08/18/2011 09:26 am ET | Updated Oct 18, 2011

Confucius Goes to Washington

Whatever one's political persuasion, one thing is very obvious today -- the government in this country seems not to be working well, and that might be the kindest thing that can be said!

And what would Confucius say?

Actually, Confucius has a good deal to say about government -- what makes it work and not work!

We know from Confucius' biography that he traveled for a number of years from state to state attempting to advise the various rulers of an increasingly number of independent states as to how they might govern so as to bring peace and order both to their own states and in turn to the entirety of China itself.

The issue Confucius faced was a government that no longer represented the moral teachings of the ancient sages. Confucius witnessed increasingly hegemonic factions garner power with no attempt to emulate the ways of virtue spelled out by the ancients. There was nothing but the quest for power and authority with no accountability, no responsibility and pure unadulterated selfishness.

Sound familiar?

Confucius is asked by his disciple Tzu-lu what would be the first thing that he would do in government if he were placed in an administrative role in one of these states. (Analects XIII:3) His answer is "rectification of names," cheng-ming, a concept that becomes central to all of Confucian teaching. Surprising perhaps upon first hearing, the concept sets the discourse on government in the context of moral relations. It means there are responsibilities and obligations that go with titles, not just titles, not just power and prestige.

The bottom line -- actions have consequences.

In another passage Confucius is asked specifically about government by one of the state rulers (Analects XII:11). He iterates his famous dictum, literally translated; "ruler, ruler, minister, minister; father, father, son, son." Remembering that in Classical Chinese any character can be any part of speech, it's meaning is simple enough. For a ruler to be a ruler, he must act as a ruler and fulfill the responsibilities associated with the title, i.e. a moral ruler acting on behalf of his people.

In turn the minister also has moral responsibilities to the state if the state is governed in moral ways. Thus the minister must act as a minister. And so forth with each member of society as well as the family.

The concept and dictum are about living up to one's responsibilities, not shirking them!

Lets look a little closer at the term for government. Confucius says in another passage, "To govern is to rectify," (Analects XII:17) a laconic observation that gets to the heart of the matter, and by way of a pun!

The Chinese character for "government" or "to govern", is pronounced cheng. The character for rectification is also pronounced cheng. Thus cheng is cheng: governing is rectifying, pun intended!

Looking at the character even more closely, the word "government" is composed of two parts. One part of the character is the character for rectification itself. The second part is the character for "hand" or "to handle." So the character for government is the combination of rectification and hand.

How do we derive the notion of governing from the combination of rectification and hand? Quite simply! To govern simply means to "push into effect," or "to handle," the process of rectification.

Government and the act of governing then are seen primarily as a process of moral rectification to bring peace and order to society and ultimately the world.

The same passage (Analects XII:17) concludes by saying that governing as a process of rectification begins with the rectification of the self. In the rectification of the self one learns to be moral, to live up to one's responsibilities, to be held accountable for one's actions and to think and care for others, not just oneself.

I am not so sure this is a message that has reached Washington yet!

To view this perspective of governing in its most practical critique of the rulers of the day, we turn to Mencius (372-289 BCE), the second major teacher of the Confucian tradition and the figure who will be later seen as the major interpreter of Confucius.

The work of Mencius begins with a passage that sets the parameters of Confucian teaching about governing. The passage (Mencius IA:1), one of the most famous in Confucian literature, finds King Hui of the state of Liang commenting that Mencius has come a great distance to engage him in conversation and therefore he, Mencius, must have something by which to profit the king's state. Mencius responds by asking the king why he must speak of profit, li.

There are, according to Mencius, only the teachings of goodness and righteousness, jen and i, and they and they alone will bring about the transformation of the world toward peace and order.

As for profit, Mencius goes on to suggest that if the king is focused upon profit, then there will not be an element of his kingdom that will not be equally focused upon profit and the peace and order sought will never be achieved.

For the Confucian tradition as a whole, the distinction between goodness and righteousness on the one hand and profit on the other becomes a hallmark to guide both government and the individual.

Lets expand on the term profit, li. It essentially means self-interest and self-approbation, placing one's own interests before those of others and never taking responsibility for one's actions!

If I am not careful here I will have created the quintessential definition of the present state of Washington!

Perhaps it is best said in one of Confucius' many laconic expressions found in the Analects. In describing the nature of the person of true moral worth, the Noble Person or chün tzu, Confucius contrasts such a person with the hsiao-jen, petty person. Of various contrasts drawn between these two paradigms, the one that seems to fit the bill today suggests that where the Noble Person takes responsibility for his/her actions, the petty person always blames others. (Analects XV:20)

Have I defined Washington yet? What would Confucius say?