Thursday, February 4, 2010

Children and Morality: Or, I was a Bully

Something I wonder is, “Why am I moral?” This isn’t to say that I doubt the existence of an objective morality or moral action (not very scholarly or post-modern of me, I know), only its foundations. I went to Sunday school, but I slept through class. I watched violent movies, played violent video games, and was an elementary school bully. I broke a kid’s glasses because he annoyed me; I threw a ball of ice at, and injured, a different kid because he annoyed me; and I put snow in the backpack of another kid because, well, he annoyed me and had my name. So what precipitated my change from a low class, insecure, angry, manipulative youth into an unyieldingly (perhaps inconveniently) moral young adult? My answer is not part of this blog, but the question of how we learn “morality” is.

I would argue that the most influential Chinese philosopher is Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200). Confucius as both a fictive and historical persona is certainly more famous, but Zhu Xi told the scholarly elite how to read The Analects. For better or worse, the scholarly elite, responsible as they were for running the state, decided what morality was.

One of the most important acts of Zhu Xi and other Song (960-1279) period philosophers was their revalidation of Mencius and his ‘love thy neighbor’ philosophy. This predicated a major philosophical shift best summarized in a single Zhu Xi quote: “Love and hate are feelings (qing), whereas love of good and hate of evil are part of human nature (xing).” [1] So, there you have it, love of good is part of human nature. We are all ontologically pure.

But if it were that simple we would all be unfailingly moral, living in a society free of crime and MTV. The Neo-Confucian (as Zhu Xi, his predecessors, and the inheritors of his tradition are called) hypothesis was on shaky ground from the start. It was then decided that despite our Heaven granted, fundamentally pure human nature, our psychological selves are subject to change after gradual habituation. Born pure, we immediately start to accrue defilement from our environment. The only solution was to begin immediate moral inculcation.

Which brings me back to children and morality. Pre-modern children’s education manuals are everywhere. Intellectuals were puzzled by the process of creating a moral society, and they quickly realized that it’s best to ‘get em’ while they're young.’ One of the earliest and most popular texts for early childhood moral education is the San Zi Jing 三字经, or Three Character Classic. Written by Wang Yinglin 王应麟(1223-1296), the text is a little over three hundred characters long and some fifty, three-character-long parallel lines. The text was chanted to aid memorization, so future little Wang’s first exposure to study would most likely have been spent internalizing and digesting this enthralling work. From there, little Wang would have memorized a few more important childhood primers (there are heaps of these) before getting to the more complicated stuff. After all of this, his/her parents could hope to have a morally upright and filial child. So, without much further ado, here’s the beginning (A very free translation):

When a person is born their nature is good.
Our natures are alike, [but] through circumstances vary.
If we’re not instructed, then our natures change.
When pursuing education, focus is the key.
[So] Mencius’ mom moved to live near the school.
When her son didn’t study, she threw him into the loom.
At Douyan Mountain, there was a righteous house.
They taught their five sons and all attained their fame.
Being raised but not taught, is the father’s fault
Being taught without expectations, is because the teacher’s a lout.
It’s not right, for the child not to study
and if when young you don’t inquire, when you’re old you can’t retire.
So polish the jade, to become something.
If a person doesn’t study, they’ll know nothing.

[1] Quote from:
William T. Rowe, Saving The World:Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 104.

This was really just a new phrasing of the Chinese Buddhist philosophical concept of Buddha Nature (foxing).

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