an Anglican country parson. Nevertheless, having no particular theological dogma, he was definitely influenced by the thought of his time.
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), as he himself testified, was influenced by the “blessed man, Mr. George Herbert, whose holy life and verse gained so many pious Converts of whom I am the least” (“Preface” to Silex Scintillans). Henry’s twin brother Thomas was a noted Hermetic philosopher (alchemist). Presumably, Henry Vaughan had the same sense of believing that man has to purify the baser part or dross in order to experience the transmutation and reach a higher and purer state, just as alchemists’ belief that they can transmute baser metals into gold.
In his poem “The World,” 37 he said:
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright,…
In contrast, he saw the temporal spheres and the world “like a vast shadow.” He saw “The doting Lover,” “The darksome Statesman” and “The fearful miser on a heap of rust” all are but silly enterprises, “snare of pleasure.” Those who try to prey on others will fall victims and enslave themselves. Thus it is necessary for one to purge “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” 38 to be counted worthy as partakers of Christ’s Bride, and to receive the “great Ring” — i.e., inherit the everlasting new world, Eternity.
The Puritans’ Poet: John Milton
To gain the best possible portrayal of the quintessential Puritan poet’s ideas of purification, we should turn to John Milton. Milton (1608-1674) was a devoted Puritan. During the brief reign of Puritanism, when foreign visitors came to England, the people they most desire to meet were the Protector, Oliver Cromwell and John Milton. The leading literary monarch of the age,Milton remains indisputably the most notable poetic voice of Puritanism. HisParadise Lost is regarded as the crown jewel of English religious poetry.
Though written half a century after Shakespeare’s death, Paradise Lostcontains the pattern of thought of moral purification. Milton’s point of view (as with the Angel Raphael he uses as mouthpiece), when human beings live in the world, they should obey the Spirit, but can enjoy temporal happiness as well.
Your bodies may at last turn all to spirit,
Improv’d by tract of time, and wing’d ascend
Ethereal, as wee, or may at choice
Here or in Heav’nly Paradise dwell;
If ye be found obedient, and retain
Unalterably firm his love entire
Whose progeny you are. Meanwhile enjoy
Your fill what happiness this happy state
Can comprehend, incapable of more. 39
We need to pay attention to the above important conditional “if” clause. That is to say, in order to inherit the heavenly blessings, one must take moral responsibility for one’s deeds: “If you be found obedient, and retain / unalterably firm his love entire / Whose progeny you are.” In other words, one has to keep the “simplicity to Christ,” “the first loue,” 40 which leads to a chaste life and to remain morally pure.
Milton views Christians as “the Race of time” living in a “transient World” (XII, 554), who should lead a pure life in order to worship God with “Spirit and Truth,” and to maintain communion with God. This is evident in the very beginning of Paradise Lost:
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that does prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st;
… What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (I, 17-26)
Here, Milton not only was invoking God’s blessing to write his epic, but he in general seemed to say that the purpose of human life is to know God and glorify Him; in order to reach this goal, one must be pure and holy, for the Holy Spirit dwells and guides one’s way.
There should be little wonder that Milton’s poetic masterpiece amply depicts the great concept of moral purification. Paradise Lost contains seven purges:
1. Purge in Heaven: as Raphael reveals to Adam, God decreed that “My only son, and on this Holy Hill / Him have anointed” as “great Vice-gerent” (V. 600-615). Then “Morning Star” (Lucifer), “fraught with envy,” gathered his armies to revolt against God. Thus the Messiah would “root them out of Heaven” (VI, 855), into “the bottomless pit” (VI, 864-866). 41 Thus Milton initially sets his position: religion must deal with moral issues.
2. Purge in Paradise: Eve yielded to the temptation from Satan, and Adam — “fondly overcome with Female charm” — ate the forbidden fruit of knowledge, with the result “that all was lost” (IX, 784). The act caused “the mortal Sin” (IX, 999-1004), and thus the pair were purged fromParadise, and all their descendants afterward. Yet “Death becomes / His final remedy” (XI, 61-66), which “refin’d man to second Life.” Therefore, though God did “purge him off / As a distemper” (XI, 52-53), God never actually forsakes man. Moreover, each new human being becomes potentially the Elect, because God promised “My Cov’nant in the woman’s seed renew’d” (XI, 116).
Furthermore, God sent Michael to show to Adam the oncoming human history and comprehensive plan of God. They view more purges, at the end of which comes a final triumph. These are:
3. Purge by Deluge: Evil grows rampant on Earth, and men become so morally corrupted that God’s wrath is aroused. Using the deluge, He destroys mankind and purges the earth. But Noah and family are the elect, and God establishes a Covenant with Noah: “For one man found so perfect and so just, [symbolizes Christ] / That God vouchsaves to raise another World / From him…” (XI, 867-900).
4. Purge of Canaan: the “faithful Abraham” and his “seeds” (offspring) are “the race elect” (XII,214), and through Moses God establishes “His Covenant” of law with Israel. By Joshua he purges the land and destroys the Gentiles because they are morally corrupt. He gives the land to Israelto dwell therein, as their inheritance.
5. Purge by Babylon: In Canaan, Israelites “dwell and prosper” (XII, 316) but then sin and pollute the land. Thus God lets them suffer in captivity for 70 years, for the purpose of refining them — purifying them from their dross. Then, from His elect, “Rememb’ring mercy, and His Cov’nant sworn / To David…” (XII, 345-346), “the true Anointed King Messiah might be born” as David’s seed (XII, 358).
6. Purge by Atonement: Christ “coming in the flesh,” and on the cross accomplishes the Atonement and Salvation. To “them who shall believe / Baptizing in the profluent stream, the sign / Of washing them from guilt of sin to Life Pure…” (XII, 441-444). Thus the Christians are Elect of God, and have a purified new life of sanctification.
7. Purge by Fire: At the Last Day, the Earth shall be burned by fire. “Raise / From the conflagrant mass, purg’d and refin’d / New Heav’ns, new Earth,” and “wherein the just [Elect] shall dwell” (XII, 548-551; XI, 900-901).
The Elect are a new race under “a better Cov’nant” (XII, 302). Not because of any merit, but “first fruits on Earth are sprung / From thy [God’s] implanted Grace in Man” (XI, 22-23). That is to say, salvation, purification, and justification, coming to man are from God’s Prevenient Grace, which enables man to have the in-dwelling Holy Spirit: man thus attains a better state than before the fall. Therefore, the Angel consoles Adam by saying that,
… then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A paradise within thee, happier far. (XII, 585-587)
On the other hand, this refers to Adam as the progenitor of the saved race.
Milton’s view of Puritan corporeal life is not against reason and knowledge. He believes “the spirit of reason in man is the candle of the Lord, lighted by God, and lighting man to God.” 42 To Milton, as Adam said to Michael, the way of godly living should be:
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can contain;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend. (XII, 558-564)
To these guidelines, Michael said,
… only add
Deed to thy knowledge answerable, and Faith,
And Virtue, Patience, Temperance and Love,
By name to come call’d Charity, the soul
Of all the rest…. (XII, 581-585)
And these lines then resonate with the Bible exhortation:
… Give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for it ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. 43
Milton shares St. Augustine’s progressive historic perspective — which essentially is the Biblical view:
The World shall burn, and from her ashes spring
New Heav’n and Earth, wherein the just shall dwell
And after all their tribulations long
See golden days, fruitful of golden deeds,
With joy and Love triumphing,
and fair Truth. (III, 334-338)
This, then, is God’s plan: good coming out from evil, and good overcoming evil. Here, a principle can be seen: sin is not allowed in Heaven, so, it should not be allowed in the community of saints. They are the epitome of the Kingdom on Earth and heirs-to-be of the New Heaven and New Earth that shall be realized after the last purification.
The writers mentioned in this chapter, except for Milton, were all non-Puritans. Shakespeare and Donne were born before the Puritan Revolt and died before the Protectorate government was established. Yet the messages they conveyed here dealt with moral purification, in one way or another.
To fight on the side of the Puritan camp is one thing; to have the concept of moral purification is quite another. Yet a cultural milieu and a trend of thought often infiltrate into writers’ minds, so that similar works are produced. These evidences mentioned here are not mere coincidences, then, but the thought pattern of an age. Instilled into individuals’ minds, they can cause creative inspiration and thus increase their sphere of influence, to institute changes in the society that make positive contributions to the progress of civilization.
The concept of moral purification was of prime importance to Milton and his fellow Puritans. When freshly conceived and applied by English Protestants, it gave birth to the Puritan movement. Yet the idea was there long before the Puritan movement itself, and scarcely died with the Restoration. Some of its very forcefulness has continued on through the plays of the period, many of which are still alive and well. They are studied assiduously in universities and read devotedly in armchairs. And what would surprise and delight Shakespeare himself, immortalized as public entertainments, they are performed in their original English, in updated English, and in translations – in theaters and movie houses around the world, and on television sets within our very homes.
Let us look now at some of these classical dramas with an eye toward their messages regarding the need for moral purification.
Notes for Chapter 9
1. Q.V. George Bernard Shaw, Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1961, p. 5.
2. Cf. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures on Shakespeare.
3. J. Bronowski & Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition. New York: Harper & Row, 1960, p. 149.
4. The Geneva Bible, published in 1560, soon became very popular until the King James Authorized Bible was published in 1611. As Ben Johnson had mentioned that Shakespeare knew little of Latin and even less of Greek, then his knowledge of the Bible was certainly from the English version of the day, the Geneva Bible. Cf. F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English. New York:Oxford Univ. Press, 1978, p. 92.
5. William Barrett, Time of Need. New York: Harper & Row, 1972, p. 327, quoted Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
6. Edward Hubble, “The Sonnets and the Commentators,” in The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962, pp. 16-17.
7. Hubble, pp. 17-18. “Mary Fitton is the heroin of Shaw’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, although Shaw did not believe that she had in fact been the lady.”
8. Philip Martin, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love and Art. Cambridge:Cambridge Univ. Press, 1972, p. 85. Hilton Landry seems to believe also that there is a woman who has sexually enslaved the poet and his friend. Cf. Hilton Landry, Interpretation in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Berkeley: Univ. of CaliforniaPress, 1963, p. 72.
9. Q.v. Oscar Wilde, “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” in ed. Hubble, Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, pp. 165-255.
10. B. G. Harrison, “Sonnets and A Loves Complaint” in Shakespeare: The Complete Works, p. 1594.
11. Hubble, “Sonnets and Commentators,” in Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p. 13.
12. Mildred Marmur, “Introduction” to Gustave Flaubert, Madam Bovary.New York: New American Library, Inc., 1964, p. vii.
13. I Peter 3:7.
14. I Timothy 2:14.
15. II Corinthians 11:3.
16. Q. v. Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus in English Drama, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke & Nathaniel Burton Paradise. Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1933, pp. 171-191.
17. Stephen Booth in his “Commentary” to Sonnet 146 cited Michael West as having recently documented the kinship of “The Internal Dialogue of Sonnet 146” with a anonymous “Dialogue between the Soule and the Body” from Francis Davidson’s Poetical Rhapsody (1603). Cf. Stephen Booth, ed.,Shakespeare’s Sonnets, with analytic commentary. New Haven: Yale Univ.Press, 1977, pp. 501-502.
18. Booth, p. 434.
19. Q.v. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in Robert E. Spiller, ed., Five Essays on Man and Nature. Arlington Heights, IL: AHM Publishing Corp. 1954, pp. 1-40. “The ancient Greeks called the world KOSMOS (order, harmony), beauty…” This is a concept of human “well being” “spiritual perfection”, or “virtue” also. It implies reason and passion, soul and body, in good working order.
20. Augustine, City of God, p. 374.
21. Augustine, City of God, p. 366.
22. Q.v. Brian Tierney, et al., ed., Great Issues in Western Civilization. New York: Random House, 1972, vol. II, pp. 423-429.
23. Ephesians 4:30.
24. Cf. Galatians 5:17.
25. “Angel” from a Greek word Angelus literally meaning “messenger,” and also meaning “an attendant, spirit or guardian.” Cf. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1983. Therefore its extended meaning can be a counsellor or companion, e.g., in Henry IV, the Chief Justice said to Falstaff: “You follow the young prince up and down like his ‘ill angel.’” (Pt. II, I, ii, 186) also “good angel” (Pt. I, III, iii, 199). I believe these usages originally were from the Bible (cf. Mt. 18:10; Acts 12:15; Heb. 1:14) “Ill angels” can mean “devils” (cf. Jude:6). Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus also has “good angel” and “evil angel.”
26. Northrop Frye, “How True A Twain” in ed. Hubble, The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p. 52.
27. Cf. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1958, pp. 20-22, 257. W. G. Ingram & Theodore Redpath, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965, pp. 354-355.
28. I John 2:15-17 (Geneva Bible).
29. John Donne’s Poetry, ed. A. L. Clements. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966, pp. 94-95.
30. Donne, pp. 91-92.
31. John Donne: Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank J. Warnke. New York: Random House, Inc., 1967, p. 270.
There are also other lines having the same conception in “Resurrection, Imperfect,” etc., Donne, pp. 254-255.
32. George Herbert, The Works of, ed. F. E. Hutchinson. London: OxfordUniv. Press, 1953, p. 103.
33. Herbert, p. 122.
34. Genesis 9:1-9.
35. Cf. Isaiah 59:5.
36. Helen Vendler, The Poetry of George Herbert. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniv. Press, 1975, pp. 47-48.
37. Mario A. Di Cesare, ed., George Herbert and the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978, pp. 160-161.
38. The poet’s epigraph quoted II John 2:16-17.
39. A. G. George, Milton and the Nature of Man. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1974, pp. 49-50.
40. Revelation 2:4 (Geneva Bible).
41. In order to establish the antithesis of good and evil, Milton had gone far beyond his predecessors. St. Augustine established only the theory of “original sin,” but Milton established the origin of the original sin, the evil – Satan’s fall. Satan, in Hebrew, means “adversary” in general; the term is used in court of law or in war (Ps. 109:36; 38:20). Its root meaning is “hostility” or “hatred.” Cf. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962, vol. IV, pp. 224-228).
Peter Lombard (c. 1095-1160) was the first one who made systematic studies of demons and spirits and the rank of angels. St. Thomas Aquinas mentioned that the evil and sin of the fallen angels were “pride” and “envy,” and these caused their fall. Even Calvin and the theologians of the Reformation did not establish a theory of the fall of Satan. Cf. Encyclopaedia of Religions and Ethics. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928, vol. III, pp. 578-583.
42. Margaret James, Social Problem and Policy During the Puritan Revolution. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1966, p. 30.
43. II Peter 1:5-11.
PLAY IS THE THING ADVOCATES MORAL PURIFICATION
“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (Hamlet, II, ii, 633-634). Shakespeare put these words in the mouth of his character, Prince Hamlet, who instructs the players to stage a play in the play, in order to perform the expected purpose of purifying the rotten affairs in the Danish court. Here it shows that the concept of play can serve as a vehicle for moral purification.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, people received moral lessons primarily from listening to sermons at their churches and from attending the theater. The Puritans denigrated the plays, contrived for mass entertainment, as sheer vices. In fact, the dramatists in some ways were their best allies, for their plays spread and popularized their ideas. Just as poets dealt with the concept of moral purification in their own lives and in society, the works of Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights for the public stage embedded it in their plays.
Will as a Christian and Puritan Element
The concept of purification survived into the Age of Enlightenment, because upon it was built its significant assumption of human perfectibility. It had been the seed from which the Enlightenment sprouted and grew in English soil.
As to the conditions in Christian life that required purification, the Puritans often referred to Satan’s temptations of Christ as classic examples. 1 The temptations of the world are: “lust of the flesh,” which means seeking for sensual pleasure; “lust of the eyes,” which means seeking for material possession; and “the pride of life,” which means seeking for control over others and imposing one’s will upon others. 2
These were the sins to be purged — so said Puritan preachers, lecturers, and writers. For instance, John Milton’s central topic in Paradise Lost andParadise Regained was the notion that the First Adam yielded to temptation, resulting in the fall of mankind, and the Second Adam (Christ) overcame temptation, and saved mankind, and made it possible for man to regainParadise. 3
Again and again in his historical plays and in his tragedies, Shakespeare too showed man seduced by temptation into sin, and man resisting temptation and by Grace overcoming it.
Shakespeare’s sonnets intimately yet rhetorically displayed his own state of deep conflict between body and soul, and then showed the means by which he became purified. Shakespeare’s plays reveal the same theme of purification in a much wider scope, with both individual and universal implications.
The Tudor and Stuart poet/playwrights pursued much the same focus. Some wrote political satires, and promoted the idea of sociopolitical purification, mostly with moral connotations. The great Ben Jonson (1572-1637) wroteValpone, or The Fox and The Alchemist, satirizing the follies of avarice. Even the accused atheist Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) wrote Tamburlaine, which implies that ambition for power and might is in vain; Doctor Faustus, denounces the desire for limitless knowledge; and The Jew of Malta, the unchecked lust for wealth; 4 all of these are evils to be purged.
William Shakespeare not only used his own name to make puns, but, “Will” was always an important factor for moral judgment of a character in his plays. Shakespeare’s central distinction in his treatment of will was between one’s will in action toward other people and trying to control oneself by strength of will. Shakespeare saw the latter as one’s moral obligation. Yet he himself repeatedly failed to do this. Therefore, as the “Dark Lady” sonnets reveal, he had to invoke supernatural assistance to fulfill God’s Will. Some of his major characters, not unexpectedly, also do so.
From a Christian’s point of view, one’s own will produces ambition and desire, something like the Buddhist concept of karma ; yet unlike the Buddhist concept, if one submits one’s own will to the great Will of God, that is good.
Christian heroism differs from classical heroism in its emphasis upon discipline of one’s will to accord with God’s Will of Providence. Hellenic classical heroes often were distinguished by strong will, which was their major virtue. Take Homer’s Achilles, for example; he not only imposed his will upon foes and friends alike, but could choose at will either to have a long life and die without fame in his homeland, or to die an early death and have fame which would never die. Typically, he chose the latter and died according to what he willed. 5
Another great Homeric hero, “Unconquerable Odysseus” (aka Ulysses) has a similar quality. He employs his might to impose his will on a hostile world, which made him a typical hero of his age. 6 In both The Iliad and The Odyssey, when there are supernatural forces involved, such as the Olympian gods, they either assist or hinder the heroes’ attempts to control their fates through acts of will.
But the impact of Christianity largely altered the classical conception of heroism: moral rectitude became superior to might and wit, and strong-willed characters were oftentimes depicted as inherently evil. The Christian hero conformed to the Biblical concept: “He who ruleth his spirit is better than he who captures a city.” 7
To submit one’s will to God’s Will becomes the prime virtue. The highest purpose in life is to live according to God’s Will and to glorify Him.
Christopher Marlowe, at the end of his Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, warned his audience with this chorus:
Faustus is gone! Regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits. 8
This passage states a fundamental principle of Renaissance morality: that human beings ought to be obedient and reverent to God and not attempt by an act of will to aspire above their condition. That is to say, if one exercises one’s will without constraint, it will result in the violation of one’s duty either to God or to his neighbor. Therefore, an overweening will is the cause of villainy or tragedy. This is congruent with the Puritan concept of purification: to purge one’s lustful will, to conquer oneself, because it is the root of pride and cause of perdition. This is the view generally held by the people of the Elizabethan age, and it is evidenced in Shakespeare’s plays.
The New Role of Will in Shakespearean Characters
A large portion of Shakespeare’s dramas have war as a major factor in the plot. A fight-to-the-death conflict not only can provide ingredients for a stirring plot, but it also provides a useful metaphor for exploring the workings of the human will.
By definition, war is an activity in which one uses force to subdue the will of others in order to actualize one’s own will. This violently adversarial approach to conflict resolution is the principal reason, why war is morally tainted for most people. Yet it is the difference between appropriate and excessive force of will that can divide wars into two categories.
One can engage in a war for the purpose of carrying out one’s own will, as when Henry Bolingbroke raised arms for usurping the throne, then raised arms for suppressing rebellions, which were originated by his ill-governance. This is simply a morality of might making right. Or one can engage in a war that is morally righteous and not for the fulfillment of one’s will, as when King Henry V engaged in a patriotic war against France. Such a war may be justified by saying that it is for the sake of the general will, submitting to God’s Will, or fighting for national glory. This kind of warfare is not evil. This point will be discussed later.
If we accept Shakespeare to be a moral teacher, and a play of his as an instrument for moral instruction, then willpower must have an important role in characters’ moral makeup. It is the will of human beings that casts their consciences, makes them able to be moral agents, and allows for moral discrimination and judgment.
In addition to will, there are other factors, such as ability, moral principles, and divine providence:
1) One’s will determines one’s role in the play;
2) One needs to have ability to act on one’s will;
3) One is obliged to act on moral principles, and how one balances one’s will against one’s moral code determines one’s moral state;
4) God’s Will, or Providence, which in Shakespeare’s words, “is large and spacious” (Sonnet 135), ultimately asserts its authority over all human beings.
Whether one is great or small, one has a will. As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom is literally “bottom” because his will is weak and his ability is low. Therefore, he could not impose his will on people, generally, and could not be morally evil.
Falstaff, a character close to Bottom, has little worldly ability. He therefore performs no great deeds, but makes mischief in many ways. He can only impose his will on people weaker than himself; his weak will is unable even to control himself. When Falstaff says, “I’ll purge, and leave sack,” everyone knows that is no more than a joke (Henry IV Pt. I, I, iv, 165). When he says —
What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor?
What is that honor? Air… Therefore, I’ll none
of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my
catechism. (v, i, 135-143)
He reveals his true nature: a lord of misrule, for whom morality is out of tune. He will have “none of it” because he possesses no will to get it.
Falstaff’s philosophy of life is opposite to Hotspur’s. On the battlefield, Falstaff counterfeits dying, but he strangely interprets it as “the true and perfect image of life indeed” (V, iv, 118). Therefore, he rises up and stands triumphant over Hotspur’s corpse and says, “sirrah,” (stabbing him) “with a new wound in your thigh, come you along with me!” (takes up Hotspur on his back. V, iv, 127-128) The audience’s feelings are mixed. On the one hand, Falstaff uses force on a defenseless corpse that cannot resist his will; such action is evil. On the other hand, one may sympathize a bit with him, because he is hardly able to impose his will on living people. This is often the feelings of commoners, who are oppressed under the strong wills of those who have power over them.
When the scene of highway robbery takes place near Gad’s Hill (II, ii), because Falstaff lacks ability and has contrived no cunning plot, one feels that he is rather mischievous than evil. Though the action is illegal, his ineffectual performance makes it seem a trivially immoral action.
I believe this is a fair and apt statement: greatness, either for good or for evil, requires more ability and strength of will than Falstaff can muster.
The downfall of Falstaff is first foreshadowed by himself (to Prince Hal):
Marry, then sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. (I, ii, 26-28)
He knows well that when the sun of righteousness appears, there will be no place for him. And sure enough: when Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, he denies and banishes Falstaff by saying,
I know thee not, old man…
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I turned away my former self,
So will I those that kept me company. (Henry IV, Pt. II, V, v, 51-75)
Although we are glad to see the reform and moral purification of Henry V, we cannot help but feel pity for the helpless Falstaff. Therefore, the fat knight is neither villain nor hero; his bottle of sack could not “sack a city” in the battle. Falstaff is a beloved comic hero because his vices are essentially small and impotent. He has not the will to be great but only wants to be happy and to make his friends happy.
In sharp contrast to Falstaff, Iago is a Shakespearean character with a strong evil will. He tries to force his will on others and gain control over them for his own advantage. Just like the ancient archfoe of mankind, Iago has a cunning ability as well as a perverted sense of morality. His philosophy is “put money in thy purse.” His ambition is to get a higher position, and if he cannot, then he must exact “revenge.”
In Iago’s own words —
Virtue! A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to the which our Wills are gardeners… the power and incorrigible authority of this lies in our wills…. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion. (Othello, I, iii, 322-337)
This amoral statement chills our heart. It reveals Iago’s trust in the strength of his will and his belief that man can make his fate by exercising his will.
Because of his cunning and lack of moral principles, Iago manages both to deceive Othello and yet convince him to trust him — to think well of him as “most honest Iago,” and to respect him: “thou art wise, ‘tis certain” (III, iii, 478; IV, i. 74). But Iago derides this simple general, jeering thus:
The moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest who but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are. (I, iii, 405-410)
As a character, Iago might be considered Bottom’s the obverse side. Bottom wants everybody to know who he is, even while taking part in performing the play, whereas Iago does not want anybody to know what he is really like. To carry out his plot, he has to deceive and use others so as to get his own way and realize his willfulness.
The noble Moor, Othello, wins Desdemona’s love not because of his will and ability or craftiness, but through her pity for the dangers he has encountered and overcome, as he revealed it to her. “This only is the witch craft” he has used (Othello, I, iii, 159-170). Othello wins the battle on the high seas not because of his courageous heroism, but because a storm brought victory: the “wars are done, the Turks are drowned” (II, i, 204). When he trusts the Will of Providence, he is successful.
Unfortunately, this stalwart innocent falls victim to Iago’s temptation. Though Othello has no record of evil-doing, his uncompromising love drives him to the extreme of wanting to “purge” his wife, whom he suspects — thanks to Iago’s dirty tricks — to be hypocritical and unfaithful. By ignorantly violating divine Providence and taking the law into his own hands, Othello seals his fate:
All my fond love thus do I blow to Heaven — ‘Tis gone!
Arise, black Vengeance, from thy hollow cell!
Yield up, O Love, thy crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate! (III, iii, 445-448)
Othello’s able hand carries out his misplaced will. When he kills Desdemona, his “soul’s absolute content,” he destroys his ultimate happiness – creating his own tragedy and thus ruining himself. Using his will to try to control the people and circumstances around him, he loses everything. His final heroic act of will — his self-destruction — achieves a poetic justice, somehow restoring his heroic stature. This shows the essential hamartia: will as the fatal flaw of a tragic hero.
Hamlet is in a similar situation. Having both might and wit, he tries to understand things in order to fight the corruption “under the sun” (note: the pun on “son.” cf. I, ii, 67). However, this dead-knot cannot be readily untied. In this predicament in which he finds himself, there is no way to win, no matter how strong a will one has.
Hamlet first uses a little drama as a device to reveal the evil-doers who have murdered his father. He also struggles by trying to attack the “black and grained spots” in his mother’s soul (III, iv, 89-91), but his effort to enforce purification proves fruitless.
He has a long siege of wavering prevarication, posing the famous “to be or not to be” question (III, i, 56-88). So far as morality is concerned, however, his objective is pure revenge. When his ability is put to the test, he manages to get Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed; then he himself escapes for a time. When safely returned to Denmark (V, ii, 13-63), not until the grave-digger scene does Hamlet begin to confront death. His new understanding gives him a perspective that helps him make up his mind, once and for all:
Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth to dust…
Imperious Caesar, died and turned to clay.
(V, i, 210-245)
Both the Greek Emperor and Roman Imperator are dead. What more can Hamlet himself do to steer his destiny as an avenger? He yields his will toProvidence, or the Will of God, as it is felt in the world:
There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not be come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be. (V, ii, 230-235)
It follows, then, that the final tragic action in the denouement of his conflict makes Hamlet a great tragic hero.
The characters of Claudius and King Henry IV are in many ways similar. Both of them are ruthless politicians and both are able to act decisively; neither is noble in moral principles. They want to fulfill their wills without concern for means.
In his chamber at prayer, Claudius says:
What form of prayer
Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder —
My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen.
May one be pardoned and retain the offense?
(Hamlet, III, iii, 36-72)
“May one be pardoned and retain the offense?” This is a great question of repentance and moral purification. Since Claudius subdues others to his will, but does not submit himself to the Will of God, his guilty conscience is beyond cure. As he says:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to Heaven go.
(III, iii, 97-98)
Yet God’s Will, the great Will, is not to be resisted. Though through most of the drama Claudius succeeds in using others to benefit his own will, his plot gets overthrown. He fails in the end, dying as a hated villain.
Henry IV, Part I opens with the king saying, “So shaken as we are, so wan with care.” This showed that Henry IV’s mind is haunted by guilt. He wants to impose his will on everything, and suspects everyone of resisting it and him. He distrusts his son Henry, Prince of Wales, and envies the able Henry Percy. All of this suggests that King Henry IV, though he was able, exercises his will without moral concern — which causes him to be sick at soul.
Later, on his deathbed he confesses:
God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crooked ways
I met his crown, and I myself know well
How troublesome it set upon my head. (Henry IV, Pt. II, IV, v, 182-187)
Henry IV knows the power of God’s will. However, he pays reverence to his own strong will and lusts for power over others. He abandons his promised pilgrimage — involving leading a crusade — to Jerusalem, realizing that his own diseased spiritual condition and the unsettled condition of his country do not permit him to undertake this armed pilgrimage. Though succeeding in power struggles, he never obtains inner peace, thus giving him some credence as a tragic figure.
Prince Henry, once enthroned as Henry V, becomes Shakespeare’s ideal king. He has high ability both of might and wit, and he conquers others as well as himself. Although his undisciplined youth was given to loose behavior among dissolute companions, he has never seriously violated the high moral code of honor.
He refers to this sullied period in a soliloquy:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smooth up his beauty from the world,
That, when he pleases again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wond’red at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him…
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill.
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
(Henry IV Pt. I, I, ii, 218-240)
Later on, the performance of Henry V proves his ability to realize this claim. He banishes his boon but ill companions of the past; he overpowers Hotspur and kills him on the battlefield. When he purges himself, his reformed virtues shine forth, as he had anticipated — being light against darkness. He has the will to control himself. Even more importantly, he is pious and reveres God; he both fears and trusts Him. Since he submits his will to God’s Will, he conquers others, making them submit to his will without losing his heroic virtue. This balance made Henry V a perfect figure of kingship among Shakespeare’s historical plays.
Thus we can see, through examining some of Shakespeare’s heroes and villains, that human will is essential in determining the quality of character. If one has a strong will, acts with ability and moral virtue, and knows and respects Providence, one can be regarded as an ideal hero. If one has all the other attributes, but does not know or show reverence to God’s Will, then one has the potential to become a tragic hero. If one lacks a sense of morality yet has great ability and willpower over others, and ignores God’s Will, one is likely to be a villain. If one has a will but lacks all the other attributes, there is no way by which one’s will can be imposed upon others, and the result will be a comic character. There is justice in this pattern. A character who tries to impose his will on others often becomes the victim of his own plot; while the character who submits his own will to Providence achieves fulfillment of the purpose of life and acquires peace of mind.
The Importance of Purification in Political Life
“Shakespeare believed in a world where everything had its right ‘degree’ and everyone his right place in society.” 9 That is to say, his political thought was generally “respect for order and rank.” 10 Granting that does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare rejected change or evolution. In fact, the Puritan concept is that purification changes a state of corruption and disorderliness to a higher order, even perfection. Shakespeare believed in this process.
In Richard II a servant’s mouth presents the Bard’s viewpoint when he describes the sickening state of the country:
Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined.
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars? (III, iv, 40-47)
This surely shows a time in great need of purification. Since the words come from a low-ranking person, his observation is particularly significant.
Here Shakespeare’s belief in the importance of the health of the commonwealth over the monarch’s person is not substantially different from the political position of his contemporary Puritans. This point of view found support during Essex’s rebellious attempt to raise the City of London against their Sovereign Queen.
On February 7, 1601, the eve of that event, the play Richard II was performed before a large audience, among whom were Essex’s party of malcontents and some extreme Puritans. 11 The rebellion failed. Noting the parallel between King Richard II and reigning monarch, the queen and her Privy Council linked the drama with the rebels. They suspected that Shakespeare had used it as a means of encouraging revolt, and for this reason Shakespeare was imprisoned for a day.
To be sure, Shakespeares was neither rebel nor Puritan. He held a reverential attitude toward the Liege he served, but clearly did not admire all kings depicted in his plays, as he demonstrated in the subsequent drama of Henry IV. When Henry Bolingbroke dethrones Richard II and becomes the king, the country is in obvious need of purification. In the opening scene of Henry IV, Part I, the king says: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care, / Find we a time for frighted peace to pant…” (I, i, 1-33)
This personification of a sickened state reflects the spiritual disease of its ruler. The symptoms of a corrupt body politic are evident everywhere. The captains spend their profits of the campaign in taverns; nobles quarrel with the king and become rebels; if one seeks spiritual assistance, he finds the archbishop himself in the rebel’s camp. The very names of the soldier recruits spell out the disorder: Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, and Bullcalf. And in the legal system, as representative physicians of the social order, the justices are Shallow and Silence, and the sheriff’s officers are Snare and Fang. Rumor with a thousand tongues spreads bad news and “brings smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs.” If one pins hopes on the kingdom’s future, there in the tavern is Hal, the crowned Prince of Wales, keeping bad companions like “white-head Satan,” Falstaff, in the tavern; he is even involved in highway robbery. Prince John of Lancaster, who proves to be a most promising “darksome statesman,” 12 has no intention of keeping faith; he views someone who does as “foolish” (Henry IV, Part II).
When the dethroned Richard II is compared with Henry IV, the man who took his position, it is apparent that the latter is worse than the former. Richard, not following the Machiavellian doctrine, spares the life of Henry Bolingbroke but takes away his patrimony, and that ill-considered act costs him his kingdom. 13 But Bolingbroke, ascending the throne, proves a more ruthless princely politician. 14 Yet he is haunted by a guilty conscience and suffers from insomnia, thinking that his harsh deeds frightened “gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse” away (Pt. II, III, I, 5-6). He feels “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” especially an ill-gotten one (III, I, 31). Thus the sick king worries about the danger of his sick country, and in the dead of night he send for his subjects, the Earls of Surrey and of Warwick, and delivers this message:
Then you perceive the body of our kingdom
How foul it is, what rank diseases grow,
And with what danger, near the heart of it.
(III, i, 38-40)
If ever there is a darkest hour, a time that the cardinal need of a purge, this is it. And now Shakespeare manifests his ideal hero-king, Henry V. He shows himself to be heroic not only by conquering on the battlefield, but also through conquering of his own inner foes – his vices.
When Henry IV dies and Prince Hal assumes the throne as King Henry V, he is “redeeming time” 15 — as he says, “my reformation, glittering o’er my fault.” His moral purification like the sun purges “the base contagious clouds,” and “breaking through the foul and ugly mists of vapors” (Pt. I, I, ii, 218-226, 236-240). Thus in Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked that,
The breath no sooner left his father’s body
But that his wilderness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too. 16 Yea, at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came 17
And whipped the offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
To develop and contain celestial spirits. 18
Never was such a sudden scholar made,
Never came reformation in a flood
With such a heady current scouring faults.
Nor never hydra-headed wilfulness
So soon did lose his seat, and all at once,
As in this king. (Henry V, I, i, 24-37)
The archbishop’s description of how the change occurred in Henry V portrays a spiritual “born-again” transformation similar to St. Augustine’s experience of conversion. 19 Only through this spiritual and moral purification could the wastrel Prince Hal of yore change to the right conduct. The net result is new orderliness and harmony in society. When the Earl Westmoreland remarks, “Never King of England / Had nobles richer and more loyal subjects” (Henry V, I ii, 126-127), he shows that they are all God-fearing and in accord. The nation’s now-healthy condition of the country enables them to perform their might on the battlefield and win a glorious victory.
Conversely, when power-seeking men — rulers and others — do not purge their vices and fall into temptation, chaos and destruction ensue. Among Shakespeare’s tragedies the apt example of this is in Macbeth. Not bound by providential guidance and enslaved by lust, Macbeth willingly commits himself to the fulfillment of the three witches’ evil prophecies. Not contented to be “Thane of Cawdor,” he aims for the throne and thus broods on a plot of usurpation. At his ambitious wife’s urging, the “dagger” comes into Macbeth’s mind, with its handle toward him (II, i, 33-34). Thus another wicked witch is added — Lady Macbeth, who overpowers Macbeth’s conscience to cause the murder of Duncan, his master, and thus make himself king. The deed, once accomplished, progresses rapidly toward Macbeth’s tragic end.
The close relationship between Macbeth and Banquo changes. As comrades and friends before, they had a special tacit understanding and connived with each other. But after Macbeth seizes the throne, the situation changes. Apart from his conspirator-wife, none but Banquo knew Macbeth’s “black and deep desires” (I, iv, 51), since they saw the witches together. Since both heard the prophecies, the enthroned usurper becomes uneasy. When they meet again, Macbeth feels his former friends’ eyes shine through his dark mind and heart like a fire of stars. And the witches’ words, referring to Banquo, resound in his memory:
Lesser than Macbeth and greater.
Not so happy, yet much happier.
Thou shall get [beget] kings, though thou be none.
(I, iii, 65-67)
This thought now dominates and torments Macbeth’s mind:
Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep, and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be feared. ‘Tis much he dares,
And to that dauntless temper of his mind,
He has a wisdom that doth guide his valor
To act in safety. There is none but he
Whose being I do fear…. (III, i, 49-55)
Then Macbeth decides what he must do and employs another murder to earn peace of mind, committing another sin to cover the earlier sin. That is the worst mistake: his own evil hand creates his destiny as he sells his own soul to the Devil — “Mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man” (III, i, 68-69). By thinking he could challenge fate, he thereby becomes its slave.
The drama shows that a stained mind and faulty deeds are unbearable and incurable. When first referring to the blood-stain on her hands, caused by the act of murdering Duncan, Lady Macbeth puts it lightly that “a little water clear us of this deed.” It proved not to be quite so easy. “The heart is sorely charged.” “Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural trouble” (V, i, 55-60, 79-80), as the Doctor says. She washes her hands over and over, but can never wash off the “blood” that is in her guilty conscience. Psychical disorder causes physical disease. “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (V, i, 48) Lady Macbeth helplessly cries.
Here is a great question of purification, universal and eternal. Macbeth pitiably begs:
If thou couldst, Doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,…
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug,…
(V, iii, 48-55)
All in vain: no physician can cure such a disease. There is no natural source with the power to exercise a foul memory. Again, Shakespeare employs the word “purge” to draw our attention to the concept of moral health and purification. Thus in Macbeth we are shown two strong-willed who yield to temptation of ambition; without purification, their deadly course finally leads to their destruction. As The Bible says:
But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. 20
The message of Macbeth is that one becomes evil if the lust is not purged; one will perish with this evil. Purification is the way to order and perfection. Then Macbeth speaks his wondrously eloquent soliloquy:
… Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V, v, 23-28)
This passage is the projected confession of Macbeth’s evil-doing life. It is how Macbeth saw his own image. Nothing would be further from the truth or more unfair to Shakespeare than to take this monologue as the Bard’s own stated philosophy of life. Shakespeare wanted to show his audience that Macbeth himself had become not a strong-man, but a “walking shadow,” not a king, but a “poor player,” not a shrewd politician, but a “idiot.” This final self-judgment of an evil-doer comes from someone who was crafty but unwise. He thought he had much to gain, but his intemperate lust and inflated ambition pushed him dangerously past truth and reality.
Since the passage implies that a “Macbeth” lurks within everyone’s nature, we are led to conclude that moral purification is needed.
From The Tempest to Calm Seas:
Temptation, Purification, and Reconciliation
Since The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last comedy, I tend to regard it as attaining not only the high point in his art, but also as embodying his highest visions of life. The basic ideal in nature is order, accordance, and harmony; this is so in society as well.
A storm or tempest indicates an abnormal situation in nature, a threatening perturbation of elements that threatens people along with their surroundings. There is metaphorical significance in the very title of the play, which includes three types of tempests:
1)The tempest, which literally occurred on the high seas;
2) The tempest in society, which took place twelve years previously inMilan;
3) The tempest in the human heart, which can cause eruption and storm at any time, anywhere.
All three types are potentially tragic factors in life. Yet the most serious is that deep-rooted problem brewing in the human heart. Therefore, Shakespeare commands his maturest art, in a magical way, to overcome the confinement of time and space, and convey a universal and eternal message.
A kindly and loving father, Prospero tells the story “in the dark backward and abysm of time” to his only daughter, Miranda (I, ii, 45-177). This ex-Duke recounts the miserable doings of his brother, Antonio, who seized power and became Duke of Milan. This political tempest was fanned by the usurper’s heart which had been swollen by ambition. His deed not only changed the social order, but also greatly altered both the father’s and daughter’s lives.
After twelve years on the lonely isle, Prospero recalls his experiences with an admirably calm detachment, stating that, “By foul play… were we heaved thence, / But blessed holp hither.” Given this perspective, he sees life as a purposeful progress, through trials, toward a more refined and glorious end.
Now Prospero, by using his powers as a magician, raises a tempest out on the ocean. A ship seemed wrecked, and the group aboard ship comes ashore. They are the King of Naples, Alonso, and his brother Sebastian; Antonio, the Duke of Milan (Prospero’s usurper-brother); Gonzalo (an honest old councilor), and others of the royal train.
Once their lives are secure on the island, an evil tempest arises from these human hearts. When Alonso and Gonzalo fall asleep, Antonio tells Sebastian that —
My strong imagination sees a crown
Dropping upon thy head. (II, i, 207-208)
Then Antonio, the one who “did supplant his brother Prospero,” passes on his trade to Sebastian; he plots with him by instructing him to kill his own brother, King Alonso, who earlier had helped Antonio seize the Dukedom of Milan.
Here Shakespeare shows how dangerous and impure, how deeply corrupted the human heart can be. But Prospero observes them, allowing them to “entertain their ambition” for awhile. At last he lets his servant spirit, Ariel, awaken the king and his faithful retainer Gonzalo, and the regicide plot becomes unrealizable (II, i, 198-321).
Now another tempest is raised — this one in the heart of the lowest class of creatures. The brutish Caliban, part-savage and part-beast, is Prospero’s slave. He enlists the drunken butler, Stephano, and a jester, Trinculo, as his allies, and this gang of low ability decides to murder Prospero and make Stephano king of the island. Of course this inept, small bunch of rebels gets nowhere. Their plot is easily suppressed by Prospero, with the help of his spirits (III, iv, v).
Still another inner tempest brews within the human heart. This involves lust of the flesh. During the shipwreck, Prince Ferdinand, King Alonso’s son, was separated from the rest of the party. Landing on another part of the island, he was held by Prospero and ordered to do hard labor. He and Miranda fall in love. After a “trial” of Ferdinand’s love, Prospero is satisfied. He tenders his daughter to Ferdinand — he who “Hast strangely stood the test.” However, he austerely charges the young man to keep her “virgin knot” until “All sanctimonious ceremonies may / With full and holy rite be ministered” (IV, i, 13-32). This command conveys the idea that to enjoy a pure love, one must first resist temptation and purge the lust.
The worst tempest of all is raised from human hearts. It is raised from within these highly civilized nobles as well as from the savages. It was first raised in metropolitan Milan, but can even be raised on a peaceful paradise-like island. This tempest, which brings other tempests into this world, is the very seed of destruction. The heart of the problem is the human heart.
Nevertheless, Prospero bestows his love and grace on everyone and forgives their transgressions. Because all of them repent, the play ends with reconciliation. Thus the tempest subsides, becoming “calm seas, auspicious gales” as the natural order and social order are all restored (V, i). Thus Ferdinand has purged his “lust of flesh” and obtains nuptial love; Antonio has purged his “lust of eyes” — desires for position and possessions. As for Prospero himself, he releases his spirit guards and destroys his magic books — a sort of “pride of life” — and now rid himself of a desire similar to the one that had led Faustus to perdition. Thus all characters obtain purification.
The Tempest is a comedy of individual and communal purification. In some respects it resembles Homer’s The Odyssey with its high ideals and high success.
In the Odyssey, there are three olive trees. I believe that they symbolize three factors in comedy: 1) Odysseus landed on Scherie shore (bk. V), which symbolizes that one has regained one’s life; 2) Odysseus returned to Ithaca shore, his native land (bk. XIII), which symbolizes that one has regained one’s country — authority and wealth; 3) The bed of Odysseus and Penelope is made from one olive tree trunk (XXIII), which symbolizes nuptial love. The Tempesthas all of these three features. 21
Yet it also has a notable difference from The Odyssey. In the Hellenic epic, the godlike hero, Odysseus, purges his house by butchering all of his wife’s suitors, who came because Odysseus seemed to be missing in action for many long years. This act brought heavy bloodshed at the saga’s end. Harmony is thus based making human sacrifices for the hero’s final happiness.
In contrast, heroism in The Tempest consists of conquering others through love and humanism. As Douglas L. Peterson pointed out, Shakespearean concepts
… are supported by their trust in the “mutual concord and love in the nature of men.”… All men in their imperfection stand in need of forgiveness; and it is only through their forgiving of one another that they may affirm their “humanity.” Love alone in this view is the sustaining force of human institutions as well as of humanity itself. 22
The Shakespearean concept of purification which bears an unmistakable Christian imprint is beautifully expressed in the speech of the innocent Miranda:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! Oh, brave new world,
That has such people in ‘t! (V, i, 181-184)
This passage shows how a purified new world is inhabited by purified new creatures: “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”23 This is a key Puritan belief: old human nature can corrupting a pure world; but the pure of heart and newly purified creatures can transform a corrupted world.
The Puritan Imprint
Having some understanding of the Shakespearean age enables us more readily to understand Shakespeare’s mind. As T. S. Eliot rightly said:
Literary Criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. In so far as in any age there is common agreement on ethical and theological matters, so far can literary criticism be substantive. In ages like our own, in which there is no such common agreement, it is the more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading, especially for work of imagination with explicit ethical and theological standards. 24
We live within history, yet at the same time history shapes our beings from within. Therefore we cannot put Shakespeare’s thought and work in titration, to judge how, or how much, he was influenced by Puritanism, the strongest current of religious belief in his era.
“The end of the sixteenth century is an epoch when it is particularly difficult to associate poetry with thought or reasoned view of life,” T. S. Eliot said. 25Nevertheless, we can find parallels between the Puritan concept of purification and Shakespeare’s work. A Shakespearean play could never conclude with a world lacking a sense of order and morality, standards of right and wrong, and of ultimate justice. In spite of how great a poet of universal truth and beauty Shakespeare was, and still is, we should consider carefully the historical imprint of Puritan ideas on his work.
Let us ponder what A. L. French said:
To say that background information is sometimes misleading doesn’t mean that we can afford to disregard it altogether. The question is to know how to use it intelligently, and to try and decide how far, in any given play, Shakespeare is merely, for the sake of simplicity, taking a contemporary belief for granted, and how far he is setting up a quite new one of his own. 26
Which is to say that Shakespeare was influenced by the thought of his period in time; yet, on the other hand, his creative power influenced his age and the ages afterward.
Ben Jonson lived at the same time as Shakespeare. His earliest and fairest critic, he avowed that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time.” 27And as Samuel Taylor Coleridge later put it: “Shakespeare knew the human mind” 28 — meaning that he possessed a great introspective and acutely sharp perception. These qualities can be seen in the first-person “Dark Lady” sonnets, which bore “a certain inner likeness” to himself. 29 We can also see a veritable parade of human faults among the characters in his plays. All of these we can identify with our own mirrored images.
Thus this message gets conveyed to an ever-evolving audience of people who read or attend Shakespeare’s plays: the key human problem is guilt and the key human need is for purification.
The aforementioned statement by T. S. Eliot is worthy of serious consideration. Ethical and theological standards are surely important to employ in judging works of literature. But it is far more crucial that we exercise them fully when judging the merits of any society — especially the contemporary one in which we ourselves dwell.
Notes for Chapter 10
1. Matthew 4:1-11.
2. I John 2:15-17.
3. John Milton, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained in John Milton:Complete Poems and Major Prose. ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1977.
4. Cf. Tucker, ed., English Drama.
5. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richmond Latimore. Chicago: Univ. of ChicagoPress, 1976.
6. Cf. Homer, The Odyssey.
7. Proverbs 16:32.
8. Marlowe, Faustus, p. 191.
9. Bronowski & Mazlish, Western Intellectual Tradition, p. 149.
10. Cf. F. E. Halliday, Shakespeare and His Critics. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1949, p. 490. Based on this analysis, R. W. Chambers asserts that the unknown author of Addition D of the play Sir Thomas Morewas Shakespeare.
11. Harrison, “General Introduction” to Shakespeare: Complete Works, pp. 23-24, 45.
12. Henry Vaughan’s words. Cf. “The World,” in Cesar, ed., George Herbert, p. 161.
13. Machiavelli: “When it is necessary for him, the Prince, to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his mind off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their fathers than the loss of their patrimony.” cf. Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince. trans. W. K. Marriott.Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, ch. XVII, p. 24.
14. Here I am not going to engage in the discussion of the character of Machiavelli, but rather to use the term Machiavellian for convenience, and assume Marlowe’s description in the prologue of The Jew of Malta:
His soul but flown beyond the Alps,…
And hold there is no sin but ignorance…
15. Ephesians 5:16.
16. Romans 5:14 The original sin.
17. Romans 6:11 The symbol of born again.
18. Romans 8:9-11 i.e., the in-dwelling Holy Spirit.
19. Cf. Augustine, Confession.
20. James 1:14-15.
21. Q. v. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. E. V. Rieu. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1976.
22. Douglas L. Peterson, Time Tide and Tempest. San Marino, Calif: TheHuntington Library, 1973, pp. 248-249.
23. II Corinthians, 5:17.
24. T. S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature,” in Essays Ancient and Modern. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1936.
25. Eliot, Selected Essays, p. 118.
26. A. L. French, Shakespeare and the Critics. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.Press, p. 21.
27. Ben Jonson, “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies,” in Hugh Maclean, ed., Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974, p.87.
28. A. M. Eastman & G. B. Harrison, ed., Shakespeare’s Critics. Ann Arbor: The Univ. of Michigan Press, 1964, p. 4
29. George Steiner, Language and Silence. New York: Atheneum, 1967, p. 133. Quoted Schoenberg admitted to Berg: “Everything I have written has a certain likeness to myself.”
In her lectures on Religion and Literature, Dame Helen Gardner adopted anthropological terms and applied them to literature. She said:
In a “Shame Culture” what men most desire is fame, the esteem of their fellows, and what they most dread is loss of honour. In a “Guilt Culture” what men most long for is release from the burden of guilt, quiet of conscience, and what they most dread is the sense of alienation from others and all the oppressive anxiety implied in the words “a sense of guilt.” 1
She refers here to the dominating motivation characterizing a dynamic era, which compels conviction and commitment from people striving to fulfill it. This effort produces tension, which in turn produces great literature. The Shame Culture of the Archaic Age produced Homeric literature, while the Guilt Culture of the Puritan Age produced English Renaissance literature.
In spite of its oversimplification, Gardner’s stated thesis seems to ring true. So I will now take the liberty to add that our modern age — encompassing the past two industrial and post-industrial centuries in the Western world — is a “Want Culture”. What men most desire is wealth, and what they most dread is poverty. To put it more plainly: Nothing to be shameful; nothing to be guilty; but poverty is both shameful and guilty. In other words, if the concern of the Hellenic age was What One Is, and the Puritan age was What One Does, the modern age is What One Has.
Kantian philosophy of the eighteenth century shifted the base of moral philosophy from the Bible and creeds to human reason. 2 Yet the Post-Kantian modernists go one step further. They disregard moral “imperatives” altogether. Not only do they use and exploit others as means toward their ends, but they also treat acquiring material possessions as their main object in life. Ample examples can be found of this, conveniently, in the writings of Henry James and Mark Twain.
The James family had been influenced by Puritan ethics. Almost all heroes or heroines of Henry James’s novels have considerable wealth; the problem is always how to use it rightly. Mark Twain is the most influential American author of all time, and his writings have contributed greatly to shaping the past and present culture. Significantly, in all Mark Twain’s important works, the basic concern is about how to get rich — very rich.
Literature reflects the philosophy of the age; reciprocally, literature does much to influence the philosophy of the age. In the Hellenic classical mind, “cosmos,” means ‘order’ in general, whether of the world or a household, or of a commonwealth or a life: it is a term of praise and even admiration.” 3This harmonious “order,” as the ancient observed it, is not only existing in nature, but in society as well. So they concluded that there is a design and sustaining power behind it.
The Renaissance view of the world can be traced back to these roots. Perhaps a most familiar expression of this is in Troilus and Cressida; through the voice of the resourceful Ulysses, Shakespeare made his statement about “Degree and Order”:
The heavens themselves, the planets and this center,
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order.
… Oh, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degree in schools and brotherhood in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune the string,
And what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy…. 4
As to the mainstream of traditional Chinese thought, which is the Confucian philosophy, the mores of What One Does is much related to What One Is. This is what I call social organic ethics. The foundation of this way of life is to right one’s heart or conscience, for it is the springhead and stem of moral action.
Furthermore, Confucian philosophy generally considers little about What One Has, but ever emphasizing rightness as more important than richness, peace as superior to force, principle is more lasting than power. Thus, a superior man (Chun-tzu) is a great-minded man who is concerned not only for people around him, but also for the many other generations to come. To carry out the moral purification of the society, this ideal person must perpetually purify his own mind.
To provide now a brief overview of the decline of morality in Chinese history: Establishing the Confucian classics as the standard for civil examinations instead of moral education reduced learning to a routine and rigid means of self-benefit and aggrandizement. Later on, the Buddhism that was imported into China emphasized the enlightenment of self, by self, and for self. It also spread a belief in reincarnation or transmigration, which begot moral relativism, causing further decay of China’s social organic ethics. Finally came the invasion of Western culture and a politically based and controlled ethics. Having lost out in both moral and military defenses, the Chinese people embraced a materialistic and pragmatic philosophy.
As instantaneous communications and rapid transport bring all nations and peoples into one huge conglomerate, all increasingly share a common fixation on What One Has. Few of us anywhere have enough to satisfy our lust, and our dissatisfaction with each other adds to the world’s woes.
Decades ago, when Pitirim A. Sorokin diagnosed the disease of our culture, he said almost prophetically that —
Science has been degraded to the role of a mere handmaid of contemporary “barbarians” who have well learned the motto of empiricism: Truth is what is convenient and useful; of several possible conveniences, that which is most convenient for me is most true. Hence empirical science, carried to its logical conclusion, has once again paved the way for its ultimate downfall. 5
This statement is scarcely complimentary; yet the trenchant point here should not be lightly dismissed. “Scientism” — the worship of science and technology — has pushed aside morality.
More than a century and a half ago, Thomas Carlyle wrote:
Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it… the mechanical Age…. By my own skill in Mechanism, it has come to pass, that in the management of external things we excel all other ages; while in whatever respects the pure moral nature, in true dignity of soul and character, we are perhaps inferior to most civilized ages. 6
When we read this lament of Carlyle’s for his age (1829) and consider the declining attention paid to a “Moral Science,” we readily realize that our own age has traveled much farther down that same road.
By now the ethical and religious foundation of society has been shaken by innumerable quakes; it has also deteriorated from erosion. Greed and exploitation abound; concern and compassion are rare. People trade character for cash, and neglect the well-being of the society in which they dwell. Great attention is paid to one’s health and wealth , but little or none to the health of commonwealth. Some pessimists call this age we live in the “sunset of civilization”; they predict that a “universal darkness buries all.” 7
But can we pin our hopes on a program for moral education that may usher in a new dawn of civilization? The long-prevailing trend, however, is that people with influence mainly exalt descriptive knowledge, while repelling or expelling prescriptive knowledge. 8 Some leaders in education align themselves against any position that might involve Moral Science. They declare that “we cannot have objectively valid philosophical knowledge” of ethics, based on “questions of value about what is good and bad, or right and wrong, or statements about what ought or ought not to be done in the sphere of knowledge.” 9
Must we then adore technology and abandon theology; be beholden to science while banishing conscience? Definitely not. Yet science itself should not be blamed; it is people’s approach to and use of science that is at fault.
It is said that, as a society, only those who have virtue can have freedom; only those who have morality, liberty. Those of us who do no want to lose either should be afraid for both. One indelible lesson that history teaches us that the Roman Empire declined and fell because public morality collapsed into decay.
This world seems pawned its soul to Mephistopheles. The expiration of the contract is at hand. Based on the same story of Dr. Faust, Marlow could only reach the poetic justice and concluded in God’s retribution, while Goethe conclude in grace and salvation; on the other hand, the Chinese could only think on the line of revenge as shown in their novels, or, they have a Buddhistic, naturalistic approach which often expressed in a cliché: “one plant melons, harvest melons; plant beans, harvest beans.”
But, if we do not want resigned to a doomed fate, or, to be enslaved and live under Fuhrer Frankenstein’s reign of tyranny, there is an alternative: namely, balancing technology with humanity, scientific knowledge with beatific knowledge. Moral purification is the path to summum bonum and totum bonum.
Notes for the Conclusion
1. Gardner, Religion and Literature, pp. 100-101.
2. Cf. Emmanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of The Metaphysic of Morals in Great Books of The Western World, vol. 42, pp. 253-287. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984.
3. Cf. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963, p. 241.
4. Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida I, iii 85-111.
5. Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age: This Social and Cultural Outlook. New York: P. E. Dutton, 1957, p. 125.
6. Cf. Thomas Carlyle, “Sign of the Times” in John Gross, ed. The OxfordBook of Essays. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991, pp. 136-148.
7. Alexander Pope, “The Dunciad,” in Martin Price, ed., The Oxford Book of English Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, 1973, p. 413.
8. Being especially hostile toward morality, they despise and discriminate against ethic knowledge. “This position, technically called the theory of noncognitive ethics states that only question of facts can be answered by statements that are true or false.” That is an elegant way of saying that ethics or moral philosophy does not have the status of genuine knowledge.” q.v., Adler, Reforming Education, p. 240; Ten Philosophical Mistakes, p. 118.
9. Adler, Reforming Education, p. 240.
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