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Ezra Pound - Confucius in relation to the West

 The fundamental "philosophical" error or shortcoming is in Christianity itself. I think the world can well dispense with the Christian religion, and certainly with all paid and banded together ministers of religion. But l think also that "Christ," as presented in the New Testament (real or fictitious personage, it is no matter), is a most profound philosophic genius, and one credible in the stated surroundings; an intuitive, inexperienced man, dying before middle age. The things unthought of in his philosophy are precisely the things that would be unthought in the philosophy of a provincial genius, a man of a subject nation. The whole sense of social order is absent.

The things neglected are precisely the things so well thought in the philosophy of Confucius a minister high in the State, and living to his full age and also a man of great genius.

There is no disagreement. There is a difference in emphasis. Confucius' emphasis is on conduct. "Fraternal deference" is his phrase. If a man have "fraternal deference" his character and his opinions will not be a nuisance to his friends and a peril to the community.

It is a statesman's way of thinking. The thought is for the community. Confucius' constant emphasis is on the value of personality, on the outlines of personality, on the man's right to preserve the outlines of his personality, and of his duty not to interfere with the personalities of others.

The irresponsible Galilean is profounder: ''As a man thinketh in his heart," "What shall it profit to gain the world and lose your own soul." A man of decent character will not injure his neighbours. That is all very well. But there are no safeguards.

And Christianity has become the slogan of every oppression, of every iniquity. From saving your own soul, you progress to thinking it your duty or right to save other people's souls, and to burn them if they object to your method of doing it. 

The profound intuitions are too incoherent in their expression, too much mixed with irrelevancies, the ironies misunderstood and mistranslated by cheats. The provincial has not guarded against provincialism. He has been the seed of fanatics. I doubt if Confucius has ever been the seed of fanatics. After his death his country was cursed with Buddhism, which is very much the same as part of the pest which spread over medieval Europe, clothed in the lamb's wool of Christ. It showed in China many resembling symptoms. But this had nothing to do with Confucius, “the first man who did not receive a divine inspiration.”

Christ's cross was not so much on Calvary as in His lamentable lack of foresight. Had He possessed this faculty we might imagine His having dictated to His disciples some such text as "Thou shalt not 'save' thy neighbour's soul by any patent panacea or kultur. And especially thou shalt not 'save' it against his will.


Modern thought is trying to kill not merely slavery but the desire to enslave; the desire to maintain an enslavement. This concept is a long way ahead of any actuality, it is a long way ahead of any working economic system that any of our contemporary's will be able to devise or to operate. But the desire for cannibalism is very largely extinct, and in the realm of reason there is nothing to prevent the conception of either barbaric ideas and desires entering equal extinction.

The desire to coerce the acts of another is evil. Every ethical thought is of slow growth; it has taken at least thirty years to suggest the thought that the desire to coerce the acts of others is evil. The thought belongs to only a few hundreds of people. Humanity is hardly out of the thought that you may have inquisitions and burn people at stakes.

To come back to where I started this brief series of essays: The bulk of the work in Henry James' novels is precisely an analysis of, and thence a protest against all sorts of petty tyrannies and petty coercions, at close range. And this protest is knit into and made part of his analysis of the habits of mind of three nations at least. And Galdos, Flaubert, Turgenev, despite any proclamations about artistic detachment or any theories of writing, are all absorbed in this struggle. It is a struggle against provincialism, a struggle for the rights of personality; and the weapon of these authors has largely been a presentation of human variety. The German university system has been the antagonist, i.e., off the plane of force and of politics, and in the “intellectual field.”

Narrowing the discussion to university educations, for the moment; meeting the philological boasts of efficiency and of "results produced," there is a perfectly good antidote, there is no need or any powers of invention or of careful devising. A Germany of happier era provided the term "Wanderjahr," and the humanist ideals of the Renaissance are sounder than any that have been evolved in an attempt to raise "monuments" of scholarship; of hammering the student into a piece of mechanism for the accretion of details, and of habituating men to consider themselves as bits of mechanism for one use or another: in contrast to considering first what use they are in being.

The bulk of scholarship has gone under completely; the fascinations of technical and mechanical education have been extremely seductive (I mean definitely the study of machines, the association with engines of all sorts, the inebriety of mechanical efficiency, in all the excitement of its very rapid evolution).

The social theorist, springing, alas, a good deal from Germany, has not been careful enough to emphasise that no man is merely a unit. He "knows" the fact ·well enough, perhaps. But the error of his propagandist literature is that it does not sufficiently dwell on this matter.

Tyranny is always a matter of course. Only as a "matter of course," as a thing that "has been," as a "custom" can it exist. It exists unnoticed, or commended. When I say that these novelists have worked against it, I do not mean they have worked in platitude, their writing has been a delineation as tyranny of many things that had passed for "custom" or "duty." They alone have refrained from creating catchwords, phrases for the magnetising and mechanising of men. 


Ezra Pound. From "Provincialism, the Enemy" II, 1917. The New Age, XXL 12 (19 July 1917): 268-9. P&P II: 233-34; SP 193-96.



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