Confucian Philosophy in Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Curator's Note

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 (), 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.


A colleague and I are currently working on a manuscript about illness narratives. Particularly, we are interested in how the media we consume effects how we, and others, conceptualize illness. A majority of Hollywood film likes to see discourses as closed. One has an illness, one overcomes the illness, film ends. However, in the narratives we have analyzed, illness is not that simple. 95% of people who go through an abdominal surgery suffer from brutal adhesions, although they are rarely informed of this. The philosophy of this film seems to adjust one's conception of trials, tribulations. Truth is precarious, but is ultimately a co-construction, embedded in mutual appreciation. Really loved this piece.

Thanks for your kind words and consideration, Brandon. I should clarify that in my writing to this point I've been thinking about the novel and I've not seen the movie in several years. I don't know to what extent my thinking above would change were I to discuss the film adaptation; probably very little. I think your suggestion to link trials, disability, and truth are compelling and necessary. In her book The Test Drive, my advisor, Avital Ronell, asks why have tests become so necessary to our contemporary understanding of truth? In part this testing regimen comes as an autoimmune response to the deficiency of the scientism that so frequently gets to act as a neutral medium through which public policy gets enacted. I call it an autoimmune response because as one reflects on the nature of the self and its relationship to the world, construed through the lens of scientism, it becomes clear that selfhood is not a self-sufficient thing. Panic (and a range of other anxiety disorders) motors the pursuit of an infinitely unentangled and ultimately individuated agent. The test reconstitutes these incomplete, insufficient selves. This is a classic trope in the existentialist literature. Hans Castorp, in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, is reconstituted by the spectral x-ray he receives, thereby gaining entry into the special community of the Berghof Sanitorium. Prince Myshkin is made something extrahuman by the holy disease of epilepsy upon viewing Holbein's painting of Christ in the tomb. It is by virtue of their socially-constructed and acceptable disability that these figures have the opportunity to act as moral role models for the reader. Their volition has to be compromised in a manner that doesn't threaten the dominant legal paradigm. In the Confucian milieu the testing regimen is toward something different. Personhood is an achievement of a cohort; we are"who we are" through the performance of the obligations into which we are born. "Who I am" is assessed by my utmost investment into the social conventions of my time and place. Rather than a testing of whether or not I know the Truth, I am tasked with being true to what came before me and acting in a manner that can be trusted by those future generations to come.

Thank you for your encouraging words! I embedded the trailer to the film adaptation primarily because I find the trailer to evoke the atmosphere of the novel. However, I've written the above based on what I encountered in the novel and I concede that the film may not perform the same kind of thought-making. I very much like your question of representing philosophical concepts vs. performing the philosophical concepts. I'm reminded of what John Durham Peters recently pointed out in his latest book, The Marvelous Clouds, that media are matters of craft: there is the crafting of a well wrought novel that careful editing demonstrates, but the novel (or other modes of media) also demonstrates it is a vehicle transporting messages in the same sense as we intend when we call an airplane an aircraft. The novel The Road is spartan. The world in which the story unfolds is a chalky bland one. It is a vehicle for affect, it draws out from the reader a range of angst-laden feelings. This strategy of drawing out from the reader, to my mind is a very Confucian one. Confucius, in the Analects we've received, often tells his disciples different things when asked similar questions. He does so in view of the others so that not only the student currently being counseled has the answer appropriate to his context, but so too the other students are tasked with making appropriate to their own contexts the lesson Confucius demonstrates. Confucius didn't advocate that his students align themselves to an abstract principle represented by his dao, rather he gave his students a heading, a means of charting their own dao. That way-making activity is a self-reflexive one, he reminded to look to familiar examples for guidance, such as archery: if they don't hit their mark, the archers don't move the target, the archers adjusts themselves. That aligning with the thing one aims for is what I took from The Road.

The note is really interesting in juxtaposition with the trailer. I'm not very familiar with Confucianism, but I wonder if you might read the film/book as having a tension between Eastern and Western philosophy? The scene where the main character shoots the guy trying to kidnap his son seems like a place to flesh out that part of the narrative. While the main character may be looking for a Confucian-style community, the world around him and his family emerges as the primary hurdle to achieving it. In addition to Confucianism, you might look at the Wabi Sabi ( aesthetic in the presentation of the narrative...

Thank you for these excellent provocations. I think the novel is successful because it is so blank and as such I don't know that I saw an explicit tension between these two orientations. The incident you mention is a fairly straightforward demonstration of filial piety, to my mind: in order for society to flourish fathers must be be good fathers to their children, just as children are obliged to defer to their parents' decisions. So, yes, the father must kill the kidnapper. I should point out that the man is not looking for community, only the ocean. I really like that you suggest wabi-sabi here. I think that is something worth pursuing.

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