According to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 BCE in Qufu, in the state of Lu, China. His name was originally Kong Qiu, and only later did he earn the title Kong Fuzi, or “Master Kong.” Little is known about his life, except that he was from a well-to-do family, and that as a young man he worked as a servant to support his family after his father died.
He nevertheless managed to find time to study, and became an administrator in the Zhou court, but when his suggestions to the rulers were ignored he left to concentrate on teaching. As a teacher he traveled throughout the empire, and at the end of his life he returned to Qufu, where he died in 479 BCE. His teaching survives in fragments and sayings passed down orally to his disciples, and collected in the Analects and anthologies compiled by Confucian scholars.
From 770 to 220 BCE, China enjoyed an era of great cultural development, and the philosophies that emerged at this time were known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. By the 6th century BCE, the Zhou Dynasty was in decline—moving from the stability of the Spring and Autumn Period to the aptly named Warring States Period— and it was during this time that Kong Fuzi, the Master Kong, or Confucius, was born. Like other philosophers of the age—such as Thales, Pythagoras, and Heraclitus of Greece—Confucius sought constants in a world of change, and for him this meant a search for moral values that could enable rulers to govern justly.
Unlike many of the early Chinese philosophers, Confucius looked to the past for his inspiration. He was conservative by nature, and had a great respect for ritual and ancestor worship—both of which were maintained by the Zhou Dynasty, whose rulers received authority from the gods via the so-called Heavenly Mandate. A rigid social hierarchy existed in China, but Confucius was part of a new class of scholars who acted as advisors to the courts—in effect a class of civil servants—and they achieved their status not through inheritance, but by merit. It was Confucius’s integration of the old ideals with the emerging meritocracy that produced his unique new moral philosophy. The main source we have for the teachings of Confucius is the Analects, a collection of fragments of his writings and sayings compiled by his disciples. It is primarily a political treatise, made up of aphorisms and anecdotes that form a sort of rule book for good government—but his use of the word junzi (literally “gentleman”) to denote a superior, virtuous man, indicates that his concerns were as much social as political. Indeed, many passages of the Analects read like a book of etiquette. But to see the Analects as merely a social or political treatise is to miss its central point. At its heart lies a comprehensive ethical system.
The virtuous life
Before the appearance of the Hundred Schools of Thought, the world had been explained by mythology and religion, and power and moral authority were generally accepted to be god-given. Confucius is pointedly silent about the gods, but he often refers to tian, or Heaven, as the source of moral order. According to the Analects, we humans are the agents that Heaven has chosen to embody its will and to unite the world with the moral order—an idea that was in line with traditional Chinese thinking. What breaks with tradition, however, is Confucius’s belief that de—virtue—is not something Heaven-sent for the ruling classes, but something that can be cultivated—and cultivated by anyone. Having himself risen to be a minister of the Zhou court, he believed that it was a duty of the middle classes, as well as the rulers, to strive to act with virtue and benevolence (ren) to achieve a just and stable society.
Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance
~ Confucius ~
To reconcile the fact that society was a rigid class system with his belief that all men can receive the blessing of the Heavenly Mandate, Confucius argues that the virtuous man is not simply one who stands at the top of the social hierarchy, but one who understands his place within that hierarchy and embraces it to the full. And to define the various means of acting in accordance with de—virtue—he turns to traditional Chinese values: zhong, loyalty; xiao, filial piety; li, ritual propriety; and shu, reciprocity. The person who sincerely observes these values Confucius called junzi, the gentleman or superior man, by which he means a man of virtue, learning, and good manners.
The values of de had evolved within the ruling classes but had become little more than empty gestures in the disintegrating world of the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius is attempting to persuade the rulers to return to these ideals and to restore a just government, but he also believes in the power of benevolence—arguing that ruling by example rather than by fear would inspire the people to follow a similarly virtuous life. The same principle, he believes, should govern personal relationships.
Loyalty and ritual
In his analysis of relationships, Confucius uses zhong—the virtue of loyalty—as a guiding principle. To begin with, he stresses the importance of the loyalty of a minister to his sovereign, then shows that a similar relation holds between father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and between friends. The order in which he arranges these is significant—political loyalty first, then family and clan loyalties, then loyalties to friends and strangers. For Confucius, this hierarchy reflects the fact that each person should know his station in society as a whole, as well his place in the family and the clan. This aspect of “knowing one’s station” is exemplified by xiao— filial piety—which for Confucius was much more than just respect for one’s parents or elders. In fact, this is the closest he gets to religious ideas in the Analects, for xiao is connected to the traditional practice of ancestor worship. Above all, xiao reinforced the relationship of inferior to superior, which was central to his thinking.
It is in his insistence on li— ritual propriety—that Confucius is at his most conservative. Li did not simply refer to rituals such as ancestor worship, but also to the social norms that underpinned every aspect of contemporary Chinese life. These ranged from ceremonies such as marriages, funerals, and sacrifices to the etiquette of receiving guests, presenting gifts, and the simple, everyday gestures of politeness, such as bowing and using the correct mode of address. These are, according to Confucius, the outward signs of an inner de—but only when they are performed with sincerity, which he considers to be the way of Heaven. Through the outward show of loyalty with inner sincerity, the superior man can transform society.
For Confucius, society can be changed by example. As he writes: “Sincerity becomes apparent. From being apparent, it becomes manifest. From being manifest, it becomes brilliant. Brilliant, it affects others. Affecting others, they are changed by it. Changed by it, they are transformed. Only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under Heaven, can transform.” Here, Confucius is at his least conservative, and he explains that the process of transformation can work both ways. The concept of zhong (faithfulness) also has an implication of “regard for others.” He took the view that one can learn to become a superior man by first recognizing what one does not know (an idea echoed a century later by the Greek philosopher Socrates, who claimed that his wisdom lay in accepting that he knew nothing), and then by watching other people: if they show virtue, try to become their equal; if they are inferior, be their guide.
This notion of zhong as a regard for others is also tied to the last of the Confucian values of de: shu, reciprocity, or “self-reflection”, which should govern our actions toward others. The so-called Golden Rule, “do as you would be done by”, appears in Confucianism as a negative: “what you do not desire for yourself, do not do to others.” The difference is subtle but crucial: Confucius does not prescribe what to do, only what not to do, emphasizing restraint rather than action. This implies modesty and humility—values traditionally held in high regard in Chinese society, and which for Confucius express our true nature. Fostering these values is a form of loyalty to oneself, and another kind of sincerity.
Confucius had little success in persuading contemporary rulers to adopt his ideas in government, and turned his attention to teaching. His disciples, including Meng Zi (Mencius), continued to anthologize and expand on his writings, which survived the repressive Qin Dynasty, and inspired a revival of Confucianism in the Han Dynasty of the early Common Era. From then on, the impact of Confucius’s ideas was profound, inspiring almost every aspect of Chinese society, from administration to politics and philosophy. The major religions of Daoism and Buddhism had also been flourishing in Confucius’s time, replacing traditional beliefs, and although Confucius offered no opinion on them, remaining silent about the gods, he nevertheless influenced aspects of both new faiths.
A Neo-Confucian school revitalized the movement in the 9th century, and reached its peak in the 12th century, when its influence was felt across Southeast Asia into Korea and Japan. Although Jesuit missionaries brought back Kong Fuzi’s ideas to Europe (and Latinized his name to Confucius) in the 16th century, Confucianism was alien to European thought and had limited influence until translations of his work appeared in the late 17th century. Despite the fall of imperial China in 1911, Confucian ideas continued to form the basis of many Chinese moral and social conventions, even if they were officially frowned upon. In recent years the People’s Republic of China has shown a renewed interest in Confucius, integrating his ideas with both modern Chinese thought and Western philosophy, creating a hybrid philosophy known as “New Confucianism.”
- This article is an excerpt from the book:
The Philosophy Book – Big Ideas Simply Explained