How are we to live in a world that is cruelly indifferent? Unmoored from anthropogenic certainty the reader of Cormac McCarthy's The Road is challenged to decide how to create ethical sense. There are no people in The Road, we are told by the old man, and there are no gods, “Where men cant (sic) live gods fare no better.” This is a world of ash. So too was the world of Confucius, an itinerant scholar, who aspired to be the advisor to a great kingdom during the chaotic, gruesome Warring States Period. He spent his years traveling and teaching how a person (ren 人) could become authoritative in their conduct (ren 仁): by doing one's utmost to cultivate their identity-forming relationships in the human community. He never attained the high position he sought. His later years were filled with death: his only son died, as did two of his favorite students. The Road suggests itself, surprisingly, to be a Confucian allegory.
Central to this allegory is the term dao (道), conventionally translated as “the way.” Dao is a pervasive and widely discussed philosophical concept in Chinese culture. As such it has many other meanings consonant with “path”—such as teaching, heading, method—and the term comes to mean the “way to live,” the “way the cosmos operates,” etc. The dao that Confucius promotes involves a focus on filial obligations and a robust appreciation and elaboration of human culture. But the Confucian "path" is not toward some final destination, the way never ends, and it never began. So too we see in McCarthy's novel, “Ive (sic) always been on the road.” The old man tells the man and child at the campfire. Despite the profusion of road images in Confucianism, it is a way with no crossroads. One either collapses somewhere along the way or one goes crooked, lost to the wilderness. There is no choice to be made, only feats of moral strength. Just as the man tells the boy that the fire is with them, so too we have within us the capacity to harmonize the differences between us. The road one travels with Confucius is the way of consummate personhood (rendao 仁道), a route to establish a flourishing human community. Perhaps there are no people (ren 人) in The Road because personhood is an achievement cultivated in reciprocating relationships among those we encounter on the road.