Confucianism and Taoism
W. Thomas Grové
Sincerity is one of the most important traits that a sentient being should display. This concept is at the core of Confucianism and, in a perfect world, the core of any religious (or should I say social language) system. In an even more perfect world, sincerity would be displayed in the realm of politics and commerce (but perhaps with universal sincerity politics would not exist?). The inherent wish that humans have for sincerity is linked directly to their basic needs and the human tendency to avoid sincerity (or perceive others to be withholding sincerity) is a manifestation of fear and survival (another animal instinct). It is in our root nature to be sincere and I believe that great people are true to this nature. In the animal world there is nothing but sincere thought. A bird thinks “I will kill and eat that snake” and the snake thinks, “I will hide in the grass. I will hunt mice and hopefully I will not be eaten by a bigger animal than myself.” The snake also thinks, “If another animal gets too close to me, then, I will bite it. I might not survive, but I’ll leave my mark.” Animals might use camouflage and tactics and bluffs to accomplish their goals but I wouldn’t consider these traits to be insincere for these actions are conditioned and evolved responses. They work, more or less, the same every time.
Humans are different. Humans not only deceive other animals, but also other humans and themselves. This is probably a side effect of the tree of knowledge’s fruit. The moment in our common (birth/mutation) history when something broke (or became fixed) and our brains made one too many neuron links. Well, it’s like the feeling that you get when you strap into a roller coaster, walk/jump off a cliff, put something in your mouth, or lose your virginity (not limited to sexual virginity). It’s a liberating and sometimes scary feeling, the feeling that we’re past the point of no return. So, since we can’t go back we have two choices: stay where we are, being content with an imperfect and unpleasant state of affairs, or move forward. I think that it’s like the maneuver pulled in The Hunt for Red October when the renegade submarine goes full speed towards a torpedo, striking it before the warhead has become armed. Timing is, and position is, what’s important here. To quote Hsun Tsu: “A gentleman must be careful where he takes his stand”.
The reason for insincere action is probably linked to experience. Upbringing and interaction with society comprises the majority of this experience. The inability to embrace sincerity in a sober frame of mind becomes a bit of a feedback loop or more appropriately a ring modulator. The results are chaotic, very interesting, and sometimes scary. One person’s negative, untrusting, or deceitful actions have physical and mental effects on all of those who were exposed to those actions and the ripples that said action triggered. This altered mindset causes responsive actions, not necessarily true to said affected individual’s nature, and thus, unconsciously, insincere action are generated. So, where is forward from here, and what kind of step and position is required to move in that direction? The direction is evolution and the steps might be social, individual, or scientific(genetic, chemical, technological). Since there is only one person writing this paper, and only a few people reading it, I am going to suggest an individual evolution. When individuals display Ren (goodness nature) in their sphere of influence, they are making an impact on other individuals and thus society. When society has a major social movement, then, policies change. If current policies (or political mindsets) were to change, it would be, because of, and result in, sincerity.
“Confucius said, ‘In hearing litigations, I am as good as anyone. What is necessary is to enable people not to have litigations at all.'(Analects of Confucius, 12:13) Those who would not tell the truth will not dare to finish their words, and a great awe would be struck into people’s minds. This is called knowing the root.” (The Great Learning, 4) I believe sincerity is a part of this root and necessary for knowing the root. If one is clouded by self-delusion, then they will not see the root. If said person is open and unafraid of pain then they will not lie to themselves, by not deceiving themselves they will be able to tell whether or not they are deceiving others. This is the pinnacle point and where the “moral codes” suggested by major philosophies can come in handy. The good or the dark side of the force? I am inclined to think that the moral/personal cultivation and conduct required in achieving a state of sincerity towards yourself and the awareness of your actions’ effect on others will yield a positive result. To shape the future, a better future, right?
If we get to this stage, then I would like to suggest a redefinition of sincerity. Kindness and compassion, virtue and respect, clear thinking and right timing. These basic human virtues, if applied with sincerity, are all of what makes up a great individual. The embodiment of Ren and a deity among men. I’ve known a few of these people in my lifetime. If you have too, then you know what I’m talking about. They’re the people who look you in the eye and who shake your hand or hug you with strength. They are the people who give you the time of day as if you were their own son, even if you’re socially or physically different than they are. They smile with a warm heart and, without expectation, offer the right words at the right time. What they say and what they do impacts your reality (perception of it) more than anything else does. They have become true to their nature and their nature is the same as the animals’ but with an understanding and compassion made possible from their advanced (and calm/well aimed) brains (mindset).
There’s a quote from The Great Learning (one of The Four Books, a compilation of four Confucian texts considered to be some of the core teachings of Confucianism) that must have influenced me greatly when reading it (or have expressed ideas that I found to be true/good) because it goes along perfectly with what I have said so far. “What is meant by ‘making the will sincere’ is allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell or love a beautiful colour. This is called satisfying oneself. Therefore the superior man will always be watchful over himself when alone. When the inferior man is alone and leisurely, there is no limit to which he does not go in his evil deeds. Only when he sees a superior man does he then try to disguise himself, concealing the evil and showing off the good in him. But what is the use? For other people see him as if they see his very heart. Therefore the superior man always makes his will sincere.” The only part that I would really modify here is in the last sentence. It was probably a translation mistake or something. I would change it to say: The superior man’s will is always sincere. Otherwise you run into a paradox, if the man is “making” his will “sincere”, than it isn’t really sincere, right?
This statement is echoed (I’m probably the one echoing) in the Analects of Confucius. This mention of sincerity is in regards to ritual (very important for Confucius), specifically the ritual of a three year mourning period for the death of one’s parent. I can’t find this passage (I know it’s in there!) so I’m just going to paraphrase it. One of Confucius’ disciples seeks some advice. His mother has just died and he wants to know if he must adhere to the ritual of mourning for three years. He asks “isn’t mourning for one year just as good as mourning for three?” Confucius answers: “If you would truly feel comfortable (sincere in your action) to mourn for just one year, than do it. But a good man wouldn’t feel right about this. After all of the years that your parent spent raising you, there aren’t enough years left in your life to mourn for them (yourself) properly. But three years is the custom.” I think that the overall lesson from this passage isn’t a prescribed time length of mourning. Sure Confucius is a big proponent for following ritual (to bring about social harmony), but that’s not the message either. It isn’t important how long you mourn, it’s whether or not you are feeling a loss. If you just go through the motions then you’re not really mourning.
So, why is the superior man’s will sincere? Because it is his nature. He does what he does because it feels GOOD! Why does it feel good? I think that Mencius (a Confucian, wandering advice giver, and a book) offers a nice perspective on this. Mencius believed that a good ruler would recognize that the wants and needs of everyone else in the empire were the same wants and needs that he had. If the emperor or feudal lord could “extend” their desires to those of the common people than there would be harmony and strength in the empire. Why? Because by doing this, the emperor would recognize that the other and the self were more or less the same. That in helping others he would be helping himself. This works on a physical and emotional level. Physically, if the people are in good health and treated with respect (as the emperor would like to be) than they would be happy. A happy civilization is one that will not over through the government and that will indeed support the government in times of war. On an emotional level, it is human nature to feel happiness when you see others who are happy, especially if something you did helped to make them happy. This, of course, isn’t exclusive to an emperor and can be practiced by everyone. Once this extension system is realized and known as true in the subconscious, than a person will naturally do the right thing, or honestly do what they believe to be the correct thing.
If sincerity can be realized, in you, in me, and in people in positions of influence and policy making, then virtuous decisions/action will be made. In such a world, progress (social and thus individual and thus social) unlike any other could be achieved. It would be nice if you didn’t have to worry about being screwed over. It would be nice if everyone was treated with respect. It would be nice if everyone acted in ways deserving of respect. I am doubtful that this will ever be universally true on this planet. But I hope that the reader will take something away from this (hopefully something positive) and apply it to their life. The world might not change but “your empire” can change. Right mind and right action are worthwhile goals. To paraphrase (bastardize?) Confucius one more time in this paper: “For some the way is hard and requires constant effort, for other it comes naturally and with little effort. Some are over ambitious and need to be told to be less ambitious and others are not ambitious enough and need to be encouraged to be more ambitious.” .