Confucius for President?

Whether an antidote to anti-politics could come from China

February 2018. I’m in my community on the grounds of the campus of the Ateneo de Manila University waiting for the documents which will allow me to exercise my right to vote as an “Italian living abroad”. I find myself thousands of miles away, thank God, from the noise of a vulgar and undignified political campaign that will likely make it to the ever-lengthening list of “lowest moments in the history of Italian politics”. I try to make a “mental map”. I know for certain that I’ll be voting. But, to be honest, I still don’t really know for whom, or for what, I’ll be voting. And those who know me could tell you just how unusual this is. While attempting to find an orientation (a big word) in the primordial soup that our political landscape has (once again) become, I find myself preparing for Introduction to Confucianism, an interesting exam on my study program at the Loyola School of Theology. For the first time in my life, I dip my feet into the waters lapping at the shores of the infinite ocean of Asiatic wisdom, of which the philosophical ideas of Confucius and other Chinese classics are an essential part. Apart from the fact that my studies are helping me understand a little more about the world I presently find myself immersed in, I find, to my surprise, that it’s giving me an interpretative key through which I can read current events in Italy, my home, as well as understand what could be hope for its future.

While reading of one of the so-called “Four Books” of the Confucian tradition, “The Great Learning”, I came across the following passage: “In ancient times, those who wished to make bright virtue brilliant in the world first ordered their states; those who wished to order their states first aligned their households; those who wished to align their households first refined their persons; those who wished to refine their persons first balanced their hearts.” Of course, the first thought which sprang to mind was a typical Western pre-comprehension of Confucian political thought: “What a paternalistic idea! As if state and family are equal!” On a closer reading of the text, however, I came to discover a deep truth which, I believe, can and must be spoken to those who are called to political activity in this day and age. In the ongoing development of modern political thought and practice, I hold that one of the most serious losses we have suffered is the separation of so-called “private” and “public” spheres. Such a separation holds no water, both for Confucius as for a more “familiar” Aristotle: would you like to enter politics? The two paths you find before you must be travelled together.

The first path asks you to cultivate your personal and moral growth – that is, to learn to “correct your heart”. An “unlearned” politician (“unlearned”, as we know, isn’t synonymous with “ungraduated”) who doesn’t know how to “govern himself” – who doesn’t know how to look after himself and those dear to him – cannot be a good politician. We’re talking about a different sort of wisdom here. How true is it that a good part of the collapse in the quality of our political class – and of the electorate, of which the political class is only a mirror – is the result of the profound crisis of our educational system and our values? To use a slogan that’s become somewhat trite now: for those who truly have a political vocation, “doing politics”, is a profession demanding passion, dedication, humanity and preparation, including (and not limited to) intellectual preparation. The passage from Confucius cited above continues as follows: “Those who wished to balance their minds first perfected the genuineness of their intentions; those who wished to perfect the genuineness of their intentions first extended their understanding.” The understanding we’re talking about here isn’t simply intellectual (which wouldn’t harm anyone, although it’s generally lacking in many of today’s politicians and voters) but is, above all, the experience of those who’ve gotten their hands dirty for others, who’ve lived the disappointments and hopes of their people, who’ve taken their burdens upon their shoulders with a passion and have made these problems the purpose of their lives.

The second path is clearer in another passage from a different classic, the “Analects of Confucius”. The master here affirms that: “The benevolent person is one who, wishing himself to be established in position, helps establish others; wanting progress for himself, makes others progress.” In other words: would you like to be happy, develop your talents, discover and rejoice in your deepest identity (that of being human)? Make others happy, because others are part of your destiny and your identity. This is more than a simple love note from a Bacio Perugina. For Confucius, as for us, this is the basis of every ethical and political decision! Paraphrasing the Gospel, Blessed Paul VI once said: “Politics is the highest form of Charity”. If you really want to love God, you must love your brothers; if you want to love your brothers, sooner or later you must love them “politically” – that is, in the city – whilst contributing to the growth of our common home. Not all of us are called to become “politicians” in the strict sense of the word, but we’re all called to this “political conversion”. We’re all called to realise that it isn’t just us, our familial and societal micronuclei, with all our particular fears and demands, who exist. We’re called by the world and by a greater Love. And it’s only taking a risk and involving ourselves in this world that we can discover who we truly are.

February 2018. On news websites, I read what candidates are shooting off about immigration, and news about the recent clashes in Macerata. The temptation to “return to reality” is strong. But then I ask myself: “Does it always and inevitably have to be this reality?” Or rather, are we left with any choice other than change?

Perhaps this thinker – far away from us both physically and historically – has something to tell us. He might, perhaps, be able to give a glimmer of hope to those who believe that things really can and must change. Taking his words to heart, we might notice that things change only once we begin to truly “correct [our] own heart”.

Photo by 3dman_eu

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