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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teaching Assistant required in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Good old days? Social justice had real meaning for those who lived through the war  

Social justice is political pie in the sky

DJ Taylor
On the run: As budgets tighten, people take up cheaper activities such as jogging rather than golf or sailing  

Street harrassment: There are some things only a man can explain

Katy Guest
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam