in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: March 14, 2022

Podcast #746: The Confucian Gentleman

When you think about the word “gentleman,” you probably think about the kind of well-mannered, well-educated, civil, virtuous, self-controlled fellows who lived in England and America during the 19th century.

But there was also a not-entirely-dissimilar conception of the gentleman that grew out of the East, though it arose quite a bit longer ago. This gentleman was described by the Chinese philosopher Confucius in a text called the Analects, which my guest says might be thought of as a 2,500-year-old set of advice columns for those who aspire to be exemplary individuals. His name is Robert LaFleur, and he’s a professor of history and anthropology and the lecturer of the Great Courses course, Books That Matter: The Analects of ConfuciusToday on the show Robert talks about how the Analects are all about learning to rule, and that Confucius believed that you couldn’t lead a state, without being able to lead your family, and you couldn’t lead a family, without being able to lead yourself. Robert argues that the Analects teach the reader how to integrate the kind of character traits and relational skills that are required to “get good at life,” and how this aptitude centrally rests on living with a quality called “consummate conduct.” Robert discusses the importance of what he calls “all-in” learning to the Confucian gentleman, the nuance to the idea of filial piety that Westerners typically miss, and the often overlooked check on this hierarchical dynamic called “remonstrance.” We end our conversation with why Confucius so heavily emphasized the importance of ritual, and how rituals hold a transformative power that can allow you to become something bigger than yourself.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of ‘The Art of Manliness Podcast’ podcast. And when you think about the word ‘gentleman’, you probably think about the kind of well-mannered, well-educated, civil, virtuous, self-controlled fellows who lived in England and America during the 19th century, but there was also a not entirely dissimilar conception of the gentleman that grew out of the East, that arose quite a bit longer ago, this gentleman was described by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, in a text called the ‘Analects’, which my guest today says, might be thought of as a 2500-year-old set of advice columns for those who aspire to be exemplary individuals. His name is Robert LaFleur he is a Professor of History and Anthropology, and the lecturer of the Great Courses course books that matter, the Analects of Confucius. Today on the show Robert talks about how the Analects are all about learning to rule, and that Confucius believed that you couldn’t lead a state without being able to lead your family, and you couldn’t lead a family without being able to lead yourself.

Robert argues that the Analects teach the reader how to integrate the kind of character traits and relational skills that are required to get good at life, have this aptitude essentially rest on living with a quality called consummate conduct. Robert discusses the importance of what he calls ‘all in learning’ to the Confucian gentleman, the nuance of the idea of Filial piety that westerners typically miss and the often overlooked check on this hierarchal dynamic called remonstrance. We end our conversation with why Confucius so heavily emphasized the importance of ritual and how rituals hold a transformative power that can allow you to become something bigger than yourself. After the show is over check out our show notes at

Alright, Robert LaFleur welcome to the show.

Robert LaFleur: Thank you very much.

Brett McKay:So you are a professor of history, anthropology, you’ve specialized in China, and you did this great series, a while back ago for The Great Courses about the Analects of Confucius. Now, I know a lot of our listeners listening, Westerners, they’ve likely heard of Confucius, they know who he is, but if you asked them, you know, what did Confucius say or what were his teachings? They’d probably draw a blank. And that makes sense. I mean, we’re Westerners, Confucius is from the east, but you even make this case that in academic philosophy, amongst Western academic philosophers, Confucius gets the short shrift even though he’s had a pretty big impact on human thought. What’s going on there? Why do you think that is?

Robert LaFleur: Yeah, it’s somewhat ironic that every… Let’s just say American for now, that every American has heard the name Confucius, there’s the old saying about Confucius saying, Confucius says, and that is actually, by the way, how many of the entries in the book start, the master said. And what happened to me early on in my studies was very interesting, I was doing my graduate work at the University of Chicago when I was chatting with a PhD student in Philosophy, and he just stopped in his tracks when I said I was systematically studying Confucius, and he said, “That’s not philosophy”. It’s maybe… And then with dripping, dripping sarcasm, it’s perhaps Asian wisdom. But it’s not philosophy, and I think that’s where it goes. I think that’s the heart of it. He’s taught usually as an afterthought, if he is required in academic philosophy curricula, I’m speaking especially of the training of Philosophy professors now in grad school.

And a lot of that is because I would argue they don’t know how to read the book. The book itself is extremely hard to read if you muscle through it, like it’s Kant, like it’s the Critique of Pure Reason or even Aristotle. The closest Western equivalent, and it’s not a terrible one in terms of the actual teachings, there are great differences, but in terms of the way it works, it’s closer to a dialogue of Plato’s, than it is to systematic works where there are clear definitions and then you move to the next thing and the next thing, it fights against our assumption of rationality, it also fights against… The book itself seems to just tangle with us at every step, if we take a very western approach like, That’s a contradiction. I always say that if you say it’s a contradiction, that’s failure right there, you’ve already failed. And so it doesn’t, it resists, let me say, it resists the urge to muscle through it the way you might in one of Kant’s books.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig into Confucianism, what he’s about. So I think to understand his teachings and his insights and his philosophy, you have to understand the world that Confucius lived in. So let’s start there. Like, when was Confucius alive? When was he teaching and what was going on in China at the time that inspired what he was saying and what he was advocating?

Robert LaFleur: Confucius lived… The dates are 551-479 before the common era. It’s hard with all of these periods to target the birth date, but his death date is very clearly known as 479. So he lived for 72 years in a period we now call the spring and autumn period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which lasted for almost a thousand years, I’m using very round numbers here, and was the dynasty before the great integration, the great imperial integration of China. Confucius sensed and made it very clear in his teachings that his society was going to… As my grandfather used to say, “to hell in a hand basket”, that things were bad and they were getting worse, families were starting to arrogate certain privileges to themselves that only the King of Zhou was supposed to have, and warfare was becoming more intense in this process, that I only half jokingly tell my students to memorize as what I call the Zhou dynasty, 200 to 100 to 50 to 20… I’m talking about the states here.

To seven of them, to two of them, and finally to one integrated empire, and this process of unification is often spoken of as a wonderful thing. Now we have an integrated China and the like. Confucius saw it differently. He liked the fragmentation, he liked the States living peacefully side by side, and he sensed that a much more terrible period was coming on, society was breaking down, and he sought to help to fix it.

Brett McKay: I was gonna say he’s living around the same time as like Plato, Aristotle.

Robert LaFleur: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, okay.

Robert LaFleur: It’s interesting when you span out and you look and see the global interactions, it’s interesting historically to look at that through many periods. In this case, yes, Plato, Aristotle were thriving in their own part of the world.

Brett McKay: And so it sounds like there was some turmoil beginning to happen in Chinese political life, in Chinese culture. And I think it’s interesting too that the same sort of thing was happening in the West with Plato, like in Greece, there’s a lot of political intrigue going on, a lot of turmoil, conflict, and a lot of the philosophy was happening with Plato and Aristotle was a response to that. And it sounds like the same thing was happening with Confucius.

Robert LaFleur: Absolutely, and one of the things that’s often said of this period broadly speaking, it’s really the period that follows, which ironically it was called The Warring States period, there’s nothing ironic about that part, but ironically enough, what we today call philosophy coming out of that period, and it’s not unlike what you’re saying with Greece in that part of the world, is it really was as a very fine title of a book about this era states, they were disputers of the Tao, disputers of the way. They were in conversation, but it was a martial conversation of sorts. And so what we call Philosophy of that period, on some level, every single word of it, this is what one of my first teachers told us in graduate school, and it was a surprise to us, almost every single word you’re reading, whether it’s Confucius or other thinkers, Zhuang Zhou and others, Han Fei, these are names of that period, is it was about ruling on some level.

Now, I know, I think you can take that too far, but on some level, everything you’re reading was about how do you manage a state and Confucius argued very strongly that you can’t manage a state unless you can manage a family. And then from there on down you can’t manage a family unless you can manage yourself and this integration, this integration of self, family and society, or what Chinese have called since all through history, all under heaven, the whole shebang, the whole works, unless you can manage yourself and your family, you have no chance of managing the rest. And just one quick thing, back to the idea of why Western philosophy has not taken this as seriously, it’s because many, many, not all, not all, but many, many Western philosophers have either used the…

To use an example, the telescope, big picture or the microscope, they’ve looked at life from the minute all the way to the massive picture. Confucius, and I say this in the televised lectures, Confucius stated that… He didn’t state it exactly, but the idea is The Analects are about getting good at life.

Brett McKay: I like that one.

Robert LaFleur: And that getting good at life is something that, of course, Western philosophy has aspired to that, but it’s funny when you look at the great works of philosophy that it’s not attacked as directly perhaps, as it is in Confucius’s writings.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you mentioned The Analects that’s attributed to Confucius, but…

Robert LaFleur: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Right. Well, it’s interesting, he’s like a lot of other famous philosophical or spiritual teachers, Confucius, we don’t actually have anything written by Confucius himself, it’s basically The Analects is a collection that was compiled together by his students later on.

Robert LaFleur: Correct. Correct. That he didn’t write a word of it, he is said to have written at the hands of almost every important work of that era, but that is kind of a later mythologization, we don’t have any evidence that he wrote these other works, any actual strong evidence. So it was put together over 500 years as a process by students, by students of students, and there’s a lot of what academics like to say, I really don’t like this word, a lot of distantiation going on. In other words, none of the students wrote until later in their lives when they were teachers, and then it was their students and their students, and it was almost like a little at first, a little cabal of confusions who then built through their own followers, something in a text that changed and was adapted, we’re learning this from archaeology, all the way for about 500 years until around the beginning of our era, of the Common Era, and then we have the text in the order that we see it today.

Brett McKay: And is this re… I mean, the reason why this… Sort of the way it was put together, is this why sometimes when you read the Analects… I’ve read the Analects a few times. And sometimes, man, it sounds kinda cryptic, as you said sometimes it’s contradictory. Is it because of the way it was compiled together, or was there something else going on there?

Robert LaFleur: No, that’s definitely part of it. And we’ve learned this… In other words, we’re living through a spectacularly interesting time right now in terms of archeology. Because what’s coming from the ground, it’s not just axles and spearheads and all those kinds of things, what’s coming from the ground is texts, and we’re finding out that for example in 200 BCE, there’s a text in the Analects, and it’s completely organized in a different fashion. Some of the… What we would call in English words, are different. And so we now know, we… For 2000 years, people didn’t know this. But we now know that the text took a long time to come together into the form we have. Ironically enough, that hasn’t made it more kind of what the Westerner might say, “Rationally organized.” And so a friend of mine, long story that I start the lecture series with, is… A colleague at a conference said that, “It’s almost like 500 sayings.” And that’s about right, it’s about 500 statements in the Analects. It’s as though they dropped from the sky, and then were just hurriedly shoved into 20 chapters.

And so it looks incredibly haphazard. And I’m not trying to make an argument that… Too common in the West to just force a unity onto it, to make it a strongly unified argument as though that… It just has to be that way. I do argue in a very different way, that there is a set of unified messages, but that we have to change the way we look at it. And I quote my great professor at… A Greek specialist, by the way, who translated Herodotus, the great historian, named David Grene, G-R-E-N-E. David Grene at the University of Chicago would always tell us that, “You can’t read Shakespeare, you should not read Shakespeare without always, always envisioning the stage.” To the extent that you’re reading words, and you’re checking sources and all of those kinds of things, you are losing that key connection. He’s right about Shakespeare, I would argue as well. But for Confucius, all of a sudden, later on, years later, it hit me that Professor Grene was right, and that it’s the same with Confucius. By trying to read it like we read Heidegger or Aristotle, we’re failing.

What we have to understand is how… And we all know this, the… How… The pace of how a classroom works. And so if you start on Book One, and you start reading, and you imagine the give and take of a gifted teacher in a class over the course of a long, very rigorous semester, what you start to see is a topic comes up, and it’s debated from one perspective, and then you move onto other things, and then the topic, if it’s really important, comes up again, and then you see another perspective where he’s dealing with another student, maybe someone who’s a little headstrong, and then he… The message seems to be a little bit different, and then you go on and on and on. And over the course of 16 weeks, or perhaps it’s a year-long course, or a… [chuckle] Or a much longer one, maybe it’s just all the courses you take over your life, is that what happens is that you start to develop deeper thinking about many topics because you have, as we might say, “Hit the knowledge muscle in all kinds of different directions.” That’s the Analects. And that is the way to appreciate it and not be frustrated by this seeming skipping around.

Brett McKay: Okay. So when you’re reading it, imagine you’re in a classroom?

Robert LaFleur: Imagine you’re in a classroom with a gifted teacher and students who are quite varying. Some who are timid, some who are headstrong… In other words, just like any classroom you’ve ever been in. And all of a sudden, it starts to make more sense. When certain topics come up, and one of them, “zhēn” compassion, a consummate conduct in compassion comes up very often, that you start to see it in all kinds of different ways. It’s confusing. It’s like a good discussion class. It seems confusing at first, and then it finally comes together.

Brett McKay: Okay. So you said earlier, the whole point of the Analects and what Confucius was trying to do, he’s trying to show people how to live a good life, which could eventually lead to individuals knowing how to lead well, if that was what part of their life was.

Robert LaFleur: Yes. No, no, no. He… Explicitly in his case, that is exactly the point. And I would characterize it slightly differently as getting good at life.

Brett McKay: Getting good at life.

Robert LaFleur: The good life does have at least echoes of the Greeks. And he’s not against that, I wouldn’t… [chuckle] I wouldn’t argue that, but it’s getting good at life.

Brett McKay: Okay. So the Analects is about getting good at life in a social context, and a big part of that is living with consummate conduct, and Confucius talks about this. But he talks about it, but it’s a hard thing to define. So first off, why is it so hard to define? And then what would be a good working definition for us for consummate conduct?

Robert LaFleur: The idea is… This has been very difficult to translate, and legitimately so. Number one, because it’s such a straightforward, simple character. It appears so often, it’s the core, the real core activity character that you find in the… And I say character meaning Chinese word, okay? That word in the Analects. And the idea is that it’s about being good. So one translation, benevolence. Okay, that’s not wrong, the problem with translating is you have to pick a word or at least a small cluster of words for a Chinese character that has a semantic field that is voluminous, that encompasses three, four, five, six, seven, eight English words. This is one reason I read Shakespeare so much, because as a translator, it’s just like, “I need more words.”

I wanna at least envision the range, the field around one of these Chinese characters, and so benevolence is one that’s been used. Humanity, another good one. It’s not wrong. Be a consummate person, we say in English, that’s the best one, I think so far, but be a benevolent person, be a humanistic person. Well, that’s tricky. There is one translator in the 1930s, who translated it as man being at his best, so be man being at his best. Okay, that gets a little clumsy in English, if I could translate it in the following way, this is how I would do it, I would call it social, moral, ethical, virtuosity, and the most important words there are social and virtuosity, and I mean a virtuoso. We all know… Maybe you can’t name it right now, the person right now, but we all know people like this who are so good, they flow through life and they influence others, there’s a power to their goodness, and it’s not just about being good in behaving, it’s about influencing others, having the capacity to transform a family through ones social actions, the capacity to transform one’s company or even the broader electorate on that is… That is zhēn, that is consummate conduct.

This has been translated in all kinds of ways, this translation that I think very highly of translates it as authoritative conduct. That’s a good translation. The problem is, Americans read it as authoritarian conduct, even though that’s not what’s being said, what’s being said is the capacity to be good and to convey that in one’s actions to the point where others are transformed, the whole idea of transformative goodness, which isn’t a bad translation now when I say that, I might write that down.

Brett McKay: Okay, so just to clarify, so an exemplary person is someone who has or a gentleman, it’s often translated like that, is someone who lives with consummate conduct, okay.

Robert LaFleur: Someone who lives… And that means… And there are all kinds of other things that are embedded in that, being trustworthy, being… Exerting your effort in loyalty, that’s not the perfect translation, but there’s these all kinds of other concepts that appear through the Analects that are kind of under the umbrella of consummate conduct. This is the King of the concept.

Brett McKay: Gotcha, and I wanna reiterate a point about when you have consummate conduct, you have social virtuosity.

Robert LaFleur: Yes.

Brett McKay: And as I was listening to that part it reminded me, I keep doing this ’cause I’m most familiar with him, is it reminds me of Aristotle and his idea of, I guess, prudence like a virtuous person knows what the right thing is to do at the right time for the right reason, in the right… It’s very situational. Is Confucius the same way, it’s like his ethics is often very socially, situational.

Robert LaFleur: Exactly. The situational nature of it is often ironically given Aristotle’s approach, but is often what trips up Western readers because he is targeting lessons, and so it’s very much how one acts at any particular time, you can’t create just a rule for it. So there is a French social thinker that I am inclined to teach very often, his name is Pierre Bourdieu, lived from 1930 to 2006, and one of the things he describes is what he calls situational mastery or a feel for the game. And this is the French word “jeu” where game isn’t a competition as much as it’s a situation that requires strategy, and he describes that human beings spend a lot of time creating rules, but they’re not really rules, we find ways around them and to deal with them in different ways, anyone who is a teacher who has set attendance policies knows this, but everyone knows it on some level, a parent, rules for teenagers. Okay.

So the idea is, how do you deal… How do you influence in different situations, in different changing situations, and with the Analects, this is the power of the classroom teaching, rather than one big strong definition of this is what consummate conduct is, rather, you work through it to the point where you get to many… You see it in many different situations, so one of the classic entries in the Analects is where one student says, How should I behave? And he said, I paraphrase, of course, you should go for it. And then the next student comes in and says, the same question, asks the same question, What should I do? You should defer to your brothers and your father. And then the third person comes in and says, two people just asked you the same question and you answered them differently, and he said, So and so is headstrong, and I needed to hold him back a little bit. Okay, think as a parent, think as a teacher of the idea of, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa before you commit to eight years for a PhD or something. Okay. Take…

Take a breath. Someone else is really timid, go for it, go for it. He is tailoring the messages, and if we’re reading and trying to force an integrated message onto the text, we will fail to see that we should be learning from those different situations, and so… It’s maddening that there’s no definition, but if you patiently work through the text then start over and work back through the text, all of a sudden this dynamic of different situations, different personalities, and different again, social-relational… I’ll go back to the very fine word you’re using, situations, appear. And it’s almost like… Again, one thing I say in the lectures is it’s almost like reading a 2500-year-old set of advice columns and paying attention to the questions and the answers.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So part of becoming this exemplary person, this gentleman that lives with consummate conduct, one of the things that Confucius talks a lot about is you have to develop a love of learning. So what exactly are you supposed to love? What’s the object of study for a Confucian gentleman?

Robert LaFleur: For Confucius it was books. I’m not going to deny that. And no book was more important than “The Book of Songs”, “The Classic of Poetry” is another translation that has been used and the like, a collection of poems that people have argued over the years are about all of these lessons, it’s an extraordinarily important text that I do teach in my teaching as well. So in other words, it’s not an argument for, that just learn from life and don’t read. I would say the most important thing is that you have to be all in. So in one of the lectures, and this one’s on YouTube, and at least a couple of the commenters did not understand why I did this, but I refer to a sociologist named C. Wright Mills, who in his “sociological imagination”, a classic work from 1957 and it’s still read today, and for good reason.

Is he argues that to be a technician, you have to read the books and do what the book says, and we both know… We all know that we need technicians in the world, if I’m getting an MRI, I want a skilled technician, but he said, “No, there’s another level, which is imagination,” you have to be all in, you have to not check out at the end of the day, you have to be thinking all the time, and you need to be seeing one thing in a book and then another in life and putting them together, that’s part of the creativity of becoming an exemplary person, what’s sometimes translated as you said, as gentlemen, because you put it together from books and life, and there’s a great story that sums this all up.

A person that I’ve studied my whole life, named Sima Wang, who lived from 1019-1085 of our era. And he, as a young child, was said to have been a little bookworm, studying in his study, reading the great texts of by that time 1500 years after Confucius, the great works of Confucianism, and he was studying away while all the other kids played in the courtyard, all of a sudden, there are cries from the courtyard, a little child was drowning, having played Hide and seek and crawled into a big urn that happened to have had rain water in it, and he was drowning, and all the children who had more experience in the real world, so called were at a loss of what to do as their friend was drowning.

Little Sima, put down his book, ran out, grabbed a rock, broke the vase and saved the child. The story has been told for a thousand years, it’s on postage stamps, it’s on… You ask anyone in China, they know this story. But the idea, as I see it, is even further than that, it’s the very picture of the reader moving in the phrase of one of my other professors in Chicago, Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, who said, “to move from text to action, that’s the heart of it,” to be a learner, was to make that move from your books to the world and that’s why I bring in the idea of being all in. Not, I study until 5 o’clock and then I’m done. It’s you’re always thinking, everything is study, and I would say in our own world, it’s the same equivalent that you’re always thinking, you’re always processing, you go to a baseball game and you start thinking about how life works and all these different kinds of things. That’s what Confucius wanted. And again, it’s something I call being all in.

Brett McKay: Okay, so Book study is important but make sure you apply it to your life, don’t just be a bookworm. Another important…

Robert LaFleur: Alone. Yes.

Brett McKay: Alone, right, yeah. And another important part of training to become an exemplary person is this idea of filial piety. I think a lot of westerners, if they were to ask, “Hey, what’s Confucianism about? ” Well, it’s just respect to your parents and your elders, but a key dig deeper to that, What role did filial piety play in the development of consummate conduct?

Robert LaFleur: The fascinating thing is how difficult this is to teach western students because the message can be read as a very tinny one, where it’s, “Listen to your elders, do what they say.” And I’m not saying that that’s entirely wrong in Confucius’s thinking and in Chinese thinking over the ages more generally, but what Confucius is ultimately arguing for, and this is principle by the way, this principle of filiality or filial conduct as I like to translate it. The word piety is a problematic because it’s so much a product of the early missionary translators. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with the word piety, but it has come to take on certain meanings in English that are tricky.

Not unlike authoritative and other words that have a funny ringing to them for Westerners, but to have filial conduct is to act effortlessly in a world of hierarchy. And so one of the things I stress, and this is extraordinarily hard for Americans. While my students, and I’ve taught in Germany and France, China and Japan. And one of the things that I find that all of my students outside of the United States seem to understand this more readily than Americans, but that is, that a hierarchical system can work, argues Confucius, and you play your role.

And so the idea is Confucius almost shouts, not literally, but it echoes through the Analects, act your role. And it’s about learning to be within different roles in a hierarchy, and the hierarchy then is not, “Yes sir, yes ma’am,” that whole thing, but rather a powerful integrative force where, as one great Chinese source from again, the same era, about 1500 years after Confucius, says, “Why would you want to play the same note all the time.” In other words you have to understand hierarchy as the notes on a scale and when they’re played in unison and when they’re played in order, all of a sudden they become great harmony. And so that’s the way of thinking. Again, Americans tend to be, and there are some very good reasons for this, including how I feel, is that this can be taken, this could be misunderstood very easily. And authoritarian governments have no problem taking over this message of, “Act your role and you’re not in charge.” But the teachings of the Analects, I would argue, are about something else. They’re about the power of hierarchical integration.

And Americans, and I’ll just say one last thing here is, Americans are tend to be, I should say, again, extraordinarily resistant to the idea of difference in society. And what I like to say is talk about cycling, and I love everything about cycling and my life shuts down in July for the Tour De France, and the idea is, “Every cyclist knows about what’s called false flats.” It looks flat, but it rises or falls ever so gently, and if you’re in the wrong gear, you’re in 43rd place instead of battling for the win. And too many Americans see flatness and absolute equality in terms of the social situation, where there are undulations. And Confucius was saying in many ways, just assuming in his world that there are undulations and that when it’s casual Friday, that, “Be careful.” Be careful of your attire. Be careful when the boss says, “Call me, Bob.” All of these different kinds of things. There are undulations, and he’s trying to attune people to the undulations and how to act in your role and the idea finally, is that, “Yeah, you may be the younger brother at some time, but then you’re gonna be a father at another time, and you’re going to be… And at some point you’re to take over the family rituals,” and all of these different kinds of things.

Robert LaFleur: And so throughout our lives, we take over different roles, and it’s knowing how to act in the role. Finally, and I mean really finally, is you have… I always say, we’re almost always under secretary of something. We’re almost never Secretary of. And I’m using the American idiom from government, but we’re almost always under secretaries. Managers, this or that. That handling your boss is a role, but then learning to take over authority at some point is also the role that is taught through filial conduct. And so you learn filial conduct, you get good at life. And you get good at knowing the varying roles of some deference with teaching to authority and its responsibilities that you will have over the course of a life.

Brett McKay: So it’s all about becoming that social virtuoso.

Robert LaFleur: Exactly. And the virtuoso… Again, I’ve got to underline that. The virtuoso has incredible… Think of Yo-Yo Ma. Incredible at the cello. Incredible talent. There’s individual… We could look at just individual talent there, and in a solo, absolutely. But put that talent in an orchestra, and then you have the power, the virtuoso power of a great symphony. Life is like the symphony, and the virtuoso is the person who has a real power. I’m not saying conductor, I’m saying the virtuoso who’s the instrumentalist has a real transformative power.

Brett McKay: And an important part of filial conduct, filial duty, typically what I hear you say, Americans hear that and they think, “Well, okay, you just do whatever your mom and dad says, or what your elders say, no matter what,” but there’s an important part you highlight in your lectures is this idea of remonstrance, which allowed for some back and forth. Can you talk about remonstrance a bit?

Robert LaFleur: Yeah, the Chinese character is an interesting one in its own right, and it’s like words on the left side and kind of a bundle on the right. And… And I often call remonstrance, a word, by the way, that in China and Japan, I’ve lectured on this topic, I’ve studied this topic for 30 years, is in China and Japan, just like in the United States, the word “remonstrance” or its Chinese or Japanese or Korean equivalence is not a word that people can easily define. It is sometimes meant as to exhort people to do better, exhorting people. But the basic principle in East Asia, it’s used a little bit differently in the west, but the basic principle is this: In a hierarchical system, it is not just the privilege, it is the duty, the duty of the junior member of a hierarchy to correct and critique a more senior member. The student corrects the teacher. The child corrects the parent. The middle level manager corrects the upper level manager or CEO.

It’s an extraordinary responsibility and a very difficult one in practice. Anyone who reads the news or has read, or has just lived through the history of presidencies, and I think about someone who has been at it for a while, that presidents often say, “Oh, I want people who will talk back to me, who will correct me, who will say, ‘No, I don’t agree.'” In practice, if you look at administrations through you and my lifetime, people don’t like to be corrected. Authority doesn’t like to be stopped. But it’s a duty. And I call it the forgotten principle of the… Like the 20 basic philosophical principles in Chinese life. It’s the one that’s been left aside the most. And there are reasons for that. Early Chinese kings and emperors did not like to be corrected, and yet this principle has remained all the way to the present.

I once had a young woman in Tokyo tell me at Waseda University where I was giving a talk, and she said, “This is really interesting, but we don’t have that in Japan. We just do whatever the authority says.” And I said, “Of course… ” Very politely, I said, “Of course you have it in Japan.” [chuckle] All the books have been written over the ages. But it tends to be the forgotten principle, but it’s all important. Filial conduct, the hierarchy won’t work unless the junior is gently correcting the senior. And the way you correct is to say or imply that you already know this. In other words, it’s not like I don’t agree to this completely different thing. It’s like you know what to do, you’ve strayed from it. You know the mission of the corporation, you’ve strayed from it. And again, it’s extraordinarily difficult to do in practice. Why are you gonna be the person who criticizes the boss and probably gets in trouble? And yet the company will fail if you don’t.

Brett McKay: So I imagine an exemplary person is one who knows how to provide that critique and it’s an important person.

Robert LaFleur: Exactly.

Brett McKay: But also an exemplary person, if they’re in the superior position, will know how to accept a critique.

Robert LaFleur: That’s the hard part.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Robert LaFleur: But that’s exactly right. And so it’s the idea of the person in authority. And that’s why I say, learning different roles is what filial conduct is about. Because when you’re in that role, there’s, again, a great… When you’re in the upper role, the upper echelon, there’s a responsibility. And it’s not just a responsibility to make decisions, it’s a responsibility to take in that critique and to reform one’s thinking, to clarify one’s thinking. And so every role has a responsibility and you’re going to play many, many, many different roles during your life, including multiple ones at the same time. You’re both a child and a parent at some point in many lives. All those kinds of things.

Brett McKay: So one last thing I’d like to talk about, an important part of Confucianism, is the role of ritual. And it seems like Confucius was a stickler for ritual, which is interesting ’cause we’ve been talking about the way he talks about sociality is very flexible and you have to know what the right thing to do in the situation, situations can change. But sometimes he can come off as very rigid about ritual. What’s going on there?

Robert LaFleur: Yeah, it’s very interesting because it’s true that he argues for the centrality of ritual in life, and he means doing the ritual exactly as it’s intended. To use a stage analogy, to read your words exactly, and yet… And so again, another thing that Americans tend to rebel at, if you say ritual, it’s like, “Oh my god, following all the rules.” But the idea is we do ritual all the time. And he does describe a kind of spontaneity. And early on, I couldn’t get this message either. Most of my graduate peers and I thought that Confucius was just a big bore. And it was a little book that I do recommend, it’s widely available if people look for it, and it’s called Confucius: The Secular As Sacred by Herbert Fingarette, is the title.

But all of a sudden is that Fingarette describes a handshake. I reach out my hand, you reach yours up to mine. All of a sudden we have this social accord, this social rapport that wasn’t there before with just this tiny, tiny ritual. Ask anyone from East Asia and they say, “Oh my God, handshaking is really difficult. I don’t know how to do it,” and yet it seems effortless if you grew up in the culture. Flash over to East Asia and my experience there, bowing. I once bowed to an animated ATM figure. I didn’t know I was doing it, I was just bowing, and then next thing I knew, I look around, it’s like, “Oh my God, I just bowed to an ATM.” But bowing is just such a natural part of Chinese, Japanese and Korean society that one almost doesn’t think about.

Those are rituals. And even in more elaborate rituals, there is the idea of, if you just read your words, again, think of the stage, if you just read your words… You’re not gonna be an effective actor. We all know how tinny that sounds. Radio… Local radio commercials where it’s obvious that the dialogue that’s supposed to be happening is just two people reading, and it fails, the distraction is so great, you forget what the ad is for, that’s a failure, that’s a ritual failure or a write-bomb, like a photo-bomb. But the idea is to do a ritual according to all the prescribed steps, which throughout Chinese history, they were all written down, but with such aplomb and with such skill, we forget that we’re watching a ritual as we see this melodic, harmonious set of actions come together. Think of great actors and the spontaneity and all that happens there. And so that’s ritual to Confucius. And yeah, there are things written down and you’ve gotta do them just like an actor with lines, but written by good writers, okay, and it has to seem as though you’re not going through a set of actions. That is ritual for Confucius.

Brett McKay: Okay, so I guess the idea is you gotta study this stuff really hard, practice it a lot, so that it eventually just becomes effortless and you appear like a virtuoso, like you’re not even thinking about it.

Robert LaFleur: Yeah. You are a virtuoso, and your performance… It’s performative, but not in this cynical way, we often think of that word. It’s performative, it’s embodied, it’s enacted, and from there, it’s transformational. One last thing about this is that there’s this integrative power of ritual that has a coming-together. And so one of the great French sociologists Emile Durkheim, who lived from 1858 to 1917, he described that humanity needs to be renewed periodically, and that all sociality and all the power of society comes from these periodic renewals, and people come together, they’re re-energized. Ritual for Confucius is like that. It’s an integrative power that has… It lasts, but it has to be re-enacted because it starts to wane.

And so the power of ritual is the integrative power. And of course, if you have a ritual where it’s just a bomb, I give a quick example in the lectures of the president of the college reading an honorary degree, we’re all listening, we’re all in the middle of the ritual, we’re used to it, and all of a sudden he mispronounces a basic word, and all of a sudden the whole thing is destroyed. The dream is broken. That happened in my experience, and that’s where I start to see the integrative power and also how it can go wrong. So you need to be a virtuoso. And if you mispronounce something, you’ve got to find a way to re-enact, to get the ritual back.

Brett McKay: As you were describing that, it made me think of… I was trying to make it… Relate it to my life. I think we’ve all had those experiences where maybe you go to a nice dinner party and you’re just like… You just do everything right. You practice all the laws of etiquette, the rules of etiquette that you know, but it’s like seamless and flawless, and there is something that… It’s noble and you feel good about yourself, and you feel good about the people around you, and you feel good about the whole situation when everyone’s trying their best to work together to make this thing a night to remember.

Robert LaFleur: And it’s a night to remember, and it’s a great social… It’s a great integrative social experience where people become… And again, I’m echoing this French thinker, Emile Durkheim, where you become more than yourself. It works so well that at least temporarily you are snatched away from, these are his words, the monotony of your daily life [laughter] to something different and bigger, and he calls that society. And I believe Confucius is saying something very similar, that that kind of virtuosity leads to that kind of dinner party experience and others that you just described.

Brett McKay: Well, Robert, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?

Robert LaFleur: Yeah, it’s kind of funny ’cause I’m in the middle of a huge array of things that’ll be coming out in the next year or so, including translating this French thinker and a thousand pages of his stuff. So I have a lot of stuff that’ll be coming out soon including my translation of Confucius, which even with the editing process, it could be 2023, but it’s going to be… It’s coming, with a lot of the things in the translation that I’ve been talking about today behind it. In any case, my blog is not a bad place to start. And so it’s called Round and Square, and you probably can find it by just searching Round and Square, but it’s also… And this is a sign of when blogs were really a bigger thing, is it’s just

It’s eventually gonna be going to a website, but for now, it’s at that address. And I would say to anyone, ’cause I… Email me. It’s just [email protected]. It’s pretty straightforward. And I’m happy to correspond and send some things that aren’t published yet, and all kinds of things. I’m very happy to talk with people.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Robert LaFleur, thanks for this time, it’s been a pleasure.

Robert LaFleur: Yeah, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest’s today was Robert LaFleur, he’s the lecturer of The Great Courses course called Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius. You can find that at The Great Courses Plus, or now it’s called Wondrium. You can also find out more information about Robert’s work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our Art of Manliness website where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android, iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast.

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