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Universal Virtues: Lessons From History


In Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification by Christopher Peterson Ph.D and Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D the authors examine good character across history and culture. To read Peterson’s original piece click here. In the excerpt below, which is from the beginning of Character Strengths and Virtues, the authors look at how the traditions of China valued character. By taking in account many cultures and traditions Peterson and Seligman were able to identify the core attributes of character from a global perspective.

The two indigenous traditions of China arose contemporaneously in the sixth century B.C.E., and there is argument as to whether they best represent a philosophical, social, or religious system of beliefs. Confucianism, with its emphasis on social criticism and education of the young, became the official state religion by the second century B.C.E. Likewise, early Taoism, though more mystical and esoteric, was a religious-philosophical tradition with its own political exhortations.

Confucian Virtues. The teachings of Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) are the most influential in the history of Chinese thought and civilization. His moral and political philosophy, with its prescriptive focus on education and leadership, became the official religion of China by the second century B.C.E. and compulsory study for 2,000 years beyond that (Smart, 1999).

His teachings were recorded mainly in the form of aphorisms, most reliably collected in the Analects (Confucius, trans. 1992). His comments on virtue are scattered across the Analects, not presented as a formal catalog. There is, however, a general agreement among scholars that there are four or five central virtues espoused in the tenets of Confucianism: jen (translated variously as humanity or human-heartedness or benevolence), yi (duty or justice or equity), li (etiquette or observance of the rites of ceremonious behavior), zhi (wisdom or perspicacity), and, possibly, xin (truthfulness or sincerity or good faith) (see Cleary, 1992; Do-Dinh, 1969; Haberman, 1998a).

When asked to define humanity (jen), Confucius answered, “Love people” (12:22); when asked to operationalize it, he said “If you want to 9780195167016.jpgmake a stand, help others make a stand, and if you want to reach your goal, help others reach their goal. Consider yourself and treat others accordingly: this is the method of humanity” (6:29). Scholars have described Confucian humanity as the ideal manifestation of human nature or the attitude of sympathetic concern when dealing with others, but not the selfless love exalted in, say, Christianity; acting with humanity is instrumental in that it brings similar treatment from others (Dawson, 1982; Ivanhoe, 2002).

Humanity is considered the virtue most exalted by Confucius, as throughout the Analects the core sentiment that constitutes humanity permeates and infuses all others. For instance, the Confucian ideal of duty (yi) is not one prescribing humble acquiescence of the many to the undeserving and powerful few; rather, it denotes the mutual respect persons should have in relation to one another, beginning with the familial relationship and extending outward to the state and citizen (Huang, 1997). Put another way, the Confucian notion of justice or duty is not permission for tyranny, as it has often been misinterpreted, but that one is obliged to act honorably and with self-control in all personal affairs rather than with a motive for personal gain: Confucius said, “The nobleminded are clear about duty; little people are clear about profit” (4:16). Dawson (1982), noting the significance in Confucius’s contrast of duty and profit, states, “[Duty’s] original sense seems to have been natural justice, what seemed just to the natural man before concepts like law and ritual were evolved. . . . it is clearly regarded as the ultimate yardstick against which matters of law and ritual must be judged” (p. 52).

The Confucian precept of good etiquette (li) is also best understood as a directive to treat others sensitively: Confucius said, “To master oneself and return to courtesy is humaneness” (12:1). Thus the cultivation of courteousness and deference in one’s everyday behavior is the equivalent of the cultivation of humanity, as manners and deference are concerned more with consideration for another’s feelings than they are with strict adherence to rules and empty ceremonial custom. Confucian wisdom (zhi) is best understood as the functional application of an informed intellect to humanity, justice, and etiquette, while truthfulness (xin) is that which is exemplified by fidelity to the ideals of the four preceding virtues (Cleary, 1992).

Confucius does not explicitly mention temperance, but its importance to the humane life is strongly implied. The importance placed on rites presumably involves a respect for propriety and self-control as much as for humanity. Indeed, in both his personal affairs and the Analects, Confucius advocated modesty and self-control. Though he could have lived quite comfortably in the employ of many a noble, Confucius instead chose the relatively modest life of a teacher; though known as sage Master Kong to his students, Confucius still argued that true humanity was an impossible ideal for most mortals to attain, including himself (7:33–34). In the Analects, he commends as virtuous those who choose to live simply (6:10), refrain from self-aggrandizing boasts (6:14) or extravagance (3:4), and place hard work before reward (6:22).

Another core virtue not explicitly named as of central importance is transcendence. The Chinese did not believe in a divine lawgiver, and Confucius’s philosophical focus was clearly on the secular and rational aspects of human functioning, not the cosmic or spiritual (5:13; 11:12). This is not to say Confucius completely ignored the transcendent or that he relegated it to a nonsignificant role (D. L. Hall & Ames, 1987). For instance, excellence in moral conduct is afforded the status of the transcendent: Confucius invoked heaven when discussing the origin of virtue (7:23) and his reverence for sages whose section i: Background perfect virtue was modeled after the divine (6.17; 16.8; see also Haberman, 1998a).

Taoist Virtues.
The Taoist tradition is the second indigenous one of China. Its creator, Lao-tzu (ca. 570 B.C.E.–?), is said to be a contemporary of Confucius, although there is some debate regarding whether he is one sage or many, and whether the primary work attributed to him, the Tao Te Ching (or The Classic of Tao and Its Virtue; trans. 1963), came much later than he may have lived (A. C. Graham, 1998; Kohn, 1998; Lynn, 1999).

The central tenet is one of transcendence: The Tao, or Way, that governs the heavens and earth is indescribable, unknowable, and even unnameable (Tao Te Ching, trans. 1963, chap. 1). And untranslatable—the Way (its Chinese character depicts a head in motion) refers simultaneously to direction, movement, method, and thought, and so no single word can depict the profundity of its total meaning. Moreover, it is the creator of all things, including virtue (Te), but does not act—the Way is spontaneous and without effort (Cheng, 2000; Wong, 1997).

The text of the Tao Te Ching, however, can be cryptic and mysterious, and thus attempts, particularly Western ones, to interpret its verses can never be definitive (see Clarke, 2000; LaFargue, 1998). Like Confucius, Lao-tzu attempted to use his philosophy to reform rulers and improve society, but the emphasis was not on virtue as social interaction (Cheng, 2000). For instance, in a particularly famous passage, Lao-tzu seems to advise against wisdom, justice, and humanity—the very virtues that Confucius esteemed (as well as what we are arguing are core virtues found even in this tradition):

Reject sageness and abandon knowledge,
The people will benefit a hundredfold.
Reject humanity and abandon justice,
The people will return to filial piety and parental love. (chap. 19)

Of course, no Taoist scholar argues that Lao-tzu was advocating anarchy, or even a society lacking in these things. Rather, it appears that what Lao-tzu believed in most was the virtue of “naturalness” or “spontaneity” (tzu-jan), or that quality of being without effort. Indeed, scholars tend to agree that naturalness is the cardinal virtue of Taoism, with nonaction (wu-wei) as the essential method to realize naturalness in social life (Cheng, 2000; Xiaogan, 1998).

Hence, it is not that Lao-tzu argued that rulers should be unjust but that the most justice comes from reigning without ruling (Xiaogan, 1998) or ruling with naturalness:

The best ruler, the people only know of his existence. . . .
The best ruler is so relaxed, he hardly talks.
when he successfully completes his work,
People all say that for us, it is only natural. (chap. 17, see also chap. 57)

The point is that Lao-tzu esteemed other virtues, but only if they arise from the higher one of spontaneity; later in the Tao Te Ching he explicitly cites as important the virtues of humanity, justice, and propriety, but only after (or in the presence of) this higher one (chap. 38, see also Cheng, 2000).

Likewise, wisdom is espoused in both rulers and commoners, but only if that knowledge is the true sort of the Way, not the superficial sort used for cunning: A sage ruler is “a man of subtlety [but] with deep insight,” (chap. 15); he does not “insist on his own views, thus he has a clear view,” nor does he “justify himself, thus he sees the truth” (chap. 22; see also chaps. 3, 19, 33, 49; and Schwartz, 1994). And temperance, in terms of both humility and restraint from pursuing the false gods of material wealth and privilege, is advocated again and again: “He who becomes arrogant with wealth and power . . . sows the seeds of his own misfortune [chap. 9] . . . he who boasts of his own achievements harms his credibility . . . he who is arrogant experiences no growth in wisdom [chap. 24] . . . he who knows glory, but keeps to humility . . . is sufficient in the eternal virtue [chap. 28].”

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