Ritual and Rightness in the Analects

In Amy Olberding (ed.), Dao Companion to the Analects. pp. 95-116 (2013)
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Abstract
Li (禮) and yi (義) are two central moral concepts in the Analects. Li has a broad semantic range, referring to formal ceremonial rituals on the one hand, and basic rules of personal decorum on the other. What is similar across the range of referents is that the li comprise strictures of correct behavior. The li are a distinguishing characteristic of Confucian approaches to ethics and socio-political thought, a set of rules and protocols that were thought to constitute the wise practices of ancient moral exemplars filtered down through dynasties of the past. However, even while the li were extensive and meant to be followed diligently, they were also understood as incapable of exhausting the whole range of activity that constitutes human life. There were bound to be situations in life where there would be no obvious recourse to the li for guidance. As part of their reflections on the good life, the Confucians maintained another moral concept that seemed to cover morally upright exemplary behavior in these types of situations. This concept is that of yi or rightness. In this chapter, I begin with a brief historical sketch to provide some context, and will then turn to li and yi in turn. In the end, I will suggest how li and yi were both meant to facilitate the supreme value of social harmony that pervades much of the Analects and serves as its ultimate orientation.
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