The First Question
- To: Synoptic
On: The First Question
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?
THE FIRST QUESTION
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
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.
THE CASE OF THE JUNG YUNG
So what would be a better treatment of the Jung Yung, the example with which
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