02/01/2012 07:48 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2012

'Bowling Alone' -- With Confucius!

The irony is delightful, maybe even a bit whimsical -- "bowling alone" with Confucius. The point, however, is poignant -- an insight into contemporary American society we might all stop and consider for a moment!

When the sociologist Robert Putnam first published his now well-known work Bowling Alone in 2000, he was perhaps one of the first to point to a phenomenon of contemporary American society new at the time but now all too well known. As a sociologist he perceived a society rapidly losing its capacity for community, its ability to share, or to take up concern for the other guy, even its capacity for true friendship, a relationship of actual caring, not just a "friend" on Facebook.

This lack of community and lack of concern for the other he called "bowling alone." Bowling is something that one simply does not do alone -- never -- and yet here was a society rapidly moving toward a state of what Putnam describes as a "decline of general reciprocity." In its place was a set of behaviors that favored the individual at all costs, particularly the individual as the focus, and thus the individual as more important than the community.

"It's all about me" -- a phrase that has become endemic of our age.

Putnam's work is not the first to draw our attention to a characteristic of our national character. One of the most articulate voices in such discourse was that of de Tocqueville (1805-1859), a French intellectual visiting a young America in the early decades of the 19th century. In his now classic work, "Democracy in America" (1835), he astutely observed a key tension he believed the American spirit would wrestle with as inherent to their goals and aspirations.

The tension de Tocqueville observed was the relation of the individual to the community. In a phrase, "habits of the heart," de Tocqueville observed that there would be a challenge for the individual to address the needs of the community when so much emphasis was placed upon the importance of the individual itself. (The sociologist Robert Bellah in his seminal work appropriately titled Habits of the Heart has brilliantly studied this point.)

Bowling alone -- the malaise of a generation -- the malaise of contemporary American society. And what would Confucius say?

The Confucian antidote to the all too often heard phrase "its all about me" might best be articulated in a short passage from the Analects of Confucius:

The Master said, "I will not be troubled at people not knowing me; I will be troubled that I do not know people." (Analects, I:16)

The theme is a simple one and is repeated in a number of passages in the writings of Confucius. He is not concerned that he gains the recognition of others. He is only concerned least he not recognize others himself.

It is not all about me! It is about the capacity to recognize the importance of others -- to engage others, to learn from others, to help and care for others, to be friends with others, true friends.

Confucius believes that it is through the interaction with others that one becomes truly and fully human oneself. It is in the community of humankind that one can be human and thus fulfill oneself as human.

In discussing the Noble Person, chün-tzu, the person of humaneness and goodness, Confucius says, "He cultivates himself so as to give rest to all the people." (Analects XIV:45)

The center for human effort is learning, the learning of the self, but the goal is the outward force of learning upon others. The passage suggests that the Noble Person engages in learning to bring "rest" to others. The word "rest" or "peace," an, suggests the capacity of the Noble Person to look beyond self as self and see instead self in community. The focus is a community of humankind.

No passage better suggests this capacity of the individual to create a community of humankind than the opening lines of the first passage of the Analects.

The Master said, "Is it not a joy to learn with constant effort and application? Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?" (Analects I:1)

That the Analects opens with Confucius' statement of his love of learning is easily anticipated! There is, after all, nothing more important to Confucius than learning, the learning whereby one becomes a person of goodness and humaneness, jen, a person fulfilling the Way of Heaven, T'ien-Tao.

What is perhaps surprising in this first passage of the Analects is the second sentence, a sentence devoted to the importance of friendship.

What does this second sentence tell us? It tells us that friendship is as important to being human as is the act of learning itself. Going further it suggests that friendship is also part of learning.

Learning is unceasing -- and is fulfilled in company -- in community with others, in cooperation with others, in care for others, in friendship with others.

This is not bowling alone! This is bowling with Confucius!