Honoring Teachers Day with a Look at the Role of Virtue

September 28, 2018

Today, tradition has it, is Confucius’s birthday—his 2,568th. It is also Teachers Day in Taiwan. This is because Confucius was, after all, a teacher. He devoted his life to roaming about teaching anyone who would follow him. 

Every year on September 28, in honor of teachers, I write something about Confucius. Often I write about the timelessness and relevance of his ideas to us ordinary, contemporary folks trying to make our way earnestly and virtuously in the world. I think about this a lot, particularly these days. So today, with your indulgence, on Teachers Day, I want to adopt the position of the teacher and share some of my recent thoughts about Confucius. Full disclosure: this piece is not about the Chinese American International School, it’s about Chinese and American culture.  

First, a little background on Confucius in particular and Chinese philosophy in general.  Classical Chinese philosophy—Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism—developed in violent and chaotic times over two millennia ago. At that time, what we now know as China was a collection of independent kingdoms that were constantly at war with one another, the strong swallowing the weak. Rulers worried about how to govern their populations and keep their kingdoms strong in order to avoid being swallowed by aggressive neighboring kingdoms. Not surprisingly, Chinese philosophy from this time reads like political science. Confucius roamed the kingdoms with his disciples in tow, trying to gain the ear of a ruler who would employ his ideas of good governance. In his day their were many such wandering philosophers, the so-called “hundred schools of thought” or zhū zǐ baǐ jiā 诸子百家.  So what did he teach about governing?   

For Confucius, the key to good government resided almost exclusively in the character of the leader. If a king set an example of virtuous behavior, then the population would emulate this behavior and the kingdom would be well ordered. In the Confucian Annalects or Lún yǔ《论语,Confucius is quoted as saying, “If you lead the people with correctness, who will dare not be correct?” This is known in Chinese as enlightened government by virtuous people or 人治 rén zhì. Until recently, I have always thought that this concept of good government is fundamentally alien to our Western notion, articulated by John Adams (among others) that what we need is “a government of laws and not men,” or what in Chinese is called fǎ zhì 法治.   

It seems to me that these two different ways of looking at the core of good government—virtuous people or systems of laws—reflect fundamentally different views of human nature. The Confucian view is quite optimistic: if you really believe that good government (and presumably prosperity, justice, peace, etc) is a function of virtuous leaders (人治 rén zhì), then I have to think you need a strong faith in the fundamental goodness of people and the power of good examples. I have always been skeptical of this, at least at the level of the state (or kingdom, or empire). What if the leader isn’t virtuous?  What is the mechanism for protecting against that kind of leader? Isn’t this view of good government a little too optimistic? Too idealistic? Naive? The American view of good government, on the other hand, reflects a quite pessimistic view of human nature. Our concept of rule of law (fǎ zhì 法治), it seems to me, is based on an assumption that we need legal systems—separation of powers, checks and balance, the bill of rights—to prevent human beings from behaving in ways that are not in the interest of the governed. The potentially self-serving interests of some not-all-that-virtuous leaders are kept in check by the potentially self-interests of other not-all-that-virtuous individuals. The Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of the government are supposed to jealously protect their respective turfs from one another. Civil law is supposed to protects the rights of individuals against powerful systems. The press ensures that unvirtuous behavior is exposed. I have always had faith in the ultimate triumph of a system of laws to overcome the failings of not too virtuous individuals. 

But these days I’m not so sure. I am still convinced that on a systems level, relying on the Confucian notion that enlightened virtue alone will not result in good government, prosperity, justice and peace. But I also increasing believe that our system of laws is not enough to protect us from the absence of enlightened and virtuous behavior. In other words, no system is people proof. These days, as I read the papers or listen to the radio (or podcasts), I am hearing more and more people talking about how an increasing lack of regard for historical conventions—i.e., virtuous behavior in public and private life—is really testing our system of laws. Some people refer to it as Constitutional crisis. This is deeply concerning to me as an educator, as a parent, and as a citizen.

So today, on Confucius’s birthday, I am embracing “yes, and” thinking. Yes, I still have faith in the elegance and brilliance of what John Adams called “a government of laws, and not men.” And, I have a renewed sense of urgency that as a nation, we need to cultivate virtue in ourselves and our children. Because no system, no matter how elegantly designed, is people proof.

Happy birthday Confucius, and my deepest respect for and gratitude to our teachers for cultivating enlightened virtue in our students.