06/10/2013 03:42 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

Partisanship: A Confucian Perspective

Never a day passes, it seems, without some new level of partisanship as front-page news. Its effects, as we all know, are nothing short of derailing the very capacity of the government to carry out its most fundamental responsibilities. Rather than casting blame to one party or another for the true political debacle that partisanship represents, it might be time to reflect upon the vey idea of partisanship as a fundamental failure of government at its most foundational level.

I write, of course, from my perspective of attempting to present a Confucian perspective on a variety of contemporary issues, a perspective not commonly represented and perhaps seen by many to be of no particular relevance. But allow me my discourse.

The Confucian tradition has historically set its goals not only on the moral learning of the individual, but upon the moral transformation of society at large. Confucius lived and taught in a time of extreme political chaos. He saw the remedy to that chaos to be found in the process of learning, largely a learning that represented the inculcation, at both individual and state level, of the teachings of the ancient sages of China. These teachings of the sages, preserved in the so-called Chinese Classics, were seen as paradigmatic teachings that could transform both self and society.

As Confucian teachings became established as the official ideology of the Chinese state around the beginning of the Common Era, much of the focus of these teachings came to be utilized directly in the governing of the state itself. This was a trend in China that extended to the beginning of the 20th century, spreading as well throughout East Asia as well as into Southeast Asia.

The issue at stake is the relation of Confucian teaching to government and governing, and while I am not an apologist for the abuses of Asian governments across the centuries, there is something to be said for the fundamental relation understood to exist between the process of governing and the teachings finding their origin in Confucius.

Let's begin with the most fundamental statement made by Confucius regarding government and governing. "The Master said, 'To govern (cheng) is to rectify (cheng)" (Analects XII:17: James Legge, Chinese Classics, Volume I, p. 258).

A pun of sorts (cheng is cheng -- two different characters pronounced the same), but from the outset we see the relation that Confucius has established between governing and the process of rectification, a teaching that for Confucius suggests the process of correction or "rectification" toward a moral course on the part of both the individual and the state.

The teaching, however, is far deeper than that basic statement. And for the depth we must look at the individual words or characters involved in the passage. Yes, it is another lesson in the construction and meaning of Chinese characters! Here the focus of our attention is upon the character cheng, translated as "government" as a noun or "to govern" as a verb. This character cheng is a cognate for and ultimately derived from the term cheng, to rectify. The connection is critical to our understanding of the meaning of government.

The additional component of the character for "to govern" suggests the idea of "acting upon" or "pushing into effect." And how do we derive the translation of "government" or "to govern" from this combination? If we combine "rectification" with the idea of "pushing into effect," then the word for government means "to push into effect the process of rectification." Thus Confucius' statement is essentially a definition of government where the definition rests upon the moral role of government to steer or navigate the course of self and society alike.

Against American democracy, such a statement may seem only the very reason for our original American revolution! Stop for a minute, however, to think through the larger implications of the understanding of government in a Confucian context and then consider our recent failure of government in the debacle of partisanship.

There is a short passage in the Analects that seems to address very directly the nature of our present situation and suggest perhaps something of the fundamental problem partisanship represents.

The Master said, "The Noble Person in the world does not set himself either for things or against things; he simply follows what is right" (Analects IV:10, R. L. Taylor, "Confucius, the Analects," p. 25).

Partisanship -- few of us would debate, I suspect, that partisanship is largely the reason for much of the present failure of the political process. The basic function of government (i.e. to govern) has been brought to a grinding halt. In the rush to be either for or against any agenda item proposed, the larger function of governing has been forgotten.

Confucius draws our attention to the role of the Noble Person, chün-tzu, that highest ideal of the Confucian tradition: a person committed to the moral transformation of self and society alike and thus to the creation of a government where the larger purpose of the moral order of the state at large is not forgotten. In fact it is precisely this larger purpose, what Confucius has defined as the essential nature of government itself as rectification, that remains the goal and aspiration of Confucius for government.

Let the petty squabble, let the partisanships reign, and government will always fail to live up to its true character. Let government truly represent a process of rectification for self and society alike and the goal of goodness for all might be realized.

Surely there is plenty of food for thought in these observations from a long-ago observer as we observe our own day and age of crippled government.