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Bishop Joseph Butler and Wang Yangming

A Comparative Study of Their Moral Vision and View of Conscience

Peter T.C. Chang

This book is a comparative study of the Anglican Bishop Joseph Butler’s and Neo-Confucianist Wang Yangming’s ethical enterprise. It first analyses, within their respective historical context, the two thinkers’ overarching worldviews and their seminal conception of conscience / liang-chih as a person's supreme moral guide. The English bishop and the Chinese philosopher-military general are then brought into dialogue by way of a comparing and contrasting of their distinct religious-philosophical traditions. In addition, Butler and Wang will be placed in a hypothetical encounter to explore how they, and by proxy Christianity and Confucianism, would critically appraise each other’s spiritual and sociopolitical endeavor. The end purpose of this study is to enhance our perception of the intriguing similarities and complex differences that exist between these two Axial Age civilizations. The author argues that dissonances notwithstanding, Butler and Wang share core values, consonances that could and should set the tone for an amiable Christian-Confucian co-existence.
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Chapter 3: Wang Yang-Ming’s Account of the Confucian Order and Conception of Liang-Chih


Chapter 3 Wang Yang-Ming’s Account of the Confucian Order and Conception of Liang-Chih

In the annals of Chinese history, the rulers of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE) can boast of unmatched accomplishments, not least their maritime exploration of Southeast and West Asia. The Ming Dynasty’s glory, however, was marred by a less savory element, something which historians refer to as “Ming Despotism.” The Ming’s susceptibility to tyrannical rule was evident early when, at the founding of the dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398 CE) abolished the Prime Minister’s office to consolidate his Imperial power. The curtailment of the oversight provided by the Palace’s outer court left the state more at the mercies of the Emperor and his inner circle of attendants. The second half of the Ming era witnessed the dreadful consequences of the state’s weakened checks and balances as the dynasty descended into tyrannical rule, with the convergence of incompetent personalities at all levels of governance: the throne was occupied by inept rulers, the Imperial inner courts were overrun by wily eunuchs, and the already curtailed outer courts were manned by corrupt Neo-Confucian scholar-official-bureaucrats.

In our days those employed in government service return home loaded with wealth … They use their authority and influence without restraint. They luxuriate in sumptuous banquets and even their servants wear silk and clothes of fine quality … (quoted in Albert Chan, 1982, p. 297)

Wang Yang-Ming’s (1472–1529 CE) illustrious career, in which he served as a philosopher, magistrate,...

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