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Confucius Biography | Poet

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Confucius (551?-479? BCE), according to Chinese tradition, was athinker, political figure, educator, and founder ofthe Ru School of Chinese thought.[1]His teachings, preserved inthe Lunyu or Analects, form the foundationof much of subsequent Chinese speculation on the education andcomportment of the ideal man, how such an individual should live hislife and interact with others, and the forms of society and governmentin which he should participate. Fung Yu-lan, one of the great20thcentury authorities on the history of Chinesethought, compares Confucius' influence in Chinese history with that ofSocrates in the West.

1. Confucius' Life

The sources for Confucius' life were compiled well after his deathand taken together paint contradictory pictures of his personality andof the events in his life. The early works agreed by textualauthorities to be relatively reliable sources of biographical materialare: the Analects, compiled by Confucius'disciples and later followers during the centuries following his death;the Zuozhuan, a narrative history composed from earliersources sometime in the fourth century; and the Mengzi orMencius, a compilation of the teachings of the well-knowneponymous fourth century follower of Confucius' thought puttogether by his disciples and adherents.[2]The Confucius of the Analects appears mostconcerned with behaving morally even when this means enduring hardshipand poverty. Mencius' Confucius is a politically motivatedfigure, seeking high office and departing from patrons who do notproperly reward him.[3]A thirdConfucius is found in the pages of the Zuozhuan. This one is aheroic figure courageously facing down dangers that threaten the lordof Confucius' native state of Lu.

Many of the stories found in these three sources as well as thelegends surrounding Confucius at the end of the2ndcentury were included in a biography of Confuciusby the Han dynasty court historian, Sima Qian (145-c.85), in hiswell-known and often-quoted Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji).[4]This collection of tales opens by identifyingConfucius' ancestors as members of the Royal State of Song, a genealogy Sima Qian borrows from the Zuozhuan.[5]This same account notes as well that his greatgrandfather, fleeing the turmoil in his native Song, had moved to Lu,somewhere near the present town of Qufu in south-eastern Shandong,where the family became impoverished. Confucius' father isusually identified as Shu He of Zhou who, according to theZuozhuan, led Lu armies in 563 and again in 556, acting withgreat valor and extraordinary strength (qualities for which his sonwould later be known according to the same historical source). Nothingof certainty is known of his mother; she may have been a daughter ofthe Yan family. Confucius was born in the walled town of Zhou in thestate of Lu in 552 or in 551 according to the earliest sources thatpreserve such information about him. If the year of his birth was551—the date most scholars favor—then, since that year wasa gengxu year according to the traditional system of cyclicaldesignations for years, Confucius was born under the sign of the dog.This may account for why, according to Sima Qian's biography,Confucius accepted as true the observation that in his sad and forlornappearance he resembled a “stray dog.”[6]

Confucius is described, by Sima Qian and other sources, as havingendured a poverty-stricken and humiliating youth and been forced, uponreaching manhood, to undertake such petty jobs as accounting and caringfor livestock.[7]Sima Qian'saccount includes the tale of how Confucius was born in answer to hisparents' prayers at a sacred hill (qiu) called Ni. Confucius'surname Kong (which means literally an utterance ofthankfulness when prayers have been answered), his tabooed givenname Qiu, and his social name Zhongni, allappear connected to the miraculous circumstances of his birth. Thiscasts doubt, then, on Confucius' royal genealogy as found in theZuozhuan and Shiji. Similarly, Confucius' recordedage at death, ‘seventy-two,’ is a ‘magicnumber’ with far-reaching significance in early Chineseliterature. It is not surprising that we can say little aboutConfucius's childhood beyond noting that he probably spent it inthe Lu town where he is reported to have been born. There are manyimportant figures in early Chinese history about whose youth we knoweven less. Almost as if to provide something to fill this lacuna in hisaccount of Confucius, Sima Qian says that, “As a child [of five,according to some highly imaginative hagiographers], Confuciusentertained himself by habitually arranging rituals vessels and stagingceremonies,” thus prefiguring the philosopher's famousinterest in rites.

We do not know how Confucius himself was educated, but tradition hasit that he studied ritual with the fictional Daoist Master Lao Dan,music with Chang Hong, and the lute with Music-master Xiang. In hismiddle age Confucius is supposed to have gathered about him a group ofdisciples whom he taught and also to have devoted himself to politicalmatters in Lu. The number of Confucius' disciples has been greatlyexaggerated, with Sima Qian and other sources claiming that there wereas many as three thousand of them. Sima Qian goes on to say that,“Those who, in their own person, became conversant with the SixDisciplines [taught by Confucius], numbered seventy-two.” TheMencius and some other early works give their number asseventy. Perhaps seventy or seventy-two were a maximum, though both ofthese numbers are suspicious given Confucius' supposed age atdeath.

In 525, when Confucius was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, he issupposed by the authors of the Zuozhuan to have visited theruler of the small state of Tan in order to learn bureaucratic historyfrom him and then to marvel, with reflexive condescension, at how suchknowledge was lost to the Son of Heaven but “may still be studiedamong the distant border peoples of the four quarters.” The themeof the extreme inquisitiveness of the young Confucius is also reflectedin the Analects: “When the Master entered the GrandTemple he asked questions about everything. Someone said, ‘Whosaid that this son of a man from Zhou knows about ritual? When heentered the Grand Temple he asked about everything.’ When theMaster learned of this he observed, ‘Doing so is prescribed byritual’” (Lunyu 3.15).[8]

Two Zuozhuan passages—that relate to events that tookplace in 522 when Confucius would have been thirty orthirty-one—lay claim to what appear to be among the first timeswhen Confucius uttered judgment on the behavior or reputation ofothers. The first of these has to do with Duke Jing of Qi (r. 547–490)whom Confucius criticized for becoming angry with an underlingdetermined to fulfil his official responsibilities even when that meantdisobeying a direct order from his ruler. The other is his“tearful” comment when he learned of the death of the Zhengstatesman Zi Chan: “The love for others seen among the ancientssurvived in him.”[9]

In another Zuozhuan passage that occurs not long afterthese two, the Lu nobleman Ming Xizi, immediately before his death in518, praised Confucius as “the descendant of a sage” andinstructed the grand officers who attended him that, upon his death,they should entrust his two sons to Confucius. These are strong signalsthat in the eyes of the authors of the Zuozhuan, Confucius wasby this time in his life established as a person of significance in Lu.Meng Xizi went on, however, and declared that what another Lu noblemannamed Zang Sunhe had once said was true in the case of Confucius:“If a sage possessed of bright virtue does not fit the age inwhich he lives then surely among his descendants there will be one whois successful.” Meng Xizi's Zuozhuan speech shouldbe read not only as indicative of a turning point in Confucius'early career—his emergence from obscurity—but also as thefirst of many ancient declarations that Confucius was worthy of a crownthat he would not receive in his lifetime.

Politics in Confucius' native Lu were extremely unstablebecause of the challenge to the ruler posed by the “three Huanfamilies” which had the hereditary right to occupy the mostpowerful ministerial offices in the Lu government. In 517 Duke Zhao ofLu moved against the head of the most powerful—and thewealthiest— of the families: the Ji clan. But the attack failedand the duke was forced to flee from Lu and spend the remaining yearsof his reign in exile, first in Lu's large neighbor Qi and thenin a town in the state of Jin where he died in 510. According to SimaQian, when Duke Zhao was first forced into exile, Confucius also wentto Qi to serve as a retainer in the household of the nobleman GaoZhaozi. The Analects mentions how, during this period in Qi,Confucius heard for the first time a performance of the sacred Shaomusic and was overwhelmed by the experience and then had an audiencewith Duke Jing of Qi in which Confucius observed that what Qi requiredwas that “The ruler should be a ruler, his subjects subjects, thefather should be a father, and his son a son” (Lunyu 12.11). He was no doubt commenting on politics in Qi where—as wasalso the case in Lu—power rested not in the hands of the rulerbut instead in the hands of the powerful ministerial families who weresupposed to serve him. Some unidentified adversity probablyprecipitated Confucius' departure from Qi. And it seems that backhome in Lu he was fairing poorly in locating employment. So noteworthywas this failure that a passage in the Analects comments onit: “Someone asked Confucius, ‘Why is it that you arenot in government?’ Confucius replied, ‘TheDocuments say, ”Be filial, oh, only be filial! Befriendly toward your brothers and extend this to governing.“Practicing this is also to govern. Why must one be in office togovern?’” (Lunyu 2.21). As noted earlier, whatmattered to the Confucius of the Analects was not winning anofficial position but remaining faithful to the moral behaviorhe valued.[10]

Whether or not Confucius held any important office in Lu is amuch-debated point, but from the Mengzi onward, there isconsistent ancient testimony that he was director of crime (sikou). The Zuozhuan confirms that he held the poststarting sometime around 509.[11]We know very little of what Confucius accomplishedin the job and nothing about his understanding of his responsibilities.Given what one might expect a director of crime to do—to enforcethe law and impose corporal punishments on those found guilty ofcrime—it is odd to think that Confucius served in the role givenhis famous opposition to the use of fines and punishments, dismissingthem as ineffective and counterproductive in governing people:“If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among themthrough the practice of ritual propriety, the people will possess asense of shame and come to you of their own accord”(Lunyu 2.3). The contradiction among our sources isparadigmatic of the problems we face in figuring out the events inConfucius' life. Perhaps the claims that Confucius served asdirector of crime are fictional. Perhaps he did serve in the role andlearned from the experience the ineffectiveness of punishment inmaintaining order in society. Or perhaps the Analects passageis an interpolation—something Confucius himself neversaid—added by a branch of his school that wanted to representtheir master as strongly opposed to legalistic measures in spite of hishaving served as a law enforcement officer in Lu.

As it is presented in the Zuozhuan, the single mostimportant event in Confucius' official career in Lu, and perhapseven in his lifetime, was the 500 BCE meeting at Jiagu in the state ofQi when he was called upon to protect the life of Duke Ding of Lu (r.509–495) and defend the honor of his native state. To formalize a peaceagreement between Lu and Qi, the rulers of the two states met at Jiaguand signed an oath promising to abide by certain terms and conditionslest they be harshly dealt with by the gods and spirits.Confucius' role in the event is described in the text as that of“overseer” of the protocols of the meeting. The Qi rulerand his lieutenants had plotted to use the occasion to humiliate Lu andperhaps even to seize Lu's ruler. The Confucius of theZuozhuan is shown as adroit and skilful in dealing with thesedangerous circumstances. He succeeds not only in getting Qi to withdrawits armed men from the meeting but also to return to Lu lands that Qihad previously appropriated in return for Lu's futureparticipation in Qi's military adventures.[12]

If Confucius in fact experienced some sort of triumph at Jiagu,tales about the period following his return to Lu speak of intenseconflict among the three Huan families and between them and Duke Ding.The duke attempted to have the families tear down the walls of thefortresses that secured their fiefs—the duke's argument wasthat the fortresses might be seized by lower-ranking stewards and thuswere more of a threat than a benefit to the families—but thepopulation of the Ji family fortress at Bi rebelled and attacked the Lucapital threatening the life of the duke. Again, Confucius came to theduke's rescue and the rebellion by the Bi masses was eventuallyput down by the army of Lu. However, the Meng family simply refused totear down the walls that protected their family fortress at Cheng. DukeDing led an army to lay siege to Cheng and level its walls but hefailed to do so and his weakness and ineptitude were made all the moreobvious by this failure.

What role Confucius played in the duke's plans is difficult todetermine. It seems rather that, at least according to theZuozhuan, his disciple Zi Lu, in the employ of the Ji family,played a more significant part. Whatever the case may be, in thestories that follow this dramatic tale, Confucius, along with Zi Lu andother disciples, departed Lu late in 498 and went into exile.[13]As in other ancient cultures, exileand suffering are common themes in the lives of the heroes of the earlyChinese tradition. In the company of his disciples, Confucius travelledin the states of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai, and Chu, purportedly looking fora ruler who might employ him but meeting instead with indifference and,occasionally, severe hardship and danger. Several of these episodes, aspreserved in Sima Qian's account, appear to be little more thanprose retellings of songs found in the ancient Chinese Book ofSongs. Confucius' life is thus rendered a re-enactment of thesuffering and alienation of the personas of the poems.Analects 6.28 claims that while he was in Wei, Confuciusvisited its ruler's wicked consort Nanzi. Confronted by ZiLu's displeasure, Confucius swore he did not do anything wrongwith the woman. While it is possible to suspect that the story is alater addition to the Analects, that does not mean that it isless believable than anything else the text says about events inConfucius' life. Later on, in the state of Song, Confucius justbarely escaped with his life from an attack by Marshal Huan, aformidable Song nobleman, who for unknown reasons was intent onkilling him.[14]During thesedifficulties Confucius got separated from his favorite disciple YanHui. When they were subsequently reunited, Confucius said, “Iassumed you were deadl” Yan Hui responded, “While theMaster is alive, how would I, Hui, dare to die?” (Lunyu 11.21). Still later in his exile, while in the tiny state of Cai,Confucius is supposed to have encountered the disreputable ShenZhuliang, better known by his title “duke of She,” whoalong with other noblemen from the great southern state of Chu wereoccupying Cai and herding about its population. According to passagesin the Analects, the duke of She asked Confucius about the artof governing and also asked Zi Lu about Confucius' character.Both passages are meant to suggest that Confucius found the dukelacking in virtue and learning.[15]

Their time in the small state of Chen was especially precarious forConfucius and his followers: “While in Chen, food supplies forthe journey were cut off. Followers fell ill and none was able to riseto his feet. Zi Lu, indignant, saw Kongzi and asked, ‘Is it rightthat even the superior man should be reduced to poverty?’ TheMaster replied, ‘A superior man remains steadfast in the face ofpoverty; the small man, when impoverished, loses allrestraint’” (Lunyu 15.2). Confucius' replyto Zi Lu is not merely a lesson on the distinction between the superiorman's endurance of hardship and the tendency of his opposite, thepetty individual, to resort to crime. Confucius is drawing thedistinction when all were in straitened circumstances and as such hiswords should be read as a pointed reminder to Zi Lu and the otherdisciples traveling with him at the time that, in spite of thedifficulties they were facing, they should adhere to the higheststandards of ethical behavior. Perhaps it was Zi Lu's indignationthat triggered in Confucius a worry that his followers might takeextreme and even immoral measures to find food. Either inspired by thisstory or informed by tales and traditions that are lost to us, apassage in the Mozi—a text that preserves a politicaland social philosophy greatly at odds with the teachings of Confuciusand the Ru school—claims that Confucius, who had a reputation forbeing scrupulous about his meals, ate pork given him by Zi Lu eventhough he had reason to believe that Zi Lu had stolen it.[16]Other passages in theAnalects hint that Confucius was disturbed by the behavior ofsome of his followers while they were abroad with him and by theirfailure to make more progress in the cultivation of the moral valueshe prized.[17]

In any case, by most traditional accounts, after a brief secondvisit to Wei, Confucius returned to Lu in 484. The Ji family was stillthe most powerful in Lu as they had been when Confucius had departed inthe aftermath of Duke Ding's aborted efforts to dismantle thefortresses of the three Huan families. While he had some interactionwith the head of the Ji family as well as with the reigning Lu ruler,Duke Ai, Confucius appears to have spent the remainder of his lifeteaching, putting in order the Book of Songs,the Book of Documents, and other ancient classics, aswell as editing the Spring and Autumn Annals, the courtchronicle of Lu. Sima Qian's account also provides background onConfucius' connection to the early canonical texts on ritual and onmusic (the latter of which was lost at an early date). Sima Qianclaims, moreover, that, “In his later years, Confucius delightedin the Yi”—the famous divination manualpopular to this day in China and in the West.The Analects passage which appears to corroborateSima Qian's claim seems corrupt and hence unreliable on this point.Confucius' traditional association with these works led them andrelated texts to be revered as the “Confucian Classics” andmade Confucius himself the spiritual ancestor of later teachers,historians, moral philosophers, literary scholars, and countless otherswhose lives and works figure prominently in Chinese intellectualhistory.

Our best source for understanding Confucius and his thought isthe Analects. But the Analects is aproblematic and controversial work, having been compiled in variantversions long after Confucius' death by disciples or the disciples ofdisciples. Some have argued that, because of the text's inconsistenciesand incompatibilities of thought, there is much inthe Analects that is non-Confucian and should bediscarded as a basis for understanding the thoughtof Confucius.[18]Benjamin Schwartzcautions us against such radical measures: “While textualcriticism based on rigorous philological and historic analysis iscrucial, and while the later sections [of the Analects] do contain latematerials, the type of textual criticism that is based onconsiderations of alleged logical inconsistencies and incompatibilitiesof thought must be viewed with great suspicion… . While none ofus comes to such an enterprise without deep-laid assumptions aboutnecessary logical relations and compatibilities, we should at leasthold before ourselves the constant injunction to mistrust all ourunexamined preconceptions on these matters when dealing withcomparative thought.”[19]The difficulties in reading and interpreting the text of theAnalects have given rise to numerous extensive commentariesthat struggle to untangle the complexities of its languageand thought.[20]

Book X of the Analects consists of personalobservations of how Confucius comported himself as a thinker, teacher,and official. Some have argued that these passages were originally moregeneral prescriptions on how a gentleman should dress and behave thatwere relabelled as descriptions of Confucius. Traditionally, Book X hasbeen regarded as providing an intimate portrait of Confucius and hasbeen read as a biographical sketch. The following passages provide afew examples of why, more generally, it is difficult to glean from theAnalects a genuinely biographical, let alone intimate,portrait of the Master.

Confucius, at home in his native village, was simple and unassumingin manner, as though he did not trust himself to speak. But when in theancestral temple or at Court he speaks readily, though always choosinghis words with due caution. (Lunyu 10.1)

When at court conversing with the officers of a lower grade, he isfriendly, though straightforward; when conversing with officers of ahigher grade, he is restrained but precise. When the ruler is presenthe is wary, but not cramped. (Lunyu 10.2)

On entering the Palace Gate he seems to contract his body, as thoughthere were not sufficient room to admit him. If he halts, it must neverbe in the middle of the gate, nor in going through does he ever treadon the threshold. (Lunyu 10.4)

When fasting in preparation for sacrifice he must wear the BrightRobe, and it must be of linen. He must change his food and also theplace where he commonly sits. He does not object to his rice beingthoroughly cleaned, nor to his meat being finely minced.(Lunyu 10.7, 10.8)

When sending a messenger to enquire after someone in anothercountry, he bows himself twice while seeing the messenger off.(Lunyu 10.15)

In bed he avoided lying in the posture of a corpse … Onmeeting anyone in deep mourning he must bow across the bar of hischariot. (Lunyu 10.24, 10.25)

Analects passages such as these may not satisfy amodern reader looking for some entry into understanding the connectionbetween Confucius the man and Confucius the thinker, but they didsucceed in rendering Confucius the model ofcourtliness and personal decorum for countless generations of Chineseofficials.

By the fourth century, Confucius was recognized as a uniquefigure, a sage who was ignored but should have been recognized andbecome a king. At the end of the fourth century BCE, Mencius saysof Confucius: “Ever since man came into this world, there hasnever been one greater than Confucius.” And in two passagesMencius implies that Confucius was one of the great sage kings who,according to his reckoning, arises every five hundred years. Confuciusalso figures prominently as the subject of anecdotes and the teacher ofwisdom in the writings of Xunzi, a third century follower of Confucius'teachings. Indeed chapters twenty-eight to thirty ofthe Xunzi, which some have argued were not the work ofXunzi but compilations by his disciples, look like an alternative, andconsiderably briefer, version of the Analects.

Confucius and his followers also inspired considerable criticismfrom other thinkers. The anecdote quoted earlier from the Moziis an example. The authors of the Zhuangzi tookparticular delight in parodying Confucius and the teachingsconventionally associated with him. But Confucius' reputation was sogreat that even the Zhuangzi appropriates him togive voice to Daoist teachings.

2. Confucius' Ethics

Confucius' teachings and his conversations and exchanges with hisdisciples are recorded inthe Lunyu or Analects, a collectionthat probably achieved something like its present form around thesecond century BCE. While Confucius believes that people live theirlives within parameters firmly established by Heaven—which,often, for him means both a purposeful Supreme Being as well as‘nature’ and its fixed cycles and patterns—he arguesthat men are responsible for their actions and especially for theirtreatment of others. We can do little or nothing to alter our fatedspan of existence but we determine what we accomplish and what we areremembered for.

Confucius represented his teachings as lessons transmitted fromantiquity. He claimed that he was “a transmitter and not amaker” and that all he did reflected his “reliance on andlove for the ancients” (Lunyu 7.1). Confuciuspointed especially to the precedents established during the height ofthe royal Zhou (roughly the first half of the first millennium BCE).Such justifications for one's ideas may have already been conventionalin Confucius' day. Certainly his claim that there were antiqueprecedents for his ideology had a tremendous influence on subsequentthinkers many of whom imitated these gestures. But we should not regardthe contents of the Analects as consisting of oldideas. Much of what Confucius taught appears to have been original tohim and to have represented a radical departure from the ideas andpractices of his day.

Confucius also claimed that he enjoyed a special and privilegedrelationship with Heaven and that, by the age of fifty, he had come tounderstand what Heaven had mandated for him and for mankind.(Lunyu 2.4). Confucius was also careful to instruct hisfollowers that they should never neglect the offerings due Heaven.(Lunyu 3.13) Some scholars have seen a contradictionbetween Confucius' reverence for Heaven and what they believe to be hisskepticism with regard to the existence of ‘the spirits.’But the Analects passages that reveal Confucius'attitudes toward spiritual forces (Lunyu 3.12, 6.20, and11.11) do not suggest that he was skeptical. Rather they show thatConfucius revered and respected the spirits, thought that they shouldbe worshipped with utmost sincerity, and taught that serving thespirits was a far more difficult and complicated matter than servingmere mortals.

Confucius' social philosophy largely revolves around the conceptof ren, “compassion” or “lovingothers.” Cultivating or practicing such concern for othersinvolved deprecating oneself. This meant being sure to avoid artfulspeech or an ingratiating manner that would create a false impressionand lead to self-aggrandizement. (Lunyu 1.3) Those whohave cultivated ren are, on the contrary,“simple in manner and slow of speech”(Lunyu 13.27). For Confucius, such concern for others isdemonstrated through the practice of forms of the Golden Rule:“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others;”“Since you yourself desire standing then help others achieve it,since you yourself desire success then help others attain it”(Lunyu 12.2, 6.30). He regards devotion to parents andolder siblings as the most basic form of promoting the interests ofothers before one's own. Central to all ethical teachings found in theAnalects of Confucius is the notion that the social arena inwhich the tools for creating and maintaining harmonious relations arefashioned and employed is the extended family. Among the various waysin which social divisions could have been drawn, the most importantwere the vertical lines that bound multigenerational lineages. And themost fundamental lessons to be learned by individuals within a lineagewere what role their generational position had imposed on them and whatobligations toward those senior or junior to them were associated withthose roles. In the world of the Analects, the dynamics ofsocial exchange and obligation primarily involved movement up and downalong familial roles that were defined in terms of how they related toothers within the same lineage. It was also necessary that one playroles within other social constructs—neighborhood, community,political bureaucracy, guild, school of thought—that brought oneinto contact with a larger network of acquaintances and created ethicalissues that went beyond those that impacted one's family. But theextended family was at the center of these other hierarchies and couldbe regarded as a microcosm of their workings. One who behaved morallyin all possible parallel structures extending outward from the familyprobably approximated Confucius's conception of ren.

It is useful to contrast this conception of ren and thesocial arena in which it worked with the idea of jian ai or“impartial love” advocated by the Mohists who as early asthe fifth century BCE posed the greatest intellectual challenge toConfucius' thought. The Mohists shared with Confucius and hisfollowers the goal of bringing about effective governance and a stablesociety, but they constructed their ethical system, not on the basis ofsocial roles, but rather on the self or, to be more precise, thephysical self that has cravings, needs, and ambitions. For the Mohists,the individual's love for his physical self is the basis on whichall moral systems had to be built. The Confucian emphasis on socialrole rather than on the self seems to involve, in comparison to theMohist position, an exaggerated emphasis on social status and positionand an excessive form of self-centeredness. While the Mohist love ofself is also of course a form of self-interest, what distinguishes itfrom the Confucian position is that the Mohists regard self-love as anecessary means to an end, not the end in itself, which the Confucianpride of position and place appears to be. The Mohist program calledfor a process by which self-love was replaced by, or transformed into,impartial love—the unselfish and altruistic concern for othersthat would, in their reckoning, lead to an improved world untroubled bywars between states, conflict in communities, and strife withinfamilies. To adopt impartial love would be to ignore the barriers thatprivilege the self, one's family, and one's state and thatseparate them from other individuals, families, and states. In thisargument, self-love is a fact that informs the cultivation of concernfor those within one's own silo; it is also the basis forinteracting laterally with those to whom one is not related, a largecohort that is not adequately taken into account in the Confucianscheme of ethical obligation.

Confucius taught that the practice of altruism he thought necessaryfor social cohesion could be mastered only by those who have learnedself-discipline. Learning self-restraint involves studying andmastering li, the ritual forms and rules of proprietythrough which one expresses respect for superiors and enacts his rolein society in such a way that he himself is worthy of respect andadmiration. A concern for propriety should inform everything that onesays and does:

Look at nothing in defiance of ritual, listen to nothing in defianceof ritual, speak of nothing in defiance or ritual, never stir hand orfoot in defiance of ritual. (Lunyu 12.1)

Subjecting oneself to ritual does not, however, mean suppressingone's desires but instead learning how to reconcile one's own desireswith the needs of one's family and community. Confucius and many of hisfollowers teach that it is by experiencing desires that we learn thevalue of social strictures that make an ordered society possible(See Lunyu 2.4.). And at least for Confucius'follower Zi Xia, renowned in the later tradition for his knowledge ofthe Book of Songs, one's natural desires for sex andother physical pleasures were a foundation for cultivating a passionfor worthiness and other lofty ideals (Lunyu 1.7).[21]

Confucius' emphasis on ritual does not mean that he was apunctilious ceremonialist who thought that the rites of worship and ofsocial exchange had to be practiced correctly at all costs. Confuciustaught, on the contrary, that if one did not possess a keen sense ofthe well-being and interests of others his ceremonial manners signifiednothing. (Lunyu 3.3) Equally important was Confucius'insistence that the rites not be regarded as mere forms, but that theybe practiced with complete devotion and sincerity. “He [i.e.,Confucius] sacrificed to the dead as if they were present. Hesacrificed to the spirits as if the spirits were present. The Mastersaid, ‘I consider my not being present at the sacrifice as thoughthere were no sacrifice’” (Lunyu 3.12).

3. Confucius' Political Philosophy

Confucius' political philosophy is also rooted in his belief that aruler should learn self-discipline, should govern his subjects by hisown example, and should treat them with love and concern. “If thepeople be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought bypunishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense ofshame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among themthrough the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense ofshame and come to you of their own accord”(Lunyu 2.3; see also 13.6.). It seems apparent that in hisown day, however, advocates of more legalistic methods were winning alarge following among the ruling elite. Thus Confucius' warning aboutthe ill consequences of promulgating law codes should not beinterpreted as an attempt to prevent their adoption but instead as hislament that his ideas about the moral suasion of the ruler were notproving popular.

Most troubling to Confucius was his perception that the politicalinstitutions of his day had completely broken down. He attributed thiscollapse to the fact that those who wielded power as well as those whooccupied subordinate positions did so by making claim to titles forwhich they were not worthy. When asked by a ruler of the large state ofQi, Lu's neighbor on the Shandong peninsula, about the principles ofgood government, Confucius is reported to have replied: “Goodgovernment consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being aminister, the father being a father, and the son being a son”(Lunyu 12.11). I should claim for myself only a title thatis legitimately mine and when I possess such a title and participate inthe various hierarchical relationships signified by that title, then Ishould live up to the meaning of the title that I claim for myself.Confucius' analysis of the lack of connection between actualities andtheir names and the need to correct such circumstances is oftenreferred to as Confucius' theory of zhengming. Elsewherein the Analects, Confucius says to his disciple Zilu thatthe first thing he would do in undertaking the administration of astate is zhengming. (Lunyu 13.3). In thatpassage Confucius is taking aim at the illegitimate ruler of Wei whowas, in Confucius' view, improperly using the title“successor,” a title that belonged to his father therightful ruler of Wei who had been forced into exile.[22]Xunzi composed an entire essayentitled Zhengming. But for Xunzi the term referred tothe proper use of language and how one should go about inventing newterms that were suitable to the age. ForConfucius, zhengming does not seem to refer to the‘rectification of names’ (this is the way the term is mostoften translated by scholars of the Analects), butinstead to rectifying the behavior of people and the social reality sothat they correspond to the language with which people identifythemselves and describe their roles in society. Confucius believed thatthis sort of rectification had to begin at the very top of thegovernment, because it was at the top that the discrepancy betweennames and actualities had originated. If the ruler's behavior isrectified then the people beneath him will follow suit. In aconversation with Ji Kangzi (who had usurped power in Lu), Confuciusadvised: “If your desire is for good, the people will be good.The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character ofthose beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grassbends” (Lunyu 12.19).

For Confucius, what characterized superior rulership was thepossession of de or ‘virtue.’ Conceivedof as a kind of moral power that allows one to win a following withoutrecourse to physical force, such ‘virtue’ also enabled theruler to maintain good order in his state without troubling himself andby relying on loyal and effective deputies. Confucius claimed that,“He who governs by means of his virtue is, to use an analogy,like the pole-star: it remains in its place while all the lesser starsdo homage to it” (Lunyu 2.1). The way to maintainand cultivate such royal ‘virtue’ was through the practiceand enactment of li or‘rituals’—the ceremonies that defined and punctuatedthe lives of the ancient Chinese aristocracy. These ceremoniesencompassed: the sacrificial rites performed at ancestral temples toexpress humility and thankfulness; the ceremonies of enfeoffment,toasting, and gift exchange that bound together the aristocracy into acomplex web of obligation and indebtedness; and the acts of politenessand decorum—such things as bowing and yielding—thatidentified their performers as gentlemen. In an influential study,Herbert Fingarette argues that the performance of these variousceremonies, when done correctly and sincerely, involves a‘magical’ quality that underlies the efficacy of royal‘virtue’ in accomplishing the aims of theruler.

4. Confucius and Education

A hallmark of Confucius' thought is his emphasis on education andstudy. He disparages those who have faith in natural understanding orintuition and argues that the only real understanding of a subjectcomes from long and careful study. Study, for Confucius, means findinga good teacher and imitating his words and deeds. A good teacher issomeone older who is familiar with the ways of the past and thepractices of the ancients. (See Lunyu 7.22) While he sometimeswarns against excessive reflection and meditation, Confucius' positionappears to be a middle course between learning and reflecting on whatone has learned. “He who learns but does not think is lost. Hewho thinks but does not learn is in great danger”(Lunyu 2.15).[23] He taught his students morality, properspeech, government, and the refined arts. While he also emphasizes the“Six Arts” — ritual, music, archery, chariot-riding,calligraphy, and computation — it is clear that he regardsmorality as the most important subject. Confucius' pedagogicalmethods are striking. He never discourses at length on asubject. Instead he poses questions, cites passages from the classics,or uses apt analogies, and waits for his students to arrive at theright answers. “Only for one deeply frustrated over what he doesnot know will I provide a start; only for one struggling to form histhoughts into words will I provide a beginning. But if I hold up onecorner and he cannot respond with the other three I will not repeatmyself” (Lunyu 7.8).

Confucius' goal is to create gentlemen who carry themselves withgrace, speak correctly, and demonstrate integrity in all things. Hisstrong dislike of the sycophantic “petty men,” whose clevertalk and pretentious manner win them an audience, is reflected innumerous Lunyu passages. Confucius finds himself inan age in which values are out of joint. Actions and behavior no longercorrespond to the labels originally attached to them. “Rulers donot rule and subjects do not serve,” he observes.(Lunyu 12.11; cf. also 13.3) This means that words andtitles no longer mean what they once did. Moral education is importantto Confucius because it is the means by which one can rectify thissituation and restore meaning to language and values to society. Hebelieves that the most important lessons for obtaining such a moraleducation are to be found in the canonical Book of Songs,because many of its poems are both beautiful and good. Thus Confuciusplaces the text first in his curriculum and frequently quotes andexplains its lines of verse. For this reason,the Lunyu is also an important source for Confucius'understanding of the role poetry and art more generally play in themoral education of gentlemen as well as in the reformation of society.Recent archaeological discoveries in China of previously lost ancientmanuscripts reveal other aspects of Confucius's reverence forthe Book of Songs and its importance in moraleducation. These manuscripts show that Confucius had found in thecanonical text valuable lessons on how to cultivate moral qualities inoneself as well as how to comport oneself humanely and responsibly inpublic.


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Riegel, Jeffrey, "Confucius", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
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