Friday, June 9, 2017

"Perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance"

Life and Works of Confucius by Prospero Intorcetta, 1687.
From Wikimedia.
[13:15] Duke Ding asked if there were a single phrase which could uplift a country. Confucius replied: “Words in themselves cannot have such an effect. Nonetheless, there is a proverb which says, ‘Being a ruler is difficult, and being a minister is not easy.’ If you really understand the difficulties of rulership, might this not be enough to uplift a country?” The Duke asked further: “Is this not close to the saying ‘there a single phrase which could ruin a country?’” Confucius answered, “Again, words in themselves cannot have such an effect, but the people also have a proverb which says: ‘I do not enjoy ruling; I only enjoy people not disagreeing with me.’ Now if you are a good man and no one disagrees with you, it is fine. But if you are evil, and no one disagrees with you, perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance.”
The political philosopher who has come to my mind most often lately, and especially today, is Confucius. I'm not a scholar of ancient Chinese thought, to be certain. I only read Confucius' Analects for the first time in the fall after I graduated, about eighteen months ago. My thoughts are those of a neophyte.

Still, this essay by Ezra Klein reacting to James Comey's testimony put me in mind of the Analects, and in particular their implicit contention that malfeasance in a state stains the entire political order from the top down. When the head of state is virtuous, that virtue trickles down through the whole state, reflected in the head's choice of ministers, aides, and subordinates, and thence in their choices, all the way down to the least powerful people. However, when the head of state lacks virtue—through viciousness, laziness, greed, or other negative traits—those vices destabilize the work of even the best people working below.

Interpreting the Analects is notoriously challenging because the work isn't univocal, or even dialogic in the way of Plato's dialogues: the work is a collection of short recollections and observations. The body of commentary on them is huge. But one of the work's main concerns is how to be good as a political participant (in Confucius' time, a government minister) even when one's political superiors are corrupt or incompetent. On one hand, there is the possibility of salvaging some good—of doing good work even in a bad order. On the other hand, you may simply be trapped in a situation that contaminates your own virtue:
[17:7] Bi Xi invited Confucius [to come and serve in his administration], and Confucius wanted to go. Zi Lu said, “Didn't I once hear you say that the Noble Man will not enter the place of one who has associated himself with evil? Bi Xi has taken Zhongmou against its will, so how can the Master go there?” Confucius said, “Indeed, I did say such a thing. But is it not said that if you polish something hard, it will not wear thin? And it is not said that if something is truly white, if you try to dye it black, it won't change color? Shall I be like a gourd that can be hung, but never eaten?”
Klein writes, "Trump’s behavior casts a shadow over everyone who serves him"—even those who are of apparent integrity (a virtue Trump attacked in his book as being less important to him than personal loyalty). The problem is that no one who comes into contact with the pressures exerted by a corrupt person is left without a blemish. Klein again:
"Rubio asked about Trump’s request that Comey end the investigation into Michael Flynn. If that request was so offensive, Rubio demanded, why didn’t Comey respond more forcefully?... The reasoning, as I understand it, is that if Trump’s request of Comey was so egregious, then how come Comey didn’t tell Trump it was so egregious, or quit on the spot?... Comey was, for reasons both of personality and position, one of the hardest civil servants to intimidate. But when trapped in a room with the president of the United States, and when his job and all the good he believed he could do in it was dangled before him, even he felt the pressure. To his credit, he didn’t crack. But he felt it, just as Trump knew he would."
A knowledge of ancient political philosophy, from China or Greece or anywhere else, doesn't feel like it does anyone much good right now. It's not to say any individual philosopher is necessarily right, either; but there's the sense one gets that someone long ago was writing about one's own times before the fact. It wasn't until this year that I felt I really understood the famous thought that passes through Stephen Dedalus's mind in Joyce's Ulysses: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." To see the contours of the historical forces and philosophical shapes that have led you to the moment you live in, but be able to do only too little about them—that's what it feels like to Dedalus in Dublin in 1904, surrounded by a cloud of political ills. It's the cold consolation of knowing that you have good company in generations of people who have come before you, who were equally powerless in their own times, but left something to help us see how things might one day get better. 

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