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 pioneered 2,500 years ago by the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
To explain Confucianism and publicize 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 creating a harmonious society of mutually respectful people.
“It’s not 100% different from any other philosophy that’s ever existed, but it brings together different kinds of values in a way that makes a lot of sense,” Angle said. “A central idea is the idea of harmony, an environment of harmony in societies. It means recognizing differences and how they complement and balance each other.
Angle will appear at the Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore, 413 Main St. in Middletown, Sept. 14 at 5 p.m. for a reading and book signing. Prior to this appearance, Angle spoke about Confucianism. This interview has been edited for length. For more details on Angle’s work, visit strap.faculty.wesleyan.edu.
Is Confucianism a philosophy or a religion?
Both. Many people think of religion as belief in a god. If that’s what anyone thinks religion is, Confucianism is not a religion. But if you ask a scholar of religious studies, they will tell you that religion is something that puts you in touch with an ultimate value or meaning. Then Confucianism matters. But it is also philosophy.
What is Confucianism?
The central idea is that we have it in us to become good people, ultimately to become a sage, who is somehow a perfect person. It doesn’t depend on anything supernatural. But we are not doing it alone. We depend on our relationships with others, especially family, to determine how to relate positively to others in family and community. As we grow morally, we help others grow morally.
Is it possible to become a perfect person?
In principle. For Christians, it is not possible to become a god. They are different types of creatures. Whereas for Confucians, there is no principled barrier. We could become sages. I don’t know anyone who has ever been, but who knows?
What are the main tenets of Confucianism?
To enable everyone to become virtuous, you must first take care of harmony in your family. To ensure harmony in your family, you must look within yourself to ensure that all your intentions are sincere. The link is between our individual moral growth and the achievement of harmony and fulfillment in society. The idea is that we already have the core of goodness within us. We are not just creatures who don’t care about each other at all. But we are not perfect and we have to work on ourselves.
Why the emphasis on filial piety?
The fundamental relationships we have are with our parents. They gave birth to us and more importantly, they are the ones who love you and are committed to your growth and fulfillment. This can apply to whoever raises you. It doesn’t matter if they’re not your biological parents. From parents, you can recognize this love, this concern for your own welfare. From there, you begin to understand that we can take care of others.
Does filial piety work if a person’s parents aren’t kind to them?
There is no single answer. Parents are not perfect and they are not monsters. For example, a college student who had a combative relationship with her mother decided to implement filial piety when she returned home for Thanksgiving. At first, this enraged her mother. But after a few days, they started having different relationships. It was difficult for her because she grew up with the same fiery temper her mother had. If you recognize how your own attitudes contribute to the situation and try to make room for love and respect, the results will often be good. But if you’re talking about a really horrible situation, then of course you shouldn’t just sit there and accept it. The considerate thing to do in a situation like this is to ask for help, legal or otherwise.
Why does Confucianism emphasize the following rituals?
We pay much attention to the law in our society, but little attention to rituals, perhaps outside of religious services. But in fact, rituals are very common in our society and if we didn’t have them, society would collapse. Rituals are the social glue that holds our societies together, the way we greet each other, the way we have to invent new rituals, like the way things work on Zoom. This is how we know how to respect each other.
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, it has a lot to do with rituals. When we engage in public rituals like voting, we are not just trying to choose a candidate. We do a ritual that expresses our belief in democracy, that we are equal citizens together. So when the ex-president does everything to undermine these institutions and undermine the ritual, we speak of democracy in danger. Confucianism helps us see how much 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, the ritual may seem old-fashioned and irrelevant. But when you unbox it, the ritual is all around us. Another aspect is that Confucianism has been around for 2,500 years. Many great texts were written mostly a long time ago. So there’s a lot of sexism and other attitudes that we’re right to struggle with today. My view is that the core ideas of Confucianism 100% support an egalitarian view of gender. Historically this was not the case. But I think there are good Confucian reasons for criticizing Confucian sexism.
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What is a good Confucian reason to criticize Confucian sexism?
On the one hand, “everyone” can grow morally, even become a sage. But sexism puts up barriers in front of women. By not allowing them to participate in public life, traditional Confucians have prevented women from doing essential things that help us become more morally mature.
Confucianism emphasizes social roles. This may sound elitist.
The idea of fixed social roles is a problem. We should recognize that we have different roles at any given time in any given situation. If we couldn’t see how deference is valuable, we would never learn anything. You learn things by relying on someone else. That doesn’t mean you can never challenge it. There are ways deference can go wrong, and fixed hierarchies are usually problematic.
As religious practice declines in the United States, can Confucianism help fill the void?
I guess yes. Over the past few decades, American interest in Buddhism has grown significantly. There are different reasons why people turn to Buddhism, but it’s the same itch that people scratch. There are different types of secular humanism. People are not so much interested in supernatural and formal religion, but they care about our world and our values and how to live our lives. Confucianism is well suited.
Susan Dunne can be contacted at [email protected].