Li and virtue of religio. A comparison between Confucius and Saint Thomas Aquinas

There would be many aspects to be examined in an article that wants to compare the understanding of the ritual dimension in the greatest thinker of ancient China and in the greatest doctor of the Catholic Church. Among the many, surely, the very relationship between the very notion of yi and that of prudentia for example, or even that of epicheia should be deepened. In this short essay, however, we will focus on the importance attributed to worship, rite and religion (in St. Thomas) from different points of view: anthropological / psychological, spiritual and ethical above all and consequently social. In particular we will try to identify the foundations or the reduction to the foundation / s in the two thinkers in question. As Sarkissian says: «Li fl and yi are two central moral concepts in the Analects» (Ritual and Rightness in the Analects p. 95).

The Li in particular had a fundamental, intrinsic and inseparable relationship with the ritual. Confucius and the “Ru” were a class of people, an elite, who had the task of keeping and passing on the rules of the same rite. The Li was its own set of rules, from the most general to the most particular ones, which through the ritual was aimed at:

1) guarantee the existential growth of individuals;

2) together with “yi” lead to social harmony.

The foundation and purpose of the Li was: «The Ii are meant to stipulate norms of conducts across a wide range of human relations» (op. cit. p. 97).

In this way ritual customs and habits above all had to become not only external ways of behavior but also had to fully permeate the very psychology of men. It is evident that what Confucius intended was still a profound harmony between interiority and exteriority which was to prevent first of all a possible state of anarchy, relying on the prevention of a more radical possible psychological anarchy of individuals. It is nice to see how even in a different culture the relationship of osmosis was leveraged, I would dare to say, between the individual and society, because even if the whole is greater than the parts, it is still indissolubly composed of these. In Confucianism, for example, it is wanted that emotion vivifies ritual participation on the one hand, on the other hand, in cases where it is lacking, the same rite can serve to arouse it. Emotion but more generally inner participation. This intrinsic and primary relationship between wholeness and exteriority is also common to Catholicism. But it is also common that in the absence of an emotional participation there is always a rational participation that focuses on the understanding that rituality in itself and not according to our transient and inconstant moods is valid as a sure guide in the path of integral. existential growth. In Aquinas this is metaphysically justified. This point is actually one of the most important points of distinction between the two schools. In short, how would Confucianism respond to the question: why this rite or set of rules rather than others? Or: is the social dimension really so fundamental? Should the individual even disappear before and within society? And what is the ultimate foundation, the ultimate justification, of rituality, of the outward appearance of the cult? One answer seems sketchy in Confucianism, and for Confucius it is precisely in the interactions of common life that we need regulations and norms of behavior that manifest the same greatness of our spirit.

It seems clear that Confucianism has some awareness of bodily-spiritual dimension of man. However in St. Thomas and in Catholicism this is more evident and it is also at the center of the justification of religion as a virtue.

The virtue of religion which has the true cult of God as its principal object does not abstract from the nature of the subject who lends the worship, that is, human nature. This presence of the consideration of divine nature and human nature is a decisive factor in Thomas Aquinas also in distinguishing religion and superstition. He does not even abstract from two other aspects: 1) the natural consideration of God 2) divine revelation As for the ultimate foundation of the virtue of religion and pity, St. Thomas, but already St. Augustine himself, places it in being in some way the cause of the being of the one who has to worship. Now it is clear that metaphysically there are two ways of being cause: one as the first Cause (only God), another as a second cause and by participation. In the second case, it will also be possible to see how important in Aquinas’ thought as well as in Confucio is the very cult of parents, of authorities of different kinds that somehow cause something in us or in us. But religion cerncernes partularly only God’s cult:

Sive autem religio dicatur a frequenti lectione, sive ex iterata electione eius quod negligenter amissum est, sive a religatione, religio proprie importat ordinem ad Deum. Ipse enim est cui principaliter alligari debemus, tanquam indeficienti principio; ad quem etiam nostra electio assidue dirigi debet, sicut in ultimum finem; quem etiam negligenter peccando amittimus, et credendo et fidem protestando recuperare debemus

Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., IIª-IIae q. 81 a. 1 co.

And again:

colere dicimus homines quos honorificatione, vel recordatione, vel praesentia frequentamus. Et etiam aliqua quae nobis subiecta sunt coli a nobis dicuntur, sicut agricolae dicuntur ex eo quod colunt agros, et incolae dicuntur ex eo quod colunt loca quae inhabitant. Quia tamen specialis honor debetur Deo, tanquam primo omnium principio, etiam specialis ratio cultus ei debetur, quae Graeco nomine vocatur eusebia vel theosebia, ut patet per Augustinum, X de Civ. Dei

IIª-IIae q. 81 a. 1 ad 4

The other point I would like to focus on is the aspect of exteriority. I would say better: how the body must participate in the exercise of religion, rites, worship.  In  IIª-IIae q. 81 a. 7 co., Aquinas says:

Mens autem humana indiget ad hoc quod coniungatur Deo, sensibilium manuductione, quia invisibilia per ea quae facta sunt, intellecta, conspiciuntur,..Et ideo in divino cultu necesse est aliquibus corporalibus uti, ut eis, quasi signis quibusdam, mens hominis excitetur ad spirituales actus, quibus Deo coniungitur. Et ideo religio habet quidem interiores actus quasi principales et per se ad religionem pertinentes, exteriores vero actus quasi secundarios, et ad interiores actus ordinatos

And this is the foundamental reason of necessity of external act of religion.

Mario Padovano, op


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