On 义

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

‘Yi’ , with a falling tone, variously translated as justice, righteousness or fairness, is written义 in simplified Chinese. The traditional form of the character, 義, represents a lamb – 羊 – over the character 我, ‘I’ – which itself represents a hand holding a spear, image of the self fighting for its own survival. Justice, according to certain etymological interpretations, could therefore be understood as a form of behavior where the self adopts the role of a sacrificial lamb – ready to forego life itself in the interests of truth and harmony.

In the dialogues of Confucius, 义 is consistently defined as opposed to 利, a character typically translated as ‘advantage’, and interpreted etymologically as representing a knife cutting down a stalk of wheat. At 4:16, I read ‘君子喩于义、小人喩于利。’ (The noble man is aware of fairness, the inferior man is aware of advantage). Justice, then, as a defining attribute of nobility, is about keeping self-interest at bay: the just are those who relinquish the never-ending fight for individual survival. On reading this, I am reminded of a passage from Journal of Felicity by Romanian philosopher Nicolae Steinhardt, defining the cornerstone of the entire legal system as the willingness of constitutional judges in the higher courts to put their own lives on the line in order to uphold the law.

Through the Analects, 义– and its contrasting opposite 利 – is consistently associated to the same verb, 见, ‘to see’, in two distinct constructions. At 2-24, I read ‘见义不为、无勇也.’ (If you see what is right and fail to act on it, you lack courage) – echoing my reflections of last year on justice and fortitude, and the complementary need for both virtues. But more interestingly, I find another contrast at 14-12 (见利思义) (When you see an opportunity for advantage, think of what would be the right thing to do.), and again in the same structure at 15 :18 (见得思义), and 19:1 (见得思义). Justice, here, is a form of resistance – a cognitive cog in the wheel of self-interest, guiding us towards the right action when we’re exposed to the lure of advantage. I grew up in a family context where ‘cunning’ was praised consistently (with a few life-saving exceptions), and those who were reluctant to press their own advantage on ideal grounds were mocked. I was able to observe that this attitude often came with a certain narrow mindedness, and – if one was to be harsh – a level of stupidity. I found a potential explanation for this at 16-11, where I read ‘行义以达其道’ (I act with fairness to penetrate the Way). Following the call of justice – resisting the sole path of self-interest – is how we perceive the complexities of the world, understand patterns of interwoven causality – and therefore, hope to exert a deeper systemic influence.

On the basis of this interpretation, over the second week of my engagement with justice, I decided to deliberately pay attention to the consequences of my actions every day. In a radical phrasing, I chose to ask myself who needed to die so that I could occupy a certain plot of land? And who suffered so that I could enjoy this particular moment, product, service, or space?

The practice led to mixed feelings of guilt and boredom, but mainly revealed how little I understand about the rippling consequences of my everyday actions. My daily life is apparently benign – I spend a lot of time in front of a screen or a notebook, reading, watching, writing – sometimes speaking with people – from home, at cafes, or in a nearby studio. I eat, mostly vegetarian food. I drink, mainly water, tea and coffee. I throw my waste in the bin and let my partner take it down the building. I understand and vaguely know that every element in this benign existence is part of a complex network rippling across time and space. That I can occupy a certain area of land in Melbourne, as do the shops and businesses I engage with, because indigenous people were displaced and massacred two centuries ago, and their descendants never properly compensated or even acknowledged. That the computer systems I use and the endless amounts of images, videos, music and text I stream on the Internet are not simply ‘there’, that people made them, maintain servers, and protocols, and browser codes, and long networks of cables – which, in turn, entails pollution in remote parts of the globe and exploitation of many workers. That my whole existence depends on access to cheap electricity, locally provided by brown coal, with unmitigated consequences on the global climate. That people had to grow, process and package the food that I eat, and most of them probably received a comparatively low level of payment for it – leaving me with greater disposable income. That the milk and eggs I consume came from cows and chickens who do not enjoy comfortable circumstances. That the waste I put in the bin – paper, plastic, scraps of food – does not simply disappear, but will somehow float off into the oceans, or fill in a plot of land that could have found better uses. But all this is vague, and quickly disappears into some sort of grey mist: if I look too long too far, all I experience is a vague form of seasickness – and so, I try not to think about it too much, and rather, encouraged by the culture I live in, focus on my advantage, convenience, price, quality, which offer a much nicer and clearer picture.

And thus I reflected – the distinction between justice and advantage may not be purely one of appeal, but rather, of complexity. The world of advantage deceptively simplifies things: here is a stalk of wheat, I shall cut it, I will eat the grain, and let nature deal with it. Isn’t it simply the way things are and should be? The world of justice, by contrast, entails extreme levels of complexity: it requires that we consider chains of cause and consequence extending into further and further into the depths of time and space, until the vision blurs, and nothing is clear anymore. And thus, the paradox unfolds – whereas advantage can be seen clearly, justice cannot – it is a certain shapeless feeling in our heads that interferes with the fascination of advantage. Led by that vague feeling, in the absence of perfect clarity, justice is a thing we do, an action, a statement, a withholding often, that in turn, has power to change the course of things – and in that movement, reveals the deep hidden patterns of our common world.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller