Confucius Says…Posted: March 14, 2008 Filed under: Confucius, Language, Latin, Philosophy, Politics, Religion 3 Comments »
In addition to reading the Tao Te Ching, I have been enjoying other Classics of Chinese culture. In particularly I have been enjoying the Analects by Confucius. Confucius, or Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子), and the literature surrounding him are considerably less popular among Western readers than the Tao, because Confucius hardly ever spoke on spiritual or mystic issues, while the Tao is short, but full of mystery and spirituality. However, Confucius’s contribution to Asian culture should not be understated. He taught a no-nonsense, straightforward approach to life through sincere study, ethics and the life of a gentleman. It’s this ideal that has inspired millions of people over many generations.
In Confucius’s words, the ideal man was the gentleman, or to quote from the Analects:
Master Tseng [Confucius] said, “The man whom one could with equal confidence entrust an orphan not yet fully grown or the sovereignty of a whole state, whom the advent of no emergency however great could upset – would such a one be a gentleman? He I think would be a true gentleman indeed.” (8:6)
Confucius, like the early Taoists, lamented the decline of politics in his time. Both Lao Zi and Confucius lived during the famous Spring and Autumn Period, when the Zhou (pronouced “Joe”) Dynasty was falling apart, and local Dukes and Kings were grabbing more power. At this time, few rulers were loyal to the Zhou Dynasty anymore, and it was “every man for himself”. The history of the Spring and Autumn is fraught with civil wars, assassinations, and general abuse of power, which broke down even worse into the all-out Warring State period.
So, like Lao Zi, Confucius sought a way to resolve the breakdown of society by returning to the “good old days”. The interpretation of what the good ol’ days is differs somewhat between Confucius and the Tao Te Ching. Both revere ancient mythical Emperors such as Yao, Shun and Yü, but in the Tao Te Ching, the ancient days were seen as an example of Minarchism, or minimal government. Confucius on the other hand, focused on the ancient religious rites the kings were supposed to observe, as well as the histories, songs and literature of those days. Confucius thought that if society would restore the rites, study the ancient histories and songs, this would inspire people to a better mind-set, rather than selfish one.
This sounds silly to the modern Western reader at first glance, but even in American politics, you see the same sentiments. People remember the “good ol’ days” before the Internet or modern Materialistic life, and feel that if we could go back to a simpler time, life would be better. In effect, this was what Confucius advocated in his culture and time.
But a gentleman, in Confucius’s mind, isn’t just some ultra-conservative. On the contrary, a gentleman was someone who:
- Very humble in lifestyle (7:15)
- Emulates the good habits of people around him (7:27)
- Well-educated, loves study (6:25)
- Submits to ritual (6:25)
- Honest (6:17)
- Proficient in the arts (7:6)
…and so on. Here, it’s interesting to note that Confucius stressed the importance of ritual time and again. This seems at first glance superstitious, but after careful thought, I think I understand his train of thought. In Confucius’s mind, the adherence to ritual was a way of humbling the self, and turning your mind toward the good of the state (or society’s general welfare). In other words, Confucius advocated the welfare of society over the welfare of one’s self. This is pretty sensible given that all the great people in history were known for being selfless, rather than self-centered (the infamous, by contrast, are usually self-centered to an extreme).
So anyways, that’s Confucius in a nut-shell!
More words from Confucius:
- A Lifetime of Learning
- Hear one, Know ten
- On being a gentleman
- Priorities in Life
- Confucius and the Arts
- Confucianism beyond Confucius himself
P.S. The picture above is from a 1687 work, in Latin, about Confucius and his life. Confucius in Latin, how cool is that? Two Chinese characters above his head read Gynasium Imperio or “National Studies” by the way. The actual meaning of the characters (read from right to left) is of course, the same.
From the Confucius I’ve read I’ve also noticed, at least from my limited point of view, unlike Buddhism, which promises to end suffering, or Taoism where one is supposed to go along with, almost be one with the Tao, Confuscianism is not really interested in that sort of utopian building projects.
Confucious isn’t like “I’ve found the solution to the problem of LIFE!” but rather “Maybe if we honored our traditions, were polite to our neighbors, nice to our kids, respected our parent, cleaned up the place a little, and studied a little harder things might suck a little less around here.” In other words, his advice lines up pretty well with what my grandpa always used to tell me to do. Or maybe I am reading it to shallowly.
Gerald I was very pleased your appreciation of Confucious who is sadly ignored or even denigrated today. Western Buddhism has I believe a lot to learn from the teaching of Confucious as it is such a major part of Japanese, Chinese and Korean traditions of Buddha-Dharma.
Confucious is concerned with how we live our lives in the here-and-now and how our lives have deep roots that stretch back far into the past which we disregard at our peril. I don’t he wants so much of a return to the ‘good ol’ days’ but to engender an awareness and respect for our foundations or in Shin Buddhist teaching to awaken grateful awareness of ‘what has been done for us’ (Go-On).
Hi Erg: Confucianism does actually have something of a utopian ideal, but like Taoism, it’s a return to the “good ol’ days” in early Chinese history. Presumably, Confucius felt if everyone observed the five relationships correctly (husband – wife, child – parent, student – teacher, sibling – sibling, friend – friend), then society would function well.
Jishin: Yeah, I think Confucius is the most beat-up of all Chinese thinkers in the West because Westerns cherish their individuality, but lately I’ve been thinking that this just leads to self-indulgence and a “every man for himself” attitude. My wife comes from a more Confucian culture (Japan), and through her I’ve learned to see the world pretty differently. I don’t totally buy into Asian culture, but I’ve learned to hold up a pretty critical mirror to my own.