Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/ogyu-sorai-1666-1728/v-1
Ogyū Sorai (1666–1728) was one of the greatest, most erudite and most Sinocentric kogaku, or ‘Ancient Learning’, philosophers of Tokugawa Japan. Sorai’s call for a return to the most ancient philosophical classics of the Chinese tradition, the Six Classics, voiced the logical conclusion of kogaku tendencies. However, Sorai’s ideas also inspired kokugaku, or ‘National Learning’, a literary movement advocating a return to the ancient writings of Japan which most purely expressed the Japanese soul prior to its distortion by Chinese philosophy.
Sorai was born in Edo (now Tokyo), the shogun’s capital. From 1679–90 Sorai’s father, a samurai-physician who served the shogunate, was exiled to rural Kazusa (now in Chiba Prefecture) for reasons which are still unclear. In exile, Sorai’s father supervised his son’s study of the neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi, a post-Buddhist, metaphysical form of ancient Confucianism (see Neo-Confucian philosophy). After returning to Edo, Sorai gained attention for his thorough grasp of Zhu Xi’s teachings. From 1696 to 1709 he served Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, grand chamberlain to the Shogun Tsunayoshi (1646–1709), as a scholar. Sorai’s ideas informed the decision of Tsunayoshi’s government in the 1703 ‘forty-seven rōnin’ incident. He argued that the rōnin were praiseworthy for fulfilling a private morality, that of duty to their lord, but they also had broken public law by assassinating their lord’s enemy, one of the shogun’s officials. Rather than humiliate them with inflicted punishment, Sorai advised that the rōnin be allowed to commit ritual suicide (see Bushi philosophy §3).
After Tsunayoshi’s death in 1709, Sorai became a private scholar. His first publication, a Sino-Japanese dictionary entitled Yakubun sentei (Expedients for Translating Chinese), earned him modest fame in 1711. His next work, the Ken’en zuihitsu (Reed Garden Miscellany), published in 1714, attacked the kogaku ideas of Itō Jinsai’s Gomō jigi (The Meanings of Terms in the Analects and the Mengzi) from a neo-Confucian perspective. Sorai’s attacks on Itō Jinsai are odd because earlier Sorai had written him expressing admiration for his Gomō jigi. Itō Jinsai never replied, leading to speculation that Sorai wrote the Ken’en zuihitsu out of resentment (see Itō Jinsai).
By 1717, Sorai had rejected neo-Confucianism in favour of his own brand of kogaku (ancient learning) thought. His masterworks, the Bendō (Discerning the Meaning of the Way) and Bemmei (Discerning the Meanings of Philosophical Terms), called for a revival of the ancient Chinese philosophy of the Six Classics. They also attacked both Itō Jinsai’s revival of the ancient teachings of Confucius and Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism for indulging in fanciful subjectivism rather than objective study of ancient philosophical language (see Zhu Xi).
Sorai boasted that his philosophy would revive the Way of the ancient sage-kings (see Confucian philosophy, Chinese). That Way embodied the foundations of civilization, including the rites, music, penal laws and institutions of government. In Sorai’s view, the sages earned their status because they invented the Way ex nihilo. Sorai thus denied the neo-Confucian claim that the Way existed both in the natural world and in human nature. He believed that there remained only one task for humanity, to follow the ancient Way reverently: neither rulers nor philosophers were to tamper with or deviate from it.
Unlike Zhu Xi, who claimed that sagehood was attainable via investigating things, Sorai alleged that it was impossible for men to become sages. While neo-Confucians insisted that human nature was universally good, Sorai denied that there was any moral value inherent in it. Rather, people were just born with various capacities and talents which could be realized by faithfully following the Way of the sages. When everyone perfected their talents, stability would reign.
While Confucius taught that jin (ren in Chinese), or humaneness, was a virtue that everyone should embody (see Confucian philosophy, Chinese §5), Sorai interpreted jin as the virtue of the great sages which enabled them to provide stability for the world through their Way. Religiously, Sorai insisted that people believe without question in ghosts and spirits, because the ancient sages made such belief part of their Way. Neo-Confucians, however, interpreted ghosts and spirits as the activities of yin and yang, thus defusing many superstitions about them (see Yin–yang).
During his final years, Sorai provided the Shogun Yoshimune (1684–1751) with solutions for the social and economic ills plaguing the state. His Taiheisaku (Plan for an Age of Great Peace) and Seidan (Discourses on Political Economy) advised that urban-based samurai be relocated in rural areas away from the vices of the pleasure quarters. Sorai thought that the shogunate could thus provide for stability by creating, like the ancient sages, institutions which would rightly order human and natural resources.
Tucker, John Allen. Ogyū Sorai (1666–1728), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G122-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/ogyu-sorai-1666-1728/v-1.
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