Friday, July 29, 2022

Confucian hylemorphism

The Neo-Confucian Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi or Chu Hsi (1130-1200) famously posited two metaphysical principles often compared to Aristotle’s notions of form and matter.  James Dominic Rooney defends the interpretation of Zhu Xi as a hylemorphist in his new book Material Objects in Confucian and Aristotelian Metaphysics.  Into the bargain, he does so in conversation with contemporary analytic metaphysics and neo-Aristotelian philosophy.  It’s an excellent and important book.

What follows is a summary of some of the key ideas.  Zhu Xi’s fundamental notion is the distinction between li and qi.  Li can be translated as “pattern” or “structure.”  It is to be understood as that which gives something what Zhu Xi characterizes as its “nature,” and thus defines the “norm” for things of its kind.  Qi, by contrast, is that which receives said pattern or structure and thereby affords li an anchor in the concrete world.  Li thus has a kind of priority relative to qi.  For Zhu Xi, “li is one, the instances many,” and by itself is “without physical form.”  Qi, meanwhile, “is unrefined and has impurities.”  Li is the “reason” by which things are as they are, and thereby makes them intelligible.

Needless to say, from this much it is clear that li corresponds pretty closely to form, and qi to matter.  However, there is much more to be said, because the phrases quoted so far are compatible with either an Aristotelian or a Platonist reading of Zhu Xi.  To put the issue in terms familiar from contemporary analytic metaphysics, Rooney asks whether we should read Zhu Xi as offering a “constituent ontology” or a “relational ontology.”  For the Aristotelian, form and matter are each themselves parts or constituents of an individual physical object.  For the Platonist, by contrast, though individual physical objects are what they are by virtue of their relations to the Forms, the Forms themselves are not parts or constituents of the objects.  The question, then, is whether li is itself a part or constituent of a physical object, as form is for the Aristotelian, or is instead to be conceived of along the lines of a Platonic Form.

Rooney argues for reading Zhu Xi as a constituent ontologist, and thus in a manner that parallels Aristotelian hylemorphism. (Rooney himself prefers the spelling “hylomorphism.”  But nothing of substance rides on that, if you’ll pardon the pun.)

Here the exegesis of the relevant texts gets complicated, but Rooney marshals evidence for a hylemorphist reading, which includes the following.  Despite li’s priority, ultimately for Zhu Xi the li and qi of a thing exist together. “Under heaven there is no li without qi or no qi without li.”  He holds that “if there were no qi, then li would have no place in which to inhere.”  Zhu Xi also says things that imply that qi is purely potential in the absence of li, as prime matter is for Aristotelians like Aquinas.

A complicating factor here is that “li” is used ambiguously, and has both a general sense and a particular sense.  Rooney argues that it is sometimes used with reference to the “material nature” of a particular individual physical object, and sometimes instead with reference to the “fundamental nature” shared by all things.  In the former sense, he holds, it is comparable to the Aristotelian notion of the substantial form of a thing of some specific natural kind, where this form is understood as a constituent of that thing. 

Where li is instead understood in a more general way as the fundamental nature in which all things share, Rooney proposes that this can be interpreted as analogous to Aquinas’s notion that all things participate in God conceived of as their exemplar cause.  In this way, there is in Zhu Xi’s metaphysics not only an Aristotelian element, but also something comparable to the Neo-Platonic element that Aquinas grafts onto his own Aristotelianism.  However, though we arguably can interpret Zhu Xi’s “Heavenly Li” something analogous to Aquinas’s notion of God as subsistent being and source of all other reality, there is no attribution to it of intellect and will (as there is for Aquinas).

These are, again, just some general themes, and don’t convey the richness of Rooney’s discussion of the relevant classic texts and scholarly literature on them, not to mention his broader defense of hylemorphism and treatment of issues in contemporary analytic metaphysics.  This kind of high-level engagement of Western with non-Western traditions is much needed, and by carrying it out at book-length, Fr. Rooney has made a major contribution. 

Related posts:

Confucius on our times

Lao Tzu’s negative theology

Anti-reductionism in Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika atomism


  1. Regarding form and matter, what exactly would the geometrically extended quantitative parts of substances be? They're not the form since it's universal, but they're also not the matter since prime matter is pure potency.

    So what is the geometrically extended and quantitative part of material substances? Is it a part of the form - such that all material substances have extension & quantity part of their formal content? Even though form is immaterial and so not extended itself? How is it an intrinsic property of material things then?

    Does extension or quantity itself have a form? Is it a form itself? How does extension & quantity relate to form and matter?

    1. It seems to me you may have stumbled on an important point. It strikes me that constituent based ontologies (I'm totally using that phrase now in daily conversations btw) either assign measurements as nominal, or as formal but existing in the mind alone. A way out might be to assign them substantial form. But where this particular substantial form exists in the hierarchy of creation might [emphasis] be left unexplained.

      One advantage of relational ontologies is that I think most Platonists would say "measurement is a form -full stop". However, that may not be the full picture.

    2. "Regarding form and matter, what exactly would the geometrically extended quantitative parts of substances be? They're not the form since it's universal, but they're also not the matter since prime matter is pure potency."
      Perhaps I've misunderstood your question but, anyway, here are my two bits:

      Existing realities, being hylomorphic composites, have their act of being by virtue of the form actualising prime matter. As such the only realities we can experience with our senses and thereby understand, measure and number with our intellect - are those unions of form and matter. The form is entirely throughout the (prime) matter and thus measurement, quantity - and indeed all of the other qualities we can obtain the intelligibility of - are constitutive of the form 'as existing' in this particular (matter-form) reality.

    3. Quantitative (as well as qualitative) features of a substance are properly predicated of the composite. For example, the form of man might be said to contain corporeality or three-dimensionality, but only the composite can be said to contain six-foot-tall-ness. Likewise with skin color (the form says the skin will have color, the composite is actually white or tan.

    4. I am no expert but the phrase 'under heaven there is no li without qi...' seems to indicatie that 'li' is not pure act, and that pure act is impossible.

    5. Under Heaven" (天下, tiānxìa) is key here: the best li-candidate for pure act in Zhu Xi's system, is, in fact, Heaven (天), which isn't under itself; perhaps indicatively, elsewhere he remarks that Heaven is most 陽 (yáng), which is, of course, the active principle; further, in the Book of Changes (which for Zhu Xi is of cosmological importance) Heaven is represented by the trigram 乾 (qián), consisting of three ☰ solid lines, representing pure yang.

    6. I would add that "extension", i.e. quantity, is itself an accidental attribute, which is said of a substance. That is, the substance (the union of form and matter) is the underlying thing, and that thing has accidental attributes of this or that length, this or that width, etc. (To see that a specific length is an accident, just take a long balloon and either pull its ends (to make it longer) or push on its ends (and make it shorter). These changes haven't affected the balloon being the same underlying balloon. (No, the balloon is not "a substance" properly, but even so it illustrates the principle.) The matter that underlies the substantial being is capable of having a specific length, but it will never ACTUALLY have a specific length except when informed by a substantial form.)

      It would be, I think, incorrect to refer to the matter as "being extended" without reference to form. It only ever has the potency to extension, which will be actual when it is formed.

  2. It is much needed and very interesting. Which means it is really a pity that this book has such an unreasonable cost. I mean, i understand it is a niche academic subject, unfortunately, but it is really high, nor i can hope that where i am some institution will be so kind to buy it. Oh well.

    1. If the book is in any library, your local library may be able to borrow it. I have gotten hard to get books that way.

    2. Yes, but i live in Italy, in the south, i doubt it is an option. I will ask anyway, thanks.

  3. Shixiang Jin and Nicola Polloni have organized a workshop on qi; I think a lot of A-T minded folks will find it interesting:

  4. "Where li is instead understood in a more general way as the fundamental nature in which all things share, Rooney proposes that this can be interpreted as analogous to Aquinas’s notion that all things participate in God conceived of as their exemplar cause." As it's also affirmed here that "Li" in this sense is not associated with will or intellect, it seems that this exactly the kind of engagement Western traditions of thought do not need.

    There's nothing in Confucianism to correct the errors the West has suffered since the Enlightenment, for which Confucian thought is a kindred spirit. Rejecting original sin, the system is radically incapable of any improvement on the socio-political discourse of the Enlightenment. Its term heaven does not refer to God as understood by Christians. More importantly for some Thomists who seem to believe Thomism can somehow be separated from theology, is the total lack of any philosophical justification in Confucius' thought for heaven/tian. This term, and the force of natural reality it embodies, was just a leftover from pagan religion in primitive Chinese society.

    The eighteenth century ideologies that love non-personal "Providence" and such like are also fatally attracted to Confucianism. St. Thomas, were he alive today, would have regarded as his first mission, not the fools spoken of by the Psalmist who say God doesn't exist, but the insidious errors that corrupt the faith of those who believe, or want to believe, or think they believe. Any tendency that depersonifies God and ignores original sin is at the heart of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance before it. St. Thomas would be at it hammer and tongs.

    1. While confucionism has his problems,, saying that it is not better than enlightenment thought is too far, man.

      Confucious and his disciples believe in a sort of natural law, in men social nature, in tradicional roles etc. It is way superior to modern thinking.

    2. @Talmid:

      By "modern thinking" are you referring to the intellectual garbage peddled by the pro-evolutionist/ "Mother Nature is an Uncaring B**ch" apologists that have ripped apart Western Civilization?

    3. Enlightenment thought in general. Even your average classical liberal deist is way more harmful than Confucius.

    4. @Talmid:

      Enlightenment thought in general.

      What would the fathers of Enlightenment make of the fact that they were "white supremacists" and that today they could be the mothers of Enlightenment, participate in women's sports and "get pregnant"?

      A powerful flash of "light" for their eyes indeed!

    5. They would reconsider somethings, this is certain.

      Can you imagine our boy Kant seeing what his view on autonomy leaded to, for instance?

    6. @Talmid:

      Can you imagine our boy Kant seeing what his view on autonomy leaded to, for instance?

      Well, I think that Mr. Kant was peddling a lot of non-sense with his philosophy. Since we can not know the world "as it is in itself", only as it "appears to us", we are forever locked inside the inner theather of our minds without the possibility of escaping it. A very strange thing to say no doubt. Maybe he would feel comfortable among today's spiraling mess?

      And on an aside note, Mr. (or Mrs?, who can know these days) Descartes (the kickstarter of the "Enlightenment") would no doubt be very pleased to know that his philosophy has found such an strong echo in the transgender movement, which is a re-enactment of his cogito, ergo sum. Because according to this movement, the "real" person is in fact a soul trapped inside a body, a body that is only an "appendage or vessel" that can be modified so the real me can feel comfortable and at peace during the time that he/she/zhe (lol) is forced to inhabit it. The gender is the "reality" (the person) and the (sexed) body a mistake, an evolutionary misshandling that should not have happened.

      Maybe in today's world Mr. Descartes would buy "herself" some breast implants, practice "herself" an abortion to eschew the "evil patriarchy" and share the good news with "her" Facebook friends while disparaging Aristotle and his hylemorphism to receive thousands of likes...

  5. Hey guys

    I'm trying to interpret a paper from David Oderberg about Immanent Causation but I'm not quite sure if I'm understanding it right. Could someone help me?

    The paper is part of a book that Ed was the editor it's labeled Aristotle on Method and Metaphysics and you can find it here ( and the name is "Synthetic life & Bruteness".

    So, there is a part in the text where he clarifies Immanent activity pp. 213 and he says in a part of that explanation something very important " For a sufficient condition, we need something stronger, since if A does F to a part of itself, this does not entail transience even though the part is not the same K as A, for any K. As long as the self-perfective condition is met, A’s doing F to a part of itself is immanent, since by doing something to a part of itself (say, repairing a damaged limb or destroying a piece of wrongly copied DNA), A does something to itself, so we need to say: If A does F to B, and A is not the same K as B (for some K), and B is not a part of A, then A does F to B transiently." As far as I understand, if the process starts and ends in the agent cause, and it is for its own benefit the activity is Immanent.

    But the point that I didn't understand is that lately, he continues to say more about it in the context of why transient causes could not generate immanent activity (against abiogenesis), and then the text puzzles me, not because I think Immanent causality isn't real (I think that's true beyond the doubt) but I don't know how to understand what he says in the paper. To quote him on pp. 218 "For instance, when a person eats they act immanently. They do not act transiently, although a multitude of transient causal relations subserve the immanent action, in particular the chemical reactions that take place from the time food enters the mouth to the time it is fully absorbed into the body. The same is true for any immanent activity of any organism. Just as the chemical reactions and physical interactions are not immanent, so the immanent action is not transient."

    What I couldn't understand is what he mean by that. He said in the text that Immanent activity and Transeunt activity are mutually exclusive (and I think that's right) but then he says that transient activities subserve the organism in the immanent activity, and then two things puzzle me: (1) if they serve the organism, why couldn't we say that they are Immanent? Why does he refer to them as Transeunt if they occur in the organism for the sake of the organism at all? (2) when an organism produces chemical things to help digestion, say, why is that called Transeunt on the paper?

    I hope someone could help me with that.

    May God bless us all!

    1. Perhaps when the organism is digesting food it has a transient part thanks to the bacteria involved?, it is what comes into my mind.

  6. I do appreciate Fr.Rooney for his engagement with eastern philosophy!
    It's quite important to bridge that gap and especially discover similarities and points of harmony in an increasingly divided world. Aquinas for one, always engaged with the most prominent philosophies of his time and accordingly referred to them.

    Also..if anyone's interested
    I had a question on act and potency
    Is a thing's potential or potency for a Cambridge Change a real potency ?
    Does it make sense to say that...I have the potential to become shorter than Socrates by virtue of Socrate's growing taller then me.

    My initial thoughts are that it is not a real potency.

    1. I suppose it is not a real potency, for having a new cambridge property does not change you, so there is no real passage from potency to act.

  7. Great to see Thomists engaging with Neo-Confucian thought!

    Arguably, there's reason to suppose analogical attribution of intellect and will to Heaven on Zhu Xi's account: after all, the Confucian master states that li (in the second sense mentioned in the article, with which Heaven is identified) is comparable to a heartmind (xīn 心; the locus of thought and volition in Confucian philosophical anthropology) that acts like a master/ruler (zhǔzǎi 主宰) over the world.

    The topic seems to receive scant attention by both Western and Chinese scholars (for obvious reasons, I'd say, given the current intellectual climate), but for an in-depth exploration of this topic please see:

    "A reconstruction of Zhū Xī's religious philosophy inspired by Leibniz: the natural theology of Heaven" by Xinzi Zhong

  8. Perhaps Pius XII's reversal Clement XI's ban on Chinese rites was an example of engagement with non-Western systems of thought and a recognition of Confucianism's natural theology?

    1. The decrees of both Clement XI and PiusXII are fatal for any pretensions of Confucianism to natural theology because the point of both was that the Chinese rites had nothing to do with God, and were either banned or tolerated for that reason. The rejection of Tian as God is the constant that makes both decisions logical.

      Zhu Xi’s ideas didn’t help Confucianism at all from our point of view. His “li” and “qi” can hardly be said to be form and matter because he asserted that li existed before “heaven and earth”. Then he stated that each individual’s “li” was perfect and free from evil, bad human actions resulting from “qi”. But we know that human wrongdoing is accomplished by his “form” as much as his material nature. There’s no comparison here to hylemorphism. In fact, “li” is just another pantheistic notion. Boring for Thomists. Dangerous for moderns. St Thomas would not have “interacted” with this any more than he would have with the Albigensians.

  9. As the permission by Pius XII was predicated on the rites in question being merely civil observances, of which the government of Manchuria assured Rome, I think this would be a hard case to make with regard to engagement with thought/theology, per se: Zhu Xi, one of the pillars of official Confucianism, for example, understood the spirits of the ancestors to be really present, so on this view, arguably, the rites would be religious sensu stricto; FWIW I'm not entirely certain the historic reconceptualisation of the rites can be said to owe much to principled theoretical considerations.*

    Moreover, the decision in question (like much of the preceeding controversy) concerned rites in honor of Confucius and ancestors, not Heaven, the official, visible, ceremonial cult to whom has historically been an exclusive privilege of the emperor.

    The 'Confucian' rites in honour of ancestors as practiced today by, e.g., Korean Catholics (who appeast to have retained/re-adopted the custom to a greater degree than their Chinese co-religionists), seem to have been, in any case, modified, and include prayers -for- the deceased.

    *Though viewing the Chinese dynastic state as a religious institution (a "church") can certainly be fruitful, as is the case with many pre-modern non-Christian states (tellingly, I think, a common traditional term for that reality is 社稷 (shèjì), "altars of soil and grain"), the orthodoxy it enforced "magisterially", arguably concerned adherence to the defined classical canon rather than specific theories.

    I'm the Zhu Xi-reading anonymous who posted the two comments above; I ccould log in with Google before for some reason.

  10. Yes. The more one looks at Confucian ideas the less they seem to get anything much right. If Zhu Xi's concept of Li precedes Confucianism's Tian, or Heaven, then Heaven can hardly be anything resembling God.

  11. Lol, did anyone see what happened in Kansas ?

    I think this is the ideal time and post to quote Prof.Feser's commentary on Confucius.

    "These words from the great man of the East would be warmly endorsed in the West by ancient thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas. But they run counter to the modern West’s liberalism, including the libertarian brand of liberalism that too often passes for “conservatism.” The liberal attitude is that the moral character of individuals does not matter for social order so long as the right rules and institutions are in place. Part of Confucius’s point, and that of any conservatism worthy of the name, is that rules and institutions are ineffectual without individuals willing to subordinate their desires to them. And individuals who do not seek the good (so as to “rectify their hearts”) and the true (thus pursuing the “investigation of things”) can neither curb bad desires nor cultivate good ones. The brute force of legal coercion cannot substitute for this missing moral fiber."

    This para is probably the most insightful piece of political advise that one could give someone. It's almost as if Prof Feser predicted something like this would happen. Fortune Teller Feser lol.

    Somewhere during the course of the Pro Life movement they became singularly focused on changing the law, which was frankly not required because there was already a parallel and well organised conservative legal movement whose only job was to see that the right justices were put in place and that goal involved bigger political incentives.

    The pro life movement in general was meant to change the hearts and minds of the people, so if it was made possible through law to effect some change, that reality could get actualised by the people.

    This seems to have failed miserably.
    And I am willing to go out on a limb and say this will unfortunately be the case almost everywhere. If it can happen in a conservative state like Kansas it can happen anywhere.

    Also there are some attempts being made out to blame the ambiguous phrasing of the language. This was done deliberately by pro life groups in order to confuse Pro-Choicers into voting Yes. But they didn't turn out to be so dumb. And if you buy this line of thinking it makes the pro-lifers look dumb. I personally think that the phrasing of the language has little to do with the outcome because Pro Lifers are not that dumb and it's a genuine reflection of the majority.

    It is also kinda like a big F-You to the pro life movement because we were the one's who were taunting the pro choice movement instead of trying to win them over, cause we were telling them if you don't like it come out and vote. Guess what they did come out and vote , in Kansas of all places.

    It's probably time we wipe that smirk of our faces and wake up to reality, Only 13% of those who voted for Trump in 2020 were Pro Life. That means 87% are Pro Choice. There is a lot of work and reflection to be done.

    Governments that have managed to implement substantially pro-life laws better work towards making sure thar every woman with an unexpected pregnancy is well taken care off because if they don't and even one case is mishandled like that case of the 10 year old girl, the political backlash will devastate the all the success of the movement.

    Work towards winning over the hearts and minds of your opponents. Every pro-choice person is a potential pro-lifer. Resist the urge to be mean or sarcastic or polemical towards them.
    Think Politically. People on the fence naturally gravitate towards the side which is warm and welcoming not judgemental and condescending.

    1. Couldn't agree more. I would respectfully argue, though, that the Confucian worldview is much closer to Edmund Burke's. This support from non-Western thought is invaluable.

    2. That's true Joe. There are still problems with putting forward Confucian China as an example of a society living by natural law, even. Take the practice of infanticide. It was condoned for thousands of years there.

    3. @Anonymous.
      Nevertheless, as Edmund Burke would argue, natural law was a pretty speculative exercise and the best approach was for a given society to follow its own hallowed traditions.

    4. @Norm:

      "Governments that have managed to implement substantially pro-life laws better work towards making sure thar every woman with an unexpected pregnancy is well taken care off..."

      We live now in a society where "men" can get pregnant. Please update your vocabulary. Lady "Evolution" works wonders no doubt.

      And speaking of wonders. All species compete and wo
      rk hard to reproduce and spread their genetic material so "Lady Evolution" and her Maiden "Natural Selection" can have variety to "select from", EXCEPT this teeny-tiny "little monkey-cousin" known as "H. sapiens" which ACTIVELY wastes a lot of scarce resources to NOT reproduce (contraception + abortion/infanticide but no abstinence please, abstinence NO, abstinence is a mortal sin for the evo-peddler religious type).

      Which shows that atheistic evolution (the dominant religion today in the decadent West) is a fairy-tale for miserable and wildly imaginative grown-ups.

    5. @Norm

      Well said. One oponents are human as well and need to be winned over everytime it is possible.

    6. Joe, natural law applies to all and is discoverable by individual reason and confirmed by the sanction of the Church. It's not something to be left to the mercy of what societies have developed through their "tradition" (though Huichilobos in Tenochtitlan would like it the "traditional" way).

      It's striking how conservatism, in its leading spokesmen, has such a problem with natural law. Even those who don't reject it in principle say it can only be known through whatever society has developed over time. Burke's theoretical master, Richard Hooker, said this explicitly: only society as a whole, and NOT the reason of "a few" could "discover" it. The creed has been passed down by conservatism as a sacred tenet ever since. But no Christian can believe this.

  12. Well said. Norm. I think the Kansas legislature is probably thinking " We aren't in Kansas anymore."

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Well that's just great, the one time Prof.Feser replies to me and it's to inform me I'm off topic. That's just my bad luck, I suppose. I deeply apologise Prof. Feser. This blog is one of my favourite places on the internet and I don't want transgress it's rules, so I shall respectfully delete the comment

  13. "Zhu Xi also says things that imply that qi is purely potential in the absence of li, as prime matter is for Aristotelians like Aquinas."

    Charles Darwin closed the last paragraph of the first edition of his "On the Origin of Species" (publication date 24 November 1859), with this sentence:

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

    Evolution via N.S. (the proposed Darwinian mechanism) actualized matter AFTER it had become "alive". Which for the uninitiated entails that "life" was not created by Darwinian mechanisms. Evolution via Darwinian mechanisms is, so to speak a "repository of forms," what this greek genius described as a "Platonic realm" in which "matter" participates. The more time it passes, the greater the number of these "forms" (different "powers" bestowed upon matter, which is inert and powerless by itself) appear and multiply, and that multiplicitity is what we call "biodiversity" (a bacteria and a dinosaur and a human are undoubtedly different kinds of creatures and even a dumb Dawkins-style of materialist acknowledges such an obvious truth).

    But where does this "repository of forms" come from? It could not have created itself (a logical absurdity), so all the "forms" that Darwin spoke so fondly and poetically of and that keep Evolution rolling on and that keep actualizing matter can only exist in the (you guessed it right my defeated atheist friend) the Divine Intellect.

    Because if they are not there, where are they in the end, my atheist friend?

  14. Ordinarily, I wouldn't dare argue with people who appear to be ready to confidently reject a point argued in a book without reading it (re: 天理 tianli, Heavenly Li), but for the sake of the anonymous (I mean, sure) in question, I'm happy to report that, depending on the context, "heaven and earth", or 天地, can refer to 1) the material universe (as in the citation in Wikipedia entry on Zhu Xi), or, indeed, 2) the supreme divinity of traditional Chinese belief, 上帝/天, Lord-on-High/Heaven (e.g. in discussions of sacrifices performed by the emperor); 3) to designate the "fundamental nature" (see the OP) Li from which all generated li derive (in discussions of the production of the world).

    So the Li that is before heaven and earth (that is, the created world) is none other than Heaven. As Zhu Xi says elsewhere, Li is the very substance of Heaven -- 理者,天之體 -- and li received into qi (denoted by the image of the Mandate of Heaven) is the outward expression of that Li -- 命者,理之用.

  15. @Cervantes
    Have been ruminating on your comment above for a few days. On the question of the "Chinese rites", didn't the 1939 change also legitimate the use of Tian as a term for God?

    Zhu Xi's views do seem to incorporate something very close to matter and form, if Li provides structure and Qi “is unrefined and has impurities", as explained above.

    1. De Souza, the 1939 decision of Pius XII didn’t change the eighteenth century one to ban to identification of Tian with God. The logic of both papal decisions remained the same; that the rites/traditional Chinese religion had nothing to do with God and could in no form be mingled or recognised.

      This post by Dr. Feser has ably and sympathetically summarised Fr. Rooney’s main arguments and conclusions, that envision “Li” and “Qi” as form and matter. The elements presented are fatal to any possible identification, however. Since in Zhu Xi’s ideas “Li” and “Qi” correspond to the familiar Yin/Yang dualism of positive and negative, they can’t be form and matter because we understand both these things as good. Dualistic systems this are evil. If “Li/form” is God, or an emanation of God, but “Qi/matter” is not (being the source of negativity), creation and being as Christians understand them are demolished.

      Zhu’s system is also fatal to any attempt to locate God in it. Someone had the idea of appealing to an authority vastly superior to Li/Qi/Tian/Yin/Yang/Taichi: Zhu Xi defined the “Supreme Ultimate” not as an entity, but as the interplay of Yin/Yang itself. Zhu’s ideas about “li” are just another version of the pantheistic/naturalistic universal animating spirit or “energy”, not God. It is telling that, not only does this “energy” not have (nor can have) will and intellect, but it is indistinguishable from the individual animating spirit of every “creature”, each entity being only another “instance” of “something” else. This is light years from God/creation.

    2. That's interesting, but might the Li as the animating spirit of each individual be something like form instead of God? I'm not quite sure what you mean by "each entity being only an "instance" of "something" else.

  16. @ de Souza

    Permit me to intervene, as, unfortunately, you appear in danger of being misinformed.

    First, allow me to reiterate: neither the original bans, nor the decision of Pius XII concerned rites in honour of Heaven. Ex illa die specifically treats of „sacrifices honouring Confucius and their ancestors”, „temples in honour of Confucius and their ancestors”, not Heaven. The same is true of Ex quo Singulari. The reason for this is, as I have already mentioned, that the sacrifice to Heaven was performed exclusively by the emperor, whose most ancient title was that of the Son of Heaven (accordingly, he alone sacrificed to Heaven as to his ancestor, because he alone received Heaven's mandate to rule).
    As a reigning emperor never converted, nor was Puyi of Manchuria considering this in 1939, the question of whether or not the concept of Heaven was/is theologically deficienct had no bearing on the issue of the rites.

  17. It should also be mentioned that AFAIK we do not, in fact, have in our possession any minutes from the final Roman deliberations back in 18th century that would furnish us the reasoning behind the ban on using 天 tian / 上帝 shangdi. We do have responses of the Holy Office (p. 136) from around that time, and the reasoning for the ban provided there is that using the terms can mislead the locals about the nature God, provided the terms as understood by the literati (Confucians) referred -only- (nonnisi) to a „Heavenly force located in the same Heaven, corporeal and visible heaven, or, finally, some such possible signification”. The judgement is conditional, not definitive, as in the proposal submitted to the Inquisition.

  18. The bull itself does not explicate the reasoning behind it. If we were to try to extract it from the text, what seems to commend the name 天主 (tianzhu; the Lord of Heaven) is this theonym's long and approved use and reception by the missionaries in China as well as the local faithful by the time of the bull. Please note that the bull is not averse to detail: the following passages contain very detailed regulations regarding the ceremonies, yet the supposed theological deficiency or the exclusively corporeal referent of 天 / 上帝 are not mentioned.

    As an aside, if the OP and the comments (including the inestimable contribution in the form of wikipedia links) are anything to go by, Zhu Xi obviously isn't using 天 / 上帝 to refer to the visible heaven alone, and so his usage would escape the censure of the Holy Office. With reference to the supposed lack of intellect and will on the part of 天 (which happens to be the理 li (pattern or reason) that is prior to heaven and earth -and- the cosmological 太極 taiji, or the (external) principle of motion and rest, i.e. nature; more to follow***) and overall unfittingness of these terms to denote the true God, possessed of intellect and will as He is, it should be noted that the bull's Latin renders 上帝 as „Supreme Emperor”, something plausibly personal (for Zhu Xi, just like in the classics, Tian and (Shangdi) are, of course, the very same entity). As I've pointed out above, Neo-Confucians did not treat intellection and volution in terms of distinct faculties: following Chinese ///classical tradition, they spoke of the „heart” (nota bene: much like the Hebrews) , or „heart-mind”, 心xin, and this is precisely what Zhu Xi compares Heaven / Li to.

  19. In the comments to follow I will, hopefully: 1) provide additional context for the decision (as we can't read the mind's of long-dead pontiffs, this should suffice); 2) attempt to disambiguate the analogous usage of li mentioned in the OP and cite some illustrations adopted by Zhu Xi (e.g. a single moon that shines on and is by the various bodies of water) to show how the (multiple) li of individual things relate to (single) li qua fundamental nature (spoiler: not identified; not related as parts-to-whole; rather, in Scholastic terms, as forms and their exemplar); 3) correct some attrocious misunderstandings of the significance of yin-yang duality (not dualism) for Zhu Xi (spoiler: think, rather, of motion and rest and act and potency) and how it relates to li-qi (spoiler: there is yin-qi and yang-qi, but li is just li).

    This will likely take some time, though. Hopefully, this will suffice for now.

  20. ***Please consider such comments and quotes by St. Thomas like:

    Re: 理 li cf. ST 1a2ae q 93 a 1

    „On the contrary, Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 6) that "the eternal law is the sovereign type (Latin: ratio, „reason”), to which we must always conform."
    Accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the type (Latin: ratio) of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and movements.”

    (remember that for Aquinas God -is- everything He has essentially, so He is His wisdom: please see my comment dated August 9, 2022, at 7:34 AM).

  21. Re: 太極 taiji cf. ST 1a2ae q 85 a 6

    „On the other hand, the universal nature is an active force in some universal principle of nature, for instance in some heavenly body; or again belonging to some superior substance, in which sense God is said by some to be "the Nature Who makes nature." (Latin: natura naturans, „nature naturing”).

  22. De Souza, it’s impossible to find hylemorphism’s Form in his system. Form/matter as “Li” and “Qi” is incompatible with Zhu’s assertion that humans, animals/things “innately share one pattern but differ through their endowment of qi”. If “Qi” were “matter”, then species would be differentiated by matter, not form, which becomes meaningless for the purposes of hylemorphism. The grading of things according to “Qi” occurs within humanity too, as the better or worse character of a person’s “Qi” was “due to the fixed endowment [of it] one receives”, resulting not only in varying fortune in health or social rank, but also spiritual disposition. As Zhu locates “mind” in “Qi”, not “Li”, the determinism is oppressive (and repugnant to the soul/body view). This endowment from the “natural order/heaven” would amount to a divinely-ordained determinism to evil if God had anything to do with this system. But Conficianism was only concerned with the natural world and civil society, not personal salvation.

    Another obstacle to linking “Qi” and “Li” to matter and form is their origin and finality. Many of Zhu’s models are analogous to the yin/yang, even when not speaking of them directly; heaven and earth are yin/yang. But before and after the existence of heaven and earth, both “Li” and “Qi” co-exist eternally (only the “Ii” of a particular thing temporally preceding the “Qi” of that thing). Thomism asserts that form individuates, and its perfection is in the degree to which it realises this individuality. For Zhu, “Li”, co-existing with “Qi” was more perfect the more it was “one body with all things”. This perfecting by “merging” destroys form, as well as any notion that “Li” was meant to be God. In its relation to the world, Zhu always insisted that “Li” was not “some other thing”. The lack of essential distinction between “Li” and beings makes them instances of it, but not as forms (as above) or as creatures.

    This is just a naturalistic system run on “energies” etc., with dualism thrown in: evil arises from “Qi”, never from “Li”, eternally and in individual instance. It’s an impossible view in hylemorphism. Nobody needed to go to China for this cup of tea; Westerners had thought up this evil in Gnosticism and Catharism long ago. There is good reason why no Catholic is permitted to sacrifice to Tian anymore than to the sun, or Huichilobos. Rome only needs to say it once every three hundred years.

    1. @Cervantes
      That's what I was looking for. That Confucian China shared so much with Gnosticism and its murky, sinister worldview is surprising when one considers its orderly image and cultural achievements.

    2. De Souza, the influence of this naturalistic dualism on China has been so profound that even the ability of the Chinese language itself to express concepts and engage in philosophy as understood in the West has been compromised. I recommend reading Chad Hansen’s “Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy, and ‘Truth’” (The Journal of Asian Studies , May, 1985, Vol. 44, No. 3). His conclusion: Chinese philosophy has no concept of truth:
      ““The Bible says, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." "If names are not rectified . . . people will not know how to move hand or foot" is a nearly opposite, pragmatic, Confucian counterpart (Analects 13:3). The difference is fundamental. The Western picture is one of the one-on-one communication of "truths" from outside nature which are freely accessible to rational individuals. The Chinese picture is one of a system of social practices that promote harmonious social behavior. Chinese philosophers showed more interest in the pragmatic "behavioral implications" of words than they did in the semantic truth of sentences” (p. 504).
      “Confucianism aimed to build a prescriptive system (a tao consisting of names) that rectified the names so that people would know how to "move hand and foot." Confucians thus treated constancy as a pragmatically desirable aspect of linguistic practice, not as a mark of reality… As far as Chinese metaphysics is concerned, reality does change. Chinese realists did not see that as a shocking philosophical conclusion. Only in Buddhist readings of Taoism does the view emerge that since nothing is constant, only wu'" 'nothing' is real.” (p. 508).
      The alien nature of the Confucian worldview is clear in this reaction to Catholic missions:
      “The doctrines that are introduced in Western books appear profound at first glance, but further analysis shows them to be idan. The only reason we Confucians do good and avoid evil is that that is what we are supposed to do. We never for even one moment do so in order to earn some reward in life after death. The only reason Catholics do good is that they expect to be judged later by God for what they do in this life. This “Celestial Learning” is totally unlike our Confucianism”.

    3. @Miguel Cervantes

      Fascinating. I aways understood the chinese as a very pragmatic people, but the pragmatism getting that far is very suprising to me. That explains a lot.

    4. @Cervantes
      Yes. It looks nothing like religion as we know it. Might Confucian society be a kind of natural religion?

    5. De Souza, Well, a few of the French Jesuit missionaries went to extreme lengths with a nutty (and false) ideology, figurism, to try to show that the Tian/Shangdi that would be condemned by the Popes was God. The papal condemnation took place despite possession of the Acta Pekinensia, a huge dossier put together by Kilian Stumpf SJ, which tendentiously presented information favourable to the accommodationist strategy.

      The difficulty with presenting Zhu Xi’s Confucianism as natural theology is that his system is dualist, positing the created order, and what preceded it, as composed of complementary elements, from one of which evil arises. This evil isn’t divine. There’s nothing even resembling God in the system and speaking of any element within it the way post-Enlightenment thinkers mention “Providence” doesn’t help. As soon as Zhu gets down to what he actually means, we are by concepts that repudiate God.

      One can go back in Chinese history and mythology as far as one likes; Tian/Shangdi never means God. All there is to see is a hierarchy of Gods with something at the summit, like Zeus or one of his forebears. What the Chinese did do was organise a secular cult of civil society, identified with the sacred, as our Western pagans and their romanticist incarnation did. Just speaking of morality, and working in with the “forces” of the “cosmos” in order to produce favourable outcomes in this world, may generate some ostensibly good social practices (at least externally), but it’s not true religion of any kind. Nor is natural theology involved, because the Confucians didn’t use rational arguments to prove the existence of God; they endlessly consulted a jumble of ideas assembled from pagan mythology, and false religions like Buddhism etc. Wokeism’s secularism may look more hopeless than Confucianism’s, but if it’s allowed hundreds of years to “perfect” itself, who knows!

    6. It seems unfair to Zhu Xi to call his ideas dualism. After all, form and matter have an "active" and "passive" principle. Does that make Hylemorphism evil?

    7. Zhu's dualism can't even be an analogy of matter and form as understood in Thomism. In hylemorphism matter isn't considered the source of evil, despite its physical limitation, and moral evil per se is possible only in a being with a spiritual dimension. The dualism of Xhu's system is reinforced by his doctrine that "Li", in particular as well as in general, is not responsible for evil.

      Xhi's postulation of "Qi" eternally complementing "Li" is exactly the dualism repudiated by Thomism and orthodox Christianity.

  23. On this question, at least, Miguel Cervantes hit the nail on the head. The Church really took its time about deciding what to do with China but made the right decision in the end.

  24. The comparison of Confucianism/neo-Confucianism with Gnosticism is wrong headed. It misunderstands the underlying motivation for their study and philosophizing: to become virtuous and to govern the well-being of the political community. The so-called 内圣外王. Unlike Gnosticism, Confucians are not interested in after life or secret knowledge. From this perspective, the best analogue of Confucianism is Stoicism. Just like Stoics aspire to live according to reason and nature to achieve virtue, Confucians aspire to live according to 天理(tian li) to be virtuous, and ultimately a saint. It’s also important to keep in mind, that Metaphysical and philosophical study has very little or no value on its own, except when serving as a bedrock and preparation for ethics and politics.

    1. G. Manz! How nice to hear from you. Hope all is well. Well, you seem to agree with me, except about the Gnosticism bit. Zhu's Confucianism was the subject at hand. It's clearly like Gnosticism in its dualism, with evil eventuating through matter. Confucians, to a greater or lesser degree, were influenced by Buddhism, and Zhu in particular. As a practicing Buddhist for many years, he took up many of their attitudes.

      Confucians, to the extent they adopt the pseudo-religious heritage of early China, also adopt a religious cosmology that was dualist, radically.

      But as you say, Confucianism when extracted from its thinking milieu and treated as a desiccated "system", is entirely secularist and non-religious. Like the Western eighteenth century Enlightenment and today's woke freaks. The only difference is the definition of what constitutes the right acting good citizen. One is virtuous just to have a happy life on earth.

      Without the fact-checker of religion mankind is destined to argue forever about even purely secular things that reason is capable of knowing with certitude. How annoying.

    2. Hello again George. I noticed I didn’t comment on one of your points, that the aim of Confucian ethics is to become a saint. If that’s meant as secular sainthood, then once again we’re back to everlasting debate about what that might be, the answer being anything from stoicism to woke madness. If we mean sainthood according to the standard Western understanding of the term, then I would recommend for your reading the following passage from Saint Thomas Aquinas.

      “Therefore, since man, by living virtuously, is ordained to a higher end, which consists of the enjoyment of God… then human society must have the same end as the individual man.
      Therefore, it is not the ultimate end of an assembled multitude to live virtuously, but through virtuous living, to obtain the possession of God. Furthermore, if it could attain this end by the power of human nature, then the duty of a king would have to include the direction of men to this end… But, because a man does not attain his end, which is the possession of God, by human power, but by Divine power… the task of leading him to that end does not pertain to human government but divine.” (De regimine principum, Book I, Ch XIV).