Friday, March 26, 2010

Confucius, Baseball and Apple Pie

Ask an American what faith they profess and you’ll find Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and Hindus in abundance, with a liberal sprinkling of Bahai’s, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. But hardly anyone will confess to being a Confucianist.

That’s odd, because Confucius is as American as Motherhood and Apple Pie. Our nation’s founders admired him greatly. Thomas Paine listed the Chinese sage in the same category as Jesus and Socrates and a manual for public devotion that he helped devise omitted any Biblical passages but included proverbs from Confucius and other Eastern poets. James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had a portrait of Confucius hanging in his Virginia home.

But it was Benjamin Franklin who first introduced Confucius to the American colonies. In 1737, Franklin carried a series of papers “From the Morals of Confucius” in his weekly magazine The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin called the Chinese master’s philosophy “the gateway through which it is necessary to pass to arrive at the sublimest wisdom ….”

Holland Cotter summarizes the Confucian outlook in today’s New York Times as a pragmatic strategy of “you be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you,” getting along by going along. “He also believed that education, hard work and respect for the past were essential; that excessive anything — money, fun, religion — led to trouble; and that social harmony was best achieved when people interacted courteously, but basically minded their own business.”

Some doubt if Confucianism even qualifies as a religion, because it focuses mainly on ethics rather than on saving souls. Asked by a follower about life after death, Confucius supposedly replied, “Why worry about the next world when you haven’t yet learned how to live in this one?” For a founding generation of Americans tired of metaphysics, a practical religion that counseled public virtue and civic-mindedness while avoiding hair-splitting doctrine had a definite appeal.

As the father of a Korean son, I have come to appreciate Confucian culture more and more, as it helped to build civilizations that have endured for thousands of years—valuing decorum, promoting strong families, and instilling reverence for the highest standards of personal conduct.

So the next time I’m asked what religion I practice, I think I’ll answer “Confucian.” If it’s good enough for Ben Franklin, it’s good enough for me.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Call yourself what you will, Gary, but this understates the depth of Franklin's theology and depth of his religious feeling [even if not explicitly Christian].

This is quite a serious and remarkable piece by Franklin, something I think warrants much deeper study:

On the Providence of God in the Government of the World

"If you say he has decreed nothing but left all things to general Nature, and the Events of Free Agency, which he never alters or interrupts. Then these Conclusions will follow; He must either utterly hide him self from the Works of his Hands, and take no Notice at all of their Proceedings natural or moral; or he must be as undoubtedly he is, a Spectator of every thing; for there can be no Reason or Ground to suppose the first -- I say there can be no Reason to imagine he would make so glorious a Universe meerly to abandon it."

"Lastly If God does not sometimes interfere by his Providence tis either because he cannot, or because he will not; which of these Positions will you chuse? There is a righteous Nation grievously oppress'd by a cruel Tyrant, they earnestly intreat God to deliver them; If you say he cannot, you deny his infinite Power, which you at first acknowledg'd; if you say he will not, you must directly deny his infinite Goodness. You are then of necessity oblig'd to allow, that 'tis highly reasonable to believe a Providence because tis highly absurd to believe otherwise. "

Daniel said...


Generally, the statements of the Founders concerning religions other than Christianity reveal a very shallow understanding. Do you find that any of the Founders seem to have a real understanding of Confucius?

Gary Kowalski said...

Well, the understanding of Eastern philosophies was fairly shallow in the 18th century. Even 19th century Transcendentalists like Emerson had only the vaguest acquaintance with Buddhism, for instance. It's not the depth of the founder's understanding of Confucianism I find commendable, but the breadth of their spiritual interest and their curiosity in seeking out non-Western traditions as sources of possible religious insight.

In citing Franklin as one of the founders who expressed interest in Confucius, I am not understating or minimizing the depth of his theological thought. Obviously, he was an intensely moral man, and David Wang on the faculty of St. John's College has written a paper on Franklin's debt to Confucius for the program of ethical self-improvement that he lays out in the Autobiography. Franklin was intensely devout in the sense of being scrupulous, principled and contemplative--but also unorthodox in his opinions, embracing a freethinking attitude toward revelation that could consider Confucius, along with the Bible, in his personal canon.

Tom Van Dyke said...

There was definitely a search for the universality of their principles, Mr. Spirits. Part of this is the natural law tradition, that there is a law that applies to all men at all times, and their arguments for rights and liberty were brand-new things that they argued as "human" rights, not merely "political" rights to be wrested from a king or a government.

As it turned out, they tended to monotheize and Judeo-Christianize these other traditions. Surely man's great wisdoms, if truth, must agree on the fundamentals!

[Locke has some damned surprising views on the subject, but let's table him for now.]

As we in the 21st century have the tenets of Islam and Confucianism and the rest just a click away, we find that perhaps they don't quite meet the Founders' "deist minimum," which was far more than a "minimum," since it required the God of Providence that Franklin argues so eloquently above. That G of P is not exactly the understanding of deity found in other traditions outside the Western one.

bpabbott said...

It may sound ironic ... but this atheist likes Franklin ...

"Here is my creed. I believe in One God, the Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render Him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion."
-- Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790 (I recently came across this quote here)

Tom Van Dyke said...

No lie, Ben, I just returned to this thread to copy for use in a "philosophical" forum Franklin's argument for Providence and saw your comment.

It's quite an elegant argument. I was moved.

"The Works of His Hands." That's us, humanity. And, Franklin argues, He does not utterly hide himself from us. That would, I reckon, make creating us in the first place pointless.

Anyway, cheers, mate. As Aquinas is my patron saint, clearly Franklin is yours.

Brian Tubbs said...

Minor point, but....having an article/post in all bold is distracting.