The magic power which Confucius saw as the very essence of human virtue offers us the basic vantage point for seeing the holiness in human existence. Characteristic of Confucius’s teaching is the use of the language and imagery of li as a medium within which to talk about the entire body of the mores, or more precisely, of the authentic tradition and reasonable conventions of society. The word in its root meaning is close to “holy ritual” or “sacred ceremony.” Confucius tried to call to our attention these truly distinctively human powers. His task required that he reveal what is already so familiar and universal as to be unnoticed. He brings out in connection with the workings of everyday ceremony the distinctively human character of li, its linguistic and magical character, as well as its moral and religious character.
The image of Holy Rite as a metaphor of human existence brings foremost to our attention the dimension of the holy in man’s existence. In letter and spirit, it supports and enriches our own quite recently emerging vision of man as a ceremonial being. There are several dimensions of Holy Rite – it brings out the harmony and beauty of social forms, the inherent and ultimate dignity of human relationships, and the moral perfection implicit in achieving one’s ends by dealing with others as beings of equal dignity. Furthermore, to act by ceremony is to be completely open to the other; for ceremony is public, shared, transparent; to act otherwise is to be secret, obscure and devious, or merely tyrannically coercive. It is in this beautiful and dignified, shared and open participation with others who are ultimately like oneself that man realizes himself.
We must place at the focus of our analysis the fact that for Confucius it is the imagery of Holy Ceremony that unifies and infuses all these dimensions of human existence. Perhaps a modern Westerner would be tempted to speak of the “intelligent practice of learned conventions and language.” This has a fashionably value-free, “scientific” ring. Indeed, the contemporary analytical philosophers tend to speak this way and to be suitably common-sensical and restrained in their style. But this quite fails to accomplish what Confucius’s central image did, and we must be leery of reading our own contemporary philosophical doctrines into an ancient teaching.
Confucius wanted to teach us, as a corollary, that sacred ceremony in its narrower, root meaning is not a totally mysterious appeasement of spirits external to human and earthly life. Spirit is no longer an external being influenced by the ceremony; it is that that is expressed and comes most alive in the ceremony. Instead of being diversion of attention from the human realm to another transcendent realm, the overtly holy ceremony is to be seen as the central symbol of all truly human existence. Human life in its entirety appears as one vast, spontaneous and holy Rite: the community of man. We must interpret the meaning of the Holy Rite as Confucius taught it; to him this was indeed an “ultimate concern.” He said again and again it was the only thing that mattered, more than the individual’s life itself.
Adapted from “Confucius – the Secular as Sacred” by H. Fingarette. Published by H. Fingarette. 1972.
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