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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fast Notes on a Few Philosophers


Confucius is probably the most influential philosopher who ever lived. But he did not really leave us a philosophy. Rather than carefully reasoned argument, he left aphorisms, short pieces of advice on how to live, without explanation or justification.

How can this have been so influential? Why should we take Confucius’s word for it?

This, I think, is because rather than appealing to reason, he appealed to conscience. Given a conscience, if the moral right is simply demonstrated or pointed out, it is undeniable. Resorting to reason, by contrast, might just rationalize wrong. This illustrates Confucius’s most important point: that people are best governed by example, not by laws. If the ruler is visibly virtuous, the people will be virtuous. If the ruler is visibly dishonest, the people will not care about virtue.

A moral and social philosopher, Confucius analysed all human relationships as of five types: parent-child, sibling-sibling, husband-wife, friend-friend, ruler-subject. Each implied specific obligations, and if everyone followed their proper role, society would always function well. Some object that this implied a rigidly hierarchical society, always with superiors and inferiors. This is wrong: it is like the game of rock-paper-scissors. If you must play the subordinate in relationship A, you are going to be the superior in some other relationship.

It worked very well for China and East Asia for thousands of years. If there is a problem here, however, it is that the reliance on direct appeals to conscience instead of general principles can leave gaps. For example, since a foreigner or a stranger does not obviously fit into one of the five relationships, he or she can become a ghost, of no account. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan for comparison. If violence or injustice is done outside your sight, similarly, it may be felt to be less troublesome.

There is this example from Confucius’s follower Mencius:

The King was sitting up on the pavilion. There was an ox being led past the pavilion. The King saw it and said, "Where is the ox going?" Someone responded, "We are about to consecrate a bell [with its blood]." The King said, "Spare it. I cannot bear its frightened appearance, like an innocent going to the execution ground." Someone responded, "So should we abandon the consecrating of the bell?" [The King] said, "How can that be abandoned? Exchange [the ox] for a sheep."

Mencius commends the king for doing right, and says “This is just the way benevolence works.[4] You saw the ox but had not seen the sheep.”

To my mind, however, this is unjust. One ought to care as much for those one does not see. This is why codes of law like the Ten Commandments are, in the end, useful. Even though St. Augustine says, in the spirit of Confucius, “Love, and do what you will.”


Descartes set out to doubt everything he could doubt, and came up with one certainty: “I think—even if I doubt—therefore I am.” He could not doubt that he was doubting. So the self exists, “I,” if nothing else. He goes on, then, to point out that at least some of the thoughts do not come from him, nor did he create himself, and so at a minimum God too exists. The existence of God, in turn, is a warrant that anything we perceive clearly and distinctly is likely to be real and true. A good God would not deceive us.

Ironically, Buddhism is based on what seems to be the opposite premise: its core doctrine is anatman, “There is no self.” Does this disprove Descartes? I don’t think so. Both assertions, I think, can be true. We cannot doubt the existence of the perceiving subject, but the point Buddhism is making is that this subject, this “I,” has no content. Or if it does, we cannot know what it is. We cannot perceive it directly--”I” cannot be both subject and object. A mirror cannot reflect itself. We do not really know what it is, we cannot say anything about it.

The second common criticism of Descartes is for “Cartesian dualism.” He posits two distinct realms of existence, the mental or spiritual and the physical. Many have argued that it seems logically impossible for two separate realms like this to have any influence on one another. Like parallel lines, they should never meet. How does that physical cat out there somehow get into our mind? How does our thought make our arm rise up? I do not really see any problem here, however. On the analogy of hardware and software, it seems perfectly reasonable: they are two separate realms, in just the same way, but they do interact. The other solution is more radical: why assume there is a physical world? Maybe everything is spirit!


Rousseau is best known as a social philosopher, although he said important things about education as well. I think his basic premise can be stated in this way:

God exists. God is perfectly good. God created all things. Therefore, all things must have been created perfectly good. “Nature” is a model of perfect goodness. All evil in the world must come from change over time to the original, natural pattern God set. All change from what is original and natural is a falling away.

I see an immediate problem here. It means anything men try to do is a bad thing. Rousseau believes that all art and all science is in error, is a result of human “pride,” like the Tower of Babel. Do we presume we can do better than God?

I think that the Biblical advice “by their fruits ye shall know them” disproves Rousseau in practical terms. To follow his philosophy, nobody would ever try to make the world better. Everyone would just do what they first wanted to do, because that is what is “natural” to them: sex, drugs, stealing, laying about, and so forth. As a result, trying to put Rousseau’s ideas into practice, as in the French Revolution, seems to have always ended badly.

The response to Rousseau, I think, is the idea of original sin; his philosophy is sensible only because he rejects original sin. If there was indeed an original sin, human nature cannot be assumed to be spontaneously good; nor can nature be trusted as a model of the way things ought to be. Both, as we know them now, are in a fallen state.

I think Rousseau’s assumptions also do not work well on his own initial premise, that God is supremely good. If God is supremely good, would he have created a world that must inevitably decay over time? Would he have created man with nothing useful to do? By contrast, the idea that God created an essentially good world, with free will, which is also good, but original sin caused it to fall, leaves the possibility of a process leading to a more perfect world. Therefore, this is the world God would have created.

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