Confucius was an ancient Chinese philosopher born in 551 BC. His understanding of man, society and the world, known as Confucianism, would influence Chinese culture and thought for thousands of years. As such, he is seen as being for China what Socrates is to Greece and the West. Confucius considered himself to be a “transmitter who invented nothing,” but he did provide innovative thought on topics such as what is the ideal man, the ideal government, and the ideal life. He believed in sincerity, education, acting morally, performing ceremonies, and having respect for one’s elders, family members, and spirits. He famously put forth his Golden Rule “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” as well as his concept of the Golden Mean which encourages moderation and balance. By cultivating one’s character (ren), Confucius believed that one could act in harmony with fellow human beings as well as with nature.
The period in which Confucius was born was a time of intellectual flourishing known as the Hundred Schools of Thought during the Chou dynasty. Earlier in China, during the Shang dynasty, people believed that the events of this world were the result of the will of spirits. Prayers were made for rain, and different areas had their own tribal Gods. As civilization developed in the new Chou dynasty, a shift was made from worshiping spirits to an appreciation of man’s ability to control his own destiny based on his skills. Virtue (te) came to be acknowledged as the factor which made men successful. The Chou dynasty believed they received a Mandate from Heaven to rule, because the Shang dynasty had not fulfilled their duty. It is within this context that Confucius was born, and he would be the one to fully embrace the shift in focus from the will of spirits to the virtuous actions of man, known as humanism.
Confucius was born into a poor but noble family, his father having been a warrior who died when he was very young. He grew up in the class known as shi, those between the nobility and common people, who desired on the basis of their skills to attain high positions in society. In his lifetime, Confucius would ultimately become a Justice Minister and strived to affect social and political change. He would devote his life to education, believing that one can learn to cultivate their character through studies, learning from the past, and being respectful to one’s elders. For this reason, the Chinese people referred to him as the Greatest Master and his thoughts were organized in what is known as the Analects, a text which was revered as one of the “Five Classics.”
In contrast to earlier human-like understandings of Gods, Confucius referred to the divine as Heaven (T’ien). He believed it is up to man to act according to the Way of Heaven (T’ien-tao). Through proper action, man allows Heaven’s law to be fulfilled on earth. He saw himself as having a special relationship with Heaven, and encouraged others to look at past examples of virtues sages and leaders as examples of how to act. By cultivating one’s character (ren), man can perfect himself. In doing so, it is possible to have both a good government as well as a good society, which are run on the basis of virtue rather than rigid laws. This is known as a virtue ethic, and the cultivation of virtue is fundamental to Confucius’ understanding of man’s ability to be in harmony with humanity and the world.
Confucius believed in the importance of ceremonies and doing what is appropriate (li). In ceremonies and ritual, Confucius saw a way for societies to facilitate people’s interactions in a beneficial way. In performing such actions, one participates in the life of the society and enables it to be successful. As such, he connects li with the concept of righteousness (yi), because performing ceremonies, and sacrifices and respected one’s ancestors shows that one is able to think about more than just himself.
Likewise, Confucius puts forth his Golden Rule, which states that “”What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else; what one recognizes as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others.” In essence, he believed people should treat others as they would like to be treated. By acting virtuously towards others, one feels an inner sense of harmony (ren). He also puts forth his doctrine of the Mean, which encourages, being centered, balanced, and acting in moderation. This would later be developed by Neo-Confucianists into the concept of yin and yang.
Confucius distinguishes between those who act merely out of self-interest, versus what he calls the superior man (chun-tzu), who is concerned with the welfare of everyone. He explains, “The superior man thinks of virtue; the inferior man thinks of possessions. The superior man thinks of sanctions; the inferior man thinks of personal favors.” Just as he rose to a position of esteem through his own merits, his concept of the superior man is a break from the traditional understanding of entitlement that comes along with a noble birth. For Confucius, it is one’s character, sincerity, and actions which determine his nature.
He would be frustrated by seeing people in positions of power which he did not believe they deserved. He came up with the doctrine known as the rectification of names, which states that one’s position in society should be based on their character and abilities. One’s title should correspond with one’s actions. He says, “Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.” The character of the ruler is of the utmost importance for the success of society. He is said to have advised a ruler in his time, “If your desire is for good, the people will be good. The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends.”
In this way, character is everything for Confucius. The man who has good character (ren) is able to be a superior man, to be in harmony with his fellow man and the world, and the ruler with good character will be successful in leading society along a path of righteousness (yi) and correct action (li). Confucius is said to have taught 3,000 students in his lifetime, believing that education was the key to developing good character. He explains, “I only instruct the eager and enlighten the fervent. If I hold up one corner and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson.”
Confucius’ teachings would be further developed by his successors Mencius and Xun Zi. Mencius would come to believe that humans are by nature good, while Xun Zi believed we are by nature bad but can be trained to become good. These thinkers would be tied together by the Confucian emphasis on man (humanity), and the ability to cultivate oneself in order to improve oneself and one’s society. Confucius’ thoughts would be further developed, and be influenced by Buddhist and Daoist thought, to become what is known as Neo-Confucianism. His sayings, collected in the Analects, would be used in imperial civil service examinations from the 2nd century BC up through the 19th century. In the West, knowledge of Confucius’ teachings would come via Jesuit scholars stationed in China. He was be embraced as an Enlightenment sage by the philosopher Leibniz, while condemned by Mao for his continued influence on Chinese culture. Confucius stands out as a man who lived a life of virtue, and whose philosophy would shape Chinese culture and thought for thousands of years.