By Damien Knight
Is it honourable to follow tradition or is tradition a restriction of self? I am going to go over how the good life might not be honouring tradition. It is possible it is not the good life but a cannibalism of our self as depicted in the allegorical tale “Diary of a Madman.”
The Analects, a text that outlines Confucius thought, tells us to follow Li. It describes Li as being responsibility, tradition, and ritual. It is what one does to find their purpose in society. When Confucius is asked what Ren is, he mentions Li being the path to Ren. “Conquer yourself and return to Li: that is Ren,” (Analects, 12.1). For Confucius, the good moral person or Junzi followed Li. Li is learned and taught. In Diary of a Madman it hints at this in the paranoid hero’s mention of hatred of him in the eyes of the children. He states they must have learned their hate from their parents. Hate is the tradition, the ritual taught according to the madman.
Ritual structured behaviours are seen as a positive thing. They control your actions in a social setting and assure your honour in old age. When you are young you are cared for and taught by your family. As you age, you become the caretaker and maybe one day your child will honour you returning Ren with Li. It is after all good that “the Junzi perfects what is beautiful in people he does not perfect what is ugly.” (Analects 12.16) Or is it?
The Mad Man’s Diary questions all that is Confucius. It uses an allegory that compares Li to cannibalism. Honour and tradition become an empty hunger that requires constant feeding. The Madman speaks of how even as a young child he was taught to eat men through his brother, saying, “People exchange their sons to eat,” (Diary of a Mad Man, Section V). This is a symbol of being taught to follow Confucius. These teachings lead to being eaten, not physically, but your identity. Your identity becomes what society and your parents decide. Your job is what is designated and your honour is to achieve your job.
This is what I have deemed “social cannibalism” where it is the individual “cannibalised” by “social pressures.” Confucian principles demand conformity. It demands fulfilling your role “untiringly.” Confucius requires honouring Li to the family. This form of Li is also visited in Mad Man’s Diary by stating “Brother told me that when parents are ill, a son, in order to be counted as a really good person, should slice off a piece of his flesh, boil it and let them eat it” (Diary of a Mad Man, Section XI). This is symbolic of the Confucian principle of filial piety, the son always honouring the parent. The brother of the Mad Man is the ultimate representation of this idea.
The brother is the one quoted the most often when the Mad Man thinks of how the people wish to eat him. Guilt and shame is a way society may try to cannibalise us, people will look at us and whisper. We feel guilty and perhaps, paranoid, and therefore try to change our actions to what is acceptable for society. This is what the Mad Man means when he says they all look at him with hunger. The vast symbolism is a valid criticism of being controlled to such an extent by society. Neighbours become privately paranoid of each other.
Is it good to be a Junzi if the cost is your neighbours pressuring you to follow tradition? If every moment becomes ritual where do you find self? Self becomes lost and you become part of the whole, a meal fed to society. You become your parents’ clone rather than yourself, so much so that even after their death you must honour them for three years. The Analects say “The Master said: When the father is alive, observe the son’s intent. When the father dies, observe the son’s conduct. One who does not alter his late father’s Dao for three years may be called filial,” (Analects, 1.11). Is this the right way to be grieving, living as your father would have you for three long years when you could live as yourself? It could be said this is what you would want since one day your own children will do this for you.
The Mad Man disagrees, he thinks it would be better to break these outdated time wasting rituals. He says it is time to save society as the children have not been exposed to Confucianism. As he put it, “Perhaps there are still children who have not eaten men? Save the children,” (Diary of a Mad Man, Section XIII) If the children could be freed of Confucianism then they could find themselves and their version of the good life.
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