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Virtue and Poverty

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    To: GPG Cc: Synoptic, WSW On: Virtue and Poverty From: Bruce Is poverty virtuous? Do we gain virtue by divesting ourselves of all wealth, and giving it to the
    Message 1 of 35 , Apr 3, 2010
      To: GPG
      Cc: Synoptic, WSW
      On: Virtue and Poverty
      From: Bruce

      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
      the wealthy."

      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
      account ethically.

      [For the probable structure of the "county association," the local
      mutual-help structure, see Thomas Gallant, Risk and Survival in
      Ancient Greece].

      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
    • Chuck Jones
      Jack, 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,
      Message 35 of 35 , Apr 10, 2010

        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.


        [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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