by Bernie Langs
When reading certain philosophers that are difficult to understand, those of us who were never formerly trained as students of the genre often ask, “Why am I putting myself through this?” But in the case of reading Confucius, I know why I put myself through the hard task of reading his works. Just as one exercises the body for the good of the overall person, exercising the mind has terrific benefits to the soul. Confucianism reminds oneself of the need to simplify one’s personal code of ethics and it guides one to live easily within a set of attainable moral principles. Confucius offers simple, yet subtly intriguing notes on behavior towards one’s elders, on living as a moral person, and on how to deal with and recognize governmental quandaries. His most famous saying is a kind of back way into the now famous Golden Rule: “Tze-kung asked, saying, ‘Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.’” Confucius spoke often of the pursuit of learning throughout one’s life as a way of attaining virtue and wisdom.
In the past, I had read selections from all three books in the compendium of Confucian classics I am currently reading, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean. At this time, I’m far into the largest book in the collection, the Analects, and I know that as with Shakespeare, Homer, and Plato, one is never completely finished with a book such as this, since in this case there are over two thousand years of glosses and interpretations to consider. The Scottish translator James Legge lived in the nineteenth century, traveled as a missionary to China, and helped prepare The Sacred Books of the East series, published in 50 volumes between 1879 and 1891. His notes serve as a great guide for the text, and also expound on the times in which Confucius lived (551-479 BC). If we are so shortsighted as to believe that wine ages well with time, how great and entrancing are the words of the ancients to ponder over today. I also find myself wondering, as I read, what the Roman Stoic philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) (whose Meditations offers a guide to self-improvement), would have made of the pacifist Chinese philosopher.
Confucian subtexts form a part of a fantastic exhibition on view at The Asia Society, The Artful Recluse: Painting, Poetry, and Politics in Seventeenth-Century China. The hanging paintings and rolled out scrolls in the exhibit are to be savored for peaceful, inner meditation. What is wonderful about these works is that if you just take a step backwards in viewing, or maybe just move a tad to the right or the left, the paintings unfold into new dimensions as if one is seeing a completely different work of art. I have noted in this column in the past that I’ve grown averse to reading the long descriptions accompanying art in museums. But I found myself reading quite a few of the placards at The Asia Society. The idea of a scholar or government official retreating to the misty mountains is certainly beautiful and intriguing and the notes tell the story of individual cases behind the works of art. In addition, so much of Chinese art is graced with black-ink-brushed, magical calligraphy, and The Asia Society provides translations of many of the poems imbedded in the paintings.
Poetry, beauty, ideals, and history are all on view at The Asia Society. If you want to take your mind on a simple exercise that can do nothing but improve it, go and see these masterpieces. As Confucius wrote in The Great Learning, “The cultivation of the person depends on rectifying the mind.” Or as my Jewish grandmother might have quipped, “Go, go—it’s good for you!”