The Gentle and the Vulgar

This is the forty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIV: Sacred Writings 1

The structure of the Analects, or Sayings of Confucius, is not entirely clear to me. Some chapters apparently deal with more or less specific themes. For example, Chapter X is a description of Confucius’s character and habits. Other chapters, such as Chapter XV, seem to be mere collections of thoughts and precepts without any particular organizing principle. As such, it is rather difficult to know how much the order of the sayings matters. However, it as only fair to assume that somebody thought that the structure was important, otherwise, why should the sayings be in the order that they are?

Assuming, then, that the sayings were purposefully ordered, two adjacent lines in Chapter XV stand out to me:

The Master said: “A gentleman fears lest his name should die when life is done.”

The Master said: ‘A gentleman looks within: the vulgar look unto others.”

I gather that “gentleman” here is “junzi” or “prince”. However, unlike the original meaning of “prince” as the hereditary heir to the throne, the word is used throughout the Analects to signify an ideal moral actor. Confucius appears to have favored a system of meritocracy, where morally superior men of any birth-status could rise to prominence. One goal — perhaps the primary goal — of the Analects is to instruct readers on how to be junzi.

Line 15.19 makes it appear that reputation matters to the gentleman, even after death. However, given the idea of the gentleman as an ideal moral actor, he would not merely want to be remembered, but to leave a legacy of being righteous. He would not want to be remembered for any act or characteristic that is inconsistent with the well-deserved status as “junzi.”

However, 15.19 seems to be at odds with 15.20.

In 15.20, Confucius contrasts the gentleman with “the vulgar.” It appears that Chinese word can also be rendered as “the small man” or “the petty man”. Throughout the Analects, the small man is given as a counterexample to the gentleman. Unlike the ideal morality of the gentleman, the small man’s ethical vision is narrow and self-serving. While the gentleman is inclusive, the small man is partisan. While the the gentleman seeks the good, the small man seeks profit. And so on.

It could be that 15.20 merely extols self-sufficiency; the gentleman is self-sufficent, while the small man relies on — or even leeches off of — others. However, read in conjunction with 15.19, it seems that the gentleman “looks within” for validation of his own worth. That is, he judges himself based on his own (proper) ethical standards, while the small man requires the validation of others. The problem, of course, is that the “others” to whom the small man looks are most likely vulgar themselves. In short, a gentleman takes little stock in public opinion of him because he holds himself to a different (and better) standard. The small man, desirous of public approval, is willing to debase himself for the sake of popularity. This reading is similar to the argument in Plato’s Republic that it is better to be good-but-reviled than to be lauded as good but actually not be. Though all the world think ill of you, it is better to know that you are good in your own heart than to succumb to the wrong public opinion of what is good.

But if that reading of 15.20 is correct, what sort of legacy can the gentleman hope to leave behind in 15.19? Who will remember the gentleman if he has has taken no particular stock of his public reputation? It seems possible that, worse than not being remembered at all, the gentleman will be remembered poorly by the vulgar masses because they lack the capacity to properly judge his virtue.

One way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between these sayings is that the gentleman ought to take stock of the opinions of other gentlemen. The gentleman in 15.19 is anxious to be remembered, not by the masses, but by other righteous men. And the small man’s error in 15.20 is seeking the approval of the vulgar, rather than the approval of his betters. That reconciliation is somewhat unsatisfying because it makes 15.20 appear to be an incomplete thought. Although the gentleman should “look within”, he should also be conscious and sensitive to the opinions of other gentlemen. Although the approval of others should not drive his actions, it may be a useful tool in determining whether his own opinion of himself is accurate.

Beer of the week: Busch Beer – This extremely pale macro lager is a bit of a surprise. It has the classic cheap beer smell and taste, but without much or any of the bad off notes. There is a bit of corn in the flavor, but none of the stickiness or sharp tastes that often come with that. For what it is, Busch Beer is a totally serviceable brew.

Reading of the week: The Sayings of Confucius, Chapter XV – This chapter also includes such gems as “A gentleman does not raise a man for his words, nor scorn what is said for the speaker,” and “Do not do unto others what thou wouldst not they should do unto thee.”

Question for the week: How important is it to leave a legacy?