The Analects for Croatia


( Hi! I am Ivana Turudic. I am thirty-five years old, female from Croatia. Most of my work is writing articles in culture and popular humanities. I am also engaged in disability advocacy. I was writing about the lived experience of persons with disability and trying to use it in the context of evidence-based medicine. The first time I took my effort to look for consolation and advice in the Analects was when I was 22. The following is an essay encapsulating my learning experience of the Analects. And it has 2770 words)

Remembering my first encounter with the Analects is emotional. I should mention my country, Croatia, is mostly rooted in Catholicism. Most people are Catholic even today. It is the tradition of my ancestors, and I respect it, I learned from it. However, Croatia has been a secular society for a very long time, as any of the European countries, and most of our founding statesmen were even anticlerical, but Church played a role in our history in preserving the very existence of Croatian language and culture. The cornerstone for this cultural identification was Glagolithic ceremonies throughout centuries meaning that Croatian people could attend the mass in their native language instead of Latin. It is a too complex connection to explain here, but it does run deep. The popular version of this religion that appeared in recent history, however, never appealed to me. I am not aware of anyone making this distinction, but it seems legitimate. This popular form was often abused in ideological disputes and divisions that mark our contemporary history.

I am trying to tell a story of my first encounter with the Analects and even more, Chinese philosophy. It was close to the end of my six-year Master degree studies when I found myself at a crossroad. I stayed at that place, not knowing which direction my course of life would have taken for some eight years. I didn’t know it would take so long and my guide in keeping the balance and remedy for inner struggles would often be the Analects. As a child, I enjoyed my mother’s history books about ancient civilizations. Some were too hard to read, but I was struggling anyway. I could travel the world and the time in my imagination. Anyway, it was no escapism, but true interest,  and it is not a wonder that at some point I started reading a really bad Croatian translation of the Analects, not directly from Chinese but through English. Certainly, we had translations of Chinese poetry, and Croatia was throughout centuries always in touch with the rest of Europe, also incubating interest in other cultures. This connection persisted through our intellectuals who served at foreign courts or was acclaimed outside the country which has been torn by wars, relentless defense and attempts to preserve our own sovereignty.

Although we were not systematic in our approach to Chinese culture, the Analects appealed to me, and I got my first decent English translation soon. I couldn’t speak standard Chinese, let alone read the books that interest me in the original language. My first English translation was often with me in the years to come. It is with me right now, when writing this and trying to rethink my past: Dover Publications [1], pocket edition. I was studying two subjects, one of them being philosophy, but we didn’t have experts in Chinese philosophy in Croatia at that time.

Then the situation mentioned above happened. I found out I was suffering from chronic illness and I didn’t know whether I was going to recover. This struggle to get better and own my life again lasted for about eight years. (Recovery took years too, but those were happy days.) At that point, of course, I didn’t know how long it was going to last and whether I would be able to get my life back. In these situations, more things fall apart than we expect. Only people with similar experience know how many of them, and sometimes we are unaware of the consequences till we recollect all the pieces years after. Sometimes never.

I couldn’t carry on with my ambitions, and those were many. I couldn’t properly be there for important people in my life since I needed to care myself. I could see others get ahead with their lives, but I was happy that I didn’t feel envy. My joy for other people’s success, when it is based on merit, was genuine. I must admit Confucius also had a role here. I felt content with myself since I was trying my best and I felt I wasn’t failing as a person when faced with difficulties. I learned there is much more to life than pursuing certain goals. The struggle that persisted in me in a society and milieu which was encouraging blind ambition was resolved by my situation that made me see myself as a whole, and not just what was part of who I am. I was trying everything for my wellbeing, I was trying to practice being a better person, and I learned it has value in itself and it is also beneficial to others, especially those who are deeply interconnected.

Reading the Analects made me feel as if I am not alone and as if my strivings for improving my condition in all spheres of life, with little visible results,  shouldn’t be abandoned. I read them with no scholarly commentaries. I didn’t know much about the context, and there was a language barrier, besides layers of time and cultural differences. But some passages spoke directly to me.

My grandmother used to say not to be haughty in good times and not to bring yourself humiliation in bad times. I used to be the high achiever, but never arrogant. According to Confucius, now I was to learn the hard part of the lesson, how to behave in times when I couldn’t achieve what I desire. I understood those well-known passages in a very broad sense and in my own way, recognizing them in what was familiar to me. Did I understand them right? Can they work in the world of today? My answer was that I was going to try and see for myself, step by step.

At that time my country was going through a bad transition with the contemporary history of two totalitarian regimes and independence war. Historical turmoils caused new elites to arise. I am describing the impressions I have of our society since we have little research or credible data. I happen to think some interest groups like to keep us in the dark regarding some issues so they could continue to raise ideological disputes and mobilize larger parts of society on an emotional level rather than knowing the truth and reaching out for solutions to growing problems. As mentioned, it is the society that is rewarding blind obedience to pseudo-ideologies and punishing the rest who can’t or simply won’t fit in that frame. This insight was shedding light on some parts of my micro world too.

I would like to stress few points I remember noticing in my first readings.

Effects that rites have over society seemed very clear to me. Again, I was not fully aware at the time what Confucius meant in the cultural sense, but I could see how politicians attending different religious activities of different confessions, commemorations of historical events, anniversaries or even football games are often cause for discussions in the media and between people. It is a way to spread influence. It is the way to govern people’s minds and hearts or in our case, divide them. It seemed like the powerful tool, and therefore the way it is used should be taken into serious consideration.
As for people, I learned so much when trying to apply some passages to my world. I can see, right in front of myself, a passage marked so long ago in Book II, Chapter X [2] . I started observing people in such ways, especially in things where they find peace and rest. It really points to the essence of one’s character, and it won’t change as long as there is humankind.

I lost some illusions too. When reading on being unable to rob even a common man of his will I learned much about myself[3] . I was often expecting people to comply with what I see as just, but their refusing to do so is not worth anger, even if I am right. Anyone can take refuge in the power of their own will. That is what people often do even if it means persisting in wrongdoing.

I learned some people will always seek favor over justice in different types of situations. Sometimes even in the context of private relationships, like friendship. It shouldn’t be confused with possible expectations of acts of kindness, but it is to surrender to dubious interests. To me granting favor over justice is precisely a mere alliance based on interests and at this point, my ethical intuitions saw the light of the day with the help of reading[4]. I didn’t know what was meant by the saying in the first place. I could guess it had more to do with the justice granted by the ruler or Heaven (Tian). There were other chapters on friendship that were useful to me, but I thought I saw one possible application here as well. In my mind, this issue was tightly connected with the notion of merit, although the philosophy of the Analects isn’t systematic at first glance or at least in the way we learn about philosophical systems at our universities.

It is the time to ask why not Croatian philosophers when we have a rich tradition? Philosophy in the West became mostly an academic endeavor, for centuries. It couldn’t provide me with practical tools to govern my life. However, was it right to use the Analects instead of some means of psychology? Today I know there are explorations on the use of self-cultivation in psychotherapy, but still, I’d say yes. Ethics should be there to help us work on our wellbeing. This was my point of view roughly, and I didn’t know of any divisions in teachings in Asian thought. Also, the Ru (Confucian) tradition seemed so unique to me, in countless ways, too many to list here. I had a feeling that some of the readings are containing my experience as well, and they were helping me sharpen my observations in the way I’d never experienced before.

I saw the passages as tightly intertwined, though some even seemed as obvious insights when written. Still, it was a lot to digest when applied to one’s own experience and a lot to practice. One of the most important lessons I am still mastering was on being the slave to the praise of others. I found it in the passages on why men are liked or disliked, or in sayings[5] on the way to secure recognition, whether it is by merit or by other means.

Reading on the characters depicted as in a fine embroidery that is trying to balance the traits, I learned and confirmed my observations, for example, on feigned virtue, like feigned straightforwardness that consists in interfering with person’s private affairs[6]. I recognized my own and other people’s shortcomings more clearly, but most of all I learned about the importance of learning and correcting one’s mistakes.

I wasn’t paying attention to the fact the Analects are about men; I simply didn’t have the feeling that they are not intended for me to read and practice because I am a woman, that I am excluded. As I already said I was writing off everything historically distant and trying to focus on dense life experience. I remember some of my acquaintances finding the discussion on Confucius everyday behavior silly [7], but I didn’t see it that way. Every society has proper codes of conduct, unwritten etiquette, and ritualized norms. In fact, we often comment on those at length and sadly in vain, without true reflection. We could learn from the Analects not to take them for granted. Small steps constitute who we are, and they can affect our fate – I learned this from my own experience. These small steps in changing habits were constituting my world at that point. I wasn’t getting good enough medical help, and my routines were preserving my health. It was an outstanding insight for me.

By now I realized these texts were carefully compiled and there are so many possible situations they can explain and be applied to. I wanted to learn more and sharpen my understanding. I also started reading other Chinese thinkers. As soon as health permitted me, I applied to be the editor of two categories on Confucianism on PhilPapers so I could follow scholarly work. I am aiming at learning so much more than I know. I don’t see this teaching as just a matter of cultural legacy of China or other countries who adopted the Confucian philosophy. It belongs to the world, but it is not only a heritage to admire or use in amusing conversations. I think it has much to say in the way of conduct in the world of today. It can provide tools for sense-making and principles to govern action that is hard to master, but the key is in trying, till we acquire the skill, hopefully. Also, the process of learning is bringing joy to one’s life.

I am saying that the Analects and other classics are giving us ways to understand the social world of today, insights and ability to handle life’s difficulties. In the age of instant success and attaining knowledge for the sake of ambition only, we are equipped with means to get attention or many other goods easily, but can we use the same mindset to overcome our difficult times? It seems clear to me, from reading and observation, such a mindset would make anyone demoralized in hardships. Naturally, with the best effort in practicing some form of ethics for wellbeing[8], failure is possible. The image of the upright man, free from anxiety and at peace in his virtue, is the ideal model, but I’d say striving gives much better odds when faced with any kind of loss. Also, by investing care in ourselves, we are building a better society. If Croatian people would look back to our most important political figures of the past, founders of our modern political life, they would see men and women who were educating people and who were trusted for being virtuous. Their power and influence still felt today was precisely there and not in material resources or repressive apparatus. So, I invite you to learn from the Analects, and the Ru tradition maybe isn’t so odd and distant, after all.

[1]  The Analects, Confucius, Dover Thrift Editions, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, first published in 1995, republication of William Edward Soothill translation from 1910.

[2]  The Master said: “Observe what he does; look into his motives; find out in what he is at peace. Can a man hide himself? Can a man hide himself?” (The Analects, 2:10)

[3]  The Master said: “You may rob a three-corps army of its commander-in-chief but you cannot rob even a common man of his will.” (9:25)

[4]  The Master said: “The man of honour thinks of his character, the inferior man of his position. The man of honour desires justice, the inferior man favour.” (4:11)

[5]  The Master said: “Though all hate a man, one must investigate the cause; and though all like him, one must also investigate the cause.’ (15:27) The Master said: “With coarse food to eat, water for drink, and a bent arm for a pillow,- even in such a state I could be happy, for wealth and honour obtained unworthily are to me as a fleeting cloud.” ( The Analects, 7:15)

[6]  “Do men of nobler class detest others?” asked Tzŭ Kung. “They do detest others’ answered the Master. “They detest men who divulge other people’s misdeeds. They detest those low, base people who slander their superiors. They detest the bold and mannerless. They detest the persistently forward who are yet obtuse. And have you, T’zŭ, those whom you detest?” he asked. “I detest those who count prying out information as wisdom. I detest those who count denouncing a man’s private affairs as straightforwardness,” replied Tzŭ Kung. (The Analects, 17:24)

[7]  Please see chapter 10 of the Analects.

[8]  Aware of the discussions in ethics, I am suggesting that practicing what we tend to call virtue ethics is possibly bringing joy to one’s life. That is what I have experienced.

(Manuscript submitted: July 2017)