Today we examine one of the foremost ethical geniuses of world history: Grand Master Kong, Kong Fu Zi, or as he is known to us, Confucius (550-480 BCE), the Latinized name transliterated by Catholic Jesuit missionaries who got to China in the 1600s and were astounded to find that the most influential philosopher in thousands of years of Chinese history has teachings very similar to Jesus. Confucius was dedicated to the idea that the individual can obtain fullness and happiness by placing others before oneself and by recognizing the desires of others as equal to the desires one has for oneself.
The Life of Confucius
About a hundred years before the birth of Confucius, the political philosopher Guan Zhong became prime minister of the state of Chi (Qi) in 685 BCE. Due to his benevolence and wise leadership, the state temporarily stabilized the neighboring states as the Zhou Dynasty was crumbling during the Spring and Autumn period. When Guan Zhong died forty years later in 642 BCE, Chi was attacked and the region again became destabilized.
Confucius was born 90 years later in the neighboring state of Lu, where like in Chi Guan Zhong was praised as a wise philosopher-king whose ways led to peace and harmony. Confucius’ father, a soldier, died when Confucius was very young, presumably in combat. Confucius was alive as the Zhou disintegrated during the Spring and Autumn period, though he did not see things deteriorate further as they did in the Warring State Period, the time when Confucius’ teachings were taken up by Mencius, Xunzi and others as the way to cultivate and restore both society and the self. Later, the Han would patronize Confucianism as the way to restore order without the need for the authoritarianism of the Legalists.
Confucius’ family were nobles, but they were lower level aristocrats, shi, sometimes translated into English as ‘knights’, and they had fallen on hard times. They had left the state of Song to the South after political infighting and assassinations. By the age of fifteen Confucius had decided that he wanted to study the classics, which fortunately were better kept and studied in Lu than in other states. When he was twenty three, he began teaching publicly and privately. By thirty, he was studying ancient government in the court of Lu with other scholars and had a position as overseer of public fields and the state granary.
Legend has it that early in his life Confucius opened a school for children and would charge parents of children what he thought they could afford. When the rich complained that their children were being taught for great sums and the poor children were being taught for next to nothing, Confucius replied that the rich were welcome to take their children to any teacher they saw fit, and he would keep his prices as they were.
Another story tells of Confucius putting an apple in a vase, and telling the children that the first to get the apple out could eat it. The largest boy in the class shoved in front of the others and reached in to grasp the apple, but he could not pull it out as the apple was nearly the size of the opening. Confucius took the vase, turned it over, and the apple fell out into his hand. The story illustrates a basic lesson of Confucianism: study is central to self-development, but critical reflection, turning things over in the mind, is equally valuable.
After briefly fleeing to Chi during a time of unrest, and refusing to participate in the government of a tyrant who had taken control of Lu, in his fifties he joined the court of rulers who overthrew the tyrant and became Chief of Justice of Lu. Later in life, after teaching and participating in local government, Confucius left Lu in 479 BCE and traveled with many followers from local court to regional kingdom attempting to teach rulers his ways and find patronage.
In one story of his travels, Confucius came upon a woman weeping over the body of her son as a tiger disappeared into the forest. Confucius asked her why she chose to live where there are tigers, and she replied that the local rulers were corrupt and it was better to live with the tigers. Confucius turned to his followers and told them to remember her words. In another story, Confucius leaves a local Duke after he spends all of his time with dancing girls. The duke, enraged, sends an army after Confucius, who tells his students to abandon him to save their own lives, and sits happily playing a lute waiting for his death. Fortunately, another local ruler comes to his rescue, having heard of his teachings and his plight.
Confucius is said to have visited at least nine states of the old Zhou empire attempting to bring the rulers together in a new confederation that would restore the ancient order. Unfortunately the political tide was not in his favor, and just less than ten years before the Warring States Period (475 BCE) Confucius returned to Lu in 484 BCE and died five years later at the age of seventy three in 479 BCE, two and a half thousand years ago. His travels, while they did not restore the Zhou as he had hoped, surely helped spread his reputation and teachings such that his school flourished in the Warring States Period and was later patronized by the Han as they attempted to hold on to the disparate states.
The Teachings of Confucius
Confucius believes that the heart is the center of the human being, and compassion (ren) is the central thread running throughout his system according to a famous passage of the Analects. Notice that heart as ‘center’ is both mental and physical, fitting with cosmology, psychology and medical practices. The term ren, often translated as love or compassion, is literally, ‘humanity’. Loving others and being compassionate for others is to be more human and humane.
Confucius is often understood as a champion of tradition, principle and ritual (li), as he is a proponent of civilization and education against the Daoists who are proponents of nature and meditation. However, it is clear from the Analects that Confucius believed it was more important to have right motivation rather than right ritual or tradition, to have right intentions than right actions, i.e. ‘one’s heart is in the right place’. In other words, while one should have both compassion and tradition, it is most important to have compassion, and without it tradition is corrupting the best things.
Confucius was a master of ritual, an official position important for civil ceremonies and legal practice as they still are in courts of law and political processes today. Confucius believed that ritual was the strength of a society and one should perform the rituals, but he also believed that the worst thing was to do ritual without the proper intention. Confucius would say to a churchgoer or student of any subject today: it is more important to enjoy your church or study, and to do it for your and other’s benefit, than to attend your church for show or study for a good paying career, for if you do not enjoy it whole-heartedly and do it for the right reasons you should not do it.
Consider the example of giving a gift to a friend. If you give gifts so that you can borrow someone’s car, you corrupt the act of giving gifts, which should be done without expectations of repayment. It would be better, according to Confucius, to not give gifts to friends than to give them expecting repayment. Empty ritual, ritual simply for the motions rather than authentic love for and continuity with one’s society, is the worst thing, and thus it would be better in such a case to avoid false ritual and simply not perform the ritual at all. This point is often lost when people focus on Confucius’ great love of ritual and traditional culture.
A good example of this point is Analects 5.5 (and yes, these are standardized so no matter the translation, ‘5.5’ is always the fifth aphorism of the fifth chapter or book, just like the Bible and Koran are standardized with numbers): Confucius says that Ran Yong does not need eloquence (civilized speech) if he is not good. Another good example is 11.10, where Confucius is grieving ‘inappropriately’ for his favorite student, and tells his students who complain that genuine love and expression of emotion is more important than being polite or pleasant (right intention trumps right outer form). However, the best example is clearly 3.26, “Authority without generosity, ceremony without reverence, mourning without grief, these things I cannot bear to contemplate”.
Confucius did believe in the Five Relationships: Son obeys father, younger brother respects older brother, wife obeys husband, younger defers to elder, and subject is loyal to ruler. It is also true, however, that this is not absolute authoritarianism in Confucius’ teachings. While many today would immediately see problems with wife obeying husband and subject loyal to ruler, putting each on equal terms in the name of feminism and democracy, Confucius teaches that if authority is unjust it should be mentioned and if the injustice persists it should be fought. In East Asia, including China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, most champions of democracy and social welfare associate their ideas and goals with Confucius and speak of Confucian revival, in spite of the fact that he has also been vilified by both capitalists and communists as symbolic of feudalism.
While Confucius was from a low level noble family, like Plato in the Republic of ancient Athens Confucius argued for a meritocracy rather than an aristocracy, for merit through education rather than position by birth. Confucius and others believed that the great sage kings Yao and Shun ruled not by birthright but because they rose through the ranks by their noble actions and compassion for the people. According to tradition, Yao and Shun were so benevolent and righteous that they were able to maintain the state simply by sitting facing south, as everything had been set in its proper place and nothing improper was added. Confucius believed that education should be available to as wide a range of society as possible and encouraged local rulers to cultivate the people through education and the arts. In one passage, he says, “Where there is education, there are no classes”. (Perhaps if Confucius could see our public education system in America, he would have said, ‘Where there should be education, there are fewer and fewer classes’.) In another passage, he says, “As for the humane (ren), when they want to establish themselves they establish others, and when they want to succeed they help others to succeed”.
Because the Han and many later Chinese dynasties used Confucius as a voice supporting subordination to authority, and because Confucius does indeed say to obey the father and obey the chain of command, it is often overlooked that, just as intention is more important than tradition, unjust fathers and unjust states must be corrected. Many times Confucius says that truth must be spoken to power. How will things change if no one complains? In one passage, Confucius tells his students they should rise up and overthrow an unjust local prince. One should be subordinate to authority, but only just and good authority and tradition.
Another central term used by Confucius is yi, righteousness, justice, courage and duty insofar as it is one’s basic duty to humanity to be just and do what is right. Righteousness (yi), a sense of right and wrong (chih), compassion (ren), and principle (li) became the four virtues that Mencius (Menzi) believed grew out of the heart and formed the core of Confucius’ teaching. Remember that the heart has four chambers. Because Confucianism followed Mencius’ system, these became the four traditional virtues of the noble person. Also important are the complementary sides of reciprocity or the ‘Golden Rule’: one should do for others what one wants for oneself (chung) and not do to others what one does not want for oneself (shu).
The ideal for the individual repeated throughout the Analects is the ‘great person’, literally the ‘master person’ (chun-zi, similar to Nietzsche’s ubermench), who develops love for others and knowledge through study. While it has often been translated in English as ‘gentleman’, this is problematic in two ways. First, the term is gender neutral, in the same way that ‘mankind’ and ‘man’ were recently used to mean ‘humankind’ and ‘person’. Second, Confucius was talking about the righteous rather than the nobly born, though the term was used before Confucius to refer exclusively to nobles of aristocratic birth. While it is also translated as ‘the noble’, which is gender neutral, Confucius’ great person should be understood as anyone of either gender or any social status who is an excellent human being.
Confucius was a great champion of scholarship. Like Plato, Confucius believed that society should not be an aristocracy but rather a meritocracy. Confucius believed that scholarship was necessary for developing the heart, and the noble person should devote themselves to a lifetime of learning and critical thinking. Confucius taught that six classics should be used for a classical education: the Book of Changes (which we studied last class), The Book of Music, The Book of History, The Book of Odes, The Book of Rites, and The Spring and Summer Record. There has been much debate over how much Confucius was the author of these, whether the texts existed before, or whether Confucius redacted them from earlier sources. The modern consensus is that Confucius was not the author, but he borrowed much from earlier sources to create texts for teaching his students. In a sense, they are ancient Chinese course readers.
Needless to say, Confucius’ Analects became one of the central texts for devoted study in Chinese society, and Confucius became an ancestor revered by devotees with ritual. Confucius is credited as the father of China’s civil service system, a system in which anyone who tested well, regardless of their position in society, was given a government position. This is similar to the development of types of scribes in Egypt. It is just such a development that we call the middle class, the individuals who through study and work can rise or fall in position to fit the many niches required to run large cities and systems. What Plato recognized in Egypt, Confucius was much more successful in implementing in Chinese society, though unfortunately only after his death. Confucius himself always hoped for a good position, but did not succeed in obtaining one during his own life though he did teach many students and was revered by many of them, including powerful nobility.
Just as Confucius taught that intention is more important than action, he hated scholarship for show without genuine love of learning and discovery of human nature. A good example is 4.9, ‘if a scholar is ashamed of his shabby clothes or poor food, he is not worth listening to’. He also taught that we should balance learning with critical reflection, just as Buddha did, though Buddha, like Daoists, argued that study and critical reflection also needed meditation whereas Confucius saw study as superior to meditation. In the Analects, Confucius says that studying without thinking is useless, but thinking without studying is dangerous, showing us that he does believe in individual insight but is traditional and believes in studying the traditional classics. He says, “A noble person is not a pot”, meaning that we are not containers for knowledge but should transform and reflect on what we study.
Confucius taught that one should see oneself as equal to everyone, and he encouraged this attitude as the path to excellence itself. It was this point that the Jesuits found fascinating in comparing Confucianism to Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. My favorite example is 7.22: Confucius says that if you put yourself with any two people at random, you can take their strengths as a model to follow and their faults as a warning. Clearly, Confucius believed that we all share the same set of strengths and faults, no matter how talented (or horrible) we happen to individually be or where our talents are. Confucius taught that NO ONE is perfect, not even himself, but there is good in everyone and everything, and we had best remember that we will never lose any of our connection to our fellow human beings if we only remember to look hard enough for it. Another excellent example from the Analects: “When you see a worthy man, seek to emulate him…When you see an unworthy man, examine yourself”.
The Analects of Confucius
The Analects or Sayings of Confucius is the book compiled by his students and followers of things said by Confucius and short interactions between Confucius and others, including students, government officials, and scholars. First we look at the criticism of the individual, clearing the individual heart and putting oneself in tune with the Way. Then we look at criticism of the state, and see that the same applies. Notice the passages where Confucius is criticizing sages who go to nature and do not study, as these are early Daoists who have different opinions about the cultivation of the human individual.
Criticism of the Individual
(7.37) Great people are easygoing and free. Vulgar people are always tense and fretful.
(4.12) Whoever acts out of self interest arouses much resentment.
(5.5) Someone said, “Ran Yong is good but not eloquent”. Confucius said, “What is the use of eloquence? An agile tongue creates many enemies. Whether Ran Yong is good, I do not know, but he certainly has no need for eloquence.”
(9.18) I have never seen anyone who loved virtue as much as sex.
Several chapters later…
(15.13) The fact remains that I have never seen anyone who loved virtue as much as sex.
Criticism of Luxury
(7.16) Even if you have only coarse grain, water and your arm for a pillow, you may still be happy. Riches and honors without justice are to me as fleeting clouds.
Criticism of Ritual without Virtue
(3.26) authority without generosity, ceremony without reverence, mourning without grief, these things I cannot bear to contemplate.
(4.13) If one cannot govern by observing ritual and showing compassion, what is the use of ritual?
Valuing Study Above All
I haven’t seen someone who studies without any thought of career.
No One is Perfect
No one is perfect (7.26) but something good is always at hand (7.30). Confucius says again and again that he is not perfect, nor has he met perfection.
(7.33) My seal is as strong as anyone, but I have not succeeded in living nobly, yet is goodness out of reach? As soon as I long for goodness, goodness is at hand.
(7.34) I make no claims to wisdom or to human perfection- how would I dare? Yet my aim never flags and I never tire of teaching people. A student replied, ‘This is what we fail to follow.’
Criticism of Selfishness and Pride
Whatever one’s position, you always share the faults and talents of everyone. Thus, you have to work to compare self with others, as not intuitive. You should compare yourself to others, reflect yourself through others no matter how you judge them to be, and work to get over selfishness and become compassionate and balanced (the way of heaven, opposed to selfish desire for lower). Confucius values joining all of humanity, not being selfish.
(9.8) Am I knowledgeable? No. A Bumpkin asked me a question, and my mind went blank. Still, I hammered at his problem from all sides, till I worked out something.
(1.16) Don’t worry if others don’t recognize your merits: worry that you may not recognize theirs.
(2.13) Practice what you preach.
(15.39) Confucius said, “My teaching is addressed to all indifferently.”
(5.12) Zigong said, “I do not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me.” Confucius said, “You have not come that far yet.”
(11.4) Yan Hui is of no help to me: whatever I say pleases him.
(9.28) It is in the cold of winter that you see how green the pines and cypresses are.
(15.23) A gentleman does not approve of a person because he expresses a certain opinion, nor does he reject an opinion because it is expressed by a particular person.
(8.13) In a country where the Way prevails, it is shameful to remain poor and obscure. In a country which has lost the way, it is shameful to become rich and honored.
(15.24) ‘When asked if there is a single word to guide one’s life, Confucius responded, “Reciprocity. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.
(19.21) A gentleman’s mistake is like an eclipse of the sun or moon. When happens, everyone notices, and when corrected everyone looks up in admiration.
(7.31) I am fortunate indeed. Whenever I make a mistake, there is always someone who notices it.
(14.29) Zigong was criticizing other people. Confucius said, “Zigong must have already reached perfection, which affords him a leisure I do not possess.”
(6.30) What the good wish to achieve for themselves, they enable others to obtain.
Good as Unknown, Beyond Judgment and Opinion
(2.17) Master said: Knowledge is to take the known as known and unknown as unknown.
(3.14) About what we don’t know we must keep silent.
This line was possibly quoted by Wittgenstein at the end of his Tractatus.
(5.13) Our master’s views on culture can be gathered, but you can’t hear his views on the nature of things or the Way of Heaven.
(7.35) Confucius is ill, and a student says, “pray to spirits above & spirits below”. Confucius said, “In that case, I have been praying for a long time already.”
(11.12) Asked how to serve spirits, Confucius said, “You have not yet learned how to serve man, how could you learn to serve the spirits?” Asked about death, Confucius said, “You do not yet know life, how can you learn about death?”
(18.18) Confucius said, “I do things differently. I follow no rigid prescriptions on what should or should not be done.”
(6.29) The power of the middle way is supreme, and yet it is not found among the people anymore. (notice restore the golden age)
Reform the Old & Bring in the New
(2.12) A gentleman is not a pot.
(3.3) Each generation has added and dropped from the ritual, so we know what people will look like 100 generations from now. (they will add and drop)
(15.36) In pursuit of virtue, do not be afraid to outpace your teacher.
Criticism of the State
Confucius is not a compliant sheep when it comes to the state. His criticism of individual judgment and pride is matched by criticism of the state.
(11.17) When told of a rich lord who pressured the peasants to make him richer, Confucius said, “Attack him: you have my permission.”
(13.15) When asked by Duke, “Is there a single maxim/rule that could ruin a country?”, Confucius replied, “That the prince should never suffer contradiction. When in error, prince should be told.”
(14.22) Asked how to serve a prince, Confucius said, “Tell him the truth, even if it offends him.”
(13.24) Asked, “What if everyone likes a man?” Confucius replied, “This is not enough”. When asked, “What if everyone hates him?”, Confucius replied, “Still not enough. When the good like you and the bad hate you, that is enough.”
(13.20) When asked about the present-day politicians, Confucius replied, “Those puny creatures are not even worth mentioning.”
(9.26) Confucius said, “One cannot deny the humblest man his free will.”
(12.7) When asked what makes a good government, Confucius said, “Sufficient food, weapons, and the trust of the people”. When asked by Zigong which one should be given up first, Confucius said weapons. When asked which one should be given up next, Confucius said, “Food. After all, everyone dies eventually. Without the trust of the people, no government can stand.”
Criticism of Daoism and its sages retreat into Nature
Just as Confucius appears in Daoist texts as an ally but inferior rival, so do proto-Daoist sages in the Analects. This is very much like Buddha vs. the Jains, in that other group isn’t mentioned by name, but found not to be in balance but extremists. Daoists wanted to escape into nature, while Confucians believe in the value of the city and embracing not escaping humankind. Believe in balance, like Daoists, but seek to balance the city, not escape into the perfect balance of nature from the city. Daoists are more skeptical of society.
(4.1) It is beautiful to live amidst humanity. It is hardly wise to live in a place destitute of people (i.e. don’t be a Daoist hermit).
(15.31) I once to meditate went without food for a day and a night without sleep. It was no use. It is better to study.
Criticism of Inactivity
(2.1): At 15, I set my mind upon learning. At 30, I took my stand. At 40 I had no doubts. At 50, I knew the will (mandate) of heaven. At 60, my ear was attuned. At 70, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule.
(4.2) A good person rests in their humanity. A wise person thrives in their humanity.