Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Problem of De in the Analects: Hard and Easy (pt. 2) (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian)

A noble knight is about to leave on a mission to an inhospitable, barbarian place. Some are skeptical that his mission will be successful. After all, he must deal with petty, uncouth individuals. The knight, however, is not troubled; he has a nifty trick. When he is among petty people or barbarians, their behavior instantly changes. They are literally transformed in his presence, bending to him as sure as grass bends to wind.

The above passage can either be about: a) a Confucian nobleman or b) a jedi knight. That, to me is the hard problem of de in the Analects. Consider the following passages which describe the nobleman's de--a kind of power or force that accrues to morally advanced individuals and has telltale effects on others:

9.14 – The master expressed a desire to go and live among the Nine Yi Barbarian tribes. Someone asked him, “How could you bear with their uncouthness?” The Master replied, “If a nobleman were among them, what uncouthness would there be?”

12.19 –The nobleman's de is wind; petty de is grass. When the wind blows, grass bends.

In the Star Wars movies, a jedi knight can--much like the nobleman above--get other, weak-minded sentient beings to bend or yield to him. This feat, dubbed either "force persuasion" or the "jedi mind trick", is accomplished through ritual gesture and verbal incantation--again, similar to the magical effects associated with the performance of rituals (such as wedding rites or ceremonial forms of greeting) in classical Confucianism.

Now, these effects might seem less impressive than those associated with political de (discussed in a previous post)--where the ruler just sits in a ceremonial position and the whole empire is ordered. Then again, the nobleman lacks many of the perks associated with rulership: a) he's not recognized as the Son of Heaven, b) he lacks all the the ceremonial regalia that comes with being the Son of Heaven, c) is considerably lower on the socio-political ladder, and d) has a pedantic day job preserving traditional rites and ceremonies. Given all this, the passages above seem incredible indeed.

How can we understand this 'force' of the nobleman? What kind of person are the 'little people' and 'barbarians' yielding to? Well, de is frequently linked to practices of self-cultivation (xiu 修 – e.g. 7.3, 12.10, 12.21, 16.1). Perhaps the key to understanding the power of de lies in these practices and the kind of nobleman they were meant to produce. Here is what we find:

The ideal nobleman says the right things at the right times. He's concerned about being a good person and works hard at it. He dresses well (clean and sharp, not flashy). He seems genuine, and has a natural ease about him. He's a good son to his father and a good father to his son, takes care of those close to him and helps others when appropriate. He's got a knack for diffusing disagreements (cleverly alluding to classical poetry and folk songs to convey subtle, delicate points). And if you need advice on wedding gifts or funeral attire, he's a godsend.

There are people I've met who've had many of these qualities, and some of them have a knack for getting along with people. So maybe I can understand how a cultivated nobleman, already enjoying a certain standing in the social hierarchy, can have an attractive, disarming charisma about him and command respect in the community. This much might explain, for example, the bending of the petty people in 12.19.

But the transformation of the foreign barbarians? That's really hard to buy. How is it that they magically behave themselves in the presence of a Confucian knight, but are otherwise 'uncouth'? I don't see how this works.


Anonymous said...

"But the transformation of the foreign barbarians? That's really hard to buy. How is it that they magically behave themselves in the presence of a Confucian knight, but are otherwise 'uncouth'? I don't see how this works." -- Excellent question, Hagop. I have two reactions to this. First, this is really difficult; notice that with the case of the barbarians, even the "magical" effect of ritualized performance in Fingarette's analysis doesn't explain the effect. I realize Fingarette's sense of "magic" is a bit watered down, but it was watered down exactly so that it would provide an explanation to help understand the power of de without making it seem *too* mysterious. Second, however, I think you have the explanation right in front of you: the Jedi example. The power of de is exactly that mysterious, in the sense that it relies on a pre-modern conception of moral-power-at-a-distince (construing "moral" very broadly). Even a post-Han dynasty explanation in terms of qi is an attempt to "rationalize" the power, but in the Analects, I do think the conception is of a mysterious power, hence the "mana" reading of the Analects.

Hagop said...

Thanks for your comment, Manyul!

I've always been a fan of Fingarette's work on the Analects, as it allows us to get a grip on the 'magical' effects of ritual performance without needing to resort to the supernatural. But the barbarian passage always stuck out to me.

Part of me wants to come up with some explanation that doesn't refer to qi or other such forces, but I suppose there's little reason to deny that such beliefs were prevalent in that period. Your mentioning of Mencius 2A2 in comments on my previous post reminds me that we should expect such beliefs to be working in the background, even if they are not always explicitly mentioned in the text.

Anonymous said...

My reading of "de" in the Analects, especially given the Barbarian section and the bending grass metaphor, usually boils down to two things: drumming and the movie "Dangerous Minds". I think that I also work from a similar desire as Hagop in that I would like to explain it as a matter of natural social phenomenon rather than a magical power, although I'm sympathetic to Manyul's point regarding how it was most likely thought of by the authors/compilers of the Analects. I'm a fan of Ames and Rosemont's translation of "de" as "excellence" and other readings that render it "virtuosity". I don't think we need to evoke any "magical" imagery in order to understand that in social activities (such as language use, playing games, playing music, and more complex norm-governed activities) novices naturally conform to experts. When I'm playing any piece of music with a group and one member is obviously better than the rest of us, we tend to follow her lead, taking her timing, her phrasing, her dynamic changes, tone transitions, etc. Drumlines always put the most solid player at the center of the snareline to have everyone conform to him, but this is a convention. My point is that it happens naturally in improv settings as a result of the experts confidence and assertiveness as well as the recognition from the other members that following him will lead them where they want to go. This is the wind bending the grass. (Another, more salient metaphor might be the impact that stronger members of a linguistic community have on shaping the norms of term use, but the drumming metaphor is my old standby) For the Barbarian section, I don't think we necessarily need to see this as a matter of some non-natural force that needs to be explained, which is why I bring in "Dangerous Minds". The teacher showed up in a "barbarian" classroom and was able to turn them around by acting toward them in a way that each of the students needed. I think this is the connection between "ren" and the Confucian "de". The moral "de" that the nobles possess is a matter of being able to properly resonate with people in order to know how to and be able to bring them further along a moral path. The barbarian claim might be a bit much to be explained by this social virtuosity, but it's a non-magical explanation that at least points in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Hi Hagop,

I have one worry about your description of the qualities of the ideal nobleman. The worry is that some of these qualities (a number of them are just external trappings of virtue) seem to be shared by the "village worthy" as well, who is a thief of virtue (Analects 17.13, Mencius 7B37).

In any case, as I see it, it's significant that in 12.19 both the nobleman and the petty person are said to have de.

Taking that to be true, perhaps the imagery of sympathetic vibration works better than gravitational force or the wind, in understanding certain aspects of the mechanics of de. If strings from two lutes are tuned to the same pitch, then plucking the string of one lute will cause the string from the other lute to vibrate as well. The virtue of the nobleman tugs at the heartstrings of the petty person in a similar way.

That imagery, if I recall correctly, is from the Han dynasty philosopher Dong Zhongshu (or some other Han philosopher of similar persuasion), who made heavy use of the gan ying (stimulus-response) theory.

Another analogy I like to use is that the de (sense of virtue) of the gentleman and the petty man is like the sense of humor. When the stand-up comedian cracks a good one, the audience laughs, because they too have a sense of humor like the stand-up comedian, and is able to appreciate a good joke.

I suppose on this issue I differ from Manyul's more metaphysically oriented approach, and lean more towards a psychological reading of what's going on. The mechanisms involved in the working of de are purely psychological ones, on my interpretation.

Hagop said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for chiming in! Your analogy to a drumline is very interesting, and has a great deal of plausibility. There was a widespread belief in the classical period that people are automatically drawn to and seek to emulate exemplars--those who excel in particular realms of human activity. I do think that such a phenomenon must figure into our explanations of the de of the nobleman.

I wonder, though, whether there might be a disanalogy here as well. The drumline is composed of drummers, who all share the same ends--musical virtuosity, being in sync with the other drummers, etc. Because of this, it may be relatively easy to understand why they would emulate the most skilled drummer in their midst--they do so because it allows them to excel in their activity, and allows them to put on a show of excellence. However, is this the case with the barbarians in 9.14? Presumably they would have their own customs and traditions, their own values and ends, and perhaps these would be inimical to those of the nobleman. Indeed, they would be 'uncouth' from his point of view. So, what would lead the barbarians to emulate the nobleman? I don't doubt that what you're saying is possible--that the nobleman has a kind of social skill that allows him to fine tune his behavior to others. But I wonder how much explanatory work such skill can do in this instance. Even in your Dangerous Minds example, there is a certain structure in place, certain relations pre-figured in the scenario (e.g. teacher-student) that are not there for the barbarians. But perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic.

(BTW--'Excellence' is indeed a nice way of parsing de, but I still prefer 'power' or 'charisma'--something that captures the notion of the efficacy of exemplary individuals.)

Hagop said...

Hi Boram,

Your comments are appreciated. I was wondering whether you might clarify your worry about the village worthies. If the petty people in 12.19 have de, why not the village worthies? But I suspect that I'm missing the point.

Yes, the pitch and vibration analogy is a very interesting one (I seem to recall similar passages in the inner chapters of the Zhunagzi.) It's an elegant way to capture the idea, though I suppose you might agree that, other than being a nice metaphor, it can't really do much explanatory work.

Stimulus-response might be more promising though. Perhaps the nobleman knows the right way to stimulate others in order to engender the right responses in them. Maybe with sufficient sensitivity, he would be able to do so in extremely diverse contexts--even foreign ones such as in 9.14. Humor, too, is a very interesting avenue to explore. While some humor is very topical or culturally sensitive, stuff like Mr. Bean seems to enjoy widespread popularity.

My intuitions are the same as yours. I, too, would prefer to understand de in purely social and psychological terms. I, too, would like to eschew references to qi or other such forces in explaining the power. But then again I don't want my preference for a naturalistic explanation to get in the way of acknowledging other plausible readings. I do think the line of interpretation that Manyul suggests has textual support (even if it is not prevalent in the Analects). What do you think?

Justin Tiwald said...

Some of you may already know this, but there's some speculation that the character for virtue or moral charisma (de 德) has its origins in a kind of musical aptitude, maybe the ability to elicit the right musical responses to one's own musical performance. In the Book of Songs, de is often paired with "sound" (yin 音), and "the sound of one's virtue" tends to be used as a synonym for "the fame of one's virtue" (see here and here). All of this resonates with the hypothesis that the character we now translate as "sage" (sheng 聖) originally had something to do with acute powers of hearing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Hagop, I should make a detailed response, but I'm limiting my blogging time for a few weeks.

As I see it, the problem with the village worthies is that they merely conform to the prevailing customs, and perhaps even do it for the wrong motivations. So they have the semblance of virtue, but lack their good behavior does not stem from a reliably virtuous character (it seems they are subject to situationist psychology). That's what Mencius 7B37 suggests. The description of the ideal gentleman in your post (3rd paragraph from the bottom) could fit the the village worthy as much as the junzi, and that was my worry (perhaps still too vague?).

Yes, the village worthy could have an incipient sense of virtue just as much as the petty person (e.g., the sense of shame mentioned in Analects 2.3), which could be awakened in them by a person more advanced in virtue.

I find the idea of sympathetic vibration helpful, in the sense that it brings out the mutual interplay between the noble person's virtue and the petty person's sense of virtue. The wind and the gravitational force images suggest a more unidirectional influence. I find it helpful in a different sense too: "sympathetic vibration" is a descriptive term that encourages comparison with the operation of Humean sympathy. My impression is that Humean sympathy can help explain the phenomenon we are now puzzling about.

Besides the sense of humor analogy, the sense of gratitude for kindness received is another, more closely related phenomenon, perhaps.

I'm not ruling Manyul's interpretation out, though we could have an interesting debate on this! 2A2, espcially the flood-like qi passage Manyul is referring to, is not--on the surface at least--about the influence of virtue. Some interpretive work must be done, and I'm sure the interpretion will be fascinating, but it is something that needs to be read into the passage, or between the lines.

Anonymous said...

Hi Justin, thanks for the fascinating information! (The links are great too.) I should read through the Shi Jing carefully when I have the time.

Hagop said...

Thanks for the input, Justin! I too have to look at the Odes more closely when I get a chance, especially when it comes to concepts (such as 'de') that clearly pre-date the Analects itself.

Boram, thanks for the clarification. I agree that those are worries with the village worthies. My initial confusion stemmed from reading your past as suggesting that if the village worthies have 'de' then this is a problem. But I don't think that there's any reason to deny that the village worthies can have 'de' to some extent; in the Analects and elsewhere, all sorts of individuals are described as having 'de'.

Anonymous said...

Efforts to explain DE2 in naturalistic terms include

Munro, Donald. The Concept of Man in Early China.

Nivison, David S. "'Virtue' in Bone and Bronze," "The Paradox of 'Virtue,'" and "Can Virtue Be Self-Taught?" in The Ways of Confucianism (Open Court, 1996).

For an intriguing recent archaeological discovery relevant to this topic, see

Xing Wen, ed. "The X Gong Xu." International Research on Silk and Bamboo Documents: Newsletter 3:2-6 (December 2003).

For something more like the received view among philosophers and Sinologists (which is the view Manyul is assuming unconsciously), see

Pines, Yuri. Pp. 180-84 in Foundations of Confucian Thought (University of Hawaii Press, 2002).

Anonymous said...


But the transformation of the foreign barbarians? That's really hard to buy. How is it that they magically behave themselves in the presence of a Confucian knight, but are otherwise 'uncouth'? I don't see how this works.

Nivison, at least, offers a naturalistic account that attempts to explain the power of DE2 that is not culture-dependent. He certainly may be wrong, of course, but it's worth considering what he says.