Family contra the State: Problematizing Aristotle and Confucius

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Aristotle / ontology / Politics

“..for the relationship between people and government is the most pervasive ideal relationship upon which commerce between teacher and pupil, lord and servants, father and family, general and soldier, master and apprentice have unconsciously been modeled.”—Friedrich Nietzsche. 

For centuries, the history of philosophy has explored the general opposition set up between Occidental and Oriental philosophy, especially concerning their respective “origins.” Generally speaking, it has been assumed that Western and Eastern philosophies differ over the metaphysical question of the constitution of the (conditions of possibility of the) universe, ending with the antinomy of a decision concerning Being/Nothingness (Plato vs. Lao-Tzu, both of whom subordinate becoming either to the movement of the idea or the non-activity of the Dao). In the same sense, Aristotle’s political ontology has been argued to end up in another binary opposition with that of Confucius: it is asserted that the former makes the state primary to the family, whereas for the latter this formula must be inverted. Instead, these reflections will attempt to illustrate that the opposition of these philosophical decisions should be shown to be inadequately founded and that a more clarified reading can show that this opposition is both untenable and capable of exemplifying that the problem has not yet been sufficiently determined.

In order to construct a contextual problematic, i.e. one determined by other conditions already present in both philosophies, we should resituate the problem elsewhere before addressing the opposition between family and state. For example, one of the primary conditions for Aristotle in the Politics is that of equality. In book V especially, the problem of equality most especially addresses the ways in which the rich and the poor can be considered to be unequal or disproportionate. These distinctions gain their importance because they define the different ways in which democracies and oligarchies quantify the quality in equality. It could be easy to oppose Confucius to this characterization:

 Zigong said: “What do you think of the saying:’ Poor but not inferior; rich but not superior’?” The  Master replied: “Not bad, but not as good as: ‘Poor but enjoying the way; rich but loving ritual  propriety.’”E2

What Zigong says to the master appears to be the solution to the Aristotelian riddle or problematic concerning the status of the rich and the poor: it is not that they should be considered equal, but that they should not be considered unequal. By inverting the perspective on the relation, Zigong seems to have resolved the oppositions in an almost Hegelian way. But the master answers something that actually resonates with a more fundamental requirement of Aristotle, one that is even more primary than the family (for both philosophers): namely, the question of the perpetuation of noble actions or ritual propriety (li).    

Although it could be argued that the perspective of the state dominates the Politics, it is extremely symptomatic that Aristotle obsesses over characterizing the virtues and vices pertaining to individuals, even if it is only through generalized forms, especially in relation to virtuous persons (whom Confucius would call junzi, or “exemplary persons”). It is in this sense that Aristotle also founds his political ontology on the various types of individuals, differentiating them according to vice and virtue, and, more commonly according to the problematic of equality, according to wealth. When Confucius quotes: “Exemplary persons help out the needy; they do not make the rich richerE3,” Aristotle tries to take this one step further (even if it demonstrates his own prejudices of supporting the middle way). In order to regulate inequality of wealth, Aristotle advocates self-moderation for the rich: “The beginning of reform is not so much to equalize property as to train the nobler sort of natures not to desire more, and to prevent the lower from getting more; that is to say, they must be kept down, but not ill-treated.”E4 Although the last part of this statement seems contrary to the Confucian path, it should be noted that both philosophers would subordinate this question of class and wealth to something more primary than the state, which is the perpetuation of noble actions or ritual propriety (ends) which are actualized through the ideal of the family (means).

While it could be argued that Aristotle makes the state primordial in the sense that he argues it precedes the individual like the whole precedes its parts, it can be demonstrated that Aristotle makes the family primary in order to perpetuate a higher goal, namely that of noble actions or precisely li. He writes:

 It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the  prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a  state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of  families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing  life.

When Aristotle reminds us that the end of the state is the good life, he is not making a claim disconnected from the factical conditions of our existence (that we have to be raised, i.e. cultivated), but he is also not simply saying that the family is an end in itself, somehow cut off from ritual propriety. Instead, he emphasizes: “Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of living together” (1281a3-4). It is here in this paradoxical twist where the family is negated and yet raised to a higher level that the political ontology of Confucius and Aristotle merge into a vision where the family only takes precedence due to its capacity for fostering virtue.

Although I have shown that Aristotle and Confucius agree more on the question of family than may be generally thought, I have hoped to be able to extend this to a more interesting conclusion, which is the fact that the more apparent opposition between Aristotle and Confucius actually lies elsewhere. It could be reduce it to the content of their arguments concerning morality, or some other criterion, or instead we could assert that the opposition actually lies in the differences in the form of the presentation and the audience held in mind. For the true opposition actually concerns the fact that Aristotle was thinking of a general (young aristocratic) audience and had no specific concept of a unitary culture motivating his conceptual investigations, whereas Confucius’ entire project is to specify the particular criteria for virtue in a particular, unitary culture (or at least one capable of being unified). It is in this sense that Aristotle’s emphasis on the generality of the state prevails in his discourse whereas the specifics to the dynamism of the family becomes Confucius’ central concern.

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  1. But what if the nuclear family, which is the current ideal norm, produces people who are fundamentally neurotic?

    Which is inevitably the case when the only role models for the children are mum and dad.

    And which could be the primary reason that most marriages fail.

    Beginning even as early as age 2 or 3 all children need to be introduced to a much wider circle of intimate acquaintances so that they can thus have more than 2 role models to influence them.

    It is also desirable for each sex to grow up within a culture of the own sex and thus become polarised to their own gender patterning.

    Boys for instance, do not learn to be men by spending lots of time with mum or other women.

    And by the time they are 12-14 the young person should be turned over to the culture at large. Again mostly in the company of their own sex/gender.

    More traditional cultures had formalised structures for governing the relations between the sexes based on the observation that men and women have different psycho-physical patterns.

    Of course such structures can very well become suffocating and restrictive too. It is all an artful process based on feeling-sensitivity.

  2. I like your remarks, they are quite pointed and succinct.

    As for neurosis, I agree with you completely and it is something that I admire in Adorno’s work; mainly, that we should be fed up with this normality of neurosis and have done with it.

    Maybe the neurotic is simply the result of a tension between paranoid and schizophrenic poles of the socius?

    On the other hand, I agree with you about gender only to a certain extent; I am not sure if imitation or mimesis is ever what brings a boy to the stage of manhood, even if they are only surrounded by masculine images of the dominant order.

    The question of gender “roles,” as you noted at the end of your remark, does seem to be only for the benefit of society’s ability to scan and track, for example, faciality traits and the dominant means of “performing” in a society. But, to that extent, the social machine becomes worried about becomings that defy the normal-neurotic coordinates (and power centers in general).

    Back to the question of neurotica and the family: I agree with your statement, so much so at least that I would extend my thesis and say that, if Aristotle and Confucius are to be taken on a common ground (which is that the family is merely a means to noble actions which are the end), then it can be safe to say that if the former prevents the latter in any way (and (post)modernity has shown that too much family is not a good thing), then it must be done away with, or at least mitigated and restrained from the point of view of its dominance in and over culture.

    What I mean to say is that the family is a socio-historical formation that does not have value in and of itself as a universal. It has to be seen in its contingency, even if this means threatening the powers of the state that want to make all of reality circulate around and signify the familial enclosure (psychoanalysis).

    So it boils down to: does or can the family still promote noble actions, or does it only lead to neurotic mediocrity? I don’t know if we can take this either-or, but I would be willing to say that the family as a traditional “cornerstone” of our society will not threaten the downfall of the socius upon its transmutation according to different goals, means, systems of cruelty…

    • First of all, let me say that it is refreshing to hear other students of philosophy doing comparative work on Confucius that is not driven to thematize Chinese philosophies as merely “collectivists.”

      My comment is a more general one. I think the initial question that was raised referred to a question of “nuclear family.” In a Confucian society, the family is quite simply the matrix through which all society is reflected. The society itself is a Big Family. Even today, it is common in China to hear the Confucian undertones in their language. When the Chinese refer to a group of people in a room, they say “dajia” (大家), literally meaning “Big Family.”

      The roles you spoke of are intimately related to the big family. I don’t think they are repressive and confining in any sense. It is a matter of responding appropriately (yi) to the li (禮). Roles shift according to context. The family is never nuclear, nor defined in a narrow sense.

      – Cody

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