The eye of the needle, politicians, and Confucius. Guest blogger: Milton MoonOct 14, 2013
Milton Moon is an eminent Australian potter. A Master of Australian Craft.
My current reading is dominated by the superb collected essays of Simon Leys, under the title The Hall of Uselessness. (An indication of just how small the world has become it was recommended to me by a Jewish friend, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst living in New York who also uses Zen meditation as part of his therapy.)
For those who don’t know, Simon Leys is the pen-name of Belgium-born Pierre Ryckmans, a sinologist and long-time resident of Australia. In the 1970‘s he taught Chinese literature at the Australian National University, and later was Professor of Chinese Studies at Sydney University. He lives in Canberra.)
In this collection of essays the one on China was of most interest to me, and in particular, the one on Chinese calligraphy. Also, unexpected as it was, of added and surprising value was the essay on Confucius. I must confess I have never fully valued the teachings of Confucius responding more to the teachings of Lao-Tzu, readily available in the many translations of the Tao-Te Ching (also more recently the Te-Tao-Ching).
On reading the essay on him I readily admit to being remiss in undervaluing the teachings of Confucius and I was pleased to note that Simon Leys has added his own translation to the many other translations of the Confucian Analects. In the hope I can rectify my ill-judgement this is a book I must both own and study.
The point of this introduction: In his essay on Confucius is the observation ‘Politics is an extension of ethics, Government is synonymous with righteousness. If the King is righteous, how could anyone dare to be crooked? ‘ To paraphrase this; if politicians are not righteous how can they appeal to the righteous in those they wish to lead?
(I do not necessarily mean ‘righteous‘in its usual religious sense, but by what we understand as ‘common moral decency. ‘ )
Appealing to either ignorance of the true facts, or the basest aspects of human nature, might get one elected, but at what cost? Even Pontius Pilate’s washing of his hands, whilst giving in to the demands of a primitive-thinking mob insisting on the crucifixion of an innocent man, didn’t help him avoid the judgement of history. And one wonders whether he would be happy to be remembered this way. One wonders too what history will say about our present-day politicians who are equally responsive to the loud baying of some elements of the voting public (and even some elected members in their own Party) in their treatment of the refugee problem. I wonder also whether they measure their decisions against their own personal claims of religious-observance. Substituting ‘politician’ for ‘rich man’ the well-known Biblical parable might be salutary: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.’ (Matt.19.24) Continuing the Chinese theme, one might also add the lines taken from the
Hsin-hsin-ming (Inscribed on the Believing Mind) attributed to the third Ch’an patriarch Seng-ts’an in the 6th Century; ‘a tenth of an inch’s difference and Heaven and Earth are set apart.’
Not all politicians claim to be ‘religious. If they do claim to have a moral basis for their decisions, some of these elected law-makers have done things which history might view with a degree of pride, but other decisions they have made might be viewed with understandable doubt, disappointment, or even contempt.
Those who put little value in morality may think they can escape the immediate judgement of history but they might cringe a little if they spared a thought to the possible judgement of a future generation when their decision-making faces a clearer scrutiny. Or do they hope they may not have to face any judgement at all, because with a bit of luck, and time on their side, morality will have no voting value whatsoever.
We live in strange times; an age, where to use a local jargon, ‘everything hangs out; it’s there for show.’ People espouse causes, or personal states unheard of when I was younger, (and this goes as far back as the mid-twenties.) In my childhood an aircraft passing overhead was cause for great excitement. Now just about everything is on show. Declaration to the world at large that one is atheist, agnostic, republican or monarchist, or whatever, is there for public consumption. Also at the time of this writing politicians can raid the public purse seemingly on any flimsy pretext and they can excuse their indulgences as ‘blurred edges’ of the stated conditions. And it is quite acceptable that many will have ‘blurred vision.’
Returning to Simon Leys and his writings on Confucius, the following lines are a beacon of some sort, in these times of ‘anything goes.’ ‘Political authority should pertain exclusively to those who can demonstrate moral and intellectual qualifications.’
The other line that jumped out (and many many others did). ‘Confucius: he distrusted eloquence: he despised glib talkers, he hated clever word games. For him, it would seem an agile tongue must reflect a shallow mind….’
It would do any politician some good, if they are able, to reflect on these concerns when dealing with Asian neighbours, both near and far. It is not usual for any of these to let ‘everything hang out,’ nor to say outright what they see and feel, but rest assured they miss very little and make judgements accordingly. Many too have been educated in the West and know us very well.
Australian good nature, familiarly rough on the edges, might charm some, and our seemingly good-hearted hail-fellow-well-met introductions, coupled with nimble double-talk, might get a seeming warm response, but the falsity and clumsiness doesn’t fool anyone: it would be unwise to take our neighbours too lightly.
The Hall of Uselessness, Collected Essays by Simon Leys.
Published by Black Inc. an imprint of Schwartz Media Pty Ltd, 2011