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The Confucian ideal seems to be principally concerned with

conformity to established social norms.

Does it have any place for spontaneity?

Confucian doctrine holds in high esteem adhering to social practices and principles.
Propriety, to confucianism, was a means of achieving virtue, virtue was a means to
happiness or completeness.

If a man has no virtue, wont he lack propriety?If a man has no virtue, wont he make bad

In this essay I aim to explore where three values of confucian ideal; Propriety (Li), ethical
love (Jen) and righteousness (Yi) meet spontaneity and how there is an emphasis on
spontaneity in Confucianism.

Firstly I will discuss the notion of ethics in confucianism, how confucianism observes the
notion of the good person and virtue. I will then explain each of the afore mentioned
values, Jen, Ri and Li and how they reflect upon ones virtue, concluding that spontaneity,
in the sense of instinctivness and fluidity, is valued highly where virtue and morals are

Confucianism and Virtue

Confucian doctrine comes from the surviving teachings of Confucius, the Analects. These
short sayings can seem cryptic, however recurrent themes and patterns emerge that form
a clear doctrine.

In Confucius China the notion of Tao, literally defined as way or path, was observed. It
adopted the form of an ultimate moral or ethical order which related to man. (Hackett,
1979, pg 23) This moral law; what defined human nature, was constant and objective, it
was independent of beliefs and interpretation. Hackett describes this as moral objectivism.
Confucianism saw the virtuous one as recognising this moral nature, and someone who
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would make relevant to his/her life this ethical order. One who recognised and fulfilled the
natural ethics was virtuous.

The spheres of ethical existence, later to be defined in confucianism, deal with spontaneity
in the sense of objective morals. Someone who is said to follow the natural sphere (there
are four spheres; natural, utilitarian, moral and transcendent) will tend, unselfconsciously,
to follow instinct, natural desire and emotion. This spontaneity is seen as the natural
sphere of ethical existence. (Hackett 1979)

Genuine virtue requires the right values and motivation, which would enable someone to
do the right thing even in the sort of difficult, tempting or disorientating
circumstances (Kupperman, 2001)

Kupperman here refers to someone who naturally and spontaneously follows the moral
law, the right values and motivation are the spontaneity.

The Chun-Tzu

This idea, that moral virtues could be embodied in a truly good man who acts instinctively
and ethically, leads to the notion of the Chun-Tzu. The footnotes of the Cronk rendition of
the analects describe the Chun-Tzu as a self actualized, virtuous, perfected person.

If you have wisdom, no desire, courage, and ability, and if you also observe the rules of
propriety and refine yourself through music, then you might be a Chun-Tzu...Instead of
self-interest, think of justice. When facing danger, face it courageously. Keep your
promises without hesitation. Then, indeed, you might be considered Chun-Tzu (14.13)

The truly enlightened one who has perfected moral living will have self discipline, wisdom
and will act morally these traits, because the Chun-Tzu is perfected are instinctive and
spontaneous. (Hackett pg 29).

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Ethical Values

Confucianism interprets Virtue through fulfillment of ethical principles, three among them
being Yi, Jen and Li.

The virtuous man follows the notion of Yi. Essentially this means righteousness;
objective, absolute and therefore unconditional moral obligation
(Hackett, 1979 pg 29)

Yi is, by its nature, objective. Righteousness cannot be dictated by trend, tradition or

culture nor can it be interpreted by the individual. Righteousness extends throughout the
whole spectrum of moral obligation, it is absolute.

Hackett tells us that the main idea of righteousness in confucianism is to benefit society. It
looks to the well being of the whole. (Hackett 1979, pg 31). Therefore, one who follows a
path of righteousness is not only being selfless and moral but simultaneously moving
toward the benefit of others, a universal wellbeing, and by extension, whether knowingly or
unknowingly, follows the second of the virtues which I will discuss, Jen.

Hackett describes Jen as love in an ethical sense, a universal concern for the human race,
compassion, empathy and seeing the worth of others. Jen doesnt exclude affection, and
being sensitive to the contentment of others is intrinsic in this value. It is, at its core,
humanistic and altruistic, it involves a spontaneous disinterest in the self. Jen brings the
sliver rule to mind;

What you dont want done to yourself, dont do to others (15.23)

These two values of confucianism lead to the conception of the third virtue I will discuss in
this essay, the value of Li. Li deals with the social norms of Confucianism, the propriety
and ritual. If Jen and Li are virtues that are essential to the ultimate moral, Li is the tool that
allows the everyday man to implement these virtues. The Chun-Tzu, with regard to Li is
seen as some sort of model citizen, a true gentleman:
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Confucius said that Tzu Chan had four characteristics of the Chun Tzu: he was polite to
all; he was respectful to his superiors, he was kind to the people; ad he was just in his
official functions (5.15)

Hackett describes Li;

a framework of principles for guiding one in the fulfillment of the unified obligation to
righteousness and love, so far as that framework has been more or less defined by
customary insight and practice

The insight and practice mentioned here bring Li into the realm of the human world.
Where Yi and Jen are moral and objective, Li, as the framework and standard of ritual has
been reached over generational trial and error.

To me, the idea of propriety smacks of conservative etiquette and pomp, appropriate for
meeting a stranger, however Li does not carry these connotations. Because of the
subjectivity of Li, perhaps it is important not to take it as Gospel or to accept it as a finality,
this is where spontaneity and impulse may come into the equation. Kupperman sees Li as
a social dance:

Ritual is a kind of social dance, in which people are constrained by established forms but
at the same time do express themselves

An interpretation of this may be that spontaneity is needed in this social dance, that
impulsive interpretation and naturalness is crucial so that the propriety and ritual is fitted to
the person and natural and distinctly of them.

The philosopher Yu is quoted as saying what matters most in ritual is naturalness

a naturalness that is not permissible; for to know to be natural, and yet to be so beyond
the restraints of decorum is also not permissible.(1.12)

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Here, we see how spontaneity in ritual comes from ones attitude and feelings. Confucius
affirms that Li must be wholehearted, that ritual cannot be insincere or feigned, that it must
be wholehearted, otherwise it is hollow:

Rulers with no vision; religious ceremonies performed without reverence and respect; and
funeral services conducted without true sorrow: I cant stand such things.

Bringing it all together

Confucius knows that it is through wisdom and experience that true virtue is attained.
Virtue is the natural and unrestrained following of the values I have mentioned, one is only
virtuous when he/she is impulsive in their righteousness, that they show universal love and
are courteous as first nature, without hesitation.

At fifteen my mind was set on learning. At thirty my character had been formed. At forty I
had no more perplexities. At fifty I knew the mandate of Heaven (Tien-ming). At sixty I was
at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my hearts desire without
transgressing moral principles.

At seventy, it seems, Confucius has finally achieved virtue and enlightenment. His hearts
desire coincides with fulfilling the moral principles, he has become spontaneously

In Conclusion; to say that Confucianism is principally concerned with following established
social norms is true. However, it observes these social norms in the sense of attaining
righteousness (Yi), compassion and altruism (Jen). Spontaneity plays a key role in these
confucian virtues because it is the fulfillment of impulsiveness and fluidity in these
principles that sees one becoming a truly virtuous and ethical person. It is the notion of this
spontaneity and unreflective virtue that confucianism, to me, is mainly aspiring to awaken
in the individual.

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Cronk, G. Analects Of Confucius, Cronk Rendition, 1998
C. Hackett, Stuart, Oriental Philosophy, a Westerners Guide To Eastern Thought, The
University of Wisconsin Press, 1979
J. Kupperman, James, Classic Asian Philosophy; a Guide to the essential texts, Oxford
University Press 2001

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