08/09/2013 01:22 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

The Confucian in the World: Neither Rustic Nor Pedant

The juxtaposition of rustic and pedant may seem a bit odd at first glance -- why would one necessarily contrast these two figures? The contrast comes from an oft-quoted passage found in Confucius' writings in the Analects.

The Master said, " Where raw nature is in excess of culture, we have rusticity; where culture is in excess of raw nature, we have the manners of a pedant. When culture and raw nature are equally blended, we then have the Noble Person." Analects VI:16 (R. L. Taylor, Confucius, the Analects, p. 31)

The Noble Person represents the highest ideal of Confucian teaching and practice -- a person whose commitment to the life of learning has produced one who fully embodies the ideals of the moral life in word and deed. What exactly then is the nature of the Noble Person that this passage is addressing suggesting a balance of raw nature and culture?

Lets begin with the definitions. Raw nature, chih, means simply the material nature of the individual -- the physical self and its needs without learning or self-cultivation. Culture, wen, refers to the capacity to learn and to amass knowledge, understood as a very broad capacity to acquire education and learning through the rational faculties of one's mind.

The passage draws the reader's attention to a potential hazard the individual faces in the cultivation of the goal of the Noble Person. Too much of this raw nature, chih, leads one astray, just as too much of culture, wen, will also lead one astray.

It is easy to understand Confucius' critique of too much raw nature. As he responded to the political chaos of the period in which he lived by suggesting the necessity of a return to the teachings of the ancient sages through learning, he also faced an opponent in those who sought to simply escape the turmoil of the age.

Passages within the Analects itself will highlight certain of these rustic figures, suggesting their critique of Confucius for the futility of the effort he makes to save the world. The rustics' response was simply one of escape -- in a word, rustication. Such a point of view was fully embodied in the political sentiments of a number of early Taoist writings as well. And in Confucius' mind such a perspective could only be explained as an overabundance of the raw material, producing a negative assessment of involvement in the world with an overarching quest for escape.

The critique of rusticity seems all very reasonable in light of the teachings that dominated Confucius' thinking. These teachings stressed again and again the centrality and salient nature of learning as the principle means for the transformation of the individual and society toward the goal of moral thought and actions as represented by the figure of the Noble Person.

Lets remember, however, that Confucius also finds shortcomings in the excess of culture, wen, just as he has found such shortcoming in the excess of raw nature. At first glance, this may seem a bit odd. After all, Confucius emphasizes nothing of greater importance than the goal of learning. There simply is no greater ideal for self and society then the commitment to continuous learning. Perhaps, even more to the point, Confucius represented a class of people, ju, generally translated as the literati or scholarly class. These were the specialists, professional specialists, if you will, in learning and scholarship.

What then is the problem with learning in excess? The answer Confucius gives to that question is to suggest that too much wen, culture, produces a pedant.

How can there be too much learning when learning itself appears to be the goal? But therein lies the answer. While learning as represented by wen, culture, might appear to be the goal, such learning for Confucius has a larger and more important goal. What is that larger goal? To transform the individual as well as all of society toward the goals of moral thought and action, precisely the goal represented by the Noble Person as the embodiment of such moral outcomes.

The point is a very simple one -- learning and culture area not to be seen as goals in themselves, but as stepping stones on the path of the cultivation of the Noble Person. When wen, culture, becomes a goal in itself, then learning and the acquisition of knowledge is nothing other than pedantry and serves no constructive purpose.

And to our own age, how might we think about this passage from Confucius? Well, it is always easy, just as it was for Confucius, to find those who feel that in difficult and trying times, it is best to just escape. "Head for the hills," "stop the world I want to get off" -- such sentiments echo the refrain that an escape from the world eliminates any possible responsibility we might have toward self and society and the rectification of the turmoil of our own age.

And what of the excess of culture? Not so much an excess of learning, but instead a learning pursued as an end unto itself -- "Knowledge for knowledge' sake," as the expression would have it. Here we are on more delicate ground for we often, I fear, have made just such a pursuit a goal for ourselves and our culture -- knowledge pursued as an end unto itself. And the danger in this goal is the failure to realize that we have lost the possibility of pursuing learning toward a higher goal of the moral rectification of self and society. In this sense, it is time to step away from that world of "knowledge for knowledge' sake" we have potentially so arrogantly built to realize the transformation that learning, real learning, can and must make in the world.