A Marxist Dialogue
“Well Fred, what do you think of Dong Zhongshu?”
“He doesn’t seem to be as important as the thinkers we have looked at. Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] says he appears to be of little philosophical value but that he played an important historical role.”
“He’s right about that. Dong lived from around 179 to 104 BC and was a major player in getting the Han Dynasty to adopt Confucianism as the official philosophy of China in 136 BC.”
“I know. Chan says this lasted right up until 1905 AD. I think it was the emperor Wu of Han (r.141-87 BC) who established it.”
“Yes, and Dong was the mastermind behind it all. I’m looking at the Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion and it says Dong constructed his brand of philosophy synthesizing three things.”
“Confucianism and what else?”
“He added ideas from the old Yin Yang School based in the Yi jing mixed together with ideas about the five elements (wuxing)—i.e., water, fire, wood, metal and earth.”
“Sort of like Empedocles’ four elements in Ancient Greece-- only adding wood and metal and not having air.”
“This was originally a separate philosophical tradition based on the energy transformations of the five elements but by the time of the Han Dynasty it had been subsumed into the Yin Yang School.”
“Chan says he based himself on the Spring and Autumn Annals supposedly written by Confucius! His own work, a collection of brief essays on various topics, he called Chūnqiū fánlù: Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals. Chan says his fame as a great Confucianist lasted for hundreds of years.”
“Why don’t you read some of the quotes I see you have taken down from Dong’s Luxuriant Gems and we will see if his reputation is warranted?”
“OK, but don’t be disappointed if he isn’t up to snuff.”
“Get on with it!”
“Here goes. I'm beginning with Dong’s chapter 35 in Chan: ‘The Spring and Autumn Annals examines the principles of things and rectifies their names. It applies names to things as they really are, without making the slightest mistake. Therefore in mentioning [the strange event of] falling meteorites, it mentions the number five afterward [because the meteorites were seen first and their number discovered later], whereas in mentioning the [ominous event of] fish hawks flying backwards, it mentions the number six first [because six birds were first seen flying away and upon a closer look it was found they were fish hawks].’”
“Well, he’s right to emphasize the ‘rectification of names’. Like modern philosophical analysis, Dong thinks philosophical (and practical) problems will solve themselves by proper use of language. But, he violates the PRIME DIRECTIVE [see discussion in the Confucius dialogue in this series] by saying Confucius does this ‘without making the slightest mistake.’ This sounds more like a quasi-religious faith commitment rather than a model for philosophical inquiry. And what's with the backward flying fish hawks?”
“Chan indicates that the original Annals recounts this as an omen-- i.e., that six backwards flying fish hawks flew over the capital of Song in 642 BC.”
“I see. But that is well before the time of Confucius, so I don’t see how Dong could believe that Confucius, the putative author (real author unknown) of the Annals, wrote them without ‘making the slightest mistake.’”
“Next Dong says, ‘It is the mind that keeps the various evil things within so that they cannot be expressed outside. Therefore the mind (xin) is called the weak (ren). If in the endowment of material force (qi) one is free from evil, why should the mind keep anything weak?.... Heaven has its dual operation of yin and yang (passive and active cosmic forces), and the person also has his dual nature of humanity and greed.... [The way of man] and the Way of Heaven are the same. Consequently, as yin functions, it cannot interfere with spring and summer (which correspond to yang), and the full moon is always overwhelmed by sunlight, so that at one moment it is full and at another it is not. This is the way Heaven restricts the operation of yin. How can [man] not reduce his desires and stop his feelings (both corresponding to yin) in order to respond to Heaven? As the person restricts what Heaven restricts, it is therefore said that the person is similar to Heaven. To restrict what Heaven restricts is not to restrict Heaven itself. We must know that without training our nature endowed by Heaven cannot in the final analysis make [the feelings and the desires] weak.’”
“This doesn’t sound too bad. It is the typical Confucian emphasis on training.”
“Chan has a comment here. He says, ‘Dongs own theory is unique: there is goodness in human nature, but it is only the beginning of goodness and it requires training to be realized. His whole emphasis is on education.’”
“I don’t see what is so unique about that. Mencius can be interpreted this way, maybe even Xunzi.”
“As an analogy, Dong says, ‘Therefore man’s nature may be compared to the rice stalks and goodness to rice. Rice comes out of the rice stalk but not all the stalk becomes rice. Similarly, goodness comes out of nature but not all nature becomes good.’”
“Well I guess that is not Mencius. I think Mencius would say the rice stalk is good and that is why the rice is good, unless the rice is spoiled by lack of education or an inadequate social system.”
“Karl, I think Nature, Heaven, is neutral about ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Here is Dong again: ‘If we inquire into principles according to their names and appellations, we shall understand. Thus names and appellations are to be rectified in accordance with [the principles] of Heaven and Earth.... If we say that nature is already good, what can we say about feelings [which are sources of evil]? Therefore the Sage never said that nature is good, for to say so would be to violate the correctness of the name.’”
“I think that proves your point Fred. Nature is neutral and education is needed. Is Dong more specific?”
“He goes on: ‘It is the true character of Heaven that nature needs to be trained before becoming good. Since Heaven has produced the nature of man which has the basic substance for good but which is unable to be good [by itself], therefore it sets up the king to make it good. This is the will of Heaven. The people receive from Heaven a nature which cannot be good [by itself], and they turn to the king to receive the training which completes their nature.” Christianity: Humans are made in God’s Image - their original nature is good but has been stained by “original sin” so they need Grace from God for them to be good. Somewhat parallel views only the Chinese are more earthbound —the king rather than God.’
“Getting political here! However, this idea of the role of the king reminds me of the philosopher-king of The Republic. The king has political power but the Confucians will advise him so it's not so much the philosopher-king as it is a ‘brain trust’-- a philosopher plus a king. The way it is expressed, however, looks like pandering to the Han emperors.”
“He continues: ‘Now to claim on the basis of the true character of the basic substance of man that man’s nature is already good [at birth] is to lose sight of the will of Heaven and to forego the duty of the king.... Now the nature of all people depends on training, which is external, before it becomes good. Therefore goodness has to do with training and not with nature.’”
“This is not exactly Mencius! I think we can understand now why Xunzi was more influential than Mencius until the Song Dynasty when the Neo-Confucianists brought the latter to the fore.”
“You might be right Karl. We saw that Mencius thinks we are by nature good. Dong seems to deny this, yet he maintains that he is following Mencius! Listen to this quote and tell me if it sounds like Mencius or a mixture of things. ‘Heaven has produced mankind in accordance with its great principle, and those who talk about nature should not differ from each other. But there are some who say that nature is good and others who say that nature is not good. Then what is meant by goodness differs with their various ideas. There is the beginning of goodness in human nature. Let us activate it and love our parents. And since man is better than animals, this may be called good---this is what Mencius meant by goodness. Follow the Three Bonds [ruler-minister, father-son, husband-wife] and the Five Relationships [ uncles, brothers, fellow clansmen, teachers, friends]. Comprehend the principles of the Eight Beginnings [ feelings of commiseration, of right and wrong, of deference and compliance, of shame and dislike which lead to love, righteousness, propriety and wisdom]. Practice loyalty and faithfulness and love all people universally. And be earnest and deep and love propriety. One may then be called good---this is what the Sage meant by goodness.’”
“I think this is back peddling on Mencius' position. Anyway, by the ‘Sage’ Dong means Confucius and this is one way you could plausibly interpret him. The reference to ‘universal love’ recalls the position of Mozi so it’s all very eclectic.”
“Chan notes that, ‘Ever since Han times, in the Confucian ethic, the ruler has become the “standard” of the ruled, and so forth. In view of the fact that to him [Dong] yang is superior to yin [rather than two equal but contrasting forces], it is logical to say that the ruler, who corresponds to yang, is superior to the ruled. The same is true of the other relations. Thus the double standard is put on a natural basis.’” For Dong, it seems, each ruler has his own Little Red Book.
“That is too bad as these relations are socially conditioned with respect to the particular forms they developed in feudal China. They are ‘natural’ only in that sense, i.e., ‘natural’ to the feudal outlook. The influence of yin and yang is, I think, detrimental to this early Confucianism. To update it we would have to get rid of the male (yang) and female (yin) notions and replace them with something along the lines of human reason as yang and passions and instincts as yin (or vice versa if you like). That is to sublate the female-male dichotomy under the general concept of ‘humanity.’ This eliminates the double standard as ‘natural.’”
“What does this remind you of Karl? Dong writes, ‘Confucius said, “A good man is not mine to see. If I could see a man of constant virtue, I would be content.”’”
“Cute Fred. It sounds like Diogenes the Dog in Ancient Greece going about with his lantern searching for an honest man. A cute historical parallel.”
“Now Karl, here is the clincher for you that Dong is not following Mencius.”
“Lets hear it.”
“ Dong says, ‘My evaluation of life and nature differs from that of Mencius. Mencius evaluated on the lower level the behavior of animals and therefore said that man’s nature is good [at birth]. I evaluate on the higher level what the Sage considers to be goodness, and therefore say that man’s nature is not good to start with. Goodness is higher than human nature, and the sage is higher than goodness. The Spring and Autumn Annals are concerned with the great origin. Therefore they are very careful in the rectification of names.’”
“This is my position Fred. I said he was following the way of Xunzi more than of Mencius. This just proves my point.”
“He even goes beyond both Confucius and Xunzi, according to Chan. Listen to this comment: ‘Dong Zhongshu actually departs from Confucius and Mencius in the matter of education. Early Confucianism emphasized self-education, although teachers and rulers are helpful and even necessary. But Dong insists that people by nature and by their very name are in the dark (in sleep) and cannot be good without instructions from the ruler. Then he offers human nature as a justification for authoritarianism. In this he goes even further than Xunzi.’”
“ Well, there is the connection with Xunzi. But now we see why Dong was so popular with the emperors! Confucius would never have perverted philosophy to justify absolutism, and Mencius even approved of getting rid of a ruler who oppressed the people (too much at least). Now we have Dong saying the Emperor is the Standard! This is just pandering to the Han emperor again. Definitely I agree with Chan that he may be of historical importance but is not really a world class philosopher. Fung isn’t as critical as Chan and he sums up Dong’s program as follows: 'What Dong Zhongshu tried to do was to give a sort of theoretical justification to the new political and social order of his time. According to him, since man is a part of Heaven, the justification of the behavior of the former must be found in the behavior of the latter. He thought with the Yin-Yang school that a close interconnection exists between Heaven and man. Starting with this premise, he combined a metaphysical justification, which derives chiefly from the Yin-Yang school, with a political and social philosophy which is chiefly Confucianist ( Fung, p. 192).' With all due respect to Fung, however, I think Dong’s “Confucianism” was a perversion of the humanistic aspects of Confucius’ thought in support of authoritarianism. We have seen similar perversions of Marxism-Leninism in our own times.
Does that sum it up Fred?”
“Pretty much so Karl. I’m glad you again brought out the point about the Yin and Yang metaphysics. There are a few more points to be made from Dong’s book but because of the outmoded metaphysic he uses I’m going to pass over what Chan has from Dong’s chapter 42, on the five agents (elements), and his chapter 56, speculations about man’s correspondences to Heaven, if that’s alright with you that is.”
“That is fine with me.”
“Just to give you a taste, however, here are some of his views taken from chapter 57: ‘All things avoid what is different from them and follow what is similar to them. Therefore similar forces come together and matching tones respond to each other this is clear from evidence.... For example, when a horse neighs, it is horses that will respond, and when an ox lows it is oxen that will respond. Similarly, when an emperor or a king is about to rise, auspicious omens will first appear [cf. Chan chapter 24 of The Mean] . Therefore things of the same kind call forth each other. Because of the dragon, rain is produced, and by the use of the fan, heat is chased away. Wherever armies are stationed, briers and thorns grow. All beautiful and ugly things have their origins and have their lives accordingly. But none knows where these origins are.’”
“This is really dated emperor propaganda! Anyway he forgot ‘opposites attract’ and that the neighing of horses and the lowing of oxen can just as well attract hungry wolves and bears.”
Chan makes the following remark: ‘The belief in portents is as old as Chinese thought. What is new in Dong Zhungshu is that he explains it in terms of natural law. Instead of expressions of the pleasure or displeasure of spiritual beings, portents are results of the cosmic material forces of yin and yang.’”
“That’s not good enough. Xunzi was a part of this culture and he didn’t talk about omens and such stuff. That is, he regarded them as the product of yin and yang, as natural happenings but not as ‘omens.’ Remember he said that the so-called omens happen all the time and have nothing to do with what happens to us. ‘Of things that have happened, human portents are the most to be feared.’ I remember that quote Fred”
“Yes, the whole discussion is on pages 120-121 of Chan.”
“This makes Xunzi the major figure in philosophy that he was and underscores the view that Dong was only of historical interest and not really such great shakes as a philosopher.”
“Then what do you think of this Karl? ‘When the universe’s material force of yin arises, man’s material force of yin arises in response. Conversely, when man’s material force of yin arises, that of the universe should also arise in response. The principle is the same. He who understands this, when he wishes to bring forth rain, will activate the yin in man in order to arouse the yin of the universe. When he wishes to stop rain, he will activate the yang in man in order to arouse the yang of the universe. Therefore the bringing forth of rain is nothing supernatural. People suspect that it is supernatural because its principle is subtle and wonderful.... In all cases one starts something himself and other things become active in response according to their kind. Therefore men of intelligence, sageliness, and spirit introspect and listen to themselves, and their words become intelligent and sagely. The reason why introspection and listening to oneself alone can lead to intelligence and sageliness is because one knows that his original mind lies there. Therefore when the note of F is struck in the seven-stringed or twenty-one stringed lute, the F note in other lutes sound of themselves in response.’ So, what about that?”
“Well, he says this is not supernaturalism and that is a plus, but it is still prescientific. The idea that we can cause it to rain by activating our yin to resonate with the yin of the universe sounds like sympathetic magic to me. I think we should also note the term ‘original mind’ that Dong uses when he maintains that we can become sagely by introspection. This is not original Confucianism. Confucius liked to study and putter around in old books. This idea of introspection, perhaps even of meditation, has a mystical air about it. It seems Daoist or even Buddhist, although I think Dong is too early to have been influenced by Buddhists.”
“Oh yeah, I think so. Dong died around 104 BC. That’s a hundred years before Buddhism in China”
“Well then, only Daoist I guess.”
“Listen Karl, I disagree with you about the original mind. I think we can look at that concept as what we are potentially as rational beings. The sage should be able, as Xunzi, to see what is our essential nature versus what we are by means of cultural construct. I don’t think this is too advanced a way of looking at things for really bright Confucians even if Dong himself may not have this in mind.”
“I can go along with that Fred.”
“Now Chan adds some extra sections from Dong’s book. This is from chapter 13 ‘The Origin’”:
It is only the Sage who can relate the myriad things to the One and tie it to the origin. If the source is not traced and the development from it followed, nothing can be accomplished. Therefore in the Spring and Autumn Annals the first year is changed to be called the year of yuan (origin).
The origin is the same as source (yuan). It means that it accompanies the beginning and end of Heaven andEarth. Therefore if man in his life has a beginning and end like this, he does not have to respond to the changes of the four seasons. Therefore the origin is the source of all things, and the origin of man is found in it.
How does it exist? It exists before Heaven and Earth.
Although man is born of the force of Heaven and receives the force of Heaven, he may not partake [of] the origin of Heaven, or rely on its order and violate what it does. Therefore the first month of Spring is a continuation of the activities of Heaven and completing it.
The principle is that [Heaven and man] accomplish together and maintain the undertaking. How can it be said to be merely the origin of Heaven and Earth? What does the origin do? How does it apply to man? If we take the connections seriously, we shall understand the order of things.
The Sage [Confucius] did not want to talk about [the behavior] of animals and such. What he wanted to talk about was humanity and righteousness so as to put things in order….’”
“The ‘One’! This is interesting metaphysics. Monism was popular in India and the West at this time too. Dong seems to say at the start that Confucius (the ‘Sage’) can relate the One and the ‘origin’ but he at last remembers that Confucius, like Socrates and Buddha, did not go into ultimate ontological questions-- ‘he wanted to to talk about... humanity and righteousness’-- i.e., he was interested in ethics and politics.”
“Well, Chan comments on that quote and says Dong was casting Confucius in the role that Jesus played in the West: ‘a bridge between god and man.’”
“That’s really stretching it Fred! In the first place, Christians don’t see Jesus as a ‘bridge between god and man,’ he is God! In the second place, there are many people who could be considered ‘bridges’ such as the prophets such as Moses, or John the Baptist, or Mohammed, etc. So I think it a little far-fetched to think Dong’s views of Confucius are analogous to Western views on Jesus. In any case the bridge between humans and God is a bridge to nowhere.
“Here is a quote on ‘Humanity and Righteousness’ from chapter 29. ‘Humanity is to give others peace and security and righteousness is to rectify the self. Therefore the word “humanity” (ren) means others (people, ren) and the word “righteousness” means the self. ... The principle of humanity consists in loving people and not in loving oneself, and the principle of righteousness consists in rectifying oneself and not in rectifying others. If one is not rectified himself, he cannot be considered righteous even if he can rectify others, and if one loves himself very much but does not apply his love to others, he cannot be considered humane....’
“An excellent quote, Fred. It’s very good, very Confucian. I think this should be the motto of every would be sage. Dong has outdone himself here!.”
“Chan indicates that it is new with Dong. The view that ren = love, he says, is characteristic of Confucianism in the Han period and it was introduced by Dong. Chan means the exclusive use of ren = love. He acknowledges that Mozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi and Han Feizi used ren in that way too, but they also used it with other meanings. Chan says in Dong ‘it is the meaning.’”
“There are two selections to go. The first is on ‘Humanity and Wisdom’ from chapter 30. ‘What is meant by humanity? The man of humanity loves people with a sense of commiseration.... He does not do anything treacherous or cunning. And he does not do anything depraved. Therefore his heart is at ease, his will is peaceful, his vital force is harmonious, his desires are regulated, his actions are easy, and his conduct is in accord with the moral law. It is for this reason that he puts things in order peacefully and easily without any quarrel. This is what is meant by humanity. What is meant by wisdom? It is to speak first and then act accordingly. It is to weigh one’s wisdom whether to act or not and the proceed accordingly.’”
“At least for all his retrograde ideas compared to the classical Confucians, Dong has the proper attitude towards the type of conduct expected of a philosopher.”
“You like that eh? You think that is how philosophers should be?”
“I really do, Fred. Don’t you think Socrates, Epicurus, and Spinoza, to name just three, would fit this bill?”
“But what about philosophers such as Schopenhauer or Heidegger who seem to have been rotten human beings with hardly a trace of ren? I don’t think they would live up to Dong’s expectations.”
“Well, yes. I shouldn’t be so exclusive I suppose. What I want to maintain is that this is the ideal of the philosopher - sage and one can be a great philosopher without also being a sage.”
“I see. I’m not going down that path with you Karl. I see no end of controversy along it. Chan ends with a quote from chapter 23 explicating Dong’s views on ‘Historical cycles’ but they are so time dependent on the prescientific outlooks of people in the Han Dynasty as to be of no philosophical interest to people today.”
“I agree. I read about his theory of history in Fung. He talks about the movement of history as the rise and fall of dynasties represented by colors-- the Black, White and Red ‘Reigns’ each with its own distinctive ‘powers’. These three reigns go in a cycle B-W-R-B-W-R-B etc. Thus Xia Dynasty -- Shang Dynasty -- Chou Dynasty, etc. The changes come about due to the loss of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ by one and its gain by another. This is very unilluminating, especially Fung’s musings on the theory whereby we might ‘say that Fascism represents the Black Reign, Capitalism the White Reign, and Communism the Red Reign (p.199).’ Fung adds however, this ‘is only a coincidence.’ But we really can’t use Dong’s mechanical theories today, unlike many of the theories of his great Confucian predecessors.”
OK, Karl, the next philosopher we should discuss is one you will find more congenial, namely Wang Chong and his ‘Naturalism’.”
All right, Wang Chong it is.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
To read the Confucius Dialogue click here.
To read the Mencius Dialogue click here.
To read the Xunzi Dialogue click here.
To read the Mozi Dialogue click here.
To read the Laozi Dialogue click here.
To read the Zhuangzi Dialogue click here.
To read the Gongsun Dialogue click here.
To read the Great Learning Dialogue click here.
To read the Doctrine of The Mean Dialogue click here.
To read the Book of Changes Dialogue click here.