By Hillsdale College January 17, 2020
HUGH HEWITT: Welcome back, America. It’s the last hour of the week, or almost the last radio hour of the week. And that means it’s time for The Hillsdale Dialogue.
I’m starting a little bit earlier than I normally do, since the last segment of today’s show is reserved for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But I’m joined by Dr. Larry Arnn at Hillsdale College, and he’s brought in a ringer this week. He’s absolutely drafted a ringer.
Professor Mark Blitz is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy and the Field Chair of Political Philosophy, the director of the Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom at Claremont McKenna College. Professor Blitz, welcome. Dr. Arnn, always a pleasure to have you. Professor Blitz, let me ask you first: What year did you get out of Harvard undergrad?
MARK BLITZ: 1966.
HEWITT: All right, so you had already taken—I came a decade later. And I had Harvey in GOV 103 A and B and GOV 10. I didn’t understand anything, so I went and I became a lawyer. You, obviously—it stuck.
BLITZ: Yes, that’s right. It did stick.
HEWITT: What did you write your dissertation on?
BLITZ: I wrote my dissertation on one of Plato’s dialogues, The Statesman.
HEWITT: And did Harvey advise you?
BLITZ: Yes, he was my advisor. Yes.
HEWITT: Oh my goodness. We have a real talent here. Dr. Arnn, I’m glad you’ve gone out and gotten a ringer from Harvard. I’m glad that you finally yielded that the West Coast Straussians are the people to talk to.
LARRY ARNN: Well, Mark is an old man, compared to me.
LARRY ARNN: But it’s true that I knew about him years before he knew about me, because, in my political philosophy written qualifying exam, I was given by Harry Jaffa an essay by Mark Blitz to comment on, long before I knew who he was. But I should also mention to the audience that Mark did very honorable service in the Reagan administration. So he’s not just some brainiac.
HEWITT: He is, in fact, a very accomplished contributor to the public good. Dr. Blitz, I want to begin with this question. We’re talking about Confucius, because Larry Arnn and I are devoting a few weeks to China, the rising—the risen challenge, actually, to America for the next 100 years. And Confucius’s thought is at the center of that regime. How did you come to get credentialed as someone who can speak clearly about Confucius?
BLITZ: We have a course here at Claremont McKenna on basic humanities, the freshman humanities seminar. And, at one point, it had a reading list that we all had to follow. Confucius was on the list, so I studied Confucius so that I could teach it well.
HEWITT: And, when you undertook that first, glancing dive in, what were your impressions? We’re going to walk through his biography, and the differences, et cetera. But, when you first dove in, given your long, deep learning with very accomplished scholars in Western political theory, how did you react to Confucius?
BLITZ: Well, my first reaction was in relation to Aristotle. One looks at Confucius through the lens, first of all, of what one knows, which was Aristotle, who’s most—in a way—like Confucius, people argue. And my view there was that there are some very interesting things in Confucius, especially about character and virtue.
But it’s not quite philosophic in the way that Aristotle and Plato are. There’s not that much of practical reason and practical thinking the way you have it in Plato and Aristotle. But that, nonetheless, it was extremely interesting. So that was really my first impression.
And then, my second impression is, I don’t really know the language. I know some words in it, as many people do, but I don’t know it overall. So it’s hard to really think of Confucius unless you know the language extremely well in very concrete terms. But then, it turns out that it’s not all that clear how The Analects was put together—how much of it was actually said by Confucius. So, looking at it from that point of view, that was really my first set of impressions.
HEWITT: Now, Dr. Arnn, I read with great interest this week the talk that Professor Blitz gave to Hillsdale students about Confucius. So you brought him up to the campus and had him do that exchange. How much Confucian theory have you encountered and worked with over your career?
ARNN: Hmm, I’m an expert. I’ve heard Mark Blitz talk about him.
I’ve read The Analects. I have—a related impression to Mark. I wondered—this is wonderful, and it’s morally upright. It didn’t seem all that interesting to me.
I, like Mark, have read Aristotle a lot. And Aristotle is tremendous, because his most famous book—probably the most read book—is The Ethics, or else The Politics, one of those two. And they very much begin and very much dwell on the moral level—that is to say, how ought you to act, and how you get yourself in a condition where you can act that way. And at the same time, all of that points up, beyond itself, to a kind of life empowered probably by this moral virtue that contemplates ultimate things, including, especially, the divine. It’s divine-like life.
So my opinion is that—it’s reinforced by Mark. My opinion was and is that it doesn’t contain an appeal beyond—what?—authority, beyond tradition, and beyond—Mark taught me that ritual is a big thing in Confucius. I guess I didn’t notice that so much. So, in other words, it’s not questing in the way that the Greeks are. And, of course, now, I’m really an amateur. But I think that may indicate some difference between Western civilization and the East.
HEWITT: I want our listeners to stay around through the break. We will be back with Dr. Mark Blitz of Claremont McKenna College, Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College. All things Hillsdale are collected at Hillsdale.edu. All of our conversations, dating back now many, many years, are collected at HughforHillsdale.com.
The Hillsdale Dialogue today is about Confucius. It continues in the next hour. Go nowhere, America. It’s The Hugh Hewitt Show.
Morning glory, America. Bonjour, hi, Canada. I’m Hugh Hewitt. Welcome the last radio hour of the week. We traditionally reserve this for the Hillsdale Dialogue.
And indeed, it is the Hillsdale Dialogue. But we began the Hillsdale Dialogue a little early in the last hour today, because the last segment of today’s hour is reserved for the secretary of state, who is a big guy, and he gets to push himself around. If he calls, we put him on.
And we’re talking about Confucius, which may, in fact, play into what we talk to the secretary of state about, with Dr. Mark Blitz of Claremont McKenna College and, of course, Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. All things Hillsdale are collected at Hillsdale.edu. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues dating back to 2013 are collected at HughforHillsdale.com. And we began talking about Confucius, because we had been talking about China last week. And we’ll do so again next week, as it presents the geopolitical challenge to the West of the next century.
Dr. Blitz is our guest, along with Dr. Arnn. And what Larry was saying before the break, Mark, is that the Western tradition, rooted in Aristotle, is so different from the Confucian approach. Can you expand a little bit, because we’re dealing with a nation-state of 1.3 billion people? We’re dealing with other systems that adopt Confucian thought. What are these key differences between East and West, in your view?
BLITZ: One important difference is that The Analects became a basic text—basic book—that everyone who aspired to be a member of the Chinese bureaucracy and civil service had to learn and had to study. And, of course, the Chinese bureaucracy and civil service was really dominant in China for at least 1,000—you might even say 2,000—years, so starting maybe 300 or 400 years after Confucius died. And certainly, in a great degree at around 960…1000 A.D., Confucius’s texts became absolutely fundamental.
So one important difference with the West is that this book became something which everyone had to learn and had to study. And it kind of froze in place, in a certain way, for that reason. You didn’t so much question it as learn it. And that’s an important—in a way—political difference and governmental difference.
The other really significant difference is something that Larry pointed to: Confucius doesn’t lead to philosophical questioning. He doesn’t really ask what the basis is of virtue in the same philosophical way that Plato and Aristotle does. There’s no real examination of how one thinks things through practically. So that’s a very important difference.
And there’s also much more connection, in a way, than to the West, as you see it, at least in ancient Greece—much more of a sense that virtue and character is related to particular places and particular stations.
And maybe another very important thing to say is that there are no individual rights. There’s no John Locke. There’s no competitive acquisition of property.
So all of those things are significant differences, I think. But the emphasis on virtue and character is similar, and also very important.
HEWITT: Let me underscore for the audience, the book to which both Dr. Blitz and Dr. Arnn have referred to is The Analects, A-N-A-L-E-C-T-S. Dr. Blitz, we spell it out for the Steelers fans. And we have to do so slowly—The Analects.
Now, I’ve never read The Analects. This was not part of GOV 103 A and B. It wasn’t part of GOV 10. It wasn’t part of law school. Dr. Blitz, do we need to change our curriculum—and I’m going to go to Dr. Arnn with the same thing—given the fact that China is now the other superpower, that it is, in fact, the dominant challenge to Western thought? Do we need to all begin to learn The Analects?
BLITZ: I don’t think so, really. I think the key thing for us in our education is to learn ourselves, learn our own history, learn our own books, learn our own traditions, learn our own standards. That, I think, is still fundamental.
I think it’s useful to have something like The Analects in some course or two. It’s useful to have available to students, of course. Chinese history, and Chinese government, and Chinese politics—I think those things are useful. But I still think that what’s central in American education and central for American students is to learn the basis of our own country, to learn the basis of our own thought. That really, to me, remains central.
HEWITT: Dr. Arnn, I feel like Sisyphus here, because I’ve approached this topic with you before, and I won’t abandon it. If the major competitor—the West, China—devotes most of its critical reasoning to precepts gleaned from Confucius and The Analects, aren’t we disarming ourselves not to prepare the next generation to know what they are?
ARNN: Well, so I’ll give a slightly different answer that agrees with Mark. First of all, we should learn about China in the way that Mark has read The Analects. Mark has been taught—I have been taught, probably not so well—to approach any book, if it’s worth reading, to try to find out what it says, sympathetically. Listen to it. What’s he saying? And one question is, where’s the good in this? And so, when Mark talks about this—he probably will do it, before we finish—he’ll tell you some things in The Analects that he finds lovely.
And I would add that, if you lived in a society where people follow the precepts of Confucius, then that would not be a bad thing. It’s kind of a negative version of the Golden Rule. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t have done to you, instead of, do as you would be done by. But it’s a good thing, right? It’s OK. And it’s even better than OK.
HEWITT: Oh, it’s better. When I read Dr. Blitz’s speech at Hillsdale, I came away—and this is a compliment to you, Dr. Blitz—thinking, I’ve got to read this, because the gentleman standard that is described here seems to me to be excellent, even though it’s not very practicable. It does seem to me, Dr. Blitz, to be something worth knowing.
BLITZ: Yes, I think that’s certainly true. I mean, the basic and central virtue of humaneness, or humanity, or benevolence—which is really the heart of the substance of The Analects and what the gentleman should be like—that’s an important thing to know and, to some degree, to follow. The standard of the gentleman is an important standard. So there is plenty to learn from The Analects. And it’s a book that one ought to read.
But, really, the heart, I still think, of our education has to be our own thought, our own tradition, the Greeks, and then also—as I mentioned—natural rights, and liberal democracy—thinkers such as John Locke. I think it’s important for us to remember what’s good about what we are and use that as a basis from which we then try to understand and benefit, really, from books such as The Analects. That’s my view of it.
HEWITT: After the break, we’ll do bio. But, Dr. Arnn, I’d like to know, having been exposed as you are now to Confucius, and been doing it for a few years, do you understand Chinese leadership differently and hear them differently? Do you hear Confucian teaching when they approach a problem? And do you see Confucian teaching as they negotiate in a particular way?
ARNN: Well, you have to account for this huge thing that’s happened, right? And it’s parallel to something that’s happened in America. They’ve adopted, as the official doctrine, the scientific Western theory of Marxism-Leninism. And so they often talk in that language, and they shade it a lot with Chinese tradition. Communism with Chinese characteristic was a slogan during the murderous Mao’s reign.
ARNN: So it’s there. I quoted him already, but Churchill gets an urgent memo from Franklin Roosevelt in the Second World War. And he says this. We got to support Chiang Kai-shek because China could be lost forever. And Churchill said, “China is very old. Communism is very new.” And so I doubt that Communism has really taken there.
Just think—if it’s true, then, that the great classic book of the Chinese roots them in tradition and old things, it would be likely—and our great books do that, and also don’t do that. The West is freedom and right appealing beyond the law. Laws are judged in the name of some standard that’s above the law in the West, and that’s just a habit. And Karl Marx does that, too. So I think of it as, I wish that they were more fully Confucian. [LAUGHS] That’s better, I think.
HEWITT: When we come back from break, we are going to talk about the biography, Dr. Blitz. And that’ll be the short segment. But we got 30 seconds. Your comment on what Dr. Arnn just said—do you view Chinese leadership differently, having come to know something about Confucius?
BLITZ: I do in the following way: The Chinese leadership under Mao often attacked Confucius, because they thought Confucius represented the old things and the old ways. And that attack never really took 100%. So Confucius is very important, I think, in setting a standard and a bar for China, which can somehow and sometimes oppose, really, the Marxist thrust. So, in that sense, it remains very important, I think.
HEWITT: When we come back from break, we will have Dr. Blitz tell us exactly who this man is, when he lived, and why he is so prominent to this day. Don’t go anywhere, America. The Hillsdale Dialogue is underway—except to Hillsdale.edu, where you can find all things Hillsdale, including a free subscription to Imprimis. I’m Hugh Hewitt. Stay tuned.
Welcome back, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. The Hillsdale Dialogue is underway. Our guests this week—Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, all things Hillsdale at Hillsdale.edu—and Dr. Mark Blitz, who is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy and the Field Chair of Political Philosophy, the director of the Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom at Claremont McKenna College, and our great expert on Confucius.
Dr. Blitz, this is our short segment. It’s five and a half minutes. Can you give us a little bio on who Confucius is and why he remains so important to know about?
BLITZ: Yes. Confucius lived, roughly, from 551 to 479 B.C. The years are never completely exact, because not that much is known that’s really reliable about all of the details of his life. He was from a minor aristocratic family, served in government in his own state, never got the kind of political situation and government and practice that he wanted, traveled a lot, and then became a teacher with students who revered him, who collected the sayings of Confucius and all of those around him.
And that collection of sayings—what we know now as The Analects—began to become fundamental and fundamentally important and what became ultimately part of the examination system for everyone who wanted to be really in the higher civil service in China. The higher civil service in China really ran and dominated China for a long, long period of time. So Confucius became fundamental to know and to learn for everyone who wanted to make his way up. And, then, Confucian teachings, of course, seeped down into the country as a whole—so a fundamental and fundamentally important figure, really, from a long, long time ago.
HEWITT: Now, does he remain that way? You’ve noted in your notes to me that he created a well-educated civil service. In other words, he was ahead of the Progressives in believing in a Mandarin class. Does he remain revered? And do The Analects remain mandatory learning for would-be Presidium members in the PRC?
BLITZ: No longer mandatory learning—that ended even before the PRC. It ended in 1905. But he is still, in many ways, revered. It’s sometimes controversial.
The Communists often didn’t like him, because they considered him a conservative figure. But I think he’s still very important in China—and, really, in East Asia, in general. So it’s not, I don’t think, at the same level that it used to be when he was fundamental for the examinations. But Confucius’s thinking and The Analects are still very important.
HEWITT: And the last question for this segment—you’ve told us, and Dr. Arnn told us, there’s no systematic discussion of justice. There’s no theory of happiness. There is no theory of government. How, then, did the Chinese improvise to the imperial approach? Was that the legacy of history that just happened, and remained, and endured?
BLITZ: Yeah, China is the imperial approach. And China was always how Chinese government operated—lots of wars and battles among various states, lots of dynasties over time. So that, I think, is always important. That doesn’t stem from Confucius but stems, really, from before Confucius.
HEWITT: And, Dr. Arnn, does Hillsdale insist that its students know at least where from China came? As Dr. Kissinger likes to say, their founding myth, the Yellow Emperor, presumes a China already ancient, which is kind of extraordinary.
ARNN: Yeah. Well, our curriculum is built more like a prescription that Mark made. And that is, we try to understand ourselves. But there is a lot of study of China at Hillsdale. And there’s an increasing interest in studying Mandarin, and we have ways that a student can do that. And I, once in a while, think that we should hire somebody to teach Mandarin, but I don’t know about that.
And, remember, the human soul is not infinite, and one has to focus. And there’s such a rich set of things to know about us. And those things are universal in a way that Confucius probably is not rooted in the tradition of his own place.
HEWITT: When we come back from break, we’ll talk about that non-universality and what exactly it is that is the substance of Confucian thinking, with Dr. Mark Blitz and Dr. Larry Arnn. Go nowhere, America. The Hillsdale Dialogue continues after this.
Welcome back, America. I’m Hugh Hewitt. The Hillsdale Dialogue is underway. This is the last segment. This is the payoff. My guests this week—Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. All things Hillsdale collected at Hillsdale.edu—all their wonderful online courses. And our special guest today—Dr. Mark Blitz, Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.
We’re talking about Confucius. And Dr. Blitz has put together a summary that I hope, in ten minutes, is not going to teach us what Confucius thinks—that’s not possible—but maybe give us an outline of the major points, Dr. Blitz.
BLITZ: I think maybe the first major point to concentrate on is that Confucius means to describe for us—and make us, in a certain sense, want to be—a certain human type, which is usually thought of as the gentleman, not so much in a class way or in a social way, but as having a certain set of qualities and virtues. And he means to support that and recommend those virtues. And those virtues largely center around what he calls humaneness or humanity, which you can also think of as a kind of generosity and benevolence. And he means to support that and make one understand it.
He means also to make you see the importance of what you might think of as proper behavior in a variety of situations—family, in particular—piety in the family, respect for parents, respect for the older brother—extremely important in general in Confucius, and part of what you’d expect from the gentleman and expect from everyone else, as well. So he really means—as the heart of the book, I think—to support a certain kind of character, and a certain sort of activity, and means to suggest how you should live that activity, live that character, in particular situations in the family and also in government.
And he means to support the importance of character in government—the relation of ruler and official, and the relation of both of them to the people who they rule—where the heart of things isn’t really law, and isn’t really institutions. But, again, it’s character, and the way in which you go about those activities.
HEWITT: So, Dr. Blitz, how would you contrast that with Aristotle in The Ethics and his prescriptions about behavior? And Jesus in the Gospels, who is also—when I read your lecture, I thought to myself, well, is this a Jesus-figure in China?
BLITZ: Confucius sometimes was treated as a revered god, but Confucius doesn’t claim to be a god. And it’s not even clear that Confucius believes in an afterlife, nor does he talk about it very much. So I don’t think it’s probably right to think of Confucius in that way.
In terms of the difference with Aristotle, it’s less philosophic. It’s less reflective. In terms of the difference with Jesus, he’s not primarily—I don’t think—a religious figure. And in terms of the difference of the modern political thinkers and the way we talk about it in political philosophy—John Locke, for example—there’s much less on institutions and law.
There’s nothing like separation of powers of the sort you see in the United States. Nothing like that is recommended by Confucius. So it is mostly about the way you should behave in a variety of situations. And it means to recommend and support that, but not to analyze it very much.
There are times when Confucius recommends that you stay out of particular situations in government and elsewhere. But he doesn’t really have a strong discussion of the roots of justice. It’s mostly a discussion of good character. That’s the heart of it.
HEWITT: Dr. Arnn, I go back to the 2012 presidential campaign. Mitt Romney used the phrase null set that no one understood. And it’s sort of a category error when you’ve just completely gone off the road. And it seems to me that trying to find a parallel with Confucius in our world is very difficult to do. There is a category difference here.
ARNN: Well, you might say that, in our world, Socrates messed things up a whole bunch.
BLITZ: He didn’t mess it up. He’s at the heart of it.
ARNN: In the pre-Socratics, they, too, are not—so what are you looking for? You’re looking for something that explains the Athenian way as authoritative, with an appeal to a standard of morality that is not necessarily confined to that, but very rooted in that. And that’s not what—I guess Confucius came about 100 years before Plato. But it’s just very different in the West after Plato—well, after Socrates. So, if you just think, there’s kind of a parallel here, because Jesus claims to be a god for every human being.
ARNN: So there’s these roots in the West, and Jerusalem, and Athens. And they both have their universal aspect. And they both appeal—in their very different ways. But they both appeal to our thinking capacity to see things as they are.
And both appeal—especially when you get to Christianity—both appeal beyond the things of our own and the law. And, if you just read the Declaration of Independence, it is so radically a product of that kind of thinking.
HEWITT: And that contrasts—and I’ll go back to Dr. Blitz at this point—with the emphasis I have gleaned from your work that Confucius placed on ritual behavior and on learning. Now—learning of a certain sort. But the ritual behavior is almost the opposite of thinking, isn’t it?
BLITZ: Yes, to some degree, it is. Confucius is a teacher. And that’s, I think, the best way to think of him, if you need a single word. But it’s a teaching which is so much connected to particular stations, and particular activities, and particular rituals.
It’s reflective, because you have to understand what virtue is. But it’s not challenging in its reflection in the way Plato or Socrates would be. That’s, I think, a central difference.
HEWITT: And how does it—and this is the key question: How does it impact what is probably our chief competitor for the next century or longer? What ought we to know about Confucius as we relate it to how the Chinese are going to react to the great power competition into which we have been thrust by the last decade?
BLITZ: I think it’s important to understand that there are elements of Confucius which are important for us to build on that are common among us—character and virtue, in particular. It’s important to see that the tradition of Confucius is often a counterweight, really, to a radical movement such as Communism. So I think it’s important to know. But, as I said, the key thing always for us to know, even in this competition, is who we are, and what makes us just, and what we seek to be like.
HEWITT: Penultimate question, Dr. Blitz—when you say there is an emphasis on learning in The Analects and throughout Confucian tradition, is that an inherent advantage for the PRC in that everybody reveres learning in a way, perhaps, that the West no longer does?
BLITZ: Well, I think it’s a good thing for them. On the other hand, we have the inherent advantage of a belief in natural rights and the overwhelming talent of each human being, once we can unlock it. And that’s, I think, central to our advantage.
HEWITT: Interesting. Dr. Arnn—last word. Do you think their emphasis, their systemic belief that learning is a good, provides them an advantage for a great power competition?
ARNN: Well, probably. There are two different strains of that, one affected by the more modern stuff and one the old. But what do they learn? Their government is a huge engineering project, and they produce a lot of engineers of the material and the social kind. And so, that kind of learning might make them stronger, but it doesn’t give them direction that Confucius might better give.
HEWITT: When we return next week, we will be talking about the great power competition ahead with Dr. Arnn and yet another expert. I want to thank Dr. Blitz, though. I hope that you’ll think about doing an extended series on this, because I found your lecture to the students to be quite terrific, Dr. Blitz. And I appreciate your taking time this morning to be with us.
BLITZ: Thanks very much.
HEWITT: Thank you. And thank you, Dr. Arnn.
ARNN: Thank both of you.