WHAT CONFUCIUS SAID

Go to New York City. Get yourself to the intersection of Canal and Bowery down on the Lower East Side in Chinatown. Brace yourself if you are from the country or the suburbs because this is going to be a scene from Beijing, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Great waves of humanity, mostly Chinese–But not all. I was there.–surge back and forth packing the sidewalks and spilling out onto the streets. The streets likewise overflow with cars and trucks of every description all of them blowing their horns all at once, or so it seems, and the traffic so congested the cars and trucks spill up and onto the sidewalk. Yet–in a wonderment that never ceases to amaze me every time I’m there–all these cars and trucks and people mix together in this chaos of noise–this halting, stalled, horn-blaring, weltering confusion–yet none is injured and all somehow progress, albeit slowly, toward wherever each intends.

Go south now on Bowery about a block. You can see him just ahead, over there on your left, rising above the cars and trucks, out there in the middle of the traffic where Division Street splits into a Y and joins Bowery. In that triangle of asphalt and concrete created by the forking Division Street, on a pedestal about seven feet high stands a ten foot bronze, and therefore green, statue of Confucius.

He’s looking southeast and stands there in his robes, still as a statue, deep in his meditative calm amidst the noise and chaos of commerce.

Most people who know anything about Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) or the ideas for the governance of human society he devised think of him as the perpetrator of a set of rigid, hidebound, legalistic, restricting rules and regulations for every imaginable human encounter, relationship or event. And certainly that is what “Confucianism” became over the centuries in ancient China. But just as there is no necessary relationship between the teachings of Buddha and Buddhism or the teachings of Christ and Christianity so it is also with Confucius. Confucius’ initial vision of a good society, “The Great Harmony,” as he put it, is a vision of societal peace, cooperation and understanding unsurpassed in the history of human contemplation.

On the base of the statue chiseled in the stone is the following quotation from his writing called The Great Harmony, the TA TUNG.

“When the great principle prevails the world is a Commonwealth in which rulers are selected according to their wisdom and ability. Mutual confidence is promoted and good neighborliness cultivated. Hence men do not regard as parents only their own parents nor do they treat as children only their own children. Provision is secured for the agŽd till death, employment for the able bodied and the means of growing up for the young. Helpless widows and widowers, orphans and the lonely as well as the sick and disabled are well cared for. Men have their respective occupations and women their homes. They do not like to see wealth lying idle, yet they do not keep it for their own gratification. They despise indolence, yet they do not use their energies for their own benefit. In this way, selfish schemings are repressed, and robbers, thieves and other lawless men no longer exist, and there is no need for people to shut their outer doors. This is the great harmony. ”

Imagine such a society. Imagine leaders in a society having this ideal toward which they strive.

Last year I saw a program called GREED on one of the TV networks. This was months before the game show of the same name. The show was an open and unabashed defense, and promotion, of pure and simple greed. Ted Turner–not exactly Mother Teresa himself–was on the show as a kind of straw man, a fall guy, to be ridiculed for giving away a few million of his dollars, by other corporate CEO’s who argued that the best thing for everyone in America is for people like themselves to make as much money as possible and keep it all for themselves or use it to generate greater profits for their businesses.

The program posited the idea that since profits in the private sector are what make our country prosperous and strong, any notion of anything even remotely approaching the idea of “the public good” is not only laughable but, in fact, actually bad for the economy.

These words from Confucius about the nature of the social contract and the public good, about how to be just and caring with your neighbors–even THE LONELY are cared for!–and how unchecked greed and the profit motive will destroy anything and everything, seem surreal in the middle of modern American life.

How far have we as a people strayed from the kind of Confucian humanism presented by this quotation from the TA TUNG?

Or perhaps my mistake is to imagine that we Americans have ever shared this Confucian vision of a social contract and the public good. Perhaps the real American vision is a loose fitting anarchy devoted exclusively to the aggrandizement of the individual and his or her ability to acquire money and power. Perhaps Donald Trump and Bill Gates are the only true American gods.

Yet a part of the American dream has also been movements devoted to something bigger than the individual. I think about J. Phillip Randolph and John L. Lewis and the Labor Movement born to resist the greed of the Captains of Industry, or the cooperative Credit Union movement born to overcome the rapaciousness and usury of bankers. Both of these movements sprung from visions of something bigger than the self, both come out of the idea that cooperation can benefit all. Or what about the phenomenon of Frederick Law Olmstead and the creation of public parks all across America–spaces for The Public to enjoy? Anybody who has wandered through Central Park in New York City or The Emerald Necklace in Cleveland or walked along the lake shore in Chicago, knows the joy of a public space. There is a tradition of “the public good” in America; it’s just been trampled to death by our stampeding economy here at the turn into this new century.

Yet I keep hearing a faint voice coming from that statue of Confucius, a voice saying that human community is better, fairer, easier, kinder, gentler, more effective and more just when we know there is a social contract and something called The Public Good. But it’s hard to hear that small voice these days.

Here at the beginning of this new millennium as the Stock Market soars off into the stratosphere or crashes or does one and then the other and no matter what happens the New Rich drive off into A Bright New Day in their Sports Utility Vehicles decked out in their Designer Clothes sipping a double-half-caf-decaf-organic-low-fat-latte, it truly is what Ronald Reagan said it was: It’s Morning in America, and, because it finally truly is Morning in America, finally Free Market Capitalism and “the private sector” can stand up and shout to the whole world what they’ve meant to say all along:

Anything public is not only bad for the economy, it is, in fact, evil and must be eliminated as soon as possible: public transportation, public parks, public agricultural and medical research, public libraries, public health care, public education, public care of the poor and the mentally ill–they all must go.

In other words, when we can’t hear that quiet Confucian voice or remember our own traditions of cooperation, when self-aggrandizing greed and personal gratification are all that matter, when Money and Me and an open hatred of “the public good” stand at the center of our society’s profoundest philosophy of life–what can we expect from the future?

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.