The Secular as Sacred
A Contemporary Perspective on Confucius
Movie poster for "Confucius" with images of Fingarette's "The Secular as Sacred" and Howard Curzer
Icon with the Chinese character for "ritual" (li)
Reproduction of an ancient Chinese ritual
What is Ritual?
Chinese character for "ritual" (li)

Icon with the Chinese character for "ritual" (li)
Cover of Herbert Fingarette's "The Secular as Sacred"
Human Community as Holy Rite
Chapter 1
“The remarks which follow are aimed at revealing the magic power which Confucius saw, quite correctly, as the very essence of human virtue.” (SAS, 1)
Micky Mouse as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
By magic” I mean the power of a specific person to accomplish his will directly and effortless through ritual, gesture and incantation. The user of magic ... simply wills the end in the proper ritual setting and with the proper ritual gesture and word; without further effort on his part, the deed is accomplished. (SAS, 3)
Image of a handshake
I see you on the street; I smile, walk towards you, put out my hand to shake yours. And behold — without any command, stratagem, force, special tricks or tools, without any effort on my part to make you do so, you spontaneously turn toward me, return my smile, raise your hand toward mine. We shake hands — not by my pulling your hand up and down or your pulling mine but by spontaneous and perfect cooperative action. Normally we do not notice the subtlety and amazing complexity of this coordinated “ritual” act. This subtlety and complexity become very evident, however, if one has had to learn the ceremony only from a book of instructions, or if one is a foreigner from a nonhandshaking culture. (SAS, 9)
Stars revolving around the "pole star"
“Magic” in the Analects
“To govern by te [de ; virtue/inner power] is to be like the North Polar Star; it remains in place while all the other stars revolve in homage about it. (SAS, 4 [Analects 2:1])
Grass blowing in the wind
“The character of a noble man is like wind, that of ordinary men like grass; when the wind blows the grass must bend.” (SAS, 4 [Analects 12:19])
Ruler on throne facing south
Shun, the great sage-ruler, “merely placed himself gravely and reverently with his face due South (the ruler’s ritual posture); that was all” (i.e. the world was in harmony without his needing to impose order on it). (SAS, 4 [Analects, 15:4])
Is ritual the glue that holds society together?
Is it that which makes us distinctly human?
Is it the key to establishing the "secular" as "sacred"?
What happens if the glue isn't "sticky"?
Icon with the Chinese character for "ritual" (li)
Journal of Chinese Philosophy: Howard J. Curzer's "Contemporary Rituals and the Confucian Tradition: A Critical Discussion"
Photo of Howard J. CurzerSome social scientists take the class of rituals to be a hodgepodge with no significant commonalities. Other social scientists take rituals to be magical attempts to persuade or force the gods or nature to bestow rain, children, health, etc. But the Confucian tradition, along with a third group of social scientists, takes rituals to be essentially symbolic and evocative. The purpose of rituals is to transform people’s thoughts and feelings through symbolic actions. Rituals express and reinforce certain beliefs about the world, particularly about human relationships. They teach us about our dependence upon, and duties toward others. They are also emotionally moving. They imbue repeated actions with special feeling as well as meaning. Not everyone necessarily understands or experiences what rituals try to convey, but in this article, repeated actions that do not strive to convey beliefs or stir passions will not be considered rituals. ...
Animated image of a child brushing their teeth
Animated image of a Japanese woman bowing

Probably the most important function of ritual for Confucians is moral cultivation by which I mean improving passions, desires, perceptions, beliefs (especially values), reasoning, and actions. Rituals can do all of this. To begin with, they train us to want and feel certain things. Moreover, rituals guide the expression of desires and passions, particularly in stressful situations. “Ritual begins in that which must be released, reaches full development in giving it proper form, and finishes in providing it satisfaction. [Xunzi, 19]” For example, funeral rituals ensure that the survivors grieve for the right people, at the right time, to the right degree, etc. Overall, rituals can produce and express good desires and passions. (Contemporary Rituals and the Confucian Tradition, 292-4)
Chinese character for the "Way" (dao) with Confucius, Laozi and a dancing Buddha
A Way without a Crossroads
Chapter 2
Perhaps the most revealing way to begin ... is to consider the primary imagery in the Analects. It centers around the “Tao” [dao ].Tao is a Way, a path, a road, and by common metaphorical extension it becomes in ancient China the right Way of life, the Way of governing, the ideal Way of human existence, the Way of the Cosmos, the generative-normative Way (Pattern, path, course) of existence as such. ... The notion of a Way is, not surprisingly, congenial to the central Confucian notion of li [], rite or ceremony. Li, for Confucius, is the explicit and detailed pattern of that great ceremony which is social intercourse, the human life. ... We may even think of li as the map or the specific road-system which is Tao. (SAS, 19-20)
"I'm Shame, meet my brother GUILT"
If we are unaware of the crucial differences in perspective, these texts on ch’ih [chi ] lend themselves easily to an assimilation of Confucian “shame” with Western “guilt.” Yet the differences are crucial with respect to the issues that concern us here. Although ch’ih is definitely a moral concept and designates a moral condition or response, the moral relation to which it corresponds is that of the person to his status and role as defined by li. Ch’ih thus looks “outward,” not “inward.” ... True, the ground for guilt is some immoral act or betrayal of someone other than oneself, but the object of guilt is oneself. Ultimately, guilt is an attack upon oneself, whereas shame is an attack upon some specific action or outer condition. Shame is a matter of “face,” of embarrassment, of social status. Shame says, “change your ways; you have lost honor or dignity.” Guilt says, “change yourself; you are infected.” A St. Augustine can speak of the “disease of my soul,” of its “wound,” of “sticking in the mire,” of being plucked out of the mire and washed by God, of being soul-sick and monstrous. It takes no demonstration to remind even the casual reader of Confucius that such imagery, or analogous tone, is alien to the Analects. (SAS, 30-1)
Follow the Yellow Brick Road!
Man is not an ultimately autonomous being who has an inner and decisive power, intrinsic to him, a power to select among real alternatives and thereby to shape a life for himself. Instead he is born as “raw material” who must be civilized by education and thus become a truly human man. To do this he must aim at the Way, and the Way must — through its nobility and the nobility of those who pursue it — attract him. This outcome is not conceived as one that enhances a personal power as over against society or the physical environment, but rather as one that sharpens and steadies a person’s “aim” or orientation to the point where he can undeviatingly walk the one true Way: he is a civilized human being. Walking the Way incarnates in him the vast spiritual dignity and power that resides in the Way. ...
"see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, do no evil" monkeys
Cartoon of ConfuciusYan Yuan asked about humaneness. The Master said, “To overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety is the way to become humane. If one could overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety for a single day, the whole world would return to humaneness. ... “If it does not accord with ritual propriety do not look; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not listen; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not speak; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not act.(Analects 12:1 [translated by Brian Hoffert]; cf. SCT, 55)
Therefore the central moral issue for Confucius is not the responsibility of a man for deeds he has by his own free will chosen to perform, but the factual questions of whether a man is properly taught the Way and whether he has the desire to learn diligently. The proper response to a failure to conform to the moral order (li) is not self-condemnation for a free and responsible, though evil, choice, but self-reeducation to overcome a mere defect, a lack of power, in short a lack in one’s “formation.” The Westerner’s inclination to press at this point the issue of personal responsibility for lack of diligence is precisely the sort of issue that is never even raised in the Analects. (SAS, 34-5)
"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" with Mao Zedong
Fingarette focuses on the sense in which the Way shapes humans,
but where does the Way come from ...
and how do we know that it is the right Way?
It is humans that make the Way great,
not the Way that makes humans great.
(Analects 15:29 [translated by Brian Hoffert])
Confucius illustrating the principles of "ritual" (li) and "humaneness" (ren)
The Locus of the Personal
Chapter 3
There is no doubt that for Confucius, jen [ren ; humaneness] is at least equal in importance to any other single concept such as li. Unlike li, however, jen is surrounded with paradox and mystery in the Analects. Jen seems to emphasize the individual, the subjective, the character, feelings and attitudes; it seems, in short, a psychological notion. The problem of interpreting jen thus becomes particularly acute if one thinks, as I do, that it is of the essence of the Analects that the thought expressed in it is not based on psychological notions. And, indeed, one of the chief results of the present analysis of jen will be to reveal how Confucius could handle in a nonpsychological way basic issues which we in the West naturally cast in psychological terms. ... The truly novel aspects of Confuciuss doctrine of jen are precisely what we need to see but fail to see because they are novel and hence not easily formulated in the psychologically biased language we have ready to hand. (SAS, 37)
Yan Yuan asked about humaneness. The Master said, “To overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety is the way to become humane. (Analects 12:1 [translated by Brian Hoffert]; cf. SCT, 55)
Concentric circles from self to family to community to country to world, with "internal cultivation" from outside in and "external manifestation" from inside out
With regard to humaneness: wishing to establish oneself, one helps to establish others; wishing to develop oneself, one helps to develop others. The ability to take what is close (i.e. what one wishes for oneself) as an analogy [for what others would also wish for] — this may be called the method of [cultivating] humaneness. (Analects 6:30 [translated by Brian Hoffert]; cf. SCT, 50 [Analects 6:28])
Thus li and jen are two aspects of the same thing. Each points to an aspect of the action of man in his distinctly human role. Li directs our attention to the traditional social pattern of conduct and relationships; jen directs our attention to the person as the one who pursues that pattern of conduct and thus maintains those relationships. Li also refers to the particular act in its status as exemplification of invariant norm; jen refers to the act as expressive of an orientation of the person, as expressing his commitment to act as prescribed by liLi refers to the act as overt and distinguishable pattern of sequential behavior; jen refers to the act as the single, indivisible gesture of an actor, as his, and as particular and individual by reference to the unique individual who performs the act and to the unique context of the particular action. (SAS, 42-3)
Jen requires “doing what is difficult first” [i.e. mastering the skills of action required by li] because man is born with only the raw stuff of humanity: the uncarved, unpolished material, the raw impulses and potential which can be fashioned into a mature person. An organized personal stance has not yet been achieved. Jen develops only so far as li develops; it is the shaping of oneself in li. (SAS, 48)
Confucius in front of an iPad advertisement
Traditionalist or Visionary?
Chapter 4
The Master said, “I transmit but do not create. In believing in and loving the ancients, I dare to compare myself with our old Peng [i.e., a mythological figure who is said to have lived for eight-hundred years].” (SCT, 50 [Analects 7:1])
Given Confucius’ tremendous emphasis on tradition, how can his teachings be regarded as “an imaginative and creative response to social conflict and turmoil” (SAS, 59)?
Map highlighting the state of Lu at the time of Confucius
What Confucius saw were in historical fact the newly emerging similarities in social-political practices, the newly emerging, widespread sharing of values that had once been restricted to a small region which included Lu. He saw the emerging of widely shared literary forms, musical forms, legal forms and political forms. We, who look at the situation in the light of historical evidence, see that rather than a devolution from some great past civilization, an evolution toward a new and universalistic civilization was taking place. ... We must suppose, in short, that Confucius looked around him and found among the powerful states much conflict but also some signs of acceptance of a culture derivative from the culture of the region of Lu. Next we must suppose that he saw — as an ideal — the possibility that all the known peoples might be unified and pacific if all adopted a single, humane set of practices and ideas. Finally, as a man of Lu, he saw that the latter ideal might be achieved by vigorous proselytizing to stimulate and to maximize the tendency, already manifest, to accept the culture of Lu as the framework for the new society.
          Confucius’s vision was in fact, more than any other, the true vision of the actual future of China. It was a vision of the emergence of a grand and powerful unified culture rooted in a unified polity, the whole deriving its inspiration from a unified literature, language and ceremonial forms of the region of Lu and its environs. (
SAS, 60-1)
"Hit the refresh button"
To see Confucius’s teaching in this light is to rescue it from the status of a historical curiosity for Western man and to keep it as a teaching with relevance to all men. We began by considering the problem of culture conflict for one who teaches a “return” to the ancient Way. But now we see that the teaching need not require having a tradition that is both authentically historical, internally coherent and totally adequate. Instead, the burden of the teaching can be what in effect it was as Confucius taught it: to seek inspiration in one’s own traditions in such a way as to reveal a humanizing and harmonizing interpretation for the conflictful present. “He who by reanimating the Old can gain knowledge of the New is indeed fit to be called a teacher.” (2:11) (SAS, 68)
Do you think that Confucius was a traditionalist or a visionary?
Journal of Chinese Philosophy: Howard J. Curzer's "Contemporary Rituals and the Confucian Tradition: A Critical Discussion"
Photo of Howard J. CurzerMy own solution [to the problem of decaying rituals] depends upon the powerful tendency of people and cultures to generate new rituals. I suggest that we harness this tendency. We can minimize the problems inherent in rituals’ lifecycle by maximizing the continuous creation of new rituals. ... Consider the handshake, a ritual described with approval by Fingarette. Whatever it used to mean (perhaps that the shakers hold no weapons and thus pledge peace), the handshake no longer has real meaning or emotional impact. Luckily, alternative greetings such as the high five, the cheek kiss, the hug, the nod, and the (terrorist) fist bump are now emerging. We should not ban handshakes; let those who want to shake, shake. Neither should we demand handshakes. Rather my suggestion is that we encourage promising alternatives by example, by public approval, by inventing new greetings, by presenting various options to our children, etc.
       Rather than trying to preserve or restore old rituals, [Confucius] is actually introducing new ones by assigning new meaning and emotional content to decayed rituals. (As expressing beliefs and passions is an essential feature of rituals, two sets of similar physical motions in similar social contexts that generate different meanings and/or feelings are two different rituals. So technically speaking, attaching new meanings and passions to a routine produces a new ritual rather than a reformed version of the old ritual.) Thus, Confucius is more than flexible; despite his denial, he is innovative. I suggest that Confucius deliberately mis-describes his project as rejuvenating old rituals originating in a mythical era of Sage-Kings in order to confer an aura of legitimacy upon the new rituals that he is creating.
In conclusion, the Confucian tradition does not err by emphasizing the importance or the positive effects of ritual. Rather, it goes wrong insofar as it neglects their negative effects, and insists on only scrupulously guarded, glacially paced change. Instead, we should return to the real (rather than the rhetorical) vision of Confucius. We should do what we can to nurture the natural emergence of promising new rituals, and allow them to compete freely with decayed ones. (
Contemporary Rituals and the Confucian Tradition, 304-5)
Animated classic of a race between the tortoise and the hare
A holy jade vessel
The Holy Vessel
Chapter 5
Tzu-kung (Zigong) asked: “What would you say about me as a person?”
The Master said: “You are a utensil.”
“What sort of utensil?”
“A sacrificial vase of jade.” (5:3)

This passage is usually read in the light of another passage in the Analects (2:11):  “A noble man is not a utensil.” (SAS, 73)

Confucius’s theme, then, is not the “discovery of the individual” or of his ultimate importance. The mere individual is a bauble, malleable and breakable, a utensil transformed into the resplendent and holy as it serves in the ceremony of life. But then this does not deny ultimate dignity to men and to each man; he is not a meaningless ant serving the greater whole. His participation in divinity is as real and clearly visible as is that of the sacrificial vessel, for it is holy. And unlike the way he appears in the Christian view, man is not holy by virtue of his absolute possession, within himself and independently of other men, of a “piece” of the divine, the immortal soul. Nor is the “flowering” of the individual the central theme; instead it is the flowering of humanity in the ceremonial acts of men. ...
Confucian "fiduciary community"
Preparation and training are essential, but it is the ceremony that is central, and all the elements and relationships and actions in it are sacred though each has its special characteristics. (SAS, 78)
To what extent is Confucius' attempt to establish a unified sense of "propriety" (i.e. li) relevant to our own times? Would such a unified "ritual order" conflict with contemporary notions of "pluralism"?
Confucius with a "pride" flag
If Confucius was living in the United States today, do you think he would impose the set of social values and customs found in the Analects or would he work toward developing a new vision in response to the needs of the contemporary period?
Cartoon of Confucius