We turn to Confucius for a broadening of filial piety to society at large. For him a good community is a system of ‘rationalized social order’ based on personal cultivation of ethical behavior which entails a moral harmony of the individual and humanity including acquiescence to authority and social hierarchy. Jen or true manhood, starts by being a good son or daughter, a good brother or sister, and by showing kindness and benevolence to one’s elders. A meaningful life recognizes shu, or reciprocity. The reverential person is in turn a good citizen. A nation of good sons and daughters and good brothers and sisters is orderly and peaceful. Conversely the ordering of national life is tied to regulation of family life which in turn is tied to cultivation of one’s personal life. Like Aristotle, Confucius feels habit is key; in this case the habit of being a good child and sibling. If this habit is acquired at home it will extend to others including state authority.2
In the Master’s own words, “A great man simply follows the natural law of things. A good son simply follows the natural law of things. Therefore a great man feels he is serving God when he serves his parents, and feels he is serving his parents when he serves God. Therefore, a good son lives a full life.”3 Confucius is pointing out the overlap of individual purpose (to make a good life for oneself) with the externalized purpose of filial piety. Mencius, a later follower of Confucius, extends this duty of parents and children in his maxim: “Extend your love for the elders in your family to all elders; extend your love for your children to all children.”4
I think it is worth adding a modern caveat from Carl Jung. Every parent must support the eventual individuation of their offspring – that point at which they stop seeking to please others and becomes their true selves. I think this is the limiting point of filial piety; respect is instantiated in adoption of one’s elders’ values and reverence for their accomplishments and their persons, but a mature adult must create his or her own destiny and follow his or her unique life path. Jung thinks this occurs by about age 40, but whatever that age, it seems to me parents must respect the carefully considered choices of their descendants as well.
Filial piety then insists virtue is a two way street; a strong family and a strong society are maintained by interlacing duties between generations – a lattice of love and respect that supports the progress and growth of humanity. We discover a sublime truth – the purpose of the whole is sustained by the purpose of the individual.
3 Yutang, Lin (editor), The Wisdom of Confucius. The Modern Library, New York, 1938 Page 223.
4Zhou, Kuijie (editor), A Basic Mencius. Long River Press, San Francisco, CA., 2006. ISBN 1-592265-046-5, page 86.