The Importance of Sywndz

Homer H Dubs. Hsuntze, The Moulder of Ancient Confucianism. Probsthain 1927

The following, here somewhat expanded, was posted to the WSW list on 14 December 2006.

Homer H Dubs

Sywndz is undeniably an important early Chinese thinker. Suppose him to have been described, and suppose his important writings to have been adequately translated. Now we are set to ask, What is the importance of Sywndz?

That question is not to be answered in terms of Why Sywndz Is Important To Us. We are irrelevant to Sywndz. He could not have anticipated us, and if he had, it would have mattered little to his career goals, or to his squabbles with his competitors.

The Revised Question

We need instead to assess the importance of Sywndz in terms of his own times, the early and middle 03rd century. What were those times like? They were times when everyone more or less realized that things were heading toward a Unified China, and when the leaders were trying either to control that tendency to their advantage, or to avoid the dangers with which it threatened them. The art of killing people and of keeping the people on your side from being killed; the political techniques of mobilizing the populace, and the diplomatic techniques of unbalancing the policies of your enemies - these were among the urgent technical skills and discussion points of the time. These things were fundamental. Anybody who tries to think about the period without taking account of them is not going to get much of anywhere.

Some of those at the time who thought about these things were moved to try to analyze them, and analysis is a characteristic feature of the age. You don't just order the army to win, you have to break that down into steps which would be executable by a hastily trained conscript soldiery. For that you have to have a plan: an idea, a kit of ideas, a recognition and action agenda. So also in the political sphere: mobilizing and animating populations, keeping an expanding bureaucracy responsive to the will of the sovereign and consistent with the sovereign's policy, getting and taming talent: you need a guiding concept to get any of this done, let alone all of it, and if you don't get all of it done, your country will sooner or later be destroyed by the country next door which has gotten it done. The stakes are very high.

Where then does Sywndz fit in with those contemporary urgencies? That, I should think, is the usefully revised version of our initial question.

Dubs's Answer

Dubs answers the question partly in his title (Hsuntze, the Moulder of Confucianism), and partly in his Preface. Much of the latter goes to defending Sywndz against the negative opinions of later ages. Sywndz was not that bad, argues Dubs (though he is wrong in his claim that the meaner parts of Sywndz are inauthentic). And Sywndz was influential, argues Dubs (though Dubs happens to be wrong about Han Fei being Sywndz's pupil).

Dubs, let it be said, is on the whole sensible in his approach to the material. Not for him is the nonsense about Sywndz going to the Ji-sya enterprise in his 15th year, as though he were some sort of Han prodigy rather than impecunious and unconnected student of whom we see traces in the writings, particularly in the parts which express animus toward the home school of Confucius in Lu (whose tuition he couldn't afford), and for the characteristic notions of the six Ji-sya thinkers, all of whom he opposed and rejected.

At the end, when taking stock of Sywndz as a whole, Dubs lists what his marginal headings call Hsuntze's Contributions to Confucian Thought: a return to the theme of the title. It takes him two pages (xxx-xxxi), and on those pages he makes thirteen points. I summarize them below, and conclude with a Comment.

1. [Confucius had edited the Classics, Mencius had elaborated his teaching]. "Hsuntze developed its logical implications, defended it, and founded it firmly upon an analysis of human nature and of history." Confucius had not edited the Classics; they moved a little nearer to canonical shape under Sywndz's own aegis. His own role in the matter was much more consequential than Confucius's. As for Mencius, both he and Sywndz are in a way throwbacks to an earlier Confucianism than that of the home school in Lu (although Mencius had for a considerable time been a major figure in that school). In their development, Mencius and Sywndz represent alternative futures for Confucianism; futures which accepted big power politics as a given, and went on from there. (The Analects school had explicitly turned aside from that development, and had become pacifistic in policy). There is thus less of a linear sequence here than a contemporary three-way tension on public policy. We thus have to dissent from Dubs's initial point. See also Point 13, below.

2. "The doctrine that he is best known by is the one that human nature fundamentally is evil and needs training to make it virtuous. Hence the need for a standard of action imposed by authority." That point did indeed scandalize much of later opinion, but later opinion is not the question. Sywndz got backed into a corner on the human nature issue, during a dispute with the Mencians in particular, and he had expressed himself more extremely than he might later have wished. But the human nature thing is not necessarily central to Sywndz's philosophy. More might here be made of Sywndz's view of the learning process, and (separately) his view of the teaching process, matters on which his views seem to have changed somewhat over time. The Mencians too had things to say about personal cultivation, and about mass education; our sense of Sywndz would be better served by more attention to this extensive area of his writings. There is a similar area of concern in the parts of the Gwandz that are contemporary with Sywndz, not that anybody has ever paid that material the slightest attention. Dubs's attempt to make the human nature question central to Sywndz's thought may thus be not entirely felicitous.

3. "Thus Hsuntze gives a philosophical foundation to the authoritarianism which has been one fundamental characteristic of Confucianism through all the ages." This is often overlooked, but it is important. One might alternatively say: Sywndz is an important part of the process by which Confucianism adapted itself from the ethos of the feudal serving elite to the agenda of the Imperial social engineers. It is open to question, however, whether Confucianism after Sywndz was leading or following the progress of events. We would say that it was the authoritarian strand in Chinese political thought which triumphed over both the Mencian and Sywndzian alternatives to it. Making Sywndz the ancestor of the Empire is claiming too much. The Empire was the motivating force in the final outcome.

4. "This standard of action Hsuntze finds in Li, Ceremony, Propriety, or as I prefer to translate it, the Rules of Proper Conduct. It is in his exaltation of Li as the basis of morals that Hsuntze is most characteristic of Chinese thought all through the ages. . . " Dubs might have more explicitly recognized the principle of difference as the basis of Li; see further below. The question of how natural Li is to humankind is one of those on which Sywndz's thinking reveals some cracks and inconsistencies, which might be pursued with profit to our understanding of how he arrived at the positions he eventually held.

5. "Yet Hsuntze does not evade the problem of epistemology, even though his standard of conduct for the average man is authoritarian. He seeks to present the conditions for the knowledge of truth. It is the problem of knowledge for the practical, not the speculative reason, that he faces. For ancient China the great philosophical problem was What shall I do; not, as in ancient Greece, What can I know?" It is useful to note this difference of emphasis. With it, we might also note the absence of mathematics in the mental furniture of Sywndz or any other Chinese thinker. About Truth, as distinct from Fact, more might be said. Sywndz's position on Heaven seems to rule out any interest in Truth as it is usually understood in the West (which is to say, theologically). The final statement thus stands in need of serious clarification.

6. "On the metaphysical side, Hsuntze is noteworthy for combining Laotze's concept of the impersonal Tao with the ancient Confucian concept of Heaven and doing away with any personal or anthropomorphic God or spirits." Good, although the word "metaphysical" tends to bring in more baggage than we need..

7. "He attacked belief in spirits vigorously, including belief in the spirits of ancestors and in various kinds of superstitions and fortune-telling." Right.

8. "This attitude raised for him the problem of reinterpreting the funeral and sacrificial ceremonies which form such a large part of the content of Li. Thus Hsuntze is responsible for a large part of the religious agnosticism permeating Chinese educated circles." The first statement is well observed. The second makes Sywndz personally responsible for an elite attitude (in opposition to the various and persistent popular attitudes which surrounded it on all sides) which rejected the spirit world. Again, this gives Sywndz too much credit. He exemplified that attitude, and took it to a sort of logical extreme, but he did not originate it. The final equilibrium of Imperial Confucianism wound up accommodating much more of the wooky side of life than Sywndz would have liked. In this line of development, he is rather a salient than a portal.

9. "In his psychology, he makes the Mind the ruler of personality, and uses this doctrine to combat theories of desire, holding . . .

10. " . . . that desire can be controlled by the mind." This is pure meditationism. It identifies an important link between Sywndz and the meditation schools. Of meditation schools, both the school later identified with Laudz and the many groups later editorially combined under the label Jwangdz were currently active in Sywndz's early years. One of the two posthumous Mencian schools was contemporary with Sywndz down to 0249 (when, as Governor of Lan-ling, he obliterated them along with the surviving Analects group in Lu), and they too had meditation, in its breath control form, as an important part of their working toolkit. So did the also contemporary Gwandz people in Chi, which was never conquered by Chu and was thus outside Sywndz's range of extermination. That group maintained their own meditation tradition, running in parallel with (and overlapping with much of the content of) that of the "Laudz" group until the extermination of the "Laudz" group itself, probably also on Sywndz's orders, in the same fateful year of 0249. Sywndz's debt to the technique of mind control may be seen at many points (SZ 2 and even parts of SZ 1, the curricular summaries, are rich documents of that indebtedness, but they are slightly later than Sywndz's own lifetime). Sywndz's complex relations with those from whom he learned of the possibilities of mind could do with further treatment. Sywndz in this area seems to illustrate the melancholy principle that we tend to hate those whom we owe.

11. "In response to a suggestion made by Confucius, he developed a logic, with its classification of fallacies, holding a thoroughgoing conceptualism." Sywndz seems to have learned his Confucianism in a tradition somewhat off the line of the Analects developments; at some points, he echoes Confucianism's 05th century beginnings, though he also develops some of its quite different 04th century tendencies. The development of logic, however, lay not with the Confucians, who regarded it with suspicion and distaste, but with the Micians, not to mention Gungsun Lung, from Sywndz's own state of Jau. The relation between these developments and the Confucian tradition remains to be clarified. But it is a great mistake to see Sywndz, especially in this area, as simply developing tendencies initiated by Confucius. He stole from everybody who was active in the 03rd century, his enemies as well as his allies.

12. "In his political philosophy he makes explicit the fact that although men are potentially equal, yet society and government is founded on human inequality, and defends this theory from his analysis of society." This makes the point missing in #3 above. We here note that the inconsistency in the two Sywndz positions is manifest. One way to handle it is to say that Sywndz is simply inconsistent, and that may be the best solution in some cases. But in the other cases, Dubs has seemingly not investigated whether we have here early versus late positions of a Sywndz who was reasonably consistent at any one time, but whose mind evolved over time, in part precisely through his adversative contact with the Mencians and others. Sywndz's philosophical positions are in part the scars of philosophical battle. Dubs is looking for a uniform Sywndz philosophy, but the complete record of Sywndz's pronouncements is actually giving us something else.

13. "He exposed the fallacies of other schools of thought, and made a powerful defence of Confucianism and trenchant attacks upon other philosophers." This is not exactly a philosophical position; rather, a point of temperament. But Sywndz's temperament does very much affect his philosophy. His peculiar kind of destructive appropriation, damning his rivals but assimilating what he thought of as their best points, is an important trait, not least because it is typical of all major thought positions, both Dauist and Confucian, from Sywndz's maturity to the maturity of Chinese thought itself, in the early years of Han Wu-di. Sywndz is the first great figure of the Age of Hostile Syncretism. It is one of the two positions which, in our view, most adequately define his position in the history of the Chinese mind.

The other, not touched on in the Dubs Thirteen Points, is the revolution over which he seems to have presided, a revolution in the way texts and the understanding of texts are passed on from generation to generation. He is the father of the developed scholarly approach to the past, as embodied in real or supposed writings inherited from the past; he is the earliest of the precursor figures who would have been recognizable to an educated Confucian, or an educated Dauist, of early Han, or to Zenodotus of Alexandria.


It will be seen that Dubs's summary implicitly compares Sywndz to Aristotle, category by category (that comparison was explicitly made on page xix). That comparison, which justifies Sywndz's categories by matching them with those legitimized for Western readers by their appearance in Aristotle, may not do entire justice to Sywndz. In particular, it invites the omission of several points to which Sywndz gives major space, but were largely neglected by Aristotle. Dubs has noted a characteristic Greek/Chinese divergence in tendencies of thought; the corollary is that an independent inventory of what Sywndz spends time on might have yielded a more cogent comparison base than the one he arrives at by keeping Aristotle in mind throughout. But such as it is, Dubs's base is far more adequate, for either descriptive or comparative purposes, than the more simplistic ones championed by more recent writers, who are prone to pick out one strand of hay (the idea of human nature as evil, or Sywndz's recurring emphasis on Li) and miss the shape of the haystack.

Perhaps, in the end, Dubs's cardinal virtue, apart from his commendable industry, lay in publishing his book in 1927 rather than in 2007. All in all, it was a healthier time of mind, and it was wise of Dubs to act on that chance while he still had it. We miss it now.

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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