18 March 2005

It's All in Xiao

May Sim, an ancient philosopher at Holy Cross College and a colleague in BACAP, has a series of interesting papers on Aristotle and Confucius. Her "Virtue Oriented Politics: Confucius and Aristotle" (forthcoming in a volume on Aristotle's Politics edited by Lenn Goodman and Robert Talisse) at several points touches on Confucius' agreement with Aristotle, that political authority should have virtue as its goal. She claims, however, that because Confucius takes life within a family as the paradigm of virtue, for him virtue in even its fullest form is, potentially, more widely shared:

In Aristotle's ideal constitution, only the ruler--or the citizen in his temporary role of ruler--can exercise genuine practical wisdom on a public plane. Nor can one exercise the ultimate [degree] of virtue in a constitution of the wrong type. In Confucius' view, however, it seems that the good private person is also the good citizen and the virtuous man. This is clear when Confucius responded to the question as to why he is not in government by saying, "It is all in filial conduct (xiao)! Just being filial to your parents and befriending your brothers is carrying out the work of government" (2.21). Where Aristotle more sharply distinguishes the virtues of the citizen from the virtues of the good man, and separates both from any excellences that might pertain to his family relationships, Confucius blends them. Perhaps in a way Confucius allows more people to attain genuine moral virtue, the same kind of virtue as the ruler or junzi. They act in their private capacity, as Aristotle would see it, where Aristotle would look for participation. But their seemingly familial and communal virtues are of social and political significance in Confucius' view. For Confucius, the virtues of the junzi are accessible even within one's family.

I'm not sure that Aristotle is so very far apart from Confucius: think of his comparison of familial relationships and political rule in NE 8.9-12; or his suggestion in 10.8 that a completely virtuous and happy person would live in obscurity and be hard to recognize.

But May's comments led me to wonder what (so to speak) the default view is, on the question of the goal of legislation. Is the view that legislation should aim at virtue something that people naturally arrive at (if we can speak this way)? Or is that a philosopher's thesis?

Aristotle in NE seems to regard the view as, if not something obvious and an endoxon, at least an implicit presumption and ideal of legislation. For instance:
1103b3-4 (see also 1113b22-30)
And thus by performing just actions we become just; by performing moderate actions, moderate; and by performing courageous actions, courageous. What happens in city-states supports this as well: legislators make their citizens good, by getting them used [to acting like that]. (That's the point of a legislator, without exception; and anyone who fails to do this gets it wrong; and it's precisely this that makes the difference between a good and bad constitution.)

ou(/tw dh\ kai\ ta\ me\n di/kaia pra/ttontej di/kaioi gino/meqa, ta\ de\ sw/frona sw/fronej, ta\ d' a)ndrei=a a)ndrei=oi. marturei= de\ kai\ to\ gino/menon e)n tai=j po/lesin: oi( ga\r nomoqe/tai tou\j poli/taj e)qi/zontej poiou=sin a)gaqou/j, kai\ to\ me\n bou/lhma panto\j nomoqe/tou tou=t' e)sti/n, o(/soi de\ mh\ eu)= au)to\ poiou=sin a(marta/nousin, kai\ diafe/rei tou/tw| politei/a politei/aj a)gaqh\ fau/lhj.

It seems also that a true practitioner of political skill is someone who has taken special pains to get it right about virtue. Why? Because he aims to turn his citizens into good men who are obedient to the laws. Clear examples are the legislators of Crete and Sparta (and any others like them, as is supposed, in past times).

dokei= de\ kai\ o( kat' a)lh/qeian politiko\j peri\ tau/thn ma/lista peponh=sqai: bou/letai ga\r tou\j poli/taj a)gaqou\j poiei=n kai\ tw=n (10) no/mwn u(phko/ouj. para/deigma de\ tou/twn e)/xomen tou\j Krhtw=n kai\ Lakedaimoni/wn nomoqe/taj, kai\ ei)/ tinej e(/teroi toiou=toi gege/nhntai.