II The Hazards of Misdirected Sexual Desire

Of course, in ancient times, as in the present, misdirected sexual desire can lead to all manner of grief both for those we are closest to and for total strangers. A passage with parallels to Mencius 5A1 offers a warning:

Confucius said: “A gentleman must guard himself against three dangers. When young, as the energy of the blood is still in turmoil, he should guard against lust [again, se fe]. In his maturity, as the energy of the blood is at its full, he should guard against rage. In old age, as the energy of the blood is on the wane, he should guard against rapacity.”11

The passions characteristic of the various stages of life have their characteristic excesses, sexual desire included. When misdirected, sexuality can lead us to objectify or abuse those we find desirable, to hurt or abandon those to whom we have made commitments or toward whom we have duties, to commit crimes in the pursuit of desire, to damage our physical and emotional health and the health of others, or simply to waste our time and energy.

Mencius approvingly describes strict customs of his time to keep sexuality within proper bounds. Courting couples were expected to make arrangements through their parents or use “the good offices of a go-between.”12 The importance of choosing relationships wisely and for the right reason shows in the care Confucius exercises in arranging marriages for his daughter and niece, insisting on men of high character.13 Men and women generally were not to touch one another, even members of a household such as a brother and sister-in-law.14 With extended families traditionally living and working in close proximity, maintaining these customs would involve significant effort and inconvenience. At the same time, close proximity gives all the more reason to carefully avoid temptation or any appearance of impropriety. While we may find thesespecific customs extreme, we can appreciate the seriousness of the problems they are designed to prevent.

One can appreciate the need for caution in light of episodes like this one: “The people of Qi sent to Lu a present of singing and dancing girls. Lord Ji Huan accepted them and, for three days, he did not attend court. Confucius left.”15 If Lord Ji Huan was interested in singing and dancing, presumably he could have enjoyed a few performances perfectly well at court. This appears to have been a case of something rather less fit for public view, likely an extended career of sexual assault or rape, while also placing sensual indulgence ahead of the duties of office, and indeed lacking the shame to keep up even the appearance of normal business. Despite Confucius’ life-long desire to serve in government, he is not willing to be associated with a leader like this. Unfortunately, the history of kings includes much worse, and some U.S. Presidents haven’t even felt the need to take their improprieties outside the Oval Office.

With cases like this in mind, we can see why King Xuan of Qi expresses doubts about how well his fondness for women will fit with the ideal of the virtuous sage kings that Mencius has been inviting him to follow. Having presented this ideal over several conversations, Mencius asks, “If you consider my words well spoken, then why do you not put them into practice?” The king responds by claiming two weaknesses: “I am fond of money,” and “I am fond of sex [hao se iff fe].” To the second, Mencius responds:

In antiquity, King Tai [or Duke Danfu] was fond of sex, and loved his wife. The Poems say,

The Ancient Duke Danfu

Came in the morning, riding his horse,

Following the banks of the Western waters, He came to the foot of Mount Qi, With his Lady Jiang.

They came and both settled there.

At that time, there were neither girls pining for a husband nor men without a wife. If Your Majesty is fond of sex but accords the common folk the same privileges, what difficulty is there in being a true king?16

Mencius offers King Tai and his wife Lady Jiang as the model of royal enjoyment. Thus, he clearly affirms both that the desires for sex, love, and companionship are important to all, and that these are entirely compatible with virtue when pursued in appropriate ways.

There are certainly rulers whose fondness for (or obsession with) sex has led them to interfere with their people’s ability to have satisfying relationships of their own, sometimes in appalling ways. Hearing Mencius’ response, King Xuan may have thought to himself, “Just one woman,

The Family in the Confucian Ethical Order 133 even for the king?” Even the sage emperor Shun is said to have had two wives, the daughters of Yao, and concubines were common enough to figure in more than one anecdote in the Analects and Mencius. All these mentions of concubines cast them in a dubious light, however, such as when Mencius mentions the “enjoyment of wives and concubines” as one of the motives for the corrupt pursuit of wealth and power.1 In emphasizing the example of King Tai, Mencius insists that sexual desire can find a full, fitting, and even kingly expression in a monogamous marriage.

Classical Confucian thought thus recognizes and maintains that (a) the desire for sex is powerful and deeply shapes human life, and (b) it can lead us into serious mistakes, crimes, and turmoil, but (c) it can be expressed and satisfied in entirely appropriate ways, and (d) in fact it serves a key ethical purpose in the lives of individuals and society. Chastity is the virtue that keeps sexuality focused on its ethical purpose and brings our desires into alignment with that purpose. I will now explore in more detail this ethical purpose and the reasons for its importance.

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