A Confucian Notebook

At a glance, Edward Herbert’s short book A Confucian Notebook looks promising. I’d never heard of it until I ran across it in a used bookstore, but it’s intended to serve as an introduction to Confucianism through a series of thirty-three “notes,” each of them two, sometimes three pages long. Each offers a few brief observations or explanations on a given theme, varying from the Confucian use of prehistorical figures, Confucius’ favourite disciple, Mencius and Yang Chu, Mo Ti’s doctrine of universal love, etc. Unfortunately, it only partially succeeds.

First, I’ll give credit where it’s due. I do know a little more about Confucianism now than when I started, and someone new to the philosophy will find several helpful pieces of information that will make some aspects of the canon easier to understand. One of the most interesting notes, for example, was on Mo Ti. Mencius speaks of him and his doctrine of universal love scornfully, but doesn’t go into much detail. Herbert gives a summary of Mo Ti’s doctrine, and adds this observation:

But the principle [of universal love] is recommended, not so much on account of its goodness and naturalness, as on the ground that the exercise of it “pays.” The practitioner of filial piety, who extends this duty to include other people’s parents, is promised a dividend int he form of reciprocal attention by the latter to his own parents. It is further intimated that the social obligations generally, if universalized, will operate in this way, yielding a return to the community in benefits of greater safety, more creature comforts. “Master Mo,” who was a utilitarian at heart, seems not to have minded debasing his lofty ethic by linking it with the prospect of gain; nor to have realized that the effect of so doing was to encourage the self-love which he condemned. It escaped him, too, that it was incompatible with the high purposes of Universal Love to suggest imposing it by means of rewards and penalties.

That’s all good, but the book does have some shortcomings. One is that the book isn’t systematic, but tends to meander from topic to topic. That is implied by the title, of course, but it feels more like a series of short blog posts written for people who are already familiar with Confucianism. The preface sells this book as an introduction, but an introduction needs to be more systematic, like Xinzhong Yao’s. Also, much of the discussion on terms doesn’t provide any more information than is already found in the introductions or annotations to most editions of the AnalectsMencius, etc. So, even if you are new, why read this? Why not just read the introduction in the book you already have by Arthur Waley, James Legge, or whoever?

Worsening matters further, much of the book is strangely off-topic, since just over 1/3 of the notes spend most of their time discussing Taoism, usually (though not always!) in relation to Confucianism. Herbert, for what reason I don’t know, seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with Taoism and tries to use it to illuminate Confucianism. Some of that material is fine, and a note or two on the topic would be reasonable. Most of it, though, should’ve been cut and possibly used in a separate A Taoist Notebook.

So, is A Confucian Notebook bad? No, not really, but even at a mere eighty-four pages, it’s not worth the effort to track down and read. What Herbert set out to do has been accomplished much more successfully elsewhere, whether by Yao or even by many of the translators of the Confucian canon.

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