Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Duke of Chou

In Norton's translation of the Analects, we had a rather inexplicable reference to the Duke of Chou.  Mrs. Quinet explained that he was viewed as a model of courtesy and wisdom, and Confucius wanted to make sure that he was constantly measuring himself against the Duke.  I looked him up in some more depth, and I think the reasons for his fame are somewhat revealing.

The story goes that when King Wu died, his heir, King Cheng, was very young, so the Duke of Chou seized power as regent.  This act was viewed as a sort of coup d'état by the other powerful people of China, so they started an uprising against him.  The Duke promptly crushed the uprising, and then proceeded to actually give up the reigns to the true King when he came of age.  There are some other elements of the story, recounted in detail here and here, but the main point on which he was revered was establishing the legitimacy (the Mandate of Heaven) of the Zhou dynasty, as the Duke had supposedly helped King Wu overthrow the Shang dynasty.  The fact that he had the clear ability to keep power, but recognized the recently-enthroned Zhou kings as the rightful holders of sovereignty, established them as holding the Mandate of Heaven, and thus kept the Zhou dynasty from dissolving in its infancy.  The Duke's actions seem to have been targeted at ensuring the stability of the kingdom: he took the regency to keep China under competent leadership, but gave it up when that would avoid a conflict.

This sort of political philosophy would definitely have appealed to Confucius and his successors.  The decay of the Zhou dynasty and the Warring States Period emphasized the need for stability and a single legitimate government, and the need for individual sacrifice and humbleness to make it so.  It makes a lot of sense that Confucius would view the Duke of Chou as both wise and practical.

On the other hand, there is a sharp contrast with the politics of Virgil.  Virgil, if we take his work to be propaganda for Augustus Caesar, was all in favor of one man taking power and making himself by right of conquest the legitimate state.  This attitude, as Mr. Williams described, led to a lot of conflict in Rome, as a series of generals degraded the legitimacy of the state by declaring themselves its rightful heads again and again.  Rome, it seems, had quite a bit to learn from the Duke of Chou.

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