Dai Jin (Tai Chin, 1388-1462)
The noble person tends to his own situation in life. How could he take what comes from the outside world as true honor or disgrace?
- Wu Yu-bi
Is philosophy a body of knowledge or a transformative way of life?
I know the answer most academic philosophers would now give, but it was not always that way. I've touched upon this matter before in my review of Qu'est ce que la philosophie antique?, in which Pierre Hadot made the case that there was an entire tradition of Greco-Roman philosophy concerned with transforming the philosopher into a sage, for whom philosophy was a way of life and not merely a body of knowledge to be acquired either for its own sake or for another purpose (such as becoming a more persuasive and influential politician or lawyer) or a set of intellectually interesting abstract questions about which one could pleasantly speculate. In Pursuits of Wisdom John M. Cooper wrote a rejoinder which by my lights set up straw men and knocked them down again. Though interesting in the portions of the book which provide an overview of the various schools of Greco-Roman philosophy, as a polemic it failed to convince me. Having read in the meanwhile the letters of Seneca and what is left of the writings of Epicurus and Epictetus, not to mention the Socratic tradition as represented in Plato's dialogues, the existence of a tradition of philosophia that included a transformation of the individual with the goal of becoming a sage is certain. That there were other, parallel traditions is equally certain.
However, in China, at least until very recently, philosophy was concerned with the transformation of the individual, whether it was labelled Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian.(*) The entire state examination system, put in place already during the Han dynasty, made neither science nor the management of large bureaucracies part of its curriculum, but rather poetry, history and philosophy were the focus of its students, in the expectation that they would become more moral, more in tune with the lawful harmony of Heaven and Earth through their study of these.(**) This goes well beyond matters of mere knowledge.
I have long been interested in Chinese philosophy for many reasons, and one of these is that it did not lose sight of the questions which are of interest to basically all human beings, but particularly to the young: How should I live? What is the Good Life? And for the relatively few there were also the questions - as in Greco-Roman times - what is a sage and how do I become one?
These latter questions were always important in the Taoist and Buddhist traditions, and though they were tacit already in the Analects of Confucius,(***) they became centrally important in that response to the Taoist and Buddhist competition made by the Confucians during the Song dynasty which Westerners call neo-Confucianism. Elsewhere I have discussed the Korean Confucian Yi Hwang's Sŏnghak sipto (The Ten Diagrams of Sage Learning) (available in English translation under the title To Become a Sage), where he summarized for the young Korean king ten steps to sagehood. But the "daily record" of Wu Yu-bi is a very different kettle of fish.
Wu Yu-bi (Wu Yü-pi, 1391-1469) was the son of an ambitious father - a successful scholar/official who became the director of studies at the National University in the capital Nanjing - and the father intended for his eldest son a similar path. Wu was a filial son, but he was not cut out for such a life(4*) and discontinued his preparations for the state examination. His father disinherited him (though he changed his mind a decade later), and Wu withdrew to one of the family estates, where he spent the rest of his life trying to make a living as a farmer and to become a Confucian sage in the model of the great Song dynasty masters.
The Journal of Wu Yubi (2013) is M. Theresa Kelleher's commented translation of some of Wu's letters and of his "daily record," in which he wrote (for himself, not for publication) his travails, efforts and successes in these two tasks. Although the entries were not actually made daily, they began in 1425 and continued through the last year of his life. Even if one has no interest in becoming a sage or in understanding those who do, these letters and daily record provide a direct glimpse into the life, mind and emotions of a Ming dynasty man. Speaking personally, I found these texts to be fascinating, informative, poignant and very moving as Wu is pulled between his ideal goal and the necessities of survival, as he slowly realizes that both tasks are immensely more difficult than he had initially imagined, and as he makes incremental progress while vacillating between despair and hope, doubt and confidence, a tormented spirit and tranquility. That is life, whatever the particular goals of the individual may be...
(*) This is not to deny that rather technical questions were analyzed by some Chinese philosophers, but I've yet to run across a Chinese thinker before the 20th century whose relation to philosophy resembles that of our professors of philosophy.
(**) In China poetry, history and philosophy were usually written with primarily ethical concerns in mind.
(***) Confucius repeatedly explained to his listeners how a "superior man" would behave in many different situations. To become such a "gentleman" required for Confucius much more than the right knowledge - it required a transformative development of character, morals and understanding.
(4*) In fact, Wu's father worked for the Yongle emperor, whose father was the monstrous and, at the end, mad first Ming emperor whom I mention in my review of The Poet Kao Chʻi, 1336-1374. The son wasn't mad, but he was a ruthless butcher like his father. It was so bad that many Confucian officials chose to withdraw from government service instead of serving Yongle (an extremely momentous decision for such men, not simply because it meant abandoning the service which was at the center of their value system, but because it also incurred, in some cases, the wrath of the emperor and the execution of their entire family). It is significant that Wu's father served to the end.