On Confucius

Confucius Essay
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Confucius. Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

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In my last essay, I talked about Socrates, the father of Western philosophy and Western thought. Today I would like to discuss another such influential man, whose philosophical influence over subsequent generations is equal to that of Socrates’, if not greater.

Today I shall be talking about the great Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher, the philosopher of the East, the philosopher who is traditionally and historically regarded as the paragon of Chinese sages. The teachings of Confucius that form his philosophy largely define, to this day, the culture, tradition, and society of China in particular and East Asia in general.

Confucianism, or Ruism, as his philosophy is usually called, is a branch of philosophy and thought that stems from the teachings of Confucius. It has, at various times and in various ways, been described as a way of life by some, a humanistic and rationalistic religion by some, a kind of practical philosophy by others, a philosophy of ethical governing and ethical behavior by others, and a tradition by many.

Well, which description is true and accurate then? you might wonder. Honestly, I do not know the answer myself. I am as clueless as you probably are right now (unless you are an expert on Confucius and Confucianism, in which case, this is the wrong place for you to be in the first place). Maybe it is all of them combined. Maybe all of those descriptions are true and accurate. And maybe all are wrong and distorted and false.

However, I do have an opinion on this, which might very well be highly flawed. I would like to think and believe that Confucianism is rather an ethical way of life devoid of any characteristics of dogmatic religion such as rituals or superstitions or even absolute certainty for that matter, the latter being the biggest and most serious flaw in all the major religions mankind has managed to concoct out of his vivid imagination.

I believe Confucianism to be more of a guiding philosophy that helps one to live a better, more fulfilling life in all its spheres, whether that be in relationships, governance, politics, social harmony, social behavior, work, and everything else in between and beyond.

I also consider it to be a kind of practical philosophy, less concerned with unnecessary metaphysical thoughts and ideas (although, no doubt, it does possess certain elements of it), and more concerned with the real world and the practical way of life. Basically, it is a philosophy, I believe, that can actually be followed and applied in one’s everyday life. A philosophy that can actually guide one through real-world problems by providing real-world solutions.

This, of course, is just my personal belief. But, then again, what do I know? Probably nothing. I do not know any better.

Anyway, enough of what I believe now. Let us get back to the life and philosophy of the sage to whom this humble essay is dedicated.

It is generally accepted that Confucius (whose famous name is actually the Latinized version of the Mandarin Chinese name Kong Fuzi, meaning Master Kong, Kong being his clan name), was born on 28th September 551 BCE in Zou, modern-day Shandong Province.

Confucius was born into a social class between the common people and the aristocrats and was said to have been educated at a local school for commoners, where he was taught the Six Arts that formed the basis of education in ancient Chinese culture. The Six Arts consisted of Rites, Mathematics, Chariotry, Archery, Music, and Calligraphy. Anyone who excelled in these six arts was believed to have reached a certain kind of state of perfection, thereby becoming a perfect gentleman.

The Six Arts would become an important part of Confucian philosophy.

Confucius’ father passed away when he was barely 3 years old and his mother passed away when he was about 23 years old. By the time of his mother’s death, he had already begun working in various government jobs and also as a bookkeeper and caretaker of sheep and horses. His meager earnings from these jobs allowed him to give his mother a proper burial.

By the time he was 50 years old, he had already gained some reputation through his teachings on righteousness and proper conduct and on how to live an ethical way of life. Due to his relatively minor fame and good reputation, he was appointed the governor of a small town and was later promoted to the position of Minister of Crime under Duke Ding in the state of Lu. At the age of 56, he gave up this position and left Ding’s court after a fallout with him.

But let me not get distracted. Let me not stray from the path I actually intended to tread on. Let us now touch and delve a little deeper into the teachings that gave him the reputation of being one of the greatest sages in history.

Surely you do not expect me to cover Confucius’ entire philosophy wholly and accurately. Surely you already know that such a task would be quite impossible for me to achieve. And surely you are aware of the fact that I would only be attempting to cover his philosophy on a few vital aspects, that too on a superficial level, and that I have no other pretensions or ambition for this essay.

Now let us move on!

Confucianism is often misunderstood to be a religion like any other religion, followed primarily by the Chinese. And maybe, one may admit, it probably has become a religion over the centuries, one ridden with superstitions and rituals. But many argue for the opposite as well (including me), stating that more than a religion it is a set of values and teachings which are secular and ethical, more like a practical guiding philosophy for everyday life.

And although Confucianism does discuss the afterlife and heaven and the relationship between humanity and heaven and all that somewhat metaphysical stuff I do not necessarily understand, I would like to keep those aspects aside for this particular essay. Not because I despise or disagree with those aspects of it, but only because I am more curious and interested in the non-metaphysical stuff, teachings that can actually help and guide us in our current, real, earthly lives, and not in some vague afterlife in heaven or hell or wherever else one says we may end up at after we die.

Let us first look at his views on ethics and morality, for these virtues are almost always the most important aspects of any philosophy.

In the teachings of Confucius, one might notice that he often laid special emphasis on the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules. He focused on self-cultivation and self-improvement and spoke of the superiority and significance of personal exemplification over explicit rules of behavior.

Confucius laid great importance on the cultivation of knowledge and sincerity in thought and action for the self. He believed that in order to commit a virtuous act toward another, one must necessarily have virtuous and sincere thoughts, which could only be achieved through the cultivation of knowledge.

Without true knowledge, a virtuous disposition may run the risk of being corrupted, he said. And without true sincerity in thought, a virtuous action cannot be considered true righteousness.

An important factor in the Confucian theory of ethics is the concept of Li, a classical Chinese word commonly used in Chinese philosophy, which is more of an abstract idea that can be translated and understood in a number of different ways.

In Confucianism, Li refers to doing the proper thing at the proper time, which implies a balance between maintaining the existing social norms in order to perpetuate an ethical social fabric, and violating or disobeying these norms in order to accomplish some ethical and moral good in society.

Keeping in mind this concept of Li, Confucius’ ethical philosophy is based on three vital conceptual aspects of life. First, the ceremonies associated with sacrifices to ancestors and deities. Second, social and political institutions. And third, the etiquette of daily behavior.

While he believed that pursuing one’s own self-interest was not necessarily bad, he thought it was better and more righteous for one to pursue a path that would lead to the greater good of society. This concept can be referred to as Yi, which is based on the idea of reciprocity or righteousness. It basically means doing the right thing for the right reasons.

The moral and ethical system advocated by Confucius relies primarily upon empathy and understanding others, rather than on pre-ordained divine rules. According to him, virtue is a mean between extremes. For instance, it is important for a generous person to give the right amount to one in need, that is, not too little nor too much.

Confucius’ views on ethics are basically humanistic in nature. This set of values can be practiced by any and all members of society regardless of their personal religions.

And lastly, in terms of basic ethics, Confucius is largely credited for having espoused the Golden Rule of Life – Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself.

Now allow me to change the subject from ethics to music and poetry.

Confucius was said to be a great admirer of music and poetry. According to him, music was the harmonization of heaven and earth. He advocated the use of music with rituals and rites, believing that the application of music in rites creates an order that makes it possible for society to prosper.

His admiration for the arts was so great that he even described to his disciples their importance in the development of society. He stated that by studying the book on poetry, their minds can be stimulated and they can use it for purposes of self-contemplation. The book can also teach them the art of sociability, show them how to regulate feelings of resentment, and teach them the immediate duty of serving one’s father and the remote one of serving one’s prince. Lastly, he states that through the book of poetry, they can become well acquainted with the names of plants, birds, and beasts.

The Confucian approach to music is largely inspired by the Classic of Music and the Classic of Poetry, the latter often regarded as one of the current Confucian classics containing a variety of poems and folk songs.

As regards various relationships in society, the philosophy of Confucius can be deemed quite similar to ancient Chinese social traditions, especially the parent-child relationship, which can be referred to as filial piety. But he speaks of it in somewhat broader, more extensive terms.

According to him, filial piety is an important virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors, as well as for the pre-existing hierarchies within society, which could include a male-female relationship too.

This virtue would imply being good and kind to one’s parents, obeying them (although not blindly), not rebelling, providing and supporting them, taking care of them, and engaging in good conduct outside the house so as to increase the good name of one’s parents and ancestors, carrying out sacrifices, etc.

And as regards a male-female relationship, say a husband and wife, the wife must obey her husband absolutely and take good care of the whole family, ensure male heirs, be courteous and maintain fraternity among brothers, show sadness and sorrow when the parents are sick or have died, etc.

Now, I admit, a lot of the above points will be quite controversial today, and rightly so. The role of a wife is largely confined to the well-being of the husband and the family, and some roles such as ensuring male heirs or obeying husbands absolutely, or maintaining fraternity among brothers are no doubt unreasonable.

But, in spite of these obvious flaws in the role of a wife, we must understand and look at it from the perspective of the period in history when it was written or preached. Even though these views might now be considered wrong and backward and sexist in the contemporary modern world, we must realize that these views were not espoused in the contemporary modern world but in an ancient traditional one where the roles of men and women were often clearly defined and decided, as if set in stone, unlike today where the roles have blurred, obviously for the good.

And so, looking at it from this perspective, one can safely come to the conclusion that such virtue was a common and even important one, not just in Chinese culture but East Asian culture in general. For that time in history, it was nothing new or alarming.

When it comes to every other kind of social relationship in general, Confucianism speaks of a state of social harmony in which every individual must ideally know his or her place in the natural order, each playing their own individual parts perfectly, with reciprocity playing an important role.

For instance, although the wife is expected to respect and obey her husband, her husband, in turn, is expected to show benevolence toward his wife and respect her. Similarly, while a junior is expected to revere and respect and obey his senior, the senior, in turn, must show benevolence toward the junior.

But again, this concept of reciprocity and mutuality is not something specific to only Confucianism but is fairly common in several East Asian cultures.

Confucius lived in what could be described as a tumultuous period in Chinese history. There were several feudal states vying for power, endless wars and rebellions, and a lot of chaos and uncertainty. Keeping in mind the violent and chaotic nature of the times, Confucius’ political philosophy comes off as somewhat naive and far-fetched, more like wishful thinking. His political thought was primarily based on his ethical views.

His idea of the ideal government was a unified royal state led by a virtuous King, who had arrived at his position of power not on the basis of his lineage but rather on the basis of his moral merits. This ruler, upon coming to power, would devote himself to the betterment of his people, while striving for social and personal perfection. By doing so, Confucius believed that the ruler would spread his own virtues to the people instead of having to impose order, laws, and rules to regulate and moderate their behavior.

Confucius goes on to explain that if the people were led by laws and uniformity was sought to be given them by punishments, they would all try to avoid the punishment but have no sense of shame. Instead, if they were led by virtue and uniformity was sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they would inevitably have a sense of shame and would become good.

I find it difficult to believe that Confucius actually thought such a scenario was entirely possible or attainable. Surely he knew, having grown up and lived through those chaotic times, that his political philosophy was not really feasible. It is my opinion that the great sage meant it more like an ideal that must be aspired to rather than actually being achieved.

Even though I was really curious about his thoughts on the above-discussed subjects, I find his views on any kind of social disorder and its causes to be the most interesting of them all. According to Confucius, very often the cause of any social disorder was the failure to perceive, understand, and deal with reality. He blamed this failure on the failure of the people to call things by their proper names. And his solution to the problem was as interesting and amusing as the problem itself. In order to solve this issue of not calling things by their proper names, he suggested rectifying those names. As simple as that.

It was believed that ancient sage-kings chose names that directly and truly corresponded with actualities and reality, but subsequent generations came along and messed them all up by confusing the terminology and by coining new nomenclature, eventually ending up in a situation where they could not distinguish right from wrong.

Hence, according to Confucius, without proper rectification of names, there would be no social harmony and society would crumble. Now that, for sure, is quite a unique and interesting way of looking at any social disorder, although most of us may not agree with it today.

Since his death in or around 479 BCE (when he was aged about 71 or 72), his teachings were turned into an elaborate set of practices and rules by his disciples. These disciples went on to organize his teachings into Analects (a collection of his ideas, thoughts, sayings, etc.), thereby continuing to spread his philosophy across subsequent generations.

Over the centuries, Confucianism spread extensively across China, where its influence and prominence continued to grow. His philosophy, like every other philosophy that stands the test of time, has undergone several additions and deductions and has given birth to hundreds of other schools of philosophy. It took from as well as gave to other philosophies and it continued to absorb and morph and evolve.

The teachings of Confucius have continued to remain relevant in the modern world we live in today, and have even influenced cultures beyond China.

Confucius is, without a doubt, one of the greatest and most influential philosophers and thinkers in human history.