You are on page 1of 6

Dušan Arsovski

Ritual and the Self in Confucius

The question that I want to address in this paper is whether an individual who is a part
of the ritual participate as a person or he is drawn into something bigger. This question is a
little bit different than the one posted by Fingerette. He referred to the loss of self as a way of
“achieving liberation from a delusion that is the sear and source of our deepest suffering”
(Fingarette, 1979, 129). For Fingarette, the problem of the Self in Confucius writing is
whether it becomes selfless. I follow this question but I am putting it in the little bit narrow
sense, the one about the individual in the ritual. In this paper I start by talking about ritual in
Confucius. Then, I write about some possible interpretation of Confucius writings in the
Analects when it comes to Self, Virtue, etc. After that, I present Fingarettes argument for a
positive and negative account of the Self in the Analects. Finally, I argue, using music as an
example, but in a slitly different way than Fingarette, that the Self is preserved in the ritual
and that there it is not drawn into something bigger.

For Confucius, the idea of performance is important. What is performed are “sacred
practices collectively referred to as the li,, “rites” or “rituals.” (Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2003,
1) Those practices are important because they are a necessary step for achieving the lost state
of affairs of the Golden Age. In order for an individual to be on a path to the “Way,” or a
society to go back to the state of Heaven, ritual practice is necessary. A ritual is a tool for
society to be harmonious and individuals to become a man of virtue.
Ritual as a political tool and it is emphasized by Confucius when he says that people
should not be guided with governmental regulations and punishments because there would not
be a sense of shame. Confucius, says that if “you guide them with Virtue, and keep them in
line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will moreover reform
themselves.” (Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2003, 5).
Ritual is, more importantly, an ethical tool because aimed at individual in order for
him to become virtuous by participating in the ritual practice. A person who mastered ritual
practice is said to be a “gentleman” and gentleman possesses the supreme virtue of ren. So,
the ritual is a necessary step for the moral development of a person. Confucius emphasizes the
importance of training through which a practitioner is shaped into something else. This
process is of great importance:
“As if cut, as if polished;
As if carved, as if ground”
(Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2003, 4).

Being in the ritual, an individual becomes well trained and he adopts the Way so that it
becomes his second nature”(Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2003, 2). From this, we can understand
Confucian ritual as a transition in which an individual goes through a change. We can say that
he starts with one nature but ends with a different one through ritual practice. A difficult
question is what is this second nature that individual ended up with? The problem we are
encountering here is the question of whether an individual has a self in the sense that we can
talk about free will, autonomy, etc, in the ritual? We can ask this question in a different way:
How free is an individual in a ritual? Is he the one who controls the ritual or is it the the ritual
some sort of a structure that limits and bound its participants? Confucius gives some answers
in the text and in the one place we found out that there is a middle way in the ritual:

“If you merely stick rigidly to ritual in all matters, great and small,
there will remain that which you cannot accomplish. Yet if you
know enough to value harmonious ease but try to attain it without
being regulated by the rites, this will not work either.” (Ivanhoe
and Van Norden 2003, 4)

So, we cannot say that in a ritual, a person is free in the sense that it can go in an
apsolute way beyond the regulations of ritual practice. Also, if we want that ritual practice to
succeed then practitioner has to be flexible enough so that he is not rigid in following every
detail of ritual. So, there is some space for freedom. We know that for Confucius a gentleman
is not to be understood as a vessel. (Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2003, 4) This points to the idea
that in the ritual person is not reduced to a mere task that he is performing.
Another place points to the same moderate position but with respect to what is
already there in the individual and what he gained through practice. Virtue is achieved when
culture and what Confucius call native substance are in balance: “Only when culture and
native substance are perfectly mixed and balanced do you have a gentleman.” (Ivanhoe and
Van Norden 2003, 17) But, what moderate position implies? We could say that in the ritual,
we see an individual both as a Self and as a part of something bigger. He has autonomy but is
not free. But this position, being a somehow contradictory is not satisfying. We need a better
explanation for the status of the individual in the ritual.
As I mentioned in the beginning, Fingarette rises the question of the self but in
the context of the Analects, but also Asian thought in general. His idea is that we can see both
positive and negative aspects of the self in connection to the Way and in that sense ritual.
Fingarette starts with tracing positive accounts of the Confucius writing so he can arrive at
this negative position.
For a positive account, he examines ways in which we can understand the Confucius
teachings from the Analects through the analysis of the will. Will, in Fingarette opinion, can
show us ways to understand individual Self. By referring to different key terms in the
Analects, Fingarette concludes that we can understand the idea of Self quite similar to our
western perspective. From the idea of the will he concludes that individual has a clear idea of
himself as a different from Others. Confucius, Fingarette thinks, writes in such a manner so
that his audience are individuals with the power of changing their life, with a strong sense of
freedom, etc. He says that Confucius is “the great yea-sayer when it comes to the affirmation
of oneself, as an individual self, through one’s own will”(Fingarette, 1979, 134). Fingarette
also emphasizes that we can understand individual will as personal so that if we are saying
about our wills they all have to be personal, or to refer to an individual Self. (Fingarette, 1979,
For the negative position on the Self in the teachings, Fingarette starts with self-
cultivation for what he thinks is not a coincidence that Confucius used it (Fingarette, 1979,
130). But he argues that it was the commentators that emphasized the idea of the Self in
Confucius and that Confucius himself was thinking differently about this concept. He argues
that in the self-cultivation the emphasis is not on the Self, but on cultivation, and what is
cultivated is not the Self, but some other features such as principles or skills (Fingarette, 1979,
130). Traces that we can found and that can also point to the negative account are those
passages in which Confucius talks about goals of the individual that is different than profit,
personal fame, etc., (Fingarette, 1979, 134). Again, the will is a key term for the analysis. It
could be the case, Fingarette thinks, that the reasons for some action that individual want are
the precise the reasons that “tao calls for” (Fingarette, 1979, 135). This way, the will in
question is not personal for Fingarette, because the reasons for actions are not uniquely tied to
an individual whose actions are being performed. Every participant in the ritual is a
contingent element. There is nothing in the ritual teaching that refers to a unique individual or
Self. He concludes, to understand the action of the Self is to understand the reasons that are
purely reasons of this self as a particular person, but the “tao is present in the chun tzu’s will”
(Fingarette, 1979, 135).
After analyzing both positions, Fingarette writes about music through which he shows
one way we can understand the necessity of the personal in the ritual. He examines the
performer of the musical piece. His idea is that there is always a personal part that cannot be
reduced to some non-personal part. He point to a somewhat middle ground position. He thinks
that it is always the performer the one who creates the “reality that is denser and richer than
any concept, and that therefore is necessary personal in important ways even though the
personal only serves and enhances the governing and pervading concept, which is
nonpersonal.” After the analysis of Fingarette account of the status of the Self in Analects I
will proceed to my own anaylisis, were I also use like Fingaratte music as an example but in a
different way than him.
Music is of great importance for Confucius. There are many places where he talks
about music that he uses as a ilustration for his ideas.

“What can be known about music is this: when it first begins, it resounds with a
confusing variety of notes, but as it unfolds, these notes are reconciled by means
of harmony, brought into tension by means of counterpoint, and finally woven
together into a seamless whole. It is in this way that music reaches its
perfection.” (Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2003, 9)

This is a very important passage. Here, we can see several phases in which music is
understood as a dialectical process. Imagine music being a ritual and notes individuals who
are participating in it. In the first stage, there is a confusion because of different characters,
fetatures of individuals, their personalities, etc. But then, there is a reconciliation in which
individuals are in harmony with each other, they are brought into tension and the end result is
a unified whole.
One way of making sense of this image is to say that all the notes are transformed into
music. In the perfected musical performance, we as listeners are not listening particular notes,
but the whole musical piece. Then, we could say that there are no musical notes in the music
because we are not focus on any particular tone and we are not listening particular tones but
only composition as only one thing. But, we could easily see how wrong this would be if we
listen to some compositions where we could hear one note being emphesised or couple of
them so we could clearly distinguish them from the composition as a whole. Take every
famous melody as an example. If we try to recall it in our heads we could only hear the simple
tones, those few that are a key theme. We can easyly sing those tunes and still regard it as the
same composition even though we are not singing every part of the composition. If it is the
case that in the musical performance, tones are being drawn into the musical piece so that we
cannot hear them individualy but only the whole musical peace, than there could not be a
recognition of the composition without a complete performance. We could not know if our
friend is singing some random melody or a complex composition that is usualy perfromed in
opera houses, with a lot of musicions, etc.
But we do hear particular tones and we do recognize complex composition even when
we hear only limited number of tones in a performance. In that sense, participants in the ritaul
are persons and the self they posess is not lost in the process. Just like a tone in the musical
piece, the self is in harmony with others.We could distinguish a character, personality, etc,
and what is most important, we see the ritual as a practice in which one self is interacting with
others. Person is giving his hand for a handshake with another person. We could imagine that
some observers could say that two persons in the ritual are being part of something bigger,
something that is more important then them but but it is still those persons who are giving
rispect to each other, treating each other with dignity, etc. The result of the ritual garantue that
two persons were participated as one self with another one.
Another important clue for our claim that the self is preserved in the ritual is the
example of ritual sacrificing. Confucius talks about the possibility of unsuccessful sacrifice in
which a person is not present. He says: “If I am not fully present at the sacrifice, it is as if I
did not sacrifice at all.” (Ivanhoe and Van Norden 2003, 8). If one who make the sacrifice is
not fully present than there is no sacrifice, there is no ritual practice. What does it mean to be
fully present? I think there are couple of ways we can interpret this passage.
One way, of course, would be to say that one could not perform a ritual if one is not
physically there. But this is a trivial truth and we would think that there is a deeper meaning to
this passage. We could say that one who is not sincere in doing the sacrifice, or that he is
doing it for the wrong reasons, is not present.1 So, honesty is a necessary condition in order
for a ritual to be successful. In the end, we could interpret the passage as saying that a ritual is
not being performed if there is no a person or self in the ritual. This interpretation is a
different than the first one because an individual can be physically present in a ritual but we
could understand a concept of an individual in that context just in the terms of being a part of
the ritual.

Different issue is what would it be in that case right and what wrong reasons for performing a sacrifice.
Ivanhoe, P. J, и Bryan W Van Norden. 2003. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy.
Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Fingarette, Herbert, 1979. “The Problem of the Self in the Analects“, Philosophy East and
West, Vol.29, No. 2 , 129-140