Anyone who knew Henry Rosemont, Jr., who passed away July 2, 2017, saw in him a standard bearer for Confucian Role Ethics as husband, father, grandfather as well as China scholar, teacher, mentor and friend. Henry placed a particular emphasis on the interactions of the role-bearers, not on their individual qualities. There are those said to be kind; role-bearing benefactors perform kindly acts towards and with beneficiaries: individuals are said to be brave, role-bearers perform brave acts and so on. (Rosemont, 2105, p. 96). I was such a beneficiary from the very first occasion I met Henry and JoAnn a decade ago in NYC (China House Institute) where he gave a talk on Confucius. I asked him for a resource and he gave me his card and from that point on we corresponded regularly.
Reacting to the rise of nativism and an ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” Henry published Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion in 2015. With a presidential election hanging in the balance, I wrote in my review that Against Individualism could not be more timely reading for addressing the Herculean economic, social, political, and environmental challenges ahead (pg.116). Just as the unchecked free market has spawned “too big to fail–too big to jail” corporate behemoths that brought about the global financial crisis, the “invisible hand” myth is seeing also to the unraveling of social justice. Despite US corporate revenues at their highest point in 40 years, increased profit margins have only translated to greater income inequality.
To help us think in new ways about these challenges, philosopher and China scholar Rosemont holds up an old model for re-ordering our society: the Confucian “Way of Humankind” (pg. 93). In contrast to the free market’s emphasis on the rational autonomous individual, the Confucian Way foregrounds the family.
Granted Confucius (Latinized honorific name ”’ K’ng F’z’, literally “Master Kong”) could not have conceived of a concept such as “democracy” in the China of 2500 years ago, but his enduring vision of wise governance guided by sage administrators rested solidly upon the foundation of the people—all the people. Confucius did not believe that government should control the people by meting out punishments: people should and could control themselves. But he understood that such self-regulation takes effort. If human beings did not attend to their own personal cultivation with diligence, then constraints were necessary to rein in greed and other passions.
For Rosemont, the essence of Confucian self-cultivation comes through grounding our feelings and deepening our intuitions within the social milieu of rituals, customs, traditions, and manners (pg. 113, n# 19). Personal cultivation involves constant re-defining of what is means to be fully human. That is best measured through our interactions with others, dynamically relating as “role-bearers” to members of one’s family, community, city, state, nation and world. Such an undertaking is a continuously evolving process of life-long learning and growing and manifesting all that goes into being human. It is an “art” that is marked by respectful deference to those above, engaging harmoniously with peers and serving as an upstanding exemplar to youth.
Respectful deference, however, does not imply walking in lockstep with a leader who discharges his duties without regard for others, either locally or globally. On this, Confucius is unequivocally clear in The Analects: “To see what is appropriate to do, and not to do it, is cowardice” (2:24). Using the Confucian compass, Rosemont concluded, “in the contemporary world free and rational autonomous individuals hinder the achievement of social justice, even in purportedly democratic societies” (pg.80). Could we not then as a nation a mere 200 years old do any better than to sit at the feet of the “Master” for the wise counsel that has guided Chinese civilization for more than two millennia and “has probably seen to the feeding and housing of more human beings than any other in human history.” (pg.121)