Ethics 7 – Chinese Ethics: Confucius

For this lecture, please read Chapters 3, 4, 6 & 7 of the Analects of Confucius.

Rectifying the Names: Chinese Transliteration

Confucius spoke of rectifying the names, using the right words for the right things.  Before we study the schools and sages of the Chinese tradition, it is helpful to know that we use the Pinyin system for transliterating Chinese and ancient Chinese into the Phoenician/Roman alphabetic characters used in Latin and the Romance languages today, adopted by the People’s Republic of China in 1958 and other countries including America over two decades later in the 1980s.  

The Pinyin system has problems, particularly the use of X to indicate a “hs” sound and Q as a “ch” sound, such that “chi”, the Chinese conception of natural energy, is transliterated as qi in the Pinyin system, but it is vastly superior to the early Wade-Giles system invented in the 1800s by two British sinologists, Wade and Giles, which was used in English publishing before the 1980s, which is why you see the word Dao, the way of things, spelled “Tao” with a T in books published about Chinese philosophy from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

The city that was known as Peiking is now Beijing, and the title of “master” at the end of every Chinese philosopher was tzu but is now zi, still pronounced with a bit of a T at the beginning.  My favorite Chinese philosopher used to be Chuang Tzu, but is today Zhuangzi, Master Zhuang.  Neither of the two names are in English spell check systems such as Word and Google Docs, but if you search either on Wikipedia, it sends you to the page with the modern Pinyin name with the Wade-Giles name next to it in brackets.  I’ve used this many times to double check myself.

The Warring States, Hundred Schools & Life of Confucius

Grand Master Kong, Kongfuzi in transliterated Chinese, is known to Europeans by the Latin name Confucius (550-480 BCE), much as someone possibly named Joshua is known by the Latin name Jesus.  The name Confucius was transliterated into Latin by Jesuit Catholic missionaries who sailed to China from Italy during the Italian Renaissance in the 1500s, who were surprised to find that the central philosopher of China said things very similar to things Jesus said, such as: Treat people the way you want to be treated.

It would be nice if times of peace and prosperity are good for growing great thinkers and systems of thought, with people treating others and the neighboring states of others the way they and their states want to be treated, but times of civil war and disintegration of empires into warring local kingdoms seems better, especially in hindsight.  This was true in ancient India, Greece, and true in the golden age of Chinese thought as well, the Warring States Period, also known as the Period of the Hundred Schools, a period of many philosophers, philosophies and schools of thought.  Human beings rethink problems when they are faced with them, and they are only able to teach something new when something old is failing, often to try to get to the old ways.

In ancient Chinese history, the prosperous Zhou Dynasty (1073-771 BCE) was followed by the declining Spring and Autumn Period (771-476) which was followed by the Warring States Period (475-221) which was followed by the long, prosperous Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).  Laozi (615-533) and Confucius (551-479) the two greatest Chinese philosophers, founders of Daoism and Confucianism, lived during the declining period, their immediate followers (Mencius, Xunzi, Liezi & Zhuangzi) lived during the warring period, and finally the two schools were officially adopted and supported by the Han Empire.

About a hundred years before the birth of Confucius, the political philosopher Guan Zhong led the state of Qi and neighboring states such as Lu to several decades of relative stability as prime minister in 685 BCE.  Confucius was born in Lu, where Guan Zhong was praised as a wise philosopher-king whose compassionate ways led to peace and harmony. Confucius’ family were nobles who had education, but lower level aristocrats who had fallen on hard times, made worse when Confucius’ father, a soldier, died in combat when Confucius was very young.

By the age of fifteen Confucius had decided to study the classics, which were better kept and studied in Lu than in other states.  Legend has it that in his 20s Confucius opened a school for children and would charge what he thought the parents could afford. When the rich complained, he replied they were welcome to take their children to any teacher they liked and he would keep his prices as they were.  By 30, he was studying ancient government in the court of Lu with other scholars and had a position as overseer of the public fields and granary.

After fleeing to Chi during a time of unrest, refusing to serve a tyrant who had taken control of Lu, he joined the court of rulers who overthrew the tyrant and became Chief of Justice at the age of 50.  At 70, Confucius left Lu and traveled with many followers from kingdom to kingdom attempting to teach more rulers his ways and bring the warring states back into the lost peace and unity of the Zhou Dynasty.  His teachings and remarks were recorded after his death my his closest students as The Analects of Confucius, in which Confucius says:

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 of heaven. At 60, my ear was attuned.  At 70, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule. (2.1)

Confucius, Compassion & Other Virtues

Confucius said that if we only had a single word to guide us in life, it should be reciprocity, (15.24) balancing our interests with the interests of others, and that compassion (Ren) is the one thread running throughout his teachings (4.15).  Compassion is both seeing the perspectives of others and feeling for them, the ability and capacity to engage in reciprocity.  Compassion is sometimes identified with and sometimes distinguished from wisdom. Socrates thought they were one and the same, and if we compare the unifying wisdom of Heraclitus to the compassion of Confucius we can see much similarity, but we can think of compassion without the guide of wisdom, as well as wisdom without the care of compassion.

Like Buddha and Aristotle, Confucius believed that balance, what he called the supreme middle way, held earlier prosperous and peaceful empires together and was sadly not found in his time. (6.29)  He said that no one would leave a house without using the door, but people try to walk through life without using the middle way between things. (6.17)

Confucius is equally famous for teaching cultivation (Li), which includes rituals, tradition, education and civilization, the ways that we learn to make distinctions.  Compassion is the common unity that draws us and all things together, showing us the similarities beyond the differences, and tradition, education and civilization teach us to separate the bad from the good, showing us the differences beyond the similarities.

Confucius also spoke of determination (Yi), the courage and righteousness of duty, and of discretion (Chih), a good sense of judgement for right and wrong, as well as many other virtuous and terrible qualities we have.  Mencius (Menzi), took the four virtues of compassion, cultivation, determination and discretion, and identified them with the four chambers of the heart (Xin, “hsin”), equivalent to the mind in much of ancient Chinese thought, as well as the energy (Qi, “chi”) that runs through our veins, though this four-fold systematization with qi is Mencius’, not present in Confucius’ original Analects.

Confucius may not have taught Mencius’ system, which became the orthodox position of the Song Dynasty Neo-Confucians almost two thousand years after Confucius taught, but he certainly saw and spoke of the balance of common and particular virtues.  Inclusive compassion is the lowest and largest part of the heart, and distinguishing cultivation, determination and discretion sprout outward, from one into many, into the branchings of the body and our social lives. We have one common virtue, compassion, which shows us unity, and a branching family of many virtues, including cultivation, determination and discretion, which show us differences.  We must have love to see the larger picture, as well as the culture, courage and judgement to choose this over that, such as this perspective over that perspective.

Comparing Ourselves To Others To Master Ourselves

Confucius used the term “master-person” (junzi) which was often translated as “gentleman”, and is now sometimes translated as the noble or great, similar in ways to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, who grow their hearts and minds as best as they can.  Like the English words noble and gentleman, the term originally referred to males of noble birth who were given mastery over others and society, but Confucius and others used the term to refer to anyone who displayed excellence regardless of their position in society.  Confucius taught that no one is perfect, (7.26) not even himself after 70 years, but goodness is always at hand in everyone and everything, and so we can always teach ourselves and others more by comparing ourselves to others and their positions in ways that help us and them. (7.33-4)

Confucius said that his teachings are addressed to all indifferently, (15.37) that if we find ourselves with any two people at random, such as two excellent people, two terrible people, two average people, or any combination of these, we can take their strengths as a model to follow and their faults as a warning (7.22), as we all share the same sorts of strengths and weaknesses, no matter how individually talented, cultured or successful we are working with or overcoming any of them compared to anyone else.  Both Buddha and Jesus said that we should seek the faults we see in others in ourselves rather than others. Similarly, Confucius said that when we see greatness in others we should follow their example, and when we see problems in others we should examine ourselves. (4.17)

Just as we want others to improve themselves rather than point out our flaws, we should be strict with ourselves but easygoing with others (6.2), as failing to weigh our interests with others leads to resentment and a lack of self-development (4.12)  Paradoxically, if we are strict with ourselves and become truly noble, loving and disciplined we are easygoing and free, but if we are lax with ourselves and fail to grow we are tense and fretful. (7.37) We should not only think of others other than ourselves, but help others to achieve what we want to achieve ourselves (6.30), remembering to recognize our strengths in our allies and our opponents. (1.16)  Only the greatest would improve their greatest opponents as the only way to become even greater.

We can learn a lot from our mistakes and the mistakes of others, a way that the bad can be used for good.  Confucius said that it is only in the cold of winter that we can see how green the pines and cypresses are. (9.28)  Evergreen trees are symbolic in many cultures as life that endures after death and the good that endures through the bad, as it is only in problems that we can see how good greatness is and learn to grow greater.  Confucius said that he was fortunate indeed, as whenever he made a mistake there was always someone there to notice it (7.31), and that his student Yan Hui was no help to him, as everything Confucius said pleased him. (11.4)  Confucius himself only learned through making mistakes. Confucius said that the mistakes of the great are like an eclipse of the Sun or the Moon, as everyone notices them, but then everyone looks up again in admiration once things are restored. (19.21)

We can also humorously learn from the terrible, such as Confucius’ student Zigong, who happily strolled up to Confucius and reported that he no longer did to others what he did not want done to himself, to which Confucius replied, “You’re not that far yet.” (5.12)  When Confucius heard that Zigong was criticizing others, he said, “Zigong must have already reached perfection, which gives him freedoms I can’t afford.” (14.29) Zigong praises himself and criticizes others, and Confucius uses his bad example to show that pride can blind us to our most basic faults, as Zigong is blind to how he would not want others to stroll up to him and praise themselves, nor would he want them to criticize him behind his back.

Outer Form & Inner Intent

Confucius was a strong supporter of tradition, law and ritual (li), the cornerstone of education and civilization that draws individuals together to balance their common and differing interests.  Against what were likely proto-Daoist sages who were retreating from society into nature, much like the proto-Jains of India, Confucius said it is wise and beautiful to thrive with humanity rather than live with the birds and beasts without people. (4.1, 18.16)  Confucius did believe in the five relationships: Child obeys parent, younger child respects older child, wife obeys husband, younger defers to elder, and subject is loyal to ruler.  These were popular and unpopular attitudes in Confucius’ time, and they remain so today in political debates.

However, Confucius refused to support forms of civilization, religion, politics and education that distinguish between individuals and particular interests without the inner intent of drawing everyone together in common.  Doing the right outer action without the right inner intention is not simply bad, but the worst thing imaginable. Confucius said, “Authority without generosity, ceremony without reverence, mourning without grief, these things I cannot bear to contemplate.” (3.26)  While Chinese scholars and others have considered Confucius to be a conservative who supports the status quo, Confucius argues that we should not support royalty, laws, parents or rituals that do not have their heart in the right place, as culture without compassion is useless at best and dangerous at worst. (4.13)

We might be tempted to think that the right outer form without the right intent is still half right, but Confucius strongly disagreed.  Consider that if we ask a friend for something each and every time we give them anything, a complete and fair exchange exchange each time, our friend would resent us and hide behind the couch each time they see us approaching their place with a cake, worried we want to borrow their car.  We can screw up giving gifts to a friend, creating distrust with a practice that should be used to build trust instead, in a way that we can’t screw up psychotically stabbing strangers. If we destroy the ways we build trust with others, we have nothing left to build our lives upon, particularly after we come down from psychosis.

Authority Without Generosity

Just as the ancient Egyptians and Indians warned about substituting traditional rituals for being a good person, Confucius was a master of performing court rituals and rites, but he suggested that the rites be simplified and that tyrants who hold court and perform rituals to consolidate their power are not building trust but sewing distrust between the people and the rituals such that it would be better to not perform the rituals at all.  Similarly, civilization is where humanity can grow the most under the direction of wise and compassionate rulers and teachers, but civilization that seeks luxury rather than cultivation is worse than the wilderness. In one legendary story, Confucius and his followers found a woman weeping over the body of her son who had been killed by a tiger. Confucius asked her why she chose to live out in the forest, she replied that the local ruler was a corrupt tyrant who uses the peasants for his own personal gain.  Confucius turned to his students and told them to take note that some would rather live with tigers than under tyrants.

In one of my favorite of the Analects, Confucius says that Zang Sunchen built a house for his tortoise, with pillars in the shape of mountains and rafters decorated with duckweed, and wonders: Has he lost his mind? (5.18)  As much as Zang sounds like an interesting person, Confucius thinks that an aristocrat spending time and money on a mansion for his pet while peasants starve is as stupid as civilization can get.  This does not mean that money and power are evil, but often misleading, making us think we will be happy by holding on to them when this makes us and others unhappy. Rather than feed the desires we already have, spending time and money to remain the way we are, we should cultivate ourselves and develop greater desires.  In one place in the Analects, Confucius says he has never seen anyone who loved virtue as much as sex, (9.18) and then several chapters later he again says the fact remains he has yet to find anyone who fits this description. (15.13)

Confucius said that even if we have only coarse grain, water and an arm for a pillow to rest our head we can still be happy, but riches and honors without justice are mere fleeting clouds. (7.16)  When asked what makes a good government, Confucius said food, weapons and trust, and when asked which he would give up first and second, he said first give up weapons, and second give up food, as everyone dies eventually but without trust no government can stand. (12.7)  While it is shameful to lack distinction in a just kingdom, as we should strive for achievement, it is shameful to gain distinction in an unjust kingdom. (8.13) A good person rests in their humanity, but a wise person thrives in their humanity. (4.2) Confucius said that it is not enough for everyone to like us, nor for everyone to hate us, but rather for the good to like us and the bad to hate us. (13.24)  When asked about the politicians in his time, Confucius said that these puny creatures are not even worth mentioning. (13.20)

A duke asked if there is a single law that could ruin a state, and Confucius said, “That the prince should not suffer contradiction.  When in error, the prince should be told.” (13.15)  The prince should be told the truth, even if it offends him. (14.22)  When told of a rich lord who cruelly used the people to benefit himself, Confucius said, openly embracing armed rebellion against the authorities, “Attack him.  You have my permission.” (11.17)  While authority can maintain stability at best, Confucius said that we cannot take away anyone’s free will, even of those who are lowest in society.  In East Asia, many voices for democracy and social welfare associate their ideas and goals with Confucius and sometimes speak of Confucian revival, even though he has also been vilified by capitalists and communists as a supporter of feudalism.

Education Without Love Of Wisdom

Confucius is also a strong supporter of education, one of the foremost in human history, credited with founding the ancient Chinese education and civil service system.  Confucius taught six classic texts as the foundation for education: the Book of Changes, 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 original author of these or editor and redactor of earlier sources.  In a sense, they are ancient Chinese course readers. These and the Analects of Confucius were used by officials to test applicants for positions in the government, rule by meritocracy as well as aristocracy, much as Plato suggests in the Republic.  Confucius and others believed that the legendary ancient sage kings Yao and Shun ruled not by birthright but rather rose through the ranks through noble acts.

Confucius encouraged rulers to make education and the arts available to the people such that they can improve themselves and the state, saying that were there is education there are no social classes.  He also considered fasting and meditation, which Chinese Daoists and Buddhists employ, as a waste of time compared to studying and thinking. (15.31) However, education, like authority, can be misused and misunderstood, making distinctions without keeping the common in view.  Confucius said we should practice what we preach, (2.13) and an agile educated tongue can create many enemies. (5.5) Few scholars study without thinking of fame or money, pursuing knowledge and wisdom in the common interest rather than their own, but only those who are unashamed of lacking luxury or reputation are worth listening to. (4.9)

Confucius said, “Learning without thinking is useless.  Thinking without learning is dangerous.” (11.15) First comes love, then comes learning, and third comes thinking critically for ourselves, though all three are essential for personal growth.  According one story, Confucius showed a classroom of children an apple, dropped it into a vase and asked if any child could retrieve it. One large boy charged up to the front and reached into the vase, but he couldn’t pull the apple out of the vase along with his hand.  Confucius took the vase and turned it upside-down, and out fell the apple. Confucius said that even he could not be called knowledgeable, as an uneducated hick asked him a question and his mind went blank, though he later hammered away at the problem until he had worked out something to say. (9.8)  The noble do not approve of people because they express a particular opinion, nor do they reject an opinion because it is expressed by particular people. (15.23)

The Known & The Unknown

Confucius said that knowledge is to take the known as known and unknown as unknown (2.17), and we should keep silent about what we do not know. (3.14)  Confucius’ followers said that he spoke of culture, but not about the gods, spirits or miracles. (5.13, 7.21) When asked about making offerings and the afterlife, Confucius said, “You have not yet learned how to serve humanity, how could you learn to serve spirits?” and “You do not yet know about life, how can you learn about death?” (11.21)  Like Buddha and Heraclitus, Confucius stood by a river and said that everything flows like this, without ceasing. (9.17)  Each generation of civilization has added to and dropped from the rituals and traditions, which is how we know what people will look like many generations from now. (3.3)  Confucius said that unlike others he doesn’t follow any rigid prescriptions on what should or should not be done, (18.18) that we are not simply pots to put things in, (2.12) and so we should not be afraid of pursuing the common good beyond the understandings of any teacher. (15.36)


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