Finding Wisdom (II)
“A ‘canon’ so established in practice serves not so much to enshrine a hundred books as to help students to develop their own standards of evaluation. The canon (if such it be) and the questioning of it go together. There must be questioning, and there must be something of value that has stood the test of time worth questioning” (38). – Wm. Theodore de Bary, Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics.
In describing one of his teachers, a friend once said that the professor was able to teach his own ideas through teaching Hegel. That is to say, the professor had so thoroughly apprenticed himself to Hegel that it was impossible to tell where Hegel stopped and the professor’s interpretation began. I think the best teachers do that. In talking with Herbert McCabe and reading his work, for example, it was always difficult to figure out where Thomas Aquinas ended and McCabe began. The same can be said about Ralph McInerney, even though he came to quite different conclusions about Thomas than McCabe did. And the fact that both could be such devoted students of Thomas says more about Thomas’s breadth than it does about these scholars fine interpretations of him. Great texts, to borrow a phrase from Whitman, contain multitudes. Great teachers help us to navigate those multitudes.
In my last post, I discussed Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence, and I noted how Bloom hoped that he could help his readers get lost in great literature. But often when we read, especially when we encounter a new body of literature, we want someone to help us find our way. And if you want to find your way among the classic texts of East Asia, there is no better guide than Wm. Theodore de Bary. His latest book, an edited collection entitled Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics, is the perfect map for beginners to navigate the vast territory that is East Asian languages and cultures. The book is the fruit of more than 60 years of research and teaching.
If great teachers apprentice themselves to other great teachers, de Bary’s model might well be the Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (1130- 1200). Like Zhu, de Bary has devoted his scholarly career to the writings of Confucius and the tradition that followed him. And like Zhu, de Bary has devoted considerable energy to forming a core curriculum from the Asian classics. Zhu compiled the “Four Books,” which comprised the Analects of Confucius, the text of Mencius, the Great Learning and the Mean. Zhu selected the last two from a larger compilation entitled The Record of Rites. The Four Books were the introductory readings of the core curriculum of much of East Asia from the thirteen through nineteenth centuries. De Bary, who has been teaching at Columbia since 1953, has written or translated more than 27 books, most of which either bring texts from East Asia into English or bring Confucianism into conversation with Western political theory and education. He is the general editor of Sources of the Chinese Tradition, Sources of the Japanese Tradition, Sources of the Korean Tradition, and Sources of the Indian Tradition, which are standard translations in many introductory and upper level undergraduate courses. They are also highly accessible to the lay reader. Now, they haven’t quite stood the test of six centuries, but they have been used for more than fifty years, which is not a bad start.
In a sense, Finding Wisdom makes three related arguments. First, it is an eloquent call for including Asian classics in a core curriculum, while it recognizes that a school’s resources might limit how such an inclusion would work. Second, it discusses how scholars in different Asian communities went about constructing a canon of texts. And third, it offers introductory essays on some of the most important texts of the East Asian tradition. Here you’ll learn about Confucius’s Analects, about the Mencius, about the Daodejing, among many other classics. De Bary has assembled quite a roster of contributors, many of whom are experts in the texts they discuss, although there are a few contributors who write from the perspective of teaching these texts without knowing the original languages. In a few cases, different essays interpret the same text. The great scholar of Japan Donald Keane has three essays in the collection. Burton Watson, a scholar of Chinese poetry has an essay, as do Irene Bloom, Robert Thurman, Paul Anderer, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and many others. Each essay is directed at the educated lay reader. None assumes any familiarity with the texts or with the contexts in which they were written. Yet these are not encyclopedia articles. The authors make specific arguments about why these books were considered classics in their own time, why subsequent ages recognized them as important, and what they have to say to readers today. As all good introductions should, they push us to read the texts themselves. (Finding Wisdom will probably lead you to the Sources texts.) Each essay describes the scholar’s standards of evaluation, and the scholar invites the reader to join him or her in the questioning that the text prompted. This is how we can make any canon our own.
Finally, I should note that I have a personal connection to Wm. Theodore de Bary. He is my wife’s grandfather and one of my personal heroes. When my wife and I were dating, he was the first person who was not a teacher, family member, or friend to take me seriously as a scholar, although that likely speaks to his kindness rather than his good judgment. He’s been a constant source of encouragement since. At 92, he still teaches undergraduates at Columbia, where he’s been teaching for 60 years. I could go on about his virtues, but I’ll stop myself. Suffice it to say that when I read about the “noble person” (junzi) in Confucius and the Confucian tradition, I have a particular model in mind. Even if we have a canon that contains a series of texts and standards for evaluating those texts, the key to finding wisdom in the classics of the east and the west might well be as simple or as difficult as finding the right teacher.