Sunday, May 17, 2009

Making friends with the ancients

Mencius (ca. 372-289 BCE) said:

一鄉之善士,斯友一鄉之善士;一國之善士,斯友一國之善士;天下之善士,斯友天下之善士。以友天下之善士為未足,又尚論古之人。頌其詩,讀其書,不知其人,可乎?是以論其世也。是尚友也。

"A good man of learning in one small community will befriend other good men of learning of that community. The good men of learning of a single state will befriend the other good good men of learning of that state. The good men of learning of the whole world will befriend the other good men of learning of the whole world. But if befriending the good men of learning of the whole world is not enough, then one may go on further to consider the ancients. Yet is it acceptable to recite their poems and read their books without knowing what kind of persons they were? Therefore one considers the age in which they lived. This is 'going further to make friends.'"
Mencius V.B.8.ii

Adapted from Stephen Owen trans., Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, p. 34.

Stephen Owen leaves the term shih (士, shi in pinyin) untranslated; I've inserted "men of learning" where Owen sticks to the Chinese shi. Owen explains: "The term shih once referred to a class of military retainers that stood midway between the aristocracy and the peasantry. By Mencius' time the shih had come to refer to the educated class, custodians of culture, and the administrators of states. The shih were still intermediate between the aristocracy and the peasantry, but the category had become at least partially open to anyone who acquired the skills of the shih and who shared their values. In effect, this describes the educated elite throughout the traditional period, and it was to this group that classical Chinese literature primarily belonged." And further, "One reads the ancients not to wrest some knowledge or wisdom from them but to 'know what kind of persons they were.' And such knowledge can come only from understanding them in the context of their lives, a context built out of other texts. Knowledge may come from such reading, but that knowledge is inseparable from the person."