January 30, 2024

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Xunzi and Le Guin on Ritual and Social Structure

The fate of man lies with Heaven; the fate of the nation lies in ritual.
Xunzi, "A Discussion of Heaven," tr. Watson

"Solitude" is my favorite of all of Ursula Le Guin's works (mild spoilers to follow), and I have often assigned it to students together with Xunzi and Wittgenstein on ritual. The story is about an anthropological investigation into the planet Eleven-Soro. The investigation is stymied by the local system of taboos, which includes a taboo on adults teaching one another. One anthropologist, a woman named Leaf, decides that the only solution is to move in with her son, In Joy Born ('Bornie'), and daughter, Serenity ('Ren'). Leaf hopes that, through her children, she can finally come to understand the local culture.

The story centers primarily on the relationship between Leaf and Ren. Ren is quite young when they arrive at Eleven-Soro, and has little memory of the time before they arrived. For Ren, the language and culture of Eleven-Soro are her own.

The religion (though they don't call it that) of Eleven-Soro is a complex system of rituals and taboos designed to protect oneself from 'magic' in order to 'make one's soul' and 'become a person'. According to the local lore, this system developed to avoid a repeat of a long-ago catastrophe. In the Before Time, there was one People (instead of many persons), and the People were sorcerers, and they destroyed the world by their magic.

Ren, as a native bilingual speaker, is quite sure that the word 'tekell' is correctly translated 'magic' because it signifies "an art or power that violates natural law." This is, however, a source of endless confusion for Leaf. Ren comments:

It was hard for Mother to understand that some persons truly consider most human relationships unnatural; that marriage, for instance, or government, can be seen as an evil spell woven by sorcerers. It is hard for her people to believe magic. (p. 179)

Leaf is forever trying to explain to Ren that there is no such thing as magic and the world was destroyed by overexploitation of natural resources leading to ecological collapse. But the Sorovians see this explanation as missing the point. The root cause of the collapse was not overconsumption and overpopulation, it was the 'evil spells' woven by the sorcerers—'spells' like the corporation and the nation-state.

This disconnect is clearly seen in the following exchange about one of the Sorovian myths, which occurs in the narration just before the definition of 'magic':

Borny liked the story about the Man Who Lived with Women, how he kept some women in a pen, the way some persons keep rats in a pen for eating, and all of them got pregnant, and they each had a hundred babies, and the babies grew up as horrible monsters and ate the man and the mothers and each other. Mother explained to us that that was a parable of the human overpopulation of this planet thousands of years ago. "No, it's not," I [Ren] said, "it's a moral story."—"Well, yes" Mother said. "The moral is, don't have too many babies."—"No, it's not," I said. "Who could have a hundred babies even if they wanted to? The man was a sorcerer. He did magic. The women did it with him. So their children were monsters." (pp. 178–179)

Leaf somehow can't see what the Sorovians see—that overpopulation was merely a symptom of a deeper problem, which they call 'magic'.

Reading "Solitude" in the context of the philosophy of ritual, I've previously been focused on the rituals and taboos of the present society of Eleven-Soro, the rituals that protect against 'magic'. But now I've begun wondering about the rituals of the earlier society, the one made up of 'sorcerers'—a society which looks to be very much like ours.

It is nothing new to observe that our society is full of secular rituals which we don't classify as such because of their familiarity. In a memorable passage in Part II of the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume compares 'justice' and 'superstition'. One may ridicule the Catholic view that "A fowl on Thursday is lawful food; on Friday abominable: Eggs in this house and in this diocese, are permitted during Lent; a hundred paces farther, to eat them is a damnable sin," but this is not so much different from secular systems of ritual and taboo. For instance, "Had I worn this apparel an hour ago, I had merited the severest punishment; but a man, by pronouncing a few magical syllables, has now rendered it fit for my use and service."

I suspect that the clothing Hume has in mind in his example is some sort of uniform, perhaps of a law enforcement officer or a judge. The ritual of swearing in a police officer, or judge, or president is a very good example of the kind of 'magic' the people of Eleven-Soro are concerned to guard against. Ren also mentions marriage. Words like 'I now pronounce you husband and wife' purport to work a change in the world. Or consider, likewise, 'the jury finds the defendant guilty.' These magic conjure social realities out of nothing—social realities that people like us, raised in that society, find impossible to ignore. These social realities can, in turn, by exploited by one person to dominate another and (as the Sorovians would say) 'act against her soul'. The religion of Eleven-Soro aims to strengthen the individual ('make her soul') so that she can withstand, and ultimately nullify, such sorcery, to prevent these social power dynamics from coming into being.

These rituals of hierarchy are in fact closely connected with rituals of consumption. For instance, in the "Discussion of Rites," Xunzi emphasizes the role of conspicuous consumption in showing 'reverence' for the Son of Heaven (i.e., the emperor), in both life and death, and the graded levels of consumption appropriate to different social stations. Xunzi writes:

The gentleman, having provided a means for the satisfaction of desires, is also careful about the distinctions to be observed. What do I mean by distinctions? Eminent and humble have their respective stations, elder and younger their degrees, and rich and poor, important and unimportant, their different places in society. Thus the Son of Heaven has his great carriage spread with soft mats to satisfy his body. By his side are placed fragrant herbs to satisfy his nose, and before him the carved carriage decorations to satisfy his eye...[As for the king’s officials] let them understand clearly that to advance in the face of death and to value honor is the way to satisfy their desire for life; to spend and to supply what goods are needed is the way to satisfy their desire for wealth; to conduct themselves with respect and humility is the way to satisfy their desire for safety; and to obey ritual principles and good order in all things is the way to satisfy their emotions. (pp. 89–90)

The level of consumption in funeral rites is far more extreme, and was a key point of criticism by the Mohists against the Confucians. Incidentally, Berkeley, in The Querist, also takes hierarchy to be essential to good social order and conspicuous consumption to be essential to maintaining hierarchy. Like Xunzi, he's concerned with establishing its appropriate bounds so that it can serve this socially useful (according to him) function without becoming wasteful or impoverishing the nation.

Ritual, then, according to Xunzi and according to the implicit view of Le Guin's Sorovians, creates social structure. How does it do so? Xunzi writes,

What is the origin of ritual? I reply: man is born with desires. If his desires are not satisfied for him, he cannot but seek some means to satisfy them himself. If there are no limits and degrees to his seeking, then he will inevitably fall to wrangling with other men. From wrangling comes disorder and from disorder comes exhaustion. The ancient kings hated such disorder, and therefore they established ritual principles in order to curb it, to train men’s desires and to provide for their satisfaction. They saw to it that desires did not overextend the means for their satisfaction, and material goods did not fall short of what was desired. Thus both desires and goods were looked after and satisfied. This is the origin of rites. ("Discussion of Rites," p. 89)

Later, Xunzi extends his account to include emotions and their expression, as well as desires and their satisfaction. About these, he writes, "Rites trim what is too long and stretch out what is too short, eliminate surplus and repair deficiency" (p. 100). Thus, ritual not only provides an appropriate space for satisfaction of desire and expression of emotion in an appropriate manner, it also trains our desires and emotions, preventing them from being excessive or deficient. By training the members of society to have appropriate desires and emotions, and satisfy and express them in appropriate ways, ritual creates harmony and social cohesion.

In the Sorovian story of the Man Who Lived With Women, the man perhaps desires to become a patriarch of a huge clan, over which he can claim power, but he instills in his hundreds of children the same desire, leading to his demise. (According to the Sorovians, magic always contains the seeds of its own destruction, and this is one of the lessons the story is meant to teach.) Having been raised by sorcerers, the children become monsters. To prevent this kind of thing from happening, Xunzi would use ritual to keep each individual content in his or her station in society, rather than yearning for the luxuries, or expressions of reverence, afforded to the emperor. The Sorovians instead use ritual to demolish the kind of hierarchical society in which there is any higher position to yearn for.

Le Guin's Sorovians, then, agree with Xunzi that "the fate"—indeed, the very existence—"of the nation lies in ritual." Ritual has the power to bind us together into one hierarchically organized People, or to preserve our separateness as autonomous individual persons.

Posted by Kenny at January 30, 2024 9:13 AM
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