Paul Andersen: Confucius in town
Confucius visits Aspen regularly, holding court at The Aspen Institute during the “Great Ideas” seminars.
The sage from 500 B.C. dusts off the cobwebs of history and reveals ideas that stand like mountains.
Confucius isn’t alone. He rooms at the Meadows with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Niccolo Machiavelli, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Dr. Martin Luther King and a host of others. Together they foster what the Institute calls “The Great Conversation.”
The Great Conversation inspired 15 of us to huddle around a seminar table for five days last week with these luminaries. The Great Ideas seminar that brought us together ” “The Good Life, The Good Society” ” strove to lure us from our deep, dark caves.
Plato suggested 2,500 years ago that most men live in caves, seeing only shadows and hearing only echoes, but thinking we see and hear it all. His allegory described man’s ascent into the light and equated that emergence with an awakening through the pursuit of theoretical wisdom ” i.e. philosophy.
Plato said that only by climbing out of our various and innumerable caves can we gain a clear view of the beautiful, the just, and the good. Like Socrates, his teacher, Plato regarded philosophy as the highest purpose of man. Without it, he said, we live like cattle, content to chew the same old cud.
Is man really free? Jean Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher from the 18th century, put it this way: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau referred to the constraints of society, under whose conventions we are bound by numerous tethers.
By trying out new lenses through which to view ourselves and the world, Rousseau’s chains were rattled and Plato’s cave was opened to a bright, harsh light. The seminar became the vehicle for our escape, that is, if we dared to try.
Self-doubts nagged us, asking whether our weeklong exercise wasn’t just a way of patting ourselves on the back, of elevating ourselves within the lofty confines of the seminar room with these esteemed teachers. Could we really break the chains and escape the cave, even for a week?
“Eventually, we’re going to get the to point where we say, ‘So what?,'” shrugged one participant. Avoiding a sense of futility, and accepting instead the gravity of personal choice was a struggle.
But after peering through the lens of philosophy, can we ever be the same? Can we shrink back into our caves after an intense examination of war and peace, greed and generosity, equality and liberty, hatred and brotherhood, wisdom and ignorance, the individual and the state, life and death?
Philosophy demands that no matter how daunting the task, we continue our pursuit, utilize our innate reason, and engage the intellect to grasp the quandaries of the human dilemma. Confucius laid out in tidbits of wisdom a means of assessing our progress.
Confucius said: “The gentleman understands what is right; the inferior man understands what is profitable … the gentleman cherishes virtue; the inferior man cherishes possessions … the gentleman makes demands on himself; the inferior man makes demands on others … the gentleman reaches upward; the inferior man reaches downward.”
Philosophy is not easy or passive; it requires engagement and an active mind. Sometimes we wrestled with our visiting philosophers and were pinned to the mat by their meanings. Other times, their lessons were like a dance, a rapturous tango to the symphony of introspection and insight.
Our moderator, a true sage, summed it up this way: “We make value choices every day, and they make up a life.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.