Edited by T. C. Kline III and Justin Tiwald. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014. Pp. ix + 197.
Reviewed by Kurtis Hagen
Philosophy East & West 66.2 (April 2016): 676–678.
As the title Ritual and Religion in the Xunzi accurately suggests, this collection of essays edited by T. C. Kline III and Justin Tiwald addresses Xunzi’s perspective on ritual and religion. Some of the essays are new, others are have been published pre- viously. As a whole, the book strives to portray Xunzi as a religious philosopher, and to elucidate his potential contribution to the understanding of religion and ritual. Although there are a variety of views presented, Xunzi is generally characterized as renovating and reinterpreting religion, rather than denouncing it, as he has some- times been interpreted.
After an introduction, the first chapter is Edward J. Machle’s seminal 1976 essay “Xunzi as a Religious Philosopher,” in which Machle challenges the then-dominant notion that Xunzi was an antireligious philosopher. As Machle points out, both Neo- Confucians, who followed Mencius in affirming the goodness of human nature, and twentieth-century rationality-minded Confucians each had incentives for misreading Xunzi as antireligious—the former to reject him, the latter to embrace him.
Machle lists seven textual grounds for an antireligious interpretation of Xunzi, of which I will mention four: (1) his critique of superstition, (2) his seemingly dismissive attitude toward spirits, (3) his statement suggesting that religious rituals are merely ornamental, and (4) his seemingly naturalistic view of tian. Machle dismisses most of the seven reasons rather quickly, effectively leaving him with two (or three, depending on how you count) to deal with in detail, namely Xunzi’s “critiques of superstition (including beliefs in spirits) and his ‘naturalistic’ view of nature” (p. 25). In his treatment of these issues, Machle points out that Xunzi’s attack on superstition need not be considered antireligious (p. 25), and that while Xunzi had a negative view of gui (spooks), he had a positive view of shen (spirits). In the end, Machle has made a persuasive case that rather than rejecting religion Xunzi was trying to renovate it.
The next chapter, “A Happy Symmetry: Xunzi’s Ecological Ethic,” is a significantly revised version of P. J. Ivanhoe’s 1991 essay, originally carrying the subtitle “Xunzi’s Ethical Thought.” Ivanhoe highlights an ecological aspect of Xunzi’s philosophy, in which Xunzi is described as having provided a formula for achieving “a happy symmetry” that “balances human needs and desires with the capacities, limitations, and needs of the non-human realm” (p. 50). This balance is thought to make possible “universal harmony and flourishing” (p. 49), an achievement so significant that the dao that makes it possible becomes “worthy of profound respect and com- plete devotion” (p. 45; cf. p. 52). And this, Ivanhoe suggests, amounts to “religious reverence for the Way” (p. 44).
I happen to have a long-standing difference of opinion with Ivanhoe regarding one aspect of his interpretation of Xunzi that is prominent in this essay, namely the suggestion that Xunzi thought there was a uniquely best, fundamentally unchanging way. Regardless, the point of Ivanhoe’s essay can be sustained even without this sup- position. The point, as I would put it, is this: it is possible for human beings to “coop- erate with” the heavens and the earth in a way that is satisfying from all perspectives (p. 44).
In chapter 3, Robert C. Neville interprets Xunzi’s ritual theory in terms of semi- otics. He takes li (ritual) broadly “to encompass all conventions, all learned signs and sign-shaped behaviors” (p. 65). Comparing ritual to formal dance steps, Neville points out that, given their inherent vagueness, “each performer has to make them specific to individuated actions” (p. 68). He combines these considerations with the relation between ritual and desire, and how ritual functions to facilitate personal integration as well as higher-level integration. While there are costs involved in these various levels of integration, Neville argues, they result in richer levels of “personal or civilizational satisfaction” (p. 72). In the end, this process is argued to be what allows us to be truly human.
In chapter 4, Lee H. Yearley describes what he takes to be three levels of spiritu- ality in Xunzi’s philosophy. At the first level, the level that is most commonly recog- nized, Xunzi explains and defends ritual in terms of its socially edifying effects. The second level has Xunzi criticizing and reinterpreting practices that can either be spiritually uplifting or destructive, depending on whether or not they are properly understood. The third is a mysterious level in which humans contact the numinous. Though intriguing, I must admit that I find this third level somewhat mysterious.
My personal favorite of these essays is chapter 5, Mark Berkson’s “Xunzi’s Re- interpretation of Ritual: A Hermeneutic Defense of the Confucian Way.” Berkson seeks to show how Xunzi’s reinterpretation of ritual avoids “supernaturalism, irrationalism, wish-fulfillment, and literalism, on the one hand, and reductive rationalism, desanctification, and alienation on the other” (p. 126). One of the most interesting parts of this chapter is Berkson’s framing of, and response to, a “Freudian challenge” to Xunzi’s view of ritual. Berkson argues that Xunzi’s strategy of using ritual to adopt an “as if” attitude, a sophisticated mode of pretending, is not only therapeutic but can also, like “true fiction” and art, “be [a form] of uncovering reality, not merely evading it” (p. 125).
The last two chapters are comparative. The first, chapter 6, is James Robson’s “Ritual Tradition in Xunzi and Dōgen.” Robson notes that affinities between Xunzi’s view of ritual and that of Émile Durkheim have been described by A. R. Radcliffe- Brown and later by Robert Company. Without repudiating these comparisons, Robson points out, there are nevertheless significant differences between Xunzi’s and Durkheim’s ritual theories. Indeed, Robson argues, Durkheim’s ritual theory seems to describe “Xunzi’s worst-case scenario for a ritual,” one in which, as Xunzi describes it, “everything reverts to emotion and finds unity in that alone” (p. 141). Robson finds that on this issue Xunzi has more in common with Dōgen, both of whom find in their respective traditions an encompassing set of specific behav- ioral patterns (“rituals”) that cultivate the person and establish orderly distinctions in society.
The final chapter, chapter 7, is “Sheltering Under the Sacred Canopy: Peter Berger and Xunzi,” by T. C. Kline III. Kline describes both Xunzi and Berger as viewing the social order as a human construct. But while Berger held that to live “authentic” lives people must see past these constructs and face the bare chaotic reality of the world, Xunzi, in contrast, viewed living effortlessly within the constructed dao as the ideal. Kline suggests that Xunzi’s view has some advantages over Berger’s, and that Berger’s view can be improved by taking these into consideration.
On the whole, this is a well-selected collection of essays that will appeal to those interested in Chinese philosophy, and Xunzi in particular, and perhaps even more to those interested in religious studies or ritual theory.
I have one complaint. Unsurprising though it is, it is nevertheless regrettable that the character tian 天 continues to be translated as “Heaven” with a capital “H.” The discussion of Xunzi’s religious sensibility in no way turns on this translation, but the word “Heaven” nevertheless suggests an unnecessarily distorted image of the Xunzi’s concept of tian. It seems strange to me that such a nuanced set of readings on religion would consistently employ such an inappropriately loaded rendering of a central term. As Ivanhoe concedes, but buries in a footnote, Xunzi “always meant by this [tian] the ‘heavens above’ and their various celestial phenomena” (p. 58 n. 7). That is not the idea that the word “Heaven” evokes. The phrase “the heavens” would serve much better.