Understanding Metaphor in Confucius and Aristotle 隐喻的比较研究

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Image: Norton Museum (2011). Qianlong Meritorious Servitior. Retrieved April 20, 2017 from here.

Native speakers of all languages commonly use metaphor when communicating about the world (Lakcoff & Johnson, 1980). While such metaphorically used words and expressions vary across different languages and times, metaphor “opens up a whole new world of meaning…(allowing) each individual to add colour and detail to the picture it draws” (Bergmann, 2008, p. 219). Metaphors do this by inviting readers to make inferences about how two different things could be alike.

For example, the interpretation of the Shakespearean phrase “Juliet is the sun” is dependent on one’s knowledge and experience of the sun: as an awesome sight, warm, and vital to life. Instead of providing a direct comparison (“Juliet is like the sun”), the metaphor casts on the subject ideas and associations of the sun so that Juliet, like the sun, is understood in the way that Romeo sees her, highlighting what Rina Marie Camus (2017) calls “perspectival thinking of the subject” (p. 4) or ways of seeing things from another’s point of view. While providing new ways of seeing things, metaphors also relate to common phrases and experiences, reinforcing how communities and groups use “socially shared way(s) of thinking” (Stern, 2000, p. 131).

In comparative studies, many authors including Yu Jiyuan (2010) and Edward Slingerland (2011) have examined shared metaphors between Confucian and Aristotelian texts. However, unlike Yu and Slingerland who assume that metaphors are used to create the same images and meanings between texts, supporting the theory that metaphors are valid across time, space, and culture and ultimately derive from common bodily experiences, Camus argues that metaphors are ‘context-sensitive’. That is, they are based on images whose configuration and resonance heavily depend on a larger context of traditions that use that metaphor. Camus focuses on archery as her main example.

Early Chinese thinkers have often used archery as a metaphor when discussing ethics. Scholar and poet Yan Xiong, for instance, stated:

“Cultivate character (xiushen) and let it be your bow. Rectify your thoughts and let them be your arrows. Establish appropriateness (yi) as your target. Settle, aim, and let the arrows fly. You are certain to “hit the mark” (zhong).” (Yangzi Fayan, 3.1)

While the bow is a common aspect of ancient cultures, archery in China has long been related to military skill, moral behaviour, and good political governance. As Sinologist Cecilia Lindqvist states in her book China: Empire of Living Symbols, the character for bow is a common symbol on graves from the late Zhou era, and can also be found on oracle bones and bronzes. Early classics such as the Book of Documents and the Book of Odes also feature references to archery, creating strong associations between the bow and political authority by recurring mention of archery contests.

Given the commonality of archery in early Chinese culture, it is not surprising that bow metaphors are used in the Confucian text The Analects to highlight practices of morality. In the translated version by James Legge, a passage of The Analects states:

“There is nothing that gentlemen compete over (zheng), if at all, it is in archery…when ascending to the shooting platform and upon descending offering drink- such competition is truly of gentlemen.” (3.7)

While making sense on the literal level, the passage can also be read as a comparison of the archers and the gentleman, where both figures interact properly with peers according to correct ritual. For Camus (2017), more substance can be drawn from this passage by noting the audience being addressed in this passage – young men being groomed for office, and the political strife during the Warring States period in which the passage is set.

Considering that archery contestants were expected to bow to their opponents before and after shooting turns, while wine was offered to losers who were obliged to drink (Selby, 2000), the passage would have generated images of friendly relations, kindness towards inferiors, and the importance of accepting one’s fate, inviting rulers and ministers to think about right conduct and the life of subordinates.

In this sense, understanding the meaning of associations by referring to contextual information can help clarify passages of ancient texts for modern interpreters. For The Analects passage 3.7, respectful behaviour of archers was an easy way of summing up Confucius’ perspective on moral governance as it appealed to experiences that were publicly accessible and well-known (Stern, 2000).

Unlike in China, archery was less valued in ancient Greece. While the bow was used in Greek mythology and the epic tales of Crotus the Archer, and Hyacinth the lover of Apollo who became accomplished when he learnt how “to shoot with a bow…and also to play the lyre” (See, 2014, p. 93), archery was never seen in great athletic competitions like the Olympics. As Historian Waldo E. Sweet (1987) notes, “the feeling seemed to be that it was a cowardly weapon, with which a weak man could kill a brave warrior at a distance” (p. 177).

With later developments in Greece’s military history however, archery became a utilized weapon in warfare and territorial patrol. State-sponsored physical education, which trained young men to become well-regarded citizens, also featured archery (Wooyeal & Bell, 2004).

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle appeals to the sport in his discussion on achieving good:

“Surely, then, knowledge of the good must be very important for our lives? And if, like archers, we have a target, are we not more likely to hit the right mark? Is so, we must try at least roughly to comprehend what it is and which science or faculty is concerned with it” (Passage 1.2, line 1094a)

In her discussion, Camus (2017) notes that the metaphor fixes attention on the participants of moral inquiry who are compared to archers posed to strike. The ethicist aims at the Good which symbolises the target, while the means to the target symbolised by the arrow is knowledge. The familiarity with archery practices and events would have resonated with the original audiences and made for a dramatized explanation of the importance of reaching the aim. Success in the inquiry was just as important for ethical individuals and communities as it was for archers’ lives and state security (Camus, 2017).

While common themes arise between the use of archery as a metaphor in Confucius and Aristotle, including moral striving, the preparation of young men as civic subjects, and physical activity as a component of moral life, the relevance of this metaphor is based on different sets of images and inferences.

For Confucius, archers were a prototype for gentlemanly behaviour as rituals and right conduct were ways of fostering necessary traits for leaders. Rather than focusing on the act of shooting, The Analects passages on archery relate to the life and conduct of a gentleman (that is, a morally noble person) in power.

The Aristotelean text, on the other hand, highlights that archery relates to the nature of ethical inquiry and excellence. The virtuous agent is like the skilled archer in that the rightness of his deeds are like the arrows that hit the mark. The emphasis in this sense is on the aim of the bow rather than the rituals and processes around the act of shooting. Further, a later passage in the Nicomachean Ethics (10.7) highlights a more complete understanding of happiness that goes beyond acts that are aimed at some end, showing “the limits of archery as metaphor for excellence and happiness” (Camus, 2017, p. 16).

In that case, despite being used as a common expression across ancient periods, Camus’s article shows that understanding the context of metaphors can reveal more about the meaning and intention of ancient passages than previously thought.

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