A Primer on Nobility and Civility

Summer 2017 saw the passing of two Asian scholars–giants in their field–Wm. Theordore de Bary and Henry Rosemont, Jr. Below is an excerpt from the preface of de Bary’s 2014 book Nobility and Civility : Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good that should be required reading for those in leadership and those conservatives who recently back-pedaled on once staunchly held moral values that they are required of a religious leader and not a world leader.

Any serious education should prepare one to understand the ultimate claims made not only by Muslim suicide bombers but also by their Hindu and Buddhist counterparts, as well as the Japanese samurai warriors or the suicide pilots Mishima Yukio wrote about. It is a lot to do, but this book tries to make a start at sorting out some of the key civilizational issues. From this learning process we may hope to understand the appeal of different concepts of nobility as shared human ideals, the special attractiveness and lurking dangers these can hold for extreme forms of communalism and nationalism, and the civilities that in the longer run have helped to contain these dangers. On this basis we may also realize that there need be no inevitable clash of civilizations from irreducible cultural antagonisms but that from these diverse cultural and social traditions resources can be drawn on to cope with the challenges of environmental degradation, unrestrained economic competition, vicious political chauvinisms, and, more fundamentally, the deeper moral collapse and cultural despair that threaten world civilization in the twenty-first century…these features of society cannot be controlled simply by the charismatic force of noble individuals alone. But in early times the example of the truly noble leader was recognized as crucial to the restraint and containment of violence, insofar as that example spoke to the conscience of all, not just to the ruling elite. If I use the word “conscience” here, regardless of how human consciousnesses may have differed from age to age and place to place, it is because in the midst of cultural differences these concerns are recognized also as constants in human life, and are in some sense shared— as indeed common “human” concerns. Confucius spoke of this selfawareness as a sense of shame or as its corollary, a sense of self-respect, to which the ruler, if he be truly a leader, must appeal if he is not to rely on coercive means that eventually undo themselves. For Confucius this concept of true nobility and genuine leadership was a high calling. He did not underestimate the demands it laid on the educated person or man of learning who also bore the burden of leadership in society. In the Analects, he calls on the class of well-bred aristocrats known as shi in ancient China (somewhat like the knights or gentlemen of the medieval West) to put on the shining armor of moral virtue and public learning. It is said: “The shi must be stout-hearted and enduring, for his burden is heavy and his Way is long.

Humaneness is the burden he takes upon himself. Is it not heavy? Only in death does his Way come to an end. Is it not long?” (Analects 8:7). If today the concept of the public intellectual is upheld in contrast to the academician isolated in an ivory tower, we may draw some lessons, and possibly some inspiration, from the Asian ideals that survive, not as abstract ivory- tower ideals, but as having endured something of the long, conflicted struggle Confucius foresaw for the scholar “stout of heart” and “enduring” in the Way. Although one may well question whether such ideals can be taken as universals or eternal verities, one may still recognize the cases cited here as inspired attempts to grapple with perennial issues or persistent human dilemmas, worthy of our consideration even now in their very conflicted contexts. The “globalization” much talked about today is a case in point. Most often it refers to the persistent trend toward the unification of the world economy and the homogenization of culture in response to a spreading technology. But the universalization of values and standards of culture has been a feature of expanding civilizations since the dawn of history, and the problems attendant upon it (as well as the response to these) offer a perspective on the dilemmas of our own era.

If modernization is not simply to mean the extension to other peoples, in an unquestioned and uncritical way, of current trends in the West, then the globalization of knowledge must take into account the values and experiences of other major civilizations. Today, unfortunately, these values are poorly understood even in their original settings or homelands, because of the long disruption of native traditions and the radical reorientation of the educated leadership to other immediate goals or European ideologies. Generally speaking, such classic values have been known in modern times, if at all, through the revered classics and scriptures of major traditions, but their relevance and adaptability to modern circumstances remains unclear if these values are conceived simply in the abstract, without any understanding of the difficulties experienced historically in applying or practicing them. In other words, traditional values need to be understood as historically evolving, and in that process as marked by much ambiguity and contestation— contestation that has arisen especially in multicultural encounters, wherein ideals are almost always compromised by messy human complications.

The Asian ideals discussed here are thus seen as conflicted human values, conflicted in the same sense as in my earlier book, The Trouble with Confucianism. This book, which ranges widely over several civilizations and historical eras, can only be suggestive of how evolving concepts of leadership (“nobility”) and public morality (“civility”) in several Asian traditions may contribute to the humanizing of the current globalization process. It does not propose exact prescriptions for present problems, but may serve the purpose of general education in the face of the modern rush to find technical solutions, ready at hand but often oversimplified, to our current dilemmas. Without an awareness of people’s past experience in the implementation of their own ideal values, it will be difficult to see how anyone could be expected to recognize and cope with similar problems in the present. And unless some such awareness becomes part of the education of all, one can expect that the globalizing process may well be degrading, dehumanizing, and destructive of the earth, beyond anything seen in the past. My treatment of this theme includes reflections on the views expressed in classic texts of the major Asian traditions in India, China, and Japan. (Preface x-xi)

De Bary, Wm. Theodore. Nobility and Civility : Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press, 2004. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 14 October 2014.Copyright © 2004. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.



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