Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Problem of De in the Analects: Hard and Easy (pt. 1) (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian

There is a concept in the Analects of Confucius that is of patent importance to his teachings but remains obscure. This is the concept of de 德, which refers to the ability of a person to command awe and attention, to have others comply with his wishes without resorting to coercion.

Some passages describing de are frankly startling, and coming to some plausible explanation of them has proven problematic. But I think it may be helpful to distinguish between 'the hard problem of de' and 'the easy problem of de' (obviously following from
Chalmers's example concerning consciousness). The easy problem of de is ruler or political de. The hard problem is the nobleman's de. Today, I want to deal with the former, leaving the latter for a subsequent post.

Consider, for example, the following passages describing ruler de:

2.1--The master said, "One who rules by de is comparable to the Pole Star, which remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars."

2.3--The master said, "Guide them with governance, regulate them with punishments, and the people will evade these with no sense of shame. Guide them with de, regulate them through ceremonial propriety, and the people will have a sense of shame and be orderly."

8.18--The master said, "Majestic! Shun and Yu possessed the entire world without managing it."

15.5--The master said, "Someone who ruled without acting (wu-wei 無為)--was this not Shun? What did he do? He made himself reverent and took his proper position facing south, that is all."

These and related passages (e.g. 13.6) describe the de of a ruler (or sage king). On the one hand, they seem pretty impressive, maybe even quixotic or fantastical. (Could Shun really rule by simply sitting on his throne and facing south?) Indeed, some have thought these passages rife with belief in magical powers. Donald Munro called this the 'mana thesis'. On this view, the king must possess some inner / spiritual / psychic power or energy that emanates outward and magically transforms, orders and harmonizes the kingdom. Such an interpretation is understandable because it does seem hard to explain what's going on in these passages. But in the end, I think the problem of 'ruler de' is actually the easy problem.

The reason is simple. Very early on, there were commentators who explicated the ability to rule 'effortlessly' through de as resulting from much prior effort, such as the ruler's a) effectively discharging his roles of setting policy and appointing capable officials, and b) benefitting his subjects (thereby gaining their loyalty, love, and reciprocity).

One of the ruler's most important functions (emphasized by Confucians, Mohists and Legalists alike) was to attract capable individuals to fill administrative and bureaucratic positions to properly manage the kingdom's affairs. The ruler's personal virtue would be a key factor in attracting such individuals and commanding their loyalty. The operations of this larger bureaucracy explain how the ruler could rule 'effortlessly'--by just sitting on the throne (as it were). (Even the incorruptible, wholly sagacious Shun needed the help of ministers to rule--8.20.) Moreover, with the help of capable bureaucrats and officials, the ruler would be able to meet the needs of his subjects, thereby gaining their loyalty as well.

So there's no real mystery here. An efficient bureaucracy, a loyal and loving population, and a broader political philosophy emphasizing deference and loyalty to those above in the hierarchical chain, all seems to explain ruler de rather easily. Indeed, any account of ruler de seems incomplete without these considerations. Am I missing something?


Anonymous said...

Hagop, interesting post! (I look forward to what you'll say about the hard problem.)

My guess is that the idea of an efficient bureaucracy is probably a latecomer, postdating the idea of ruler's de? See Nivison, WAYS OF CONFUCIANISM, first essay. The idea of ruler's de dates pretty far back. (My understanding is that Zhou originally had a feudal system that delegated power, and was not a centralized bureaucracy. The feudal system then disintegrated, and the different states as they grew larger through conquest and increase in population began to develop a need for bureaucracy.)

Of course, the idea of ruler's de could have evolved with the development of centralized bureacracy. One way of finding this out might be to look at the Brookses' ORIGINAL ANALECTS, and seeing whether your quotations on ruler's de are contemporaneous with or postdate bureaucratic talk.

Justin Tiwald said...

Hey Hagop,

Good to see you here. I've been meaning to kick something in for awhile now, but just haven't had a spare moment.

Yours is a very nice way of framing the issue. Of your list of mechanisms at work in rule by virtue (de), the one that you call "reciprocity" often strikes me as the most implausible one, so I'll focus on that. I'm assuming that you and I understand reciprocity in the same way, whereby people feel indebted to the ruler for the benefits he brings to his subjects, and thereby want to return the favor with loyalty. Lee Yearley characterizes the loyalty a ruler earns from his subjects as a kind of "gratitude credit," which is a cool and apt turn of phrase.

I'm not sure that gratitude credit could play much of a role in the loyalty of subject to ruler. I'm more confident that it works between friends or--in the Confucian case--between the gentleman and other local officials. Gratitude credit seems more powerful in cases where the benefactor helps the beneficiary at her own discretion, which better describes a friend's or local gentleman's generosity than a ruler's. I feel indebted to a friend for helping me get my driver's license or register my car; I don't feel indebted to an employee at the DMV for helping me do these things. The former has more of the flavor of a supererogatory act; the latter is just expected. (Of course, I'm just speaking from the armchair here.)

In between the case of the friend's generosity and that of the DMV employee's assistance are a number of more ambiguous cases, where the help is neither obviously discretionary nor obviously expected. For example, dissertation advisors are expected to write you letters and help you find a job, but some really go to bat for you--talking you up at conferences, calling their friends and coaching you on your presentation. You might put bureaucrats in dysfunctional bureaucracies in the same category. Maybe it's the DMV employee's job to help, but it's also widely understood that most DMV employees expect a small bribe. Do we normally feel indebted to the employee in the corrupt DMV office for doing her job without a bribe?

I can't see the virtuous Zhou dynasty ruler as being in either of the first two positions described above--if he is good to his subjects, it isn't purely discretionary, but it isn't "just expected" either. So I think he'd fit somewhere in between, in a way that is more analogous to the proactive dissertation advisor or the uncorrupted DMV employee who refuses to take bribes (Boram's remarks about bureaucracy might be relevant here).

Frankly, I'm not sure that this is enough to win the loyalty of one's subjects, especially when the ruler is far removed from the everyday lives of the people. You might say that the gratitude credit in this case is enough to generate love of the ruler, and that the love would then do additional work that gratitude credit alone cannot accomplish. But this doesn't sound right to me either. Confucius and especially Mencius seem to think that the people would be willing to die for their virtuous ruler. In my view this expects too much of the power of de.

Anonymous said...


The grammar of 15.5 suggests there might be something more mysterious going on. It ends with a pretty emphatic "and that is all" (而已矣). A lot of people would like to dismiss the "mana" hypothesis because it makes the Analects seem that much less relevant to contemporary philosophical sensibilities. But if you think about de with Mencius's 2A2 discussion in mind, where Mencius seems to explicate the effects of righteousness using the concept of a vast flowing qi (ch'i) that "fills the space between heaven and earth," it seems like there was at least a view of de that can't be explained only with lots of prior "prep work" on the part of the ruler. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

I think if you look at how the King of Thailand is regarded by average Thai people, you'll see something of what you are all describing. He is universally loved and, one might say, worshipped. When he needs to, he intervenes in political matters, but otherwise he has a largely ceremonial position.

Much of this is engineered, I'm sure. It's illegal to criticize him, it's mandatory to show his "commercial" before movies, etc. But at least in my experience talking to Thai people, even very educated ones, they have an incredible degree of reverence for the king.

Unknown said...

Hi Hagop,

Interesting issue to raise, especially as it bears on the significance of Confucianism in contemporary thought.

I'll second Manyul's suggestion: I think something more is going on, that these leaders are seen as having a kind of charisma, leadership power, gravitas, or what have you that affects those around them. They're not merely morally good, nor are they merely occupants of a social-institutional role that causes people to defer to them (because of their status and their past actions). (The latter explanation would tend to converge, to some extent, with a Legalist account of the ruler's role, I think.) They have a kind of "power," analogous, perhaps, to the charisma of certain rock stars, athletes, politicians, and leaders such as the Dalai Lama and the King of Thailand.

I must rush to class, and so can't comment more thoughtfully. But I suggest it would be interesting to consider Book 5 of the Zhuangzi as approaching the ruler-de issue from another angle, which overlaps partly with the Analects.

I too look forward to your "hard" problem.

Unknown said...

Dear Anonymous,

Amazing -- the King of Thailand occurred as an example to both of us, apparently typing at the same time...

Anonymous said...

(I mis-posted as anonymous)

Well Chris, great minds and all... ;-)

What amazed me is just how closely what people are describing as this Confucian ideal, how it so closely ties in with the King of Thailand.

I wonder if there is enough of a Confucian thread of thought in Thailand that the King consciously developed his image in that way. Or maybe it's just a sino-tibetan thing that Confucian thinking plays off of?

Hagop said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!


Yes, Nivison examines the oracle bone record and finds examples of the use of de. He emphasizes one in particular--the ruler going around and showing 'de' along his borders, dissuading potential enemies from attacking through displays of strength. You're right to say that there's no mention of bureaucracy here. But there is the notion of the ruler performing some ceremonial function and thereby able to achieve order without coercion.

I'll have a look at the Brookses for the dates. If I remember correctly, chapters 2 and 15 are of a later date according to them. Maybe by this time the 'bureucractic' or 'institutional' reading became more prevalent. Thanks for the tip

Hagop said...

Hi Justin,

Both Munro and Nivison parse the reciprocity in question in similar terms as Yearley. I agree that "gratitude credit" seems very apt.

I would have to agree that paradigmatic cases of reciprocation would seem to involve close relations, especially when their interactions involve going beyond a simple baseline. So I really like your example of the dissertation adviser 'going to bat'.

What of the ruler? I take it that the following types of actions, while not as directly beneficial as helping a friend, would be straightfowardly 'going beyond base expectations': lowering taxes (or at least not making them unduly burdensome); meeting material needs; maintaining peace in the kingdom through military parades, etc. Do these fit the bill of engendering 'gratitude credit'? I would imagine so, especially if the ruler was preceded by another who was far less virtuous with regard to the above.

But I think your post highlights that strong feelings of gratitude would not be necessary to rule by de. The key notion in ruler's de, to my mind, is ruling without the use of coercion and without having to actively manage affairs. These would seem to be possible even without strong feelings of appreciation or loyalty. A peaceful, ordered, and contently preoccupied society would do.

Hagop said...


I think you're probably right--both with regards to interpreting the passage and with regards to my resistance to embrace the mana thesis. Regarding the latter: As a naturalist, I would rather avoid invoking anything metaphysically promiscuous in explaining de. Regarding the former: the statement does seem emphatic.

So perhaps I should not shirk such explanations, and include them alongside loyalty, efficient bureaucracy, etc. The ruler was, after all, thought to occupy a very special position as intermediary between the people and ancestors, heaven, etc. I suppose that would lend further support to the idea that there's more going on here.

Actually, this might help my case that 'ruler de' is the easy side of de to explain. If, on top of everything else I suggested, there were prevailing beliefs about real 'power' accruing to the ruler in some way, then this helps explain why 'ruler de' was thought to be so powerful.

Hagop said...

Hi Ken,

I really like your example of the King of Thailand and the effects of 'engineering' his high position. I was trying to invoke similar ideas about how and why the ruler might be so effective in gaining loyalty and maintaining order without coercion (though I only did so at the end of my post, and without an explicit reference to ceremony).

The ruler occupies this very distinct position, in charge of extremely important ceremonial rites. There are forms of address and ceremonial gestures one must be mindful of adopting when interacting with him. All this emphasizes his unique importance. Thus, his de is amplified by occupying this apex position. This, to my mind, is no mystery. Such ceremony and pageantry would go some way toward fostering feelings of deference and respect to the ruler. So yes, I do think his ceremonial role would greatly enhance his ruling power. Thanks for raising this point.

Chris (and Manyul), I'm wondering whether the 'mysterious' quality of the ruler might just be an effect of all this ceremony and pageantry. I really find your examples telling: rock stars, athletes, great orators, significant religious figures. I freely admit that many do seem to possess some charisma or other magical quality. But I would deny that we, today, would invoke anything 'mysterious' about their charm or potency (at least if we were in critical thought mode). Sure, these are talented, hard working individuals. Some are uniquely gifted. But surely the media, ceremony and rite, special forms of address, nicknames, hyperbole, etc., all play a role in explaining why many do inspire such 'awe'. (The other day I re-watched the IMAX documentary about Michael Jordan and--wow, talk about fueling the 'de' of athletes!) How does that sound?

I guess my impulse is to maximize such explanations, and minimize the metaphysically promiscuous ones. But I think Manyul has given me pause for thought here. I admit that there might be more in the background than simply the effects of pageantry.

Chris, I hadn't thought of looking at the Zhuangzi in this regard. My thanks for the lead.