No single philosopher has had as profound an influence on any civilization as K’ung Fu Zi has had on China. More than an academic figure, he became a cultural and spiritual icon whose effect on Chinese culture was so profound that he is still seen as one of the nation’s ideological founders, more than two thousand years after his death.
As K’ung Fu Zi’s ideas traveled from China to Europe, foreign philosophers translated them into Latin and gave him the Latin name Confucius. He lent that name to the school of thought called Confucianism, which emphasizes duty and responsibility toward society. Like contemporary philosophers in Greece, he was a virtue ethicist, one who believes that the core of ethical practice is self-discipline and the cultivation of a morally virtuous personality. And the virtues he preached became guiding principles of Chinese culture for centuries after he wrote them down.
We don’t know much about Confucius’ life. As much as people embraced his teachings, they weren’t particularly interested in the details of his personal life. This is probably a result of cultural differences: whereas Western philosophical culture tends to stress the heroic figure of the thinker, Chinese culture is more prone to emphasize the ideas while downplaying the individual.
We do know that Confucius lived sometime around the fifth or sixth century BC, a time when central authority was rapidly eroding across the Chinese empire. The Zhou dynasty had controlled the region for centuries, and would eventually become the longest-lived in Chinese history at almost 800 years. But like all dynasties it had periods of weakness. Around the time of Confucius’s life, the Zhou dynasty was suffering a series of military and political setbacks that emboldened local leaders. With less and less central authority to keep them in line, these local leaders started fighting for land and power. The wars were so traumatic and lasted for so long that a separate era is named for them: the Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC).
Confucius was born well before the outbreak of the Warring States Period, but he grew up in a country that was rapidly disintegrating, and he feared a descent into chaos. He made his living as a wandering teacher, employed by various lords and politicians who valued him partly for his philosophical wisdom and partly for his very practical geopolitical insight. As he traveled, he developed an increasingly sophisticated philosophical system that he hoped would help restore order by teaching people to cultivate a sense of duty and responsibility to the greater whole.
Li: The Social and Moral Order
In modern philosophy, we’re accustomed to distinguishing between moral virtue and social order. We tend to see social conformity as morally neutral or even morally suspect – our intellectual heroes are often social outcasts or lone rebels like Socrates or Copernicus. Confucius would have found that kind of childish. A grown-up should recognize the importance of their place in society and strive to fulfill the duties imposed on them by living among others. Rebelliousness was a serious moral error.
For Confucius, social and moral order belonged together under the concept of Li, translated as virtue or ritual propriety. In this framework, right action fulfills three elements: aesthetic, moral, and social. In other words, it has to be pleasing to the senses, pleasing to the conscience, and pleasing to others.
Li is expressed above all in relationships. Its highest form is filial piety: moral virtue comes from honoring one’s parents and ancestors, obeying their authority, and upholding their traditions. Parents, in turn, have the obligation to protect their children and guide them toward a fulfilling and morally respectable life. All relationships are governed by this sort of mutual obligation: pupils have an obligation to work hard and follow the guidance of teachers; teachers, on the other hand, have an obligation to excel in the arts of pedagogy so as to serve their students. So too for rulers and subjects, husbands and wives, elder and younger siblings.
Because of his emphasis on social order, Confucius is sometimes mischaracterized as promoting blind obedience to authority. It’s true that obedience is a crucial virtue in Confucianism, especially obedience toward parents, teachers, and political leaders. But this embrace of obedience can only be understood in the context of Confucius’ admonitions to the leaders themselves. A good leader, Confucius says, should not be an authoritarian who rules using only fear and discipline. The leader must earn the trust and even love of followers. Confucius expects rulers to lead through brute force, but through the transformative power of exemplary moral conduct.
Confucius taught that moral virtue did not arise naturally from some deep-seated inner nobility. But neither did he argue that humans were basically evil. Instead, he said, humans have an innate disposition to learn, and what really matters is the content of their learning. People by nature are neither good nor evil – they are curious and suggestible. So the roles of teacher and parent are some of the most important. These are the figures who shape each person’s moral development, and they have a responsibility to train the child in good morals (by example as much as by instruction). As adults, Confucius said, people must take on increasing responsibility for their own education. They must begin cultivating themselves, much as one cultivates a garden: tending the flowers of honesty, diligence, and duty while weeding out selfishness and sloth.
Confucianism: A Religion or a Philosophy?
Like much of the ancient world, ancient China was a place where religion and philosophy were hard to tease apart. A wise man like Confucius would have been seen as a teacher, scholar, political adviser, and spiritual leader all at the same time. (The same would have been true of Moses, Buddha, or Jesus of Nazareth in their contexts.) Today, religion and philosophy are separated into different institutions: philosophy is almost exclusively the province of universities, whereas religion is mostly left to churches and temples. As a result, the Confucian tradition has two very different faces. In philosophy departments all over the world you can find scholars who study Confucius’ ideas, debating their historical significance and contemporary relevance. But you will also find Confucian temples in China that have their own rituals and liturgies. In a Confucian temple, the focus is on preserving the theology and spiritual teachings of Confucius.
The great man understands what is moral; the small man understands what is profitable.
Confucius presented his moral philosophy in the image of a “great man” or Junzi. The great man was the ideal of Confucian virtue – wise, patient, dutiful, and driven by high integrity. By contrast, the “small man” (Xiaoren) was petty and self-interested, more driven by ego than by duty. Should a small man gain political power, the result would be disaster. Rulers above all had the responsibility to strive for the ideal of the Junzi.
Confucius actually had a third level of virtue, which he called Sheng – the sage. Sagehood was even better than greatness, but was unrealistic for most people. Most people succumb to weakness, temptation, or frustration from time to time. The Sheng is free of such flaws. But Confucius understood that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Rather than set people up for disappointment by aiming at an overly ambitious goal, he created the concept of Junzi so that people could make small, incremental steps toward greatness. Once Junzi was attained, then the student could set their sights on Sheng.
If a father has a son to resist his wrong commands, he will be saved from committing serious faults. When a command is wrong, the son should resist his father, as the minister his ruler…Hence how can he be called filial who obeys his father when commanded to do wrong?
Confucianism does not council blind obedience. Subordinates must have an understanding of moral rightness and must follow their superiors only insofar as the superiors act in concert with morality. It’s a difficult line: on the one hand, children must trust their parents and follow their advice. On the other hand, children must be prepared to disobey their parents if they know they are being led astray. Both sides of the relationship are equally important: social order can be achieved only when children are obedient and parents are benevolent and wise. To maintain this balance, sons must only disobey their fathers in the case of extremely immoral or unwise commands.
It’s worth noting that this quotation doesn’t come directly from Confucius himself. It comes from the Book of Filial Piety, written down sometime after his death by a Confucian disciple. It probably reflects Confucius’s teachings, but we have to remember that it doesn’t come directly from him – in much the same way that the Gospels are thought to reflect the teachings of Jesus even though they were not written down until well after he died.
In Pop Culture
The Jedi Knights
In the Star Wars universe, the Jedi philosophy was created from a mix of Eastern ideas, particularly Taoism but with some elements of Buddhism and Confucianism. The image of the Old Republic was one Confucius would have recognized – thanks to their knowledge of the Force, the Jedi understand their place within the broader social and physical universes, and strive to cultivate many of the same virtues that Confucius preached.
Confucius would not, however, have embraced the system of representative democracy found in the Old Republic. He would have been shocked at the idea that a galactic civilization could remain stable without the steady hand of a single wise ruler. He might have said that such a system was ripe for collapse. When Emperor Palpatine destroyed the Old Republic and set up the Galactic Empire, Confucius might have condemned him as a xiaoren while acknowledging that his rise to power was a predictable consequence of decentralized government.