Ritual or Ritualism: The spirit of Confucianism

Benoit Vermander, SJ

 Benoit Vermander, SJ / Culture / 13 October 2020

Paid Article

For Confucius, “a noble man of spirit does not use colors such as amaranth or purple for the hems of his clothes, neither red nor purple for everyday wear.”[1] The Analects of Confucius abound in similar aphorisms and, at first glance, one might wonder whether the detail of the dress standards that the Chinese philosopher applied to himself retains any value in contemporary society. However, two observations allow us to immediately grasp the importance of the collection that, for us still today, documents the deeds and words of Master Kong.

In the first place, Confucius teaches much less by word than by conduct: the way he dresses, how he eats, how he lies down in his bed to sleep, everything contributes to the formation of the disciples who follow him. Secondly, the practices whose observance he promotes are almost always ritual in nature. Chinese philosophers reflected on the nature and customs of ritual in the same way that Greek philosophers sought to define the law and build an ideal legal system.

There is a “spirit of ritual,” and living it provides perhaps the best defense against the excesses of ritualism, excesses into which, moreover, China has often fallen. Therefore, in this article we will try to go back to the sources, to assimilate what Confucius and his first disciples thought to find in the observance of ritualism, and to propose an interpretation that makes sense today. At the same time, we must affirm the universality of an inspiration that is not only valid for China, but which, at a time when wisdom and philosophy intersect and enrich each other, can usefully question all our societies.

What is a ritual?

The term “ritual” comes from the Latin expression ritualis liber, a book that describes in detail the rituals to be performed. The word ritus (equivalent of the Greek word nomos) designates a “way to celebrate” (a sacrifice, for example), a sequence of gestures and attitudes. The concrete expressions of a cult (the content of the rite itself, if you like) were indicated by the words sacra and caerimoniae.

This article is reserved for paid subscribers. Please subscribe to continue reading this article