As we have seen in the course so far, systems of thought are not simply dogmatic answers, but cultures of questioning as much as answering. We saw shamans go on vision quests to learn the sources of problems, and the Egyptian wisdom proverbs question authority, social status, consumption (over eating and drinking), expertise, and other aspects of human life.
Now, we move to China and examine one of the foremost ethical geniuses of world history: Grand Master Kong, Kong Fu Zi, or as he is known to us, Confucius, 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. Much as Socrates identified wisdom with compassion, Confucius said that the single thread that runs throughout all of his teachings is compassion for others and seeing things from their perspective.
Before we start in on the schools and sages of the Chinese tradition, first we must cover the shift in transliteration of Chinese into Phoenician/Roman alphabetic characters. Today, we use the Pinyin system, adopted by the People’s Republic of China in 1958, adopted by other countries by the 1980s. It still has problems, but is vastly superior to the Wade-Giles system invented in Britain in the 1800s.
When you read books from the 60s and 70s, you find the word Dao spelled ‘Tao’. This is because the Wade-Giles ‘t’ became ‘d’, and so the Daoist classic the ‘Tao Te Ching’ became today the ‘Dao De Jing’. What was once the capital city ‘Peiking’ is now ‘Beijing’. Important for Chinese Philosophy, while the Latinized names ‘Confucius’ and ‘Mencius’ remained the same, all other names changed, particularly the suffix for ‘master’, which was ‘Tzu’ but is today ‘Zi’ (pronounced something like ‘tzih’ with a soft ‘t’ in front). My favorite Chinese philosopher used to be ‘Chuang Tzu’, but is today ‘Zhuangzi’, or Master Zhuang. Similarly ‘Lao Tzu’ is today Laozi, Master Lao, and ‘Mo Tzu’ is Mozi, Master Mo. None of these names unfortunately appear in spell check either way. Luckily, Wikipedia is a good tool for dealing with this annoying situation, for if you search for a name either way, it sends you to the right page with the modern Pinyin name. I use this all the time, even though I have studied these guys for years.
Chinese Philosophy and The Period of the Hundred Philosophers
One would like to think that times of peace and prosperity are good for systems of thought, but times of civil war and disintegration of empires seems best for thinkers and systems of thought. This was true in ancient Egypt, India, Greece, and true in the golden age of ancient Chinese thought as well. Human beings only rethink problems when they are faced with them, and they are only able to teach new and countercultural solutions when the orthodoxy is weak and failing. In Confucius’ China there were great problems in the Warring States period (500 – 220 BCE) as many kings came and went, each calling themselves ‘mandated by heaven’. Interestingly, this same period is known as the golden age of Chinese thought, the Period of the Hundred Philosophies, also called the Period of the Hundred Schools and Period of the Hundred Sages. There were not exactly one hundred, of course, but there were many and one hundred is a nice, round number. In ancient Chinese thought, there were said to be 10,000 things (100 x 100), which means everything, in the same way that we would say a million or a billion things.
As we have learned with ancient cosmology, the worldview of ancient Egypt and Persia that influenced all three of the axial age powers (ancient India, Greece and China), the world was thought to be built like a person and order was thought to be spoken downward from the heavens to the earth. In ancient China, it was said that if a king was good he would be supported and affirmed by the voice of heaven, which in speaking for a king gave the king the mandate of heaven, allowing him and the empire to prosper. This is very similar to many other cultures of the ancient world. If the king does not follow the way of heaven and is out of touch with reality the gods or god stops speaking for the king, and someone else comes along and takes the king’s place. Each new king claims that the old king was ‘no longer spoken for’, so the populations of Greece, India etc. find themselves wondering: who or what kind of king exactly does heaven (the heavens) speak for, and why? Up until the French Revolution in the 1700s, Louis XVI claimed to be similarly supported and spoken for.
The Period of the Hundred Philosophers (or Hundred Schools), as it is called, came with the Warring States Period after the Zhou dynasty crumbled. The Hundred Schools period ended with the brief Chin (221 – 206 BCE) and then the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) who took over the China that the Chin had unified. While there may not have been a hundred separate schools, there were many schools of thought in this time but many and their teachings did not survive. The four most popular and famous philosophies were Confucianism, Daoism, Moism, and Legalism.
The word ‘China’ comes from the Chin, who were the first to unify much of the land. The Chin were patrons of Legalism, and Emperor Chin pronounced Confucius a subversive danger to the state. Confucian books, including the Analects, the Mencius and the Xunzi were burned, and anyone found reciting them or hiding them was executed. The legend developed that Confucianism and the texts survived hidden in a well.
Legalism was started by Shang Yang (390 – 338 BCE) and then in Chin times championed by Han Fei (280 – 233 BCE). Central to Legalism was the idea that law (fa) should be strict and in the interests of the state and the ruler who ensures the protection and continuation of the state, a position much like Hobbes, the later British political philosopher, takes in his book Leviathan. The ruler uses rewards and punishments to regulate agriculture, trade, and warfare. Shang Yang argued that people are self-interested, and only respond if there are great threats as well as great rewards (the stick and the carrot). The Legalists rejected allegiance to family and the aristocracy in favor of utility, similar to Mill’s utilitarianism but with a strong emphasis on punishment as the effective tool of the ruler. They believed in the evolution of society beyond the ways of the past and toward a new disciplined future, much like the Soviet Union but without the communal property of the Moists, who the Legalists despised.
The Han did not like the authoritarianism of the Legalists, likely because the Han were trying to win over the people, but they also did not like the communalism of the Moists who believed that war should be abolished and, like in Plato’s ideal republic, all property and family shared in common. It is believed that Mozi lived sometime between the death of Confucius in 479 BCE and the birth of Mencius in 372 BCE. The Moists were most famous for their doctrine of universal love, that we should not only love others as ourselves, which the Confucians also teach, but that we should love other families as we love our own families and love other countries as we love our own people. Mozi says that universal love was the practice of the sage kings, is the best practice based on evidence of social behavior, and is practical and could be put into practice within a single generation if enough rulers were convinced that it is in their own best interest as well as in their people’s best interest.
The Han chose, in supporting education, scholarship and the arts, to patronize Confucianism and Daoism. Confucianism included Confucius (550 – 480 BCE), and the two central and early Confucians, Mencius (Menzi, 370 – 290 BCE) and Xunzi (312-230 BCE). Daoism included Laozi (600 – 500? BCE), supposed author of the Dao De Jing, and Zhuangzi (370 – 300 BCE), though these two figures would not have known themselves to be ‘Daoists’ any more than Confucius would have known his followers would go on to found the central system of Chinese thought and politics.
Confucius and the Daoists proposed different solutions to the problem of self and society. The Daoists believed that going off into nature, forgetting embedded understandings and rejecting typical human ways was best for cultivating the individual, while Confucius believed that the city, morality and study were best for cultivating human virtues. Thus, while Confucius and the Daoists were both questioners of individual desires and judgment, Confucius believed we should turn to civilization and cultivation to realize our true nature and the Daoists believed we should turn away from civilization and back to simplicity and the natural to realize our true nature.
Much as we have already seen in India, Greece and elsewhere, Confucius, the Daoists and others speak of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ (Tianming) and the ‘Way’ (Dao) of Heaven (Tiandao) when arguing as philosophers, speaking less of the Lord of Heaven. As in Egypt and India, polytheism in China remained, but philosophers appeal to monism, to the idea of a whole beyond particular things, which extends beyond traditional religious worship without directly challenging it. Essentially, the All Lord becomes simply the mind of the universe or the ‘way’ or ‘order’ of things. The Zhou and earlier empires spoke of the Lord of Heaven, but Confucius and the Daoists in the Warring States period do not speak of the Mandate and Way.
Confucius and his System of Thought
Just like we had with Egypt last week, Confucius (550-480 BCE) believes that the heart is the center of the human being. Notice that this ‘center’ is both mental and physical, fitting with cosmology, psychology and medical practices. Confucius is often understood as a champion of traditional order and ritual, 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 insight rather than right ritual or tradition, to have right intentions than right actions, i.e. ‘one’s heart is in the right place’.
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 (li, also understood as tradition and practice) 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, to do the right act but for the wrong reason. While he is often understood as a traditionalist, there are many passages in the Analects that are quite progressive. Confucius would say to a traditional churchgoer today that it is more important to enjoy your church than to attend your church, for if you do not enjoy it whole-heartedly you should not go.
Consider the more secular 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”.
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 your 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.
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 ‘gentleman’, Confucius’ word for the great person, developed love for others and knowledge through study of the classic texts. As scholars have pointed out, while it has often been translated ‘gentle-MAN’, the term is gender neutral and Confucius was talking about the righteous rather than the nobly born, though the term was used before Confucius to refer exclusively to nobles before him. When we see the term in the text, it can also be translated as ‘the noble’, meaning anyone of either gender or social status who is an excellent human being. In the Analects, Confucius says that he never denied teaching the poorest of people, even if they could only give him a small token gift as tuition (7.7).
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 was given a government position. 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, “The noble person is not a pot”, meaning that we are not containers for knowledge but should transform and reflect on what we study.
Confucius was a genius at seeing himself 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. Most of us have likely heard the ‘Golden Rule’, which is paraphrased from Confucius: ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’. While Jesus says, ‘don’t treat others how you do NOT want to be treated’, we can understand them to be one and the same. 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 person, seek to imitate them. When you see an unworthy man, examine yourself”.
Mencius & Xunzi
Confucius had two followers who became the famous two poles of interpretation of the Analects. Mencius or Menzi, the second patriarch of Confucianism by popular consent in the tradition, believed that Confucius taught that the human being is basically good and develops the heart, growing and developing the virtues through love. He argued that because the human individual is essentially good, we need ritual to guide our growth but love is the true essence. Xunzi, the third patriarch of Confucianism, a cynic and conservative, argued that the human being is essentially evil and without the rituals and tradition to hold our nature back we would be selfish and uncivilized. This remains the major split in Confucian thought, which accommodates both opinions while leaning more toward Menzi.
Menzi uses the famous example of a child about to fall into a well, arguing that anyone watching a child near a well would naturally grow anxious, even the most evil of people. Menzi argues that civilization began when people saw the corpses of relatives being attacked by animals and insects and felt compassion and grief. It is true that burial sites are some of the first archeological finds we have of human culture.
Both Menzi and Xunzi, who attacks Menzi’s position later by name, use the example of little children to argue that human beings are good and human beings are evil. Menzi says that we know little children are good, before they are educated and taught manners. Xunzi says we know little children are evil, before they are educated and taught manners. Happy children are indeed lovable, and angry children are indeed immature. Many great thinkers, including Jesus and Nietzsche, teach us ‘be like a little child’, but we often tell others, ‘don’t be like a little child’. Opposite truths are often equally true.
Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi & Wang Yang Ming
About 1100 CE, Confucianism merged with Daoist and Buddhist ideas to form a Confucian revival called Neo-Confucianism by scholars today. Buddhist metaphors such as the pearl at the bottom of the muddy lake and the sun emerging from behind the clouds were reinterpreted in light of Confucianism and Daoism.
The major figure of this revival was Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE), who argued that all three traditions were teaching the same truth but that Confucius was the superior and primary teacher. The Neo-Confucians were trying to put Confucianism back into its primary place in Chinese culture after losing much ground to Buddhism over the previous five hundred years.
Wang Yangming (1470 – 1530 CE) one of the most revered Neo-Confucians, was famous for the idea of the unity of knowledge and action. While Confucius taught that intention and action are distinct things, Wang Yang Ming taught the complementary truth that the two are interactive as one whole. While someone can say that they know something, we can judge whether they truly know or not by how they act. An example he uses is if someone says they know that a smell is bad, but they do not act like it is bad (gagging, opening a window, pointing at their younger sibling), we could say that they do not really know that the smell is bad but only saying the smell is bad. In the same way, if we know someone is a good person we do not get nervous around them or hide our valuables when they come over. If we did, it could be said that we do not truly know they are good because we do not act like they are trustworthy.
Much as we know Socrates through the works written by Plato, we know Confucius from the Analects, from the collection of his sayings and interactions with others that became the central work of Chinese philosophy. They give us many brilliant insights for questioning the individual and state that we have already seen develop elsewhere. When people gather, they can see each other and see groups, and are questioning and skeptical of themselves, other individuals, and group organizations.
(6.2) Ran Yong said, “To be strict with oneself but easygoing with others is acceptable. To be easygoing with oneself and easygoing with others is too lax. Am I right?” Confucius agreed.
(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
(4.13) If one cannot govern by observing ritual and showing compassion, what is the use of ritual?
Valuing Education Above All
(4.9) If a scholar is ashamed of his shabby clothes or poor food, he is not worth listening to.
(8.12) A person who can study for three years without giving a thought to their career is hard to find.
(2.15) To study without thinking is futile. To think without studying is dangerous.
No One is Perfect
(7.33) My seal is as strong as anyone’s, but I have not succeeded in living nobly.
(7.30) 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.
(4.6) Has anyone ever devoted all his strength to goodness just for one day? No one ever has, and yet it is not because they lack strength.
Criticism of Selfishness and Pride
(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.
(Note the similarity with the maidens at the grindstone quote from ancient Egypt.)
(2.14) Great people consider the whole rather than the parts. Small people consider the parts rather than the whole.
(4.11) Great people seek virtue. Small people seek land. Great people seek justice. Small people seek favors.
(15.21) Great people make demands on themselves but little on others. Vulgar people make demands on others, but little on themselves.
(2.13) Practice what you preach.
(4.17) When you see a great person, try to follow their example. When you see an unworthy person, examine yourself.
(15.39) Confucius said, “My teaching is addressed to all indifferently.”
(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.
(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.
The Good as Unknown, Beyond Judgment and Opinion
(9.17) The master stood by a river and said: ‘Everything flows like this, without ceasing’
(Note the similarity to Heraclitus)
(2.17) To take what you know for what you know, and what you do not know for what you do not know, that is knowledge indeed.
(Note the similarity with Socrates)
(Strangely, Wittgenstein concludes his Tractatus with this line.)
(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.
(7.21) The master never talked of miracles, violence, disorders, spirits.
(11.12) Asked how to serve spirits, he said, You have not yet learned how to feed people, how could you learn to feed spirits? Asked about death, he said, You do not yet know life, how can you learn about death?
The Middle Way
(6.17) Who would leave a house without using the door? Why do people seek to walk outside the way?
(6.29) The power of the middle way is supreme, and yet it is not found among the people anymore.
(13.21) If I cannot find people who steer a middle course, I shall be content with the crazy and the pure. The crazy dare do anything, while there are things the pure will never do.
Reform the Old, Bring in the New
(2.12) A gentleman is not a pot.
(3.4) Each generation has added and dropped from the ritual and tradition, so we know what people will look like 100 generations from now.
(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.”
(14.22) Asked how to serve a prince, Confucius said, “Tell him the truth, even if it offends him.”
(13.24) Zigong asked, “What if everyone in a village likes someone?” Confucius replied, “This is not enough. Zigong asked, “What if they all dislike a person?” Confucius replied, “That is not enough. It is better if the good like them, and the bad dislike them. That is enough.”
(9.26) One can 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 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.
(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 man rests in his humanity. A wise man thrives in his humanity.