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The First Question

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    To: Synoptic Cc: WSW On: The First Question From: Bruce In a recent note in response to Ron Price, I had mentioned what I think must be the first question we
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 9, 2009
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      To: Synoptic
      Cc: WSW
      On: The First Question
      From: Bruce

      In a recent note in response to Ron Price, I had mentioned what I think must
      be the first question we ask about any text in which we are interested. Why
      is this so?


      Let me put the question this way. There is a Chinese text called the Jung
      Yung, of modest length and much beloved by what we call the
      Neo-Confucianists, who come into being a thousand years after the end of the
      classical period. The text is attributed to the grandson of Confucius, which
      would put it in the 05th century. Some have pointed out that the Jung Yung
      contains clear references to the institutions of the Chin unified empire,
      which was not established until 0221, near the end of the 03rd century.

      Someone will then say, Therefore this cannot be an 05c text; it must be a
      Chin Imperial text from after 0221. And others will applaud this judgement,
      as learned and scrupulous.

      Why are they wrong to do so?


      Because that conclusion contains the unstated premise that the text is
      integral, all of a piece, and that therefore evidence from any part of it
      bears with full force on all other parts of it. Only on that premise does it
      follow that the whole of the Jung Yung is a Chin (post-0221) text, and not a
      classical (pre-0221) text at all.

      But the premise is foolish, given the probabilities for ancient texts in
      general. And what are those? Here are some examples at random:


      1. A given book of the Mahabharata may be as much as three-fourths addenda,
      in which the original war tale is augmented by later ritualist objections to
      war, or revisionist ritualist objections to sacrifice (one of them proposes
      to substitute vegetable for animal offerings), and these in turn further
      extended by separate treatises arguing *against* that substitution, not as
      it happens on the merits of the matter, but by impugning the wisdom of the
      previous speaker (who happens to be a mongoose). And if we put our pencil
      down in the middle of the celebrated Bhagavad Gita, the proportion of new
      rather than old material is not 75%, it is 100%.

      2. The parts of the Analects of Confucius which consistently show linguistic
      markers for the period of Confucius (very early 05c) amounts to less than 1
      of the 20 books of the Analects, or in terms of numbers of sayings, about 3%
      of the whole. It is thus risky to pick up a ritual saying of "Confucius" and
      conclude that Confucius was a ritualist. It is more cogent to note that the
      chapters directly after the one containing the probably genuine sayings have
      never heard of the concept, or even the word, "ritual" (li) at all. The
      non-integral nature of the book must be first determined and accepted,
      before any statement drawn *from* the book can be used as a description of
      the Historical Confucius. Most of them instead are descriptions of the
      evolved persona of "Confucius," the enabling myth of what later, thanks to
      the efficacy of the myth, evolved into Imperial Confucianism.

      3. Emil Wendling sought to identify the early lays within the Iliad. His
      core Iliad, by his own count, amounts to about a quarter of the present
      work. If that or something like it is anywhere near right, statements about
      the poetic merit or the ideology of "Homer" based on passages drawn at
      random from the Iliad are likelier than not to be untrue of the first author
      of the text. They may of course be true of the later author or authors of
      the text, but in this case, it being now known that the text is not a single
      composition by one man, we are going to have to decide which of them we are
      going to mean by "Homer."

      4. Following out the implications of the obviously interpolated parts of
      Mark, I reach the conclusion that our present canonical Mark consists of a
      much overlaid original narrative. That original narrative looks like being
      about half the size of our present Mark. If so, then statements about Jesus
      drawn from Mark have only a 50% chance of being based on the earliest
      available material.

      5. The Arthashastra contains some sayings attributed to the early Maurya
      statesman Kautilya, and a great deal else. Hartmut Scharfe sought to show
      that the entire work is late, not early, within the Maurya period. He argued
      at length, not only that there are Pali-isms (linguistically later than the
      Sanskrit in which the text is ostensibly written) in the Arthashastra, but
      that they occur in every chapter of the work. This is seemingly conclusive.
      What Scharfe did not notice was that the portions of the text which purport
      to record judgements and advices of Kautilya, along with those of his Vedic
      predecessors, are entirely free of those Pali-isms. Then the huge bulk of
      the Arthashastra is indeed an expansion of the time of Asoka or even later,
      a reflection of a great commercial empire, but the Kautilya part is early,
      and may reflect the historical position of Kautilya. Why is this likely?
      Because the India implied by Kautilya's remarks is itself much simpler, and
      therefore much earlier, than that implied by the remainder of the work. It
      gives, in fact, a rather good match with early Mauryan India as described by
      Megasthenes, a Greek visitor to that court. Then the odds that any random
      passage of the Arthashastra reflects the time of Kautilya are very low. If
      we stick to the parts which directly ascribe judgements and advices to him,
      they are on the contrary very high. We can increase our chance of relevance
      to Kautilya and to early Maurya by being guided by the previously
      established growth pattern in the text.

      None of these texts proves on examination to be integral. Accordingly, a
      statement based indiscriminately on a random passage from any of them has a
      high probability of being wrong about the person or tradition with whom the
      work is conventionally associated.


      That is why any judgement based on sampling an unexamined text is
      injudicious and likely to be wrong. The first task in studying any text must
      thus be to determine whether the text is in fact one thing or many, a
      homogeneous whole or an organic growth or a diverse assemblage. If either of
      the latter two, the boundaries of the various segments or strata must be
      determined. Only then can the evidence *in* the text be validly converted to
      information *about* the text, and thence into information about the world
      from which the text comes, and to which it witnesses. To bypass this first
      step is to remain in the methodological playpen.


      So what would be a better treatment of the Jung Yung, the example with which
      we started?

      The observation about Chin institutions of the late 03c (if carefully
      checked) is valid as part of the acquaintance process. So is the observation
      that other parts of the text seem to be echoed in writings of the Mencians
      that can for other reasons be assigned to the early 03c. To proceed no
      further in this simplified example, there are then two positive indications
      of date in the text, both based on external evidence, and both pointing in
      different directions. We may then notice that the post-0221 indications in
      the work occur in the higher numbered sections, whereas the passages that
      seem to be echoed in earlier texts occur in the lower numbered sections.
      Following up on this hint (or simply scrutinizing the whole text, as
      properly we should, even without hints to guide us), we will sooner or later
      discover that there seem to be ending points within the text, following
      which the ideology or address of the succeeding portion has a detectably
      different character. In the end, we find one scenario which can explain
      these results: the Jung Yung is accretional, and grew in discoverable
      stages, from a rather modest tract in the early 03c to a very extended, if
      by then also heterogeneous, treatise in the late 03c.


      This in turn tells us much about the conditions under which the work was
      begun and carried on. We learn about the text, and the text itself teaches
      us about things outside the text.

      The Jung Yung was not, in the first place, since chronologically it cannot
      have been, a work of Dz-sz, the grandson of Confucius. But it is worth
      knowing that a splinter movement of the 03c found it useful to associate it
      with him. We then put the Jung Yung in the large pile of previously studied
      texts which represent late attributions to persons regarded as early within
      a movement - the disciples or descendants of Confucius, the disciples of
      Jesus, you name it. The temptation is constant, and examples of yielding to
      it occur in all the major ancient literatures.

      We then remember that a text almost exactly contemporary with the early Jung
      Yung is a very short independent anecdote found in the Gwodyen 1 tomb and
      thus dating from c0288, which records an interview of Dz-sz with Mu-gung,
      the Prince of Lu. (Dz-sz argues for remonstrance as the highest loyalty, a
      very interesting position). Here is further evidence for the viability of
      the Dz-sz brand in public discourse at the beginning of the 03c. Things are
      coming together for us.

      On the other hand, who would dare to continue to extend a Confucian text in
      the Chin dynasty, when Confucianism and its classical books were banned?
      Hard question. But we then recall (and if we have no recall, we can go word
      by word through Ma Fei-bai's massive compilation of facts about Chin and the
      personages known to have been associated with Chin) that besides the
      populace, among whom it was punishable (by hard labor, not as the romantic
      story has it by live burial) to possess Confucian writings, there were the
      favored scholars of Chin, in fact the Chin Academy, who had considerable
      freedom to read, to write, and to recommend.

      It is their pronouncements, in all human likelihood, their advice from a
      privileged position near the throne, which gives so markedly Confucian a
      tone to the First Emperor's public pronouncements, engraved on stone and set
      up at several mountains at the edges of his unified domain. So now we not
      only understand the Jung Yung, we also understand those monumental
      inscriptions. We are making progress.

      At both ends.


      I submit, in general, that the only way to make progress, in any text-based
      matter, is to begin with an assay of the text, in order to determine its
      degree of homogeneity or diversity, and then to make use of the contents of
      the text *only in light* of that previous determination. If we do, other
      conditions being favorable, we can hope to put the information in the text
      into the context of information otherwise and elsewhere derived, and to
      emerge, in the fullness of time, with a coherent and plausible account of
      the history of that period.

      If we don't, we get into an endless loop of conflicting statements drawn
      from the texts, all of which may indeed be true, but none of which can be
      matched with any of the others, pending a better understanding of exactly
      where, in a possibly composite or accretional text, they are coming from.


      Text study is hard. Fortunately, we live in an enlightened and liberal age,
      and there is no reason on earth why anyone needs to devote themselves to
      text study. It is purely voluntary. But those who do so choose incur thereby
      an obligation to be honest with the texts in question. The only excuse for
      studying texts is to find out what they say, and the only reputable way of
      studying them is one which will permit them to in fact *say* what they say,
      even if this involves admitting that, in some cases, they speak with more
      than one voice, and bear witness to more than one aspect of life outside the


      E Bruce Brooks
      Warring States Project
      University of Massachusetts at Amherst
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