Lecture on Balance: Egyptian Wisdom & Confucius
In studying balance as an Ethical concept, we will look at Ma’at in the wisdom of ancient Egypt, the doctrine of the middle way in the teachings of the Buddha of India and Aristotle of ancient Greece, and then finish with the Analects of Confucius, one of the great ancient world Ethics texts and a masterwork on the balance of concern for the self and others.
Ma’at and the Wisdom of Ancient Egypt
The idea of balance was identified with the Goddess Ma’at in the early periods of Egyptian history, but just like the sun became the abstract principle of life and the universe Ma’at became the abstract conception of the balance of opposites.
In the Egyptian wisdom quotes, one of my favorite examples of early city-state texts, we can see that the Egyptians were concerned not only with the balance of good and evil that exist in particular desirable things but also in the ethical virtue of the balance of concern for oneself and for others. As many tribes gathered into the earliest city-states and empires, people saw more and more of human behavior and became concerned with balancing excess and lack. People saw that some had much to eat, much money, much power, and others had none. They saw that excess can hurt the individual and society as much as deficiency, power and riches as much as oppression and poverty. In Egypt and many societies that followed, including India, Greece and China, we can see a concern with balance and avoiding both excess and deficiency being praised as wise and ethical.
In the Egyptian texts (as well as Confucius) we can see a heart centered theory of the human being that ties into this concept of balance and wisdom. The heart was thought to be the center of the human being, as ancient people soon learned that the heart is the center of the vessels that branch throughout the body and which are crucial to its health and nourishment. The Egyptians thought that if one was unkind to others it would choke the breath and blood from the heart and hurt one’s physical as well as mental health (remember that in ancient cosmology, physics was identical with psychology and spirituality). Consider that we still wear the wedding ring on the finger next to the pinky, which has a large vein in it and was thought to control love and lust by the ancient Egyptians (the Greeks and Romans picked up much medicine and physiology from the Egyptians, and we keep this custom today). The ancient Israelites, in contrast, had their wives wear a ring on the index finger to keep her from casting spells while pointing.
In the Egyptian wisdom literature, the “heart-guided-individual” (very similar to the language and theories of Confucius) put wisdom over desire, mind over the body, and thus had self-control and the full powers and potential of the human individual. This was seen as putting oneself in-line with the cosmos, as Being, the one eternal way, is the source and guide of the many individual mortal beings.
Read the ancient Egyptian wisdom quotes with this in mind (particularly p. 7, 10, 17, 20, 21, 22, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 44, and 46).
The Buddha and The Middle Way
The Buddha (550 BCE), the founder of one of the largest systems of thought in history, taught moderation between extremes as a fundamental doctrine. Known as “The Middle Way” in both Buddhism and Confucianism, this teaching is quite similar to the ancient Egyptian conception of Ma’at. According to the story of the Buddha’s life he tried extreme practices in the jungle to rid himself of attachment and desire and gain unity of mind and enlightenment as many were doing in his time and still do today, but he found that extreme self denial brought self hatred.
Moderation became a core part of the Buddha’s later enlightenment and teaching. Rather than try to rid the self of selfhood or desire, release is found in the moderation between seeking and denying, neither running toward nor away from the self or desirable things. Thus, Buddhist conceptions of ethics often center of moderation between extremes, neither going completely without desirable things nor completely indulging in them.
Aristotle and The Doctrine of The Mean
Aristotle (350 BCE) argues for a very similar concept of moderation in his texts on ethics and health. He associates each virtue with two vices, one more extreme than virtue and the other too deficient. Thus, one should not be afraid of money or family or war but neither should one be a glutton for these things either. He argues that too much drinking and athletics can destroy the body, but no drinking or athletics can make the body and mind weak and deficient.
Confucius and the Golden Rule
Confucius (550 BCE – 480 BCE) was one of the great ethical geniuses of the ancient world. It is worth noting that in Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism we find Jesus, Buddha and Confucius telling us to press ourselves to identify with others, to see things through their eyes and treat them as we wish to be treated. All three were identified with the central gods of the heavens in each tradition. No matter how religious or non-religious one is, this shows us that humans consider love and wisdom to be quite divine and the supreme goal of individual life and activity.
The Golden Rule:
Jesus and Confucius both say almost the same “Golden Rule”: treat others the way one wants to be treated. Sometimes scholars say that Confucius rather says the negative “Silver Rule”: DON’T treat others the way one DOESN’T want to be treated. It is easy to see that these are two sides of the same rule, quite the same but slightly different. We will see almost the same dual sided rule shared between Bentham and Mill next week as we study consequentialism/utilitarianism. Bentham argued that one should act in a way to bring about the maximum happiness, and Mill argued (taking his ethics from Bentham) that one should act in a way to bring about the minimum pain. Consider that communism often idealizes the positive side of each rule (provides structure but little room for choice) and capitalism often idealizes the negative side of each rule (room for choice but provides little structure). Many scholars have noted that American law is quite influenced by Mill, and follows his idea of erring on the side of doing little harm rather than Bentham. Consider that communist countries often put their former rulers on trial for crimes against the people when things go wrong (except for the top cult-figures), while capitalist countries rarely send their rulers to jail even when crimes could be punishable in court (there are severe problems with both methods, of course).
Heart over Ritual, Intention over Action:
Confucius and Confucianism are often identified with ritual and tradition, such as the father ruling over the household. In many places in the Analects, however, Confucius is quite clear that although ritual and tradition are essential for the cultivation of the individual and the maintenance of society, they are secondary to love and having the right intentions. This can be seen as an extension of ancient cosmology placing mind over body. In courts of law today, and individual is only guilty if they intentionally performed an action. Confucius tells us that action and tradition without the right intention and emotion are the worst things imaginable. One would think that if the two elements of an act are the right intention and right action, having the right action would be half good, but this is wrong according to Confucius. He even argues that if a ruler is corrupt, one should overthrow the state and put a proper ruler in place. Strangely, the Analects became the core text of the Confucian state in China which was quite conservative of traditional structures.
Nothing is Perfect, but Everything is Good:
Another beautiful idea that is central to Confucius’ teachings is “Perfection is nowhere, but good is always at hand”. Confucius says several times that he is not perfect, and that he has never met a perfect person (or even, in some passages, an excellent person), but he tells us that we all share the same virtues and vices and we can learn to be good by listening to the lowest of people (just like the first passage of the Egyptian wisdom , which tells us that “Wisdom can be found even among the maidens at the grindstone”). He even says that Yao and Shun, the two legendary emperors and ancestors of China, could not obtain perfection, so how could we? The best quote on this is Analects 7.22:
“Put me in the company of any two people at random – they will invariably have something to teach me…I can take their qualities as a model and their vices as a warning.”
Examine Oneself First:
The last ethical point to consider while reading through the Analects is Confucius’ emphasis on modesty and examining the self for fault before one finds fault with others. This certainly fits snuggly with the quote just mentioned. Confucius praises individuals who question themselves rather than others and who display modesty rather than pride. Confucius displays these virtues with regards to himself many times in the Analects. Consider 1.16, “Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs”. Consider 4.17, “When you see a worthy man, seek to emulate him; when you see an unworthy man, examine yourself”.
In reading the Analects, pay particular attention to the following passages in light of the above:
4.6, 4.7, 4.10, 4.11, 4.14, 4.17,
5.5, 5.12, 5.13, 5.18, 5.27,
6.15, 6.17, 6.18, 6.20, 6.29,
9.8, 9.17, 9.26,
15.21, 15.23, 15.24, 15.36, 15.39