Virtue and Poverty
- To: GPG
Cc: Synoptic, WSW
On: Virtue and Poverty
Is poverty virtuous? Do we gain virtue by divesting ourselves of all
wealth, and giving it to the poor? And do the poor, by receiving it,
become less virtuous by becoming richer? In giving alms, are we not
simply dumping our diseases on others, who will eventually die of
them, and by "die," I mean, die eternally?
Such are the paradoxes inherent in the poverty ethic, Buddhist as well
as Christian (and the ethics of asceticism in Christianity seem to
have a lot of points of contact with Indian precedents). The Buddhists
maintain themselves by alms, but suppose there were no less holy and
thus richer persons around to *give* the alms? Then the holy persons
would not be supported in their pure desireless state, and would
promptly perish, or rather, socially speaking, would never have come
into existence. The parasite vine needs a tree. The virtuous society
lives off the vice society.
There is an interesting Confucian take on one aspect of this question.
In general, wealth and official position are openly sought in
Confucian tradition; no nonsense about it. But with limitations which,
and the basis of which, are interesting.
LY 6:4 (c0460, an early invented saying of Confucius) discusses the
propriety of padding one's official expense account. The practice is
disapproved, and the final comment of the fictive "Confucius" is: "I
have heard that the gentleman relieves the needy, but does not enrich
In the following saying, which is paired with it in the structure of
the text, and therefore needs to be read and pondered together with
it, we have:
LY 6:5 (c0460, ditto). Here, an officer of means declines his official
salary, presumably in obedience to the rule just stated, namely, one
should not further enrich the already rich. Is he commended for this
by Confucius? Surprise: he is not.
(The sayings of Confucius in the early portions of the record of his
successor school are continually arrange so as to surprise our
expectations; a device also detectable in the invented sayings of
Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew).
Instead, the other half of the rule is stated against him. Confucius"
is made to say to him, "Was there no way you could give it to the
neighboring households or the county association (syang0dang)?" In
other words, excess wealth is not shunned, it is turned to good
[For the probable structure of the "county association," the local
mutual-help structure, see Thomas Gallant, Risk and Survival in
I say "ethically" because no bureaucratic impropriety seems to be
involved. In both these constructed sayings, bureaucratic propriety is
being deduced from elementary principles of right and wrong, and it is
those principles which govern conduct beyond the limits reached by
bureaucratic propriety as such.
The sense of right and wrong is here assumed to be innate, and needs
only cultivation by its possessor to become strong and active, and
serve as a sufficient guide to (inter alia) the complexities of
official life. And how do we learn ethics in the first place? From
God? There is no God in Confucianism. Instead, from oneself. Here is
how Confucius himself put it, in a remark which his immediate
disciples felt was so basic that they put it in the climactic last
position in the small group of sayings they chose to remember, and
wrote down after his death:
LY 4:17 (0479, the year of Confucius's death and thus of the
compilation of this memorial collection): The Master said, When he
sees a worthy man, let him think how he might come up to him; when he
sees an unworthy man, let him examine within himself.
One instructs oneself by watching, and acting on, one's own
instinctive inner responses to the behavior of others. Life will teach
you life. This is put a little less cryptically by a later head of the
Confucian school, namely Dzvngdz (who died in 0436); this is from the
chapter which he added to the growing canon of Confucius
pronouncements, and then gave to his disciples (including his sons) to
memorize and learn from:
LY 7:22 (c0450). The Master said, When I am walking in a group of
three people, there will surely be a teacher for me among them. I pick
out the good parts and follow them; the bad parts, and change them.
This in turn is developed in a saying added to the Analects by
Dzvngdz's son, who succeeded him as the head of the Confucian school
of Lu, but that is probably enough. It will be seen that the Chinese
elite tradition, or this strand of it, did not need to disentangle its
ethics from an earlier sacrificial tradition; there had never been
such a tangle.
The lumen naturalis. Which shines in each of us, but more clearly if
it is cultivated by attention and obedience.
In early Christianity, is selling what you have and giving it to the
poor ethically good? Or is it only a way to divest yourself of
encumbrances to entering Heaven? I should think, the latter, though
Jesus went so far in the direction of eliminating the specific Israel
Temple cult from his received calendar of virtue as to bring his
ethical precepts, selfish though they were in intent (getting into
Heaven), much nearer to the merely human. From which, many in later
times have taken the additional step.
The psychology of divestment is interesting in itself; it shows (to my
mind) the paradoxical nature of the idea of divestment. In the
Virtutes Iohannis, we have the story of rich men persuaded by Iohannis
to sell all they have and give it to the poor. They do this. So far so
good. Then they see their former servants, well dressed and abundantly
possessed, and they envy them. Iohannis offers to return all they
recently gave up, to enjoy during life, and then to die forever. The
sermon which follows next, in this story, is interesting; it mimics
several of the Chinese political philosophers of the late 04c and
early 03c in dwelling in the evenhandedness of nature:
"We possess in common the riches of Heaven: the brightness of the sun
is equal for rich and poor; likewise the moon and the stars, the
softness of the air and the drops of rain . . ."
The sermon goes on to say that what is sinful is not possessions, but
*more possessions than we need.*
"But wretched and unhappy is the man who would have something more
than he requires, for of this come heats of fevers, rigors of cold,
divers pains in all the members of the body, and he can be neither fed
with food your sated with drink, so that covetousness may learn that
money will not profit it, which being laid up brings to the keepers
thereof anxiety by day and night, and does not permit them even for an
hour to be quiet and secure."
This is so Chinese it hurts. Was it not Laudz (whose birthday I am
relieved to see has been wrongly reported in the official press; the
truth will be published from a different quarter, and that right
presently) who taught, over and over, the virtue of knowing when you
have enough? Of quitting while you are ahead? Of the power, yes, the
power, of not having more than you need? Of the paradoxical abundance
of the empty?
Also interesting, in terms of the regularities in the history of
thought, is the fundamentally medical argument of Iohannis. The danger
of excess is there to see in the consulting room, but who could
extrapolate ethically from that experience? Can't say as a general
rule, but sooner or later it could happen. Apparently, it did happen.
And more than once, since the same conjunction occurs in the case of
Laudz, who came to mental fruition, not when certain minor Asian
governments think he did, but in a period when medical knowledge was
already beginning to be put on a systematic basis, and to be mapped
onto new configurations like the binary world model implicit in the
terms Yin and Yang. Among other systems. (And indeed, all the systems
were called on to a certain extent, in the pseudo-scientific
intellectual frenzy of the Chinese late 04c).
Iohannis (our familiar John of Zebedee) is still hung up on the idea
of living forever, but this is not a necessary association; the goal
can simply be to avoid, by inconspicuousness, by mere basic
sufficiency, the dangers that come with success too openly displayed,
and so "live out your allotted years."
As to the span of "allotted years," not everybody has the same one.
Again, a medical observation: some kids are sickly, some are robust,
and so on. Some people are prone to ailments, others keep their health
pretty well. The latter are made of more durable material, and their
actuarial probabilities are a little brighter, than the other kids.
Fact of observable nature, confirmable, within the usual statistical
range (and Mencius is there to tell us how not to carelessly step
outside that range) by anyone willing to follow out enough life
Here, anyway, is one instance of the non-overlap of certain traditions
which nevertheless have some aspects and insights, and even
intellectual context, in common.
They do not reduce to One, but each, in the points where it differs
from the other, has (as I suspect) the chance of illuminating the other.
Not maybe in the seminaries, where (as I infer from contact with the
end product) all knowledge of anything extra-Christian is rigidly
excluded, but maybe somewhere.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
There was no personal income tax back then. The owner of the land was taxed on the harvest, not the workers on the land. The more you tax the owner, the less is left for wages. This was far from the only dynamic in play in the poverty of peasants, but that's the way it worked.
--- On Fri, 4/9/10, Jack Kilmon <jkilmon@...> wrote:
I have to admit that by modern example killing the geese that lay the golden
eggs seems just as stupid now as it was then.
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