The Confucian Doctrine

Friday, October 7, 2005 10:28 AM

Ezra Pound had many obsessions and enthusiasms--literary, philosophical and otherwise. Among which, offhand, Remy de Gourmont, Cavalcanti, Jules Laforgue, Thomas Jefferson, James Joyce, the Troubadours of Provence, T.S. Eliot and Confucius come to mind.

I do not claim to know anything about Confucius, but I am fond of quoting what Pound said about him, especially the following: "The principle of good is enunciated by Confucius; it consists in establishing order within oneself. This order or harmony spreads by a sort of contagion without specific effort. The principle of evil consists in messing in other peoples' affairs."

This is 70% common sense, 30% mysticism, and 100% on the money as it relates to a country's foreign affairs. The mystical part is the suggestion that harmony spreads automatically, perforce, and without effort. I always had the feeling that such an idea was more Poundian poetic license than a direct thought from Confucius.

But then I came across Maurice Collis' 1946 book Foreign Mud concerning the opium wars between Britain and China in the 19th century. Before he gets to the outbreak of hostilities, Collis takes his time to set the stage and the background. He talks about the the Chinese imperial system going back three millennia and about the corruption caused by English trading practices to that system circa 1830.

“Many old stories of official rectitude were current. For instance, such was the example of probity set by Lu Kung in the first century A.D....that even children were unusually humane to each other, a Confucian way of pointing out the belief that if a ruler was of good character his influence permeated society to the very bottom. This belief was even carried further, for it had been held from the beginning of history that the quality of rulers was reflected in the crops....

“Opinion ascribed, and had always ascribed, a transcendental power to goodness in high places, and, conversely, attributed such calamities as flood, famines and rebellions to lack of virtue in the Emperor and his subordinates. The notorious corruption of the civil service in the nineteenth century caused therefore misgiving, not only because of its every day results in practice, but because it was likely to be attended by natural calamities, [my emphasis] the sure warning of Heaven that the Confucian standards were not being maintained.”

Who is to say, then, that there is not some metaphysical nexus and message to be derived from hurricanes Katrina and Rita...from the flooding and destruction of New Orleans as it relates to the corrupt, malefic and foolish state of affairs in Washington, D.C., the capital of the lone surviving "Superpower", as currently misgoverned by its befuddled president?

Maybe Ezra Pound and Confucius were right all along. The fact that the authorities in Washington felt compelled in 1945 to incarcerate Pound for over a decade in St. Elizabeth’s--a hospital for the mentally disturbed located not far from Capitol Hill and the White House--is most revealing and ironic. Pound was as inconvenient to the powers-that-be in the 20th century as Confucius would have been, had he been around to commentate.

Today, even without the metaphysical connection, we have the real one: the fact that money was diverted to prosecute the war in Iraq instead of being used to rebuild the dikes and levees around New Orleans. Without order within, no order can be brought to the outside. Do not mess in other peoples' affairs, before taking care of your own.