In studying balance as an ethical concept, we will look at the wisdom of ancient Egypt, the teachings of the Buddha and Aristotle, and then finish with the Analects of Confucius, one of the great ancient world texts and a masterwork on the balance of self and others.
Maat & the Wisdom of Ancient Egypt
Balance, justice and truth were identified with the Goddess Maat in early Egyptian history. In later periods, the term ‘maat’ was also used to refer to the abstract ideas of balance and truth as well as the goddess.
In the Egyptian wisdom quotes, my favorite gathering of early city-state texts, we can see that the Egyptians were concerned not only with balance as good for the individual but also in the ethical virtue of the balance of concern for oneself and for others. As many tribes gathered into the earliest city-states, and then city-states were gathered into empires, people saw more and more of human behavior and became concerned with balancing excess and lack. People saw that some had much to eat, much money, much power, and others had none. They saw that excess can hurt the individual and society as much as deficiency, power and riches as much as oppression and poverty. In Egypt and many societies that followed, including India, Greece and China, we can see a concern with balance and avoiding both excess and lack being praised as wise and ethical.
In the Egyptian texts, as well as the Analects of Confucius, we find a heart centered theory of the human being that ties into this concept of balance and wisdom. The heart was thought to be the center of the human being, as ancient people soon learned that the heart is the center of the vessels that branch throughout the body and which are crucial to its health and nourishment. The Egyptians thought that if one was unkind to others it would choke the breath and blood from the heart and hurt one’s physical as well as mental health. The Egyptians, like Aristotle, believed that the heart was the center of feeling, branching out through the human body through arteries and veins. This is likely because nerves were too small to see, and so the circulation system was presumed to carry everything, including food, air and sensation, through the body. The Egyptians were the foremost doctors of the ancient world and were revered by the Romans in the beginning ages of Roman empire, and only in the empire’s later years did the Romans begin turning to Greek doctors, who had learned much from the Egyptians and added to it.
Consider that we still practice the Egyptian custom of wearing the wedding ring, originally worn only by women, on the ring finger (which is how it got its name) through the Roman Catholic tradition. There is a large artery running through this finger, which the Egyptians found by doing anatomy, and because it was thought to be associated with lust a man puts a wedding ring on his wife’s finger to serve as a sort of lust collar. We do not practice the Israelite tradition of wearing the wedding ring on the index finger, which a man would put on his wife’s finger to prevent her from casting curses on him.
In early Egyptian writings, a good person was called the “king guided individual”, but in later writings this was replaced with the “heart-guided-individual”, who puts wisdom over desire, mind over the body, and thus has self-control and full potential. This was seen as putting oneself in-line with the cosmos, as Being, the one eternal whole, is the source and guide of the many individual mortal beings. Egyptologists argue that the move from “king guided” to “heart guided” shows the increasing need for self-regulation, self-control and self-consciousness in an increasingly complex society.
Let us turn now to the proverbs themselves, considering the wisdom of specific passages.
Let not your heart be puffed up because of what you know, nor boast that you are wise. Consult with the ignorant as well as with the wise, for there is no limit to where wisdom can be found. Good speech lies hidden like a precious stone, yet wisdom is found amongst the maidens at the grindstone.
This passage of Phah-hotep (Vizier to the Pharaoh, 2500 BCE) is similar to some we will read in Confucius of ancient China and it is also similar to Socrates of ancient Greece, showing great social wisdom four and a half thousand years ago. We should learn from everyone, and remember that no one is perfect and no one knows everything when we are tempted to put ourselves above others. This questions not only human knowledge, but social inequality. It does not call for getting rid of social divisions (indeed, the last verse is somewhat sexist) but it does ask us to look beyond inequality and identify with others.
In this verse, we see Marikare, a local king offering advice to the crown prince around 1500 BCE, questioning the value of traditional sacrifice. In India, Greece and China, we will see similar thoughts questioning the value of traditional practice over being virtuous. If the wealthy make sacrifices, but rule with cruelty, those who dare to question will ask if performing sacrifices truly gains one merit. Jesus chasing the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the temple is a similar move.
Rage destroys itself. It damages its own affairs.
Ani (a scribe of the 18th dynasty, 1550-1300 BCE)
Amen-em-opet, a local king who ruled around 1800 BCE, is suggesting that we do the opposite of what we typically think to do to those we consider evil. Rather than punish bad with bad, like fighting fire with fire, we can show them the compassion and consideration they lack even if they do not deserve it. This is similar to Jesus saying, “Turn the other cheek”.
Never permit yourself to rob a poor man. Do not oppress the down-trodden, nor thrust aside the elderly, denying them speech.
Amen-em-opet shows not only concern with social justice, but giving freedom of speech to the disempowered.
The Eloquent Peasant or The Complaint of the Peasant is a story about a peasant who has been robbed by a local official and who gives a series of nine arguments to the local magistrate appealing for justice which shows again that the ancient Egyptians were concerned about the poor and social justice, while also having problems with each as we still do today. It also shows ancient Egyptian cosmology holds that the world works like a giant person, and breath and air carry order downward from the fire of the stars, sun and moon. If we do injustice, we not only choke the universe but ourselves as well.
Honor men of achievement and the people will prosper, but keep your eyes open. Too much trust brings affliction…Exalt no man because of birth. Judge the man by his actions. A man should do that which profits his soul. Let him perform the services of his temple. Let him share in the mysteries of his religion.
Merikare shows great skepticism of authority, not only of political position and noble birth but of a central singular religious tradition. Notice both ritual and mystery being included as religion.
Love the wife who is in your house. Feed her belly, clothe her back. Provide oil and cosmetics for her limbs. Gladden her heart all the days of your life, for she is like a field that will prosper its owner, but do not go into court with her, and never let her get control of your house.
Ptah-hotep is being quite sexist, but shows us that women had the power to speak in court and ruled the home as they did and do in many traditional and modern culture. Ptah-hotep is giving this advice to his son.
Provide generously for your mother with double rations, and carry her even as she once carried you. It was a heavy load that she bore, but she did not cast it off, and even after you were born, did she not feed you at the breast for three years? Your dirt was unpleasant, but she did not say, “Why should I bother with him?” It was she who placed you in school. It was she who came daily with food and drink for you.
Ani seems to be giving us the old, “You never call, you never write” routine of ancient Egyptian mother syndrome. It is hilarious how he is not only reminding us to take care of the elderly, but of our own mothers as well.
Ptah-hotep shows us that there was social mobility in ancient Egypt, and one could become wealthy or poor depending upon circumstances. Like the passage that tells us the maidens at the grindstone have wisdom yet no one can obtain it entirely, it suggests we always keep the view of the poor and unfortunate in mind to not only appreciate what we have but prevent ourselves from being unjust.
Boast not how many jars of beer you can drink! Soon your speech turns to babbling nonsense, and you tumble down into the gutter…and when people seek to question you, they find only a helpless child.
Ani shows us that as people gathered into ancient city states, they became critical of human behavior.
Eat no bread while another waits in want, but stretch out your hand to the hungry. One man is rich, another is poor. Yesterday’s master is today’s servant. Don’t be greedy about filling your belly. Where only last year the river ran, this year the course is dry. Great seas have turned to desert wastes, and the sandy shore is now an abyss.
Ani again shows us that one could become rich or poor in society, and it is wise to remember it.
Do not lie down at night being afraid of tomorrow. When day breaks, who knows what it will be like? Surely, no man knows what tomorrow will bring.
Amen-em-opet, like Aztec poets and the Indian Vedas, reminds us that no one can predict the future, either through prophecy or scientific calculation. Before the onset of Chaos Theory in the 80s, many mathematicians and experts claimed that advancements in mathematics would make reality highly predictable, which did not come to pass. As computers allowed for advanced calculation, they also showed us that this would not allow for accurate predictions, given that things such as computers can have dramatically unpredictable effects on society.
The Buddha & The Middle Way
The Buddha (550 BCE), the founder of one of the largest systems of thought in history, taught moderation between extremes as a fundamental doctrine. Known as “The Middle Way” in both Buddhism and Confucianism, this teaching is quite similar to the Egyptian conception of Maat. According to the story of the Buddha’s life, he tried extreme practices in the jungle to rid himself of attachment and gain unity of mind as many were doing in his time and still do today, but he found that extreme self denial brought self hatred. Moderation became a core part of the Buddha’s enlightenment and teaching. Rather than try to rid the self of self or desire, release is found in the moderation between seeking and denying, neither running toward nor away from the self or desirable things. Thus, Buddhist conceptions of ethics center of moderation between extremes, neither going completely without desire nor indulging completely in it.
Aristotle (350 BCE) argues for a very similar concept of moderation in his texts on ethics and health. He associates each virtue with two vices, one more extreme than virtue and the other too deficient. Thus, one should not be afraid of money or family or war but neither should one be a glutton for these things either. He argues that too much drinking and athletics can destroy the body, but no drinking or athletics can make the body and mind weak and deficient.
Confucius (550 BCE – 480 BCE) was one of the great ethical geniuses of the ancient world. It is worth noting that in Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism we find Jesus, Buddha and Confucius telling us to press ourselves to identify with others, to see things through their eyes and treat them as we wish to be treated. All three were identified with the central gods of the heavens in each tradition. No matter how religious or non-religious one is, this shows us that humans consider love and wisdom to be quite divine and the supreme goal of individual life and activity.
Confucius, like Buddha and Jesus, taught the “Golden Rule”: Treat others the way one wants to be treated. Sometimes scholars say that Confucius taught the complementary negative “Silver Rule”: DON’T treat others the way one DOESN’T want to be treated. This is the same two sided coin we had with Bentham and Mill. Bentham argued that one should act to bring about maximum happiness, and Mill argued that one should act to bring about minimum pain and suffering. Consider that communism provides much planned structure but less room for choice, and capitalism provides much room for choice but little planned structure. American law is quite influenced by Mill, and follows his idea of erring on the side of doing little harm rather than Bentham. Consider that communist countries often put former officials on trial for crimes against the people when things go wrong, while capitalist countries rarely send their rulers to jail even when crimes could be punishable in court. There are severe problems with both methods, of course.
Confucius and Confucianism are often identified with ritual and tradition, such as the father ruling over the household. In many places in the Analects, however, Confucius is quite clear that although ritual and tradition are essential for the cultivation of the individual and the maintenance of society, they are secondary to love and having the right intentions, placing the mind over the body and reason over desire. In court, and individual is only guilty if they intentionally performed an action. Confucius tells us that action and tradition without the right intention and emotion are the worst things imaginable. One would think that if the two elements of an act are the right intention and right action, having the right action would be half good, but this is wrong according to Confucius. He even argues that if a ruler is corrupt, one should overthrow the state and put a proper ruler in place. Strangely, the Analects became the core text of the Confucian state in China which was quite conservative and traditional.
Another beautiful idea that is central to Confucius’ teachings is that perfection is nowhere, but good is always at hand. Confucius says several times that he is not perfect, and that he has never met a perfect person, but he tells us that we all share the same virtues and vices and we can learn to be good by listening to the lowest of people, just like the passage of the Egyptian wisdom that mentions the maidens at the grindstone. Confucius even says that Yao and Shun, the two legendary emperors and ancestors of China, could not obtain perfection, so how could we? The best quote on this is Analects 7.22:
Put me in the company of any two people at random – they will invariably have something to teach me…I can take their qualities as a model and their vices as a warning.
The last ethical point to consider while reading through the Analects is Confucius’ emphasis on modesty and examining the self for fault before one finds fault with others. This certainly fits snugly with the quote just mentioned. Confucius praises individuals who question themselves rather than others and who display modesty rather than pride. Confucius displays these virtues with regards to himself many times in the Analects. Consider 1.16, “Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs”. Consider 4.17, “When you see a worthy man, seek to emulate him; when you see an unworthy man, examine yourself”.
Now let us consider several sorts of self-criticism found in passages of Confucius’ Analects:
Criticism of Ritual without Virtue:
(3.26) authority without generosity, ceremony without reverence, mourning without grief, these things I cannot bear to contemplate.
(4.13) If one cannot govern by observing ritual and showing compassion, what is the use of ritual?
Criticism of the Individual:
(4.12) He who acts out of self interest arouses much resentment.
(5.5) ‘Ran Yong is good but not eloquent’- I don’t know if he is good, but he certainly does not need eloquence if he isn’t.
(11.10) Yan Hui died. ‘Master, this grief isn’t right’ C; ‘What sort of grief for such a man is right?
Criticism of Luxury:
(7.16) Even if you have only coarse grain, water and your arm for a pillow, you may still be happy. Riches and honors without justice are to me as fleeting clouds.
(4.9) If a scholar is ashamed of his shabby clothes or poor food, he is not worth listening to.
I haven’t seen someone who studies without any thought of career.
No one is perfect (7.26) but something good is always at hand (7.30).
Confucius says again and again that he is not perfect, nor has he met perfection.
(7.33) My seal is as strong as anyone, but I have not succeeded in living nobly, yet is goodness out of reach? As soon as I long for goodness, goodness is at hand.
(7.34) I make no claims to wisdom or to human perfection- how would I dare? Yet my aim never flags and I never tire of teaching people. A student replied, ‘This is what we fail to follow.’
Criticism of Selfishness and Pride:
Whatever one’s position, you always share the faults and talents of everyone. Thus, you have to work to compare self with others, as not intuitive. You should compare yourself to others, reflect yourself through others no matter how you judge them to be, and work to get over selfishness and become compassionate and balanced (the way of heaven, opposed to selfish desire for lower). Confucius values joining all of humanity, not being selfish.
(9.8) Am I knowledgeable? No. A bumpkin asked me a question, and my mind went blank. Still, I hammered at his problem from all sides, till I worked out something.
(1.16) Don’t worry if others don’t recognize your merits: worry that you may not recognize theirs.
(2.13) Practice what you preach.
(4.17) When you see a worthy man, seek to emulate him. When you see an unworthy man, examine yourself.
(5.12) Zigong ‘I do not want to do to others…’ C: you’re not that far yet…
(9.28) It is in the cold of winter that you see how green the pines and cypresses are.
(15.23) A gentleman does not approve of a person because he expresses a certain opinion, nor does he reject an opinion because it is expressed by a particular person.
(15.24) ‘Single word to guide one’s life?’ C- Reciprocity: do not do to others…
(19.21) A gentleman’s mistake is like an eclipse of the sun or moon. When happens, everyone notices, and when corrected everyone looks up in admiration.
Good as Unknown, Beyond Judgment and Opinion:
Note the similarity to Heraclitus’, “You can never step in the same river twice.”
(2.17) Master said: Knowledge is to take the known as known and unknown as unknown.
(3.14) About what we don’t know we must keep silent.
This line was possibly quoted by Wittgenstein at the end of his Tractatus.
(5.13) Our master’s views on culture can be gathered, but you can’t hear his views on the nature of things or the Way of Heaven.
(7.21) The master never talked of miracles, violence, disorders, spirits.
(7.35) Confucius is ill, and a student says, “pray to spirits above & spirits below”. Confucius said, “In that case, I have been praying for a long time already.”
(11.12) Asked how to serve spirits, Confucius said, “You have not yet learned how to serve man, how could you learn to serve the spirits?” Asked about death, Confucius said, “You do not yet know life, how can you learn about death?”
(6.17) Who would leave a house without using the door? Why do people seek to walk outside the way?
(6.29) The power of the middle way is supreme, and yet it is not found among the people anymore.
Reform the old & Bring in the new:
(2.11) He who by revising the old knows the new is fit to be a teacher.
(2.12) A gentleman is not a pot.
(3.3) Each generation has added and dropped from the ritual, so we know what people will look like 100 generations from now.
(15.36) In pursuit of virtue, do not be afraid to outpace your teacher.
Criticism of the State:
Confucius is not a compliant sheep when it comes to the state. His criticism of individual judgment and pride is matched by criticism of the state.
(11.17) To student regarding a tyrant: Confucius said, “Attack him, You have my permission”.
(13.15) When asked by Duke, “Is there a single maxim/rule that could ruin a country?”, Confucius replied, “That the prince should never suffer contradiction. When in error, prince should be told.”
(13.24) Asked, “What if everyone likes a man?” Confucius replied, “This is not enough”. When asked, “What if everyone hates him?”, Confucius replied, “Still not enough. When the good like you and the bad hate you, that is enough.”
(13.20) When asked about the present-day politicians, Confucius replied, “Those puny creatures are not even worth mentioning.”
(9.26) Confucius said, “One cannot deny the humblest man his free will.”
(18.18) Confucius said, “I do things differently. I follow no rigid prescriptions on what should or should not be done.”
Just as Confucius appears in Daoist texts as an ally but inferior rival, so do proto-Daoist sages in the Analects. This is very much like Buddha vs. the Jains, in that other group isn’t mentioned by name, but found not to be in balance but extremists. Daoists wanted to escape into nature, while Confucians believe in the value of the city and embracing not escaping humankind. Believe in balance, like Daoists, but seek to balance the city, not escape into the perfect balance of nature from the city. Daoists are more skeptical of society.
It is not right to be a hermit, and discard human relationships to preserve one’s purity.
(4.1) It is beautiful to live amidst humanity. It is hardly wise to live in a place destitute of people (i.e. don’t be a Daoist hermit).
(15.31) I once to meditate went without food for a day and a night without sleep. It was no use. It is better to study.
(4.2) A good man rests in his humanity. A wise man profits from his humanity.
Finally, Confucius describing his own lifetime of learning and development:
(2.1): At 15, I set my mind upon learning. At 30, I took my stand. At 40 I had no doubts. At 50, I knew the will (mandate) of heaven. At 60, my ear was attuned. At 70, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule.