Howard Jacobson: Once you reach a certain age, Confucius makes perfect sense

Among this philosophy's attractive elements is its insistence that respect be shown to elderly men

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Here's an exciting thing – I've discovered Confucius. A bit late in the day, given that he is of the sixth century BC, but what's two and a half thousand years in the history of wisdom? I'm a confirmed Confucian now, anyway, though I can claim only second-hand knowledge of him, courtesy of Daniel Bell, a Canadian sociologist teaching in Beijing. And my knowledge of Daniel Bell is a bit circumscribed too, having only spoken to him down the line in a recording studio while making a programme for the World Service. I was there, since you ask, publicising my new novel, of which you can expect to hear more in future columns. But it is not set in China, that much I can tell you.

Monica Gray, a professor of planetary and space sciences, was also in attendance, carrying around with her a small particle of rock, very much like the grit I wake up with in my eye after a heavy night's drinking, the difference being that her rock was from somewhere in outer space while the mote in my eye is crystallised shiraz. I found myself envying Monica because she has an asteroid named after her. "Monicagrady", it is somewhat prosaically called. "Monicagradyprofessorofplanetaryandspacesciences" would have been more respectful but the asteroid might not be big enough to bear so many characters. Either way, I wouldn't mind having one named after me and my novel. "Howardjacobsontheactoflove". Or, more simply, if it won't take advertising, "Howardjacobsonconfucian".

Among the elements of Confucianism that attracted me in Daniel Bell's account were a) its Conservatism: a world-view which irons out the flaws of Liberal Democracy, that's to say its Liberal Democracy, but is not to be confused with Cameronism, a world-view that irons out world-views; b) its insistence that respect be shown to elderly men; and c) its reservations in the matter of educating the young to exercise critical judgement before they have the requisite knowledge and sagacity to exercise critical judgement with.

This latter goes against the grain with most Western educators for whom the exercise of the critical faculties is the very essence of a liberal education. Question everything before you know anything, we believe in the West. Knowledge exists only in your responses to it, therefore nothing "is"until your opinion grudges it into being. I held to this pedagogical principle myself once upon a time. "I have no interest in your regurgitating what you have gleaned from authoritative sources," I would tell a student, holding up his essay as though his dog had not only brought it in but written it. "I want you to demonstrate your capacity for critical thought. I know what others think. Only you can tell me what you think." And then when he told me what he thought, I wished he hadn't, so ill-informed, belligerent, and inconsequential was it.

I never solved the problem of inviting critical judgement from students whose critical judgements weren't worth inviting. I thought I was just unlucky in the students it fell to me to teach. But Confucius's point is that no one under 40 is ready to deliver what I asked for. And since I was under 40 at the time myself it is no doubt Confucianly true that I was not ready to ask for it.

Even outside the academy people ill-equipped to pass judgement on any matter whatsoever are empowered by our liberal democracy to believe their views have value. Only look at what passes for conversation on that cesspit of ignorance and vituperation we call the blogosphere. Confucius he say, "Get a life before you get an opinion." To which, were he to post it on the internet, he could expect responses raging from "You're a disgrace to Shandong Province", to the more considered "Up yours, you slant-eyed fuckwit".

But then, to return to the academy, how do you distinguish intellectual possession requisite to the slow formation of critical judgement from plagiarism? And is it quite the case, anyway, that you can possess knowledge, of a poem or the work of a philosopher, say, that does not entail evaluation of some sort? How Confucianism sorts these thorny issues out I will report when my studies are further advanced.

Confucius he also say, in the meantime, "I have yet to meet anybody who is fonder of virtue than of sex." This makes it a trifle tricky for him to proceed with his other proposition that the over-40s are likely to make sounder moral judgements because they are less enslaved to sexual desire. But perhaps he means that while everybody remains fonder of sex than they do of virtue, the fondness of the over-40s is tempered by repetition and fatigue. Though not, apparently, if you are David Duchovny who has just put himself into rehab for sex addiction.

Help me here, Confucius. What's sex addiction? The question is not designed to solicit salacious detail, I simply wonder how you can tell sex addiction apart from living, of which a sizeable component is today, as it must have been in sixth century China, sex. Questioned by The Washington Post, an organisation called the Mayo Clinic – which sounds more like a place for treating addiction to Prêt à Manger sandwiches – cites rampant promiscuity, an over-interest in pornography, the use of sex to escape stress or depression, and difficulty with emotional intimacy. You see my problem. Who ever didn't use sex to escape stress or depression? And since sex can often leave you even more stressed and depressed than it finds you, who was ever free of the cycle which the Mayo Clinic calls addiction?

And who, come to that, finds emotional intimacy easy? Isn't it meant to be difficult? Isn't that what adds value to it? And don't we call those who can't stop drifting into emotional intimacy promiscuous, which sets up a nice little circle of sex addiction, from which none of us – neither the imperturbable nor the vexed – can ever claim to be free. It's life. But then no doubt there are clinics out there which treat addiction to that.

My new novel, as it happens, is about addiction. Sex addiction, life addiction, wife addiction. I suspect it would not have been to Confucius's taste. He argued in favour of polygamy and a polygamist can't really be a wife addict in the sense of being addicted to just one. So it could be there are advantages to living in a Western liberal democracy after all. Or it might simply be that we are all more comfortable with the socio-sexual derangements we know.

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