Confucianism – the doctrine of the mean in action
In a previous post I wrote about the the doctrine of the mean (中庸) and how it might influence Chinese Christian leadership. This is one part of the overall Confucian worldview, and significantly influences how leaders conduct themselves. Here is a key passage that speaks about it:
The Master said, “There was Shun: He indeed was greatly wise! Shun loved to question others, and to study their words, though they might be shallow. He concealed what was bad in them and displayed what was good. He took hold of their two extremes, determined the Mean, and employed it in his government of the people (執其兩端，用其中於民). It was by this that he was Shun!”
Doctrine of the Mean, 6.
Rather than giving themselves to extreme positions, the superior man holds to the mean (or middle position). And the virtuous leader makes use of this in the exercise of his governing.
Here is another quote, this time from the Analects where James Legge translates 2.14 as:
The Master said, “The superior man is catholic (周) and not partisan (比). The mean man is partisan and not catholic.”
Analects of Confucius, 2.14.
The idea here being that the superior man doesn’t take one particular side, but is able to be friendly and conciliatory and understanding of all sides. This is seen as a virtue – the virtue of being zhong (中). In the Doctrine of the Mean, this is spoken of as a “friendly harmony.”
Therefore, the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony, without being weak. How firm is he in his energy! He stands erect in the middle, without inclining to either side. How firm is he in his energy!
Doctrine of the Mean, 10.
It’s important to note that it is not seen as cowardice to avoid either position – it is actually seen as virtue to see all positions, and to be ‘catholic’ (周).
2. The Doctrine of the Mean in conversations
Today what I want to do is flesh out what this looks like in conversations, and hopefully shed light on some of the strange conversation dynamics you might come across in Confucian-influenced cultures. Because it could well be that what is driving your conversation partner is actually the Confucian virtue of zhong (中)!
Notice what happens in the following conversation. In these conversations, there is a conflict between the blue people, and red people. They are at two extremes. But notice what happens when a green person speaks to them…
The green person identifies that there are two extremes – but doesn’t want to take either position. Just like Shun in Doctrine of the Mean 6, this green person has identified the mean and now adopts it as his position. And it’s a position that does not ascribe any real blame to anyone – in this case, it’s just a matter of miscommunication.
But on hearing this moderate response from the green person, the blue person is startled. Why can’t this green person see what is clearly going on? And so they press their case a second time.
The blue person wants to argue the green person over to his side – but for the green person, there is no virtue in that. Instead it is actually virtuous not to hold either position. It is virtuous to remain in the middle, exhibiting the virtue of being zhong (中).
Notice also that when pushed further, the green person now begins to assign blame – and it’s to the one who is arguing forcefully. He is the one who is seen to be causing trouble. Frustrating for the blue person – but it makes sense within the Confucian worldview.
Notice now what happens when the green person goes over to speak to the red person. In a similar way, the red person puts forward his view, painting the situation in polar extremes. How will the green person respond?
The green person responds in the same kind of way – he notices the extremes, identifies the middle position, and adopts it – which appears conciliatory and virtuous. And once again, it’s a position that doesn’t assign blame to anyone – he affirms that both parties have a good heart.
However it’s not always the case that your conversation partner will take the middle position. And it has to do with whether you ‘belong’ with them or not. If they think you don’t ‘belong’ to their group, then you are essentially seen as an outsider – and they will play the Doctrine of the Mean game with you to be virtuous. But if you are seen as an insider, then you already belong in their eyes, and they will not feel compelled to play the Doctrine of the Mean game. Instead they will feel free to echo what you feel.
In this scenario notice how the dark red conversation partner doesn’t feel the need to identify and embody the mean. And it’s because they already belong. They are already part of the group.
This also means that the way in which someone speaks to you can also tell you a lot about how they see you – whether as an insider, or as an outsider to their group.
This dynamic could mean that adopting a more moderate position yourself in conversation might lead to quite different outcomes. In the following conversation we are back to the conversation between the blue person and the green person. But this time the blue person identifies with what the red person says. However the green person is smart enough to identify that there are two extremes at play – and the position the green person adopts is much more helpful.
3. Differing values in conversation
This dynamic may help explain what is going on in otherwise strange conversations. It could be that conflicting values are at play – on the one hand the arguing for and scoring of logical points, and on the other hand the identifying of the middle ground and embodying the virtue of zhong (中). And so you may find that conversations become less about rightness, and more about position. And you may find that discussions are concluded less on evidence, and more on moderation.
Should the virtue of zhong (中) play the determining factor in the making of decisions? should it subvert the place of evidence and good argumentation?
From the Christian point of view, I don’t believe so. Because ultimately the form of revelation given to us does not discount evidence and good argumentation, but instead has a good place for it. Paul is at pains to lay out evidence for the resurrection (1 Cor 15). The apostles are careful in their argumentation in the letters. The apostles went to the temple courts and reasoned with those who would listen (Acts 17). The form of God’s revelation to us shows that good reasons and sound thinking do take pride of place.
At a supporting level the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean does alert us to the relational aspect of conversations. It’s not just a matter of winning the argument – but of winning over the other person. And so in this regard it’s interesting to see how Paul’s strong command to stop the false teachers in 1 Timothy 1 is paired with his strangely quiescent encouragement in 1 Timothy 4 to win over his detractors by his exemplary manner of life. It doesn’t negate the public directive in chapter 1 (and even in chapter 4 he is to “command and teach these things” v.11) – but at a supporting level Paul is aware of the power of personal example.
Yet in Christianity this never gets in the way of speaking the truth, and having discernment in church matters. In Christianity there is truth that exists irrespective of the positions people hold. And in Christianity we are never meant to exemplify zhong (中) - but instead to choose. To choose gladly that which is good, to love fiercely that which is good, to proclaim passionately the one who is good.