Stephen C. Angle, a professor of philosophy and East Asian studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, is a Confucianist, a follower of the belief system spearheaded 2,500 years ago by Chinese philosopher Confucius.
To explain Confucianism and spread the word about its positive effects on life, Angle published a book, “Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life” (Oxford University Press, 272 pp.).
Confucianism focuses on morality and ethics and how members of families and communities can learn from each other, with the goal of a harmonious society of mutually respectful people.
“It is not 100% different than every other philosophy that’s ever been around, but it pulls different sorts of values together in a way that makes a lot of sense,” Angle said. “One central idea is the idea of harmony, an environment of harmony in societies. This means recognizing differences and the way that they complement and balance one another.”
Angle will appear at Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore, 413 Main St. in Middletown, on Sept. 14 at 5 pm for a reading and book signing. In advance of that appearance, Angle chatted about Confucianism. This interview has been edited for length. For details on Angle’s work, visit sangle.faculty.wesleyan.edu.
Is Confucianism a philosophy or a religion?
Both. A lot of people think religion is belief in a god. If that’s what somebody thinks religion is, Confucianism is not a religion. But if you ask a scholar of religious studies, they’ll say religion is something that puts you in touch with ultimate value or meaning. Then Confucianism counts. But it’s also philosophy.
What is Confucianism?
The central idea is that we have it within us to become good people, ultimately to become a sage, which is sort of a perfect person. That’s not relying on anything supernatural. But we don’t do it alone. We depend on our relationships with others, in particular on family, in figuring out how to have positive relationships with others in family and community. As we grow morally, we help other people to grow morally.
Is it possible to become a perfect person?
In principle. For Christians, it is not possible to become a god. They’re different kinds of creatures. Whereas for Confucianists, there is no in-principle barrier. We could become sages. I don’t know anyone who has ever been one, but who knows?
What are Confucianism’s main tenets?
To enable everybody to become virtuous, you need to first attend to harmony in your family. To attend to harmony in your family, you need to look within yourself to make sure all your intentions are sincere. The connection is between our individual moral growth and achieving harmony and flourishing in society. The idea is that we already have the core of goodness within us. We are not just creatures who don’t care at all about one another. But we are not perfect and we need to work on ourselves.
Why the emphasis on filial piety?
The fundamental relationships we have is with our parents. They gave us birth and even more importantly they are the ones who love you and are committed to your growth and flourishing. This can apply to whoever raises you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your birth parents. From parents you can recognize that love, that concerns for your own well-being. From there, you start to understand we can care for others.
Does filial piety work if a person’s parents are not good to them?
There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Parents aren’t perfect and they’re not monsters. For example, a student who had a combative relationship with her mother decided to put filial piety into effect when she went home for Thanksgiving. At first it enraged her mother. But after a few days they were beginning to relate to one another in a different way. It was hard for her because she grew up with the same combustible temper her mother had. If you recognize the way your own attitudes contribute to the situation and try to make space for love and respect, the outcomes will often be good. But if you’re talking about a really horrible situation, then of course you shouldn’t just sit there and take it. The caring thing to do in a situation like that is to seek help, legal or otherwise.
Why does Confucianism emphasize following rituals?
We pay a lot of attention to law in our society but little attention to rituals, maybe outside of going to religious services. But in fact rituals are very common in our society and if we didn’t have them society would fall apart. Rituals are the social glue that holds our societies together, the way we greet one another, the way we have to come up with new rituals, like how things work on Zoom. They are how we know how to be respectful of one another.
Can Confucianism help people interpret contemporary life?
If we look at the mess the country is in, losing faith in political institutions and questioning elections, a lot of it has to do with rituals. When we engage in public rituals like voting, we are not just trying to choose a candidate. We are doing a ritual that expresses our belief in democracy, that we are equal citizens together. So when the ex-prepared does everything he can tosident those institutions and firm the ritual, there is talk about democracy in peril. Confucianism helps us see the degree that this has to do with ritual. If our rituals are destroyed it has a huge effect on us and our society.
What problems do 21st-century people have with Confucianism?
Well, ritual can seem old-fashioned and not relevant. But when you unpack it, ritual is all around us. Another side is that Confucianism has been around for 2,500 years. A lot of the great texts were written mostly a long time ago. So there is a lot of sexism and other attitudes that we rightly have trouble with today. My view is that the core ideas of Confucianism are 100% supportive of an egalitarian view of gender. Historically that was not the case. But I think there are good Confucianist reasons to criticize Confucian sexism.
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What is a good Confucianist reason to criticize Confucian sexism?
On the one hand, “all people” can grow morally, even become a sage. But sexism puts barriers in front of women. By not allowing them to participate in public life, traditional Confucians stopped women from doing key things that help us become more morally mature.
Confucianism emphasizes social roles. That can sound elicit.
The idea of fixed social roles is a problem. We should recognize that we have different roles at a given point in time in a given situation. If we couldn’t see the ways deference is valuable we would never learn anything. You learn things by deferring to someone else. That doesn’t mean you can never challenge it. There are ways deference can go bad and fixed hierarchies are usually problematic.
As religious practice declines in the United States, can Confucianism help fill the void?
I guess yes. In the last few decades there has been a lot of growth in Americans’ interest in Buddhism. There are different reasons why people turn to Buddhism but it’s that same itch people are scratching. There are different kinds of secular humanism. People are not so much interested in supernatural, formal religion but they do care about our world and values and how to live our lives. Confucianism is a good fit.
Susan Dunne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.