2nd reflection on the Analects of Confucius
I have previously reflected on the manner in which our lives begin in inequality (see on Obedience) and how the art of politics is in balancing the needs and desires of the powerful and the weak (see on Politics). However, I think it is necessary to state that power is not equal with superiority – but also that being in the position of the inferior does not also confer the mantle of moral superiority. Instead, we should turn our concerns to becoming superior, regardless of our relative power or weakness.
To begin with: what do I mean by superiority? To be superior is to be better than another – to be closer to the good. What does this even mean in the context of no hard and fast rule about absolute goodness? If my previous reflection (see on Learning) has anything to offer I would suggest this as a working definition: superiority is defined by a willingness to learn, a rejection of absolutes grounded in parochial and venal culture and the courage to put said learning and self-reflection into practice.
On the other hand, is power. Power is a fleeting quality, gifted unevenly by lot of birth, waxing and waning with the spinning wheel of fate. Power is a concentration of favourable material, physical and mental circumstances of a single individual, shifting and turning on the tides of nameless and faceless forces. To suggest that such inequality is a product alone of a cruel or evil system forgets the natural evils of the human existence: disease, old age and madness. To think that the boon of healthy genetics or material wealth will insulate a person from the destructive powers of circumstance denies reality. Even the strongest, most independent person was at one time a babe – weak, defenceless and dependent. Even the wealthiest of magnates cannot escape the falling scythe – only delay its descent.
Thus, power is but a temporary state of affairs, determined and allotted by the cast of the die. On the other hand, superiority is a goal, a shining lantern piercing the nightmarescape of ignorance and beckoning us ever onwards towards understanding. When compared, why would any individual spend their lives slaving for the false coin of power when they could be polishing the mirror of their own superiority? However, if we ignore power and focus only on superiority we forget the most important aspect of learning – it is dependent on society.
One can attempt to learn as an individual – a true individual – but to even begin to comprehend the project is mind melting. To be a true individual would not be to turn ones back ‘on the tribe’ and find truth within oneself alone – this is the pseudo-individualism of one heavily under the influence of narcissism. The words we use, the cognitive mechanisms by which we solve problems and the paradigms by which we comprehend the cosmos – all these are an eclectic mixture of millions of ideas brought forth by a teeming crowd of individuals. Some were famous, others unknown, some were friends, others complete strangers. To be a complete individual would be to reject all of these things, to somehow destroy one’s mind and recommence the act of learning as a complete child, devoid of language and education. I think that even the most primitive of our ancestors were never in such an unnatural position – for they still were inculcated with the skills and habits of tribe and family.
With this in mind, that there can be no individual without society, the question now arises: what is the duty of the superior to society? Here I think we can finally find some link between superiority and power. The superior should use whatever power that exists within their grasp to better society – to make it a place more suitable for learning. By improving society, the superior – by the nature of society and the individual – improves themselves. The inverse also finds itself true, that to improve society one must also improve oneself. An argument could be raised that such seemingly altruistic deeds are merely self-centred cynicism – for they now appear as acts of self-interest. In retort, I would argue that this lies upon a mischaracterisation of the superior individual. To think that one is separate from the world is to concern oneself with material supremacy, to realise that harming the world is to turn the blade against one’s own throat is to embrace the path of superiority.
Wu Daozi, Eighty-seven immortals, ca. 680-759