Submitted by Hannah D. on Tue, 10/29/2013 - 23:56

Confucius was not so much a religious leader as a cultural reformer. And as a reformer, he did an incredibly remarkable job. In his time, China was plagued by "Rival baronies left to their own devices, creating a precise parallel to conditions in Palestine in the period of the Judges: 'In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes'" (Smith, 160). Confucius looked at this chaos, at this society that was beginning to uproot its traditional values in favor of self-based reason and autonomous individualism, and set it up on its feet again as a family-based, age-revering society valuing submissive obedience, honorable authority, and community based compassion. He accomplished all this so successfully that he was deified upon his death.

He began by opposing the two major cultural reform ideas, Realism (favoring brute force into societal compliance) and Mohism (favoring an almost Utopian kind of love). Frankly giving advice to government leaders when asked for his sound counsel, they rejected his insolence but spared him the usual death penalty due to the people's admiration of him. And so he was too skeptical of governmental power to give it the Realist's authority, but he was not entirely for the surrealistic Mohist ideals either.

"When asked, 'Should one love one's enemy, those who do us harm?' Confucius replied, 'By no means. Answer hatred with justice, and love with benevolence. Otherwise you would waste your benevolence.'" (168)

Certainly his success was not due to political power; he was not willing to offer false respect to leaders he saw as lacking. But "he was undoubtedly one of the world's greatest teachers . . . He seems not to have lectured but instead to have conversed on problems his students posed, citing readings and asking questions" (156). And people listened. Modesty, honesty and a readiness to confess a mistake undoubtedly earned him respect, and the influence of his teaching would spread rapidly - and with permanence - through his use of everything from theaters and children's toys to education methods and proverbs, really planting a deep root of morality into the minds of the people.

Some such proverbs include:

"When you see someone of worth, think of how you may emulate. When you see someone unworthy, examine your own character."

"Feel kindly towards everyone, but be intimate only with the virtuous."

"What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others."

Confucius was a humanistic ethicist. Smith writes, "For nearly two thousand years the first sentence a child was taught to read was . . . 'Human beings are by nature good'" (171).

Two thousand years is a long time. Confucius' impact is not to be ignored. His teaching - directly in ethics and indirectly in religion - has been profound in China. And it has, along with other Eastern religions, affected the modern Western world.

Confucianism as an Ethic
Confucius began reforming his culture by introducing what are called the Five Deliberate Traditions. These are essentially five attributes to an individual (or society) that enable it to become successful and peaceful.

It all begins in the home. In Confucius teaching it is said to follow that

"If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in character.

If there is beauty in character, there will be harmony in the home.

If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.

If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world." (Smith, 174)

This, if it can't be condemned for being a bit optimistic, can at least be chastened for beginning with the self. "Listen to your heart" isn't necessarily stated, but can be easily inferred from the passage. If "human beings are by nature good" then perfect righteousness in the heart is not an impossible attainment.

Regardless the five deliberate traditions are jen, chun tzu, li, te, and wen. Jen is the noble - and if the circumstances arise, sacrificial - respect of friendship. It goes beyond even this to a respect for all, and "'The person of jen, desiring self-affirmation, seeks to affirm as well'" (173).
Chun tzu is a person of graciousness and hospitality, perfectly at ease and eagerly concerned with helping and encouraging others. The person with Chun Tzu is "the opposite of a petty person, a mean person, a small-spirited person" (173). They are totally confident with themselves and accomodating with others.

Propriety and social structure was accounted for with li. Respect of age and strength of family ties were very important to Confucius, teaching five constant relationships in his Doctrine of the Mean - ruler and subject, husband and wife, parent and child, elder and younger sibling, elder and younger friend. Due to the use of age as well as relational status, Chinese language has a hundred-fifteen names for different kinds of family members.

A major part of li is submission and authority: the younger of a pair was to submit to and revere the older, whether a ruler or an older sibling. But the admiration that the older is to receive ought to be based on te - power. Te is never oppressive, but always moral, and those in charge were expected to act in a way that deserved respect and encouraged reverent submission. This was especially true for government. For Confucius, the trust of the people was the most important accomplishment a political power could gain, even before militant and economic duties, "For if the people have no confidence in their government, it cannot stand" (178).

Finally, there is wen, "'the arts of peace' . . . [it is] the sum of culture in its aesthetic and spiritual role" (179). Confucius did not ignore the power the arts have on a society, and he respected them a great deal. Whether music, poetry, painting or anything else, "It was art's power to transform human nature in the direction of virtue that impressed him" (179).

And what is the goal of these five traditions? Societal improvement based on personal improvement. The concept of hsin, or empathy to others, is, Confucius taught, grown with inner contemplation. Yet he did not teach that "the Confucian claim" is to go into monastic seclusion but instead to realize that "apart from the human relationships there is no self. The self is a center of relationships. It is constructed through its interactions with others and is defined by the sum of its social roles" (180).

This brings us to another topic: Confucian philosophy. While Confucius did not teach philosophy and religion, he assumed the religion of his day to be true and reformed it a little with his ethics. His morality is quite admirable; what are the assumptions underlying them?

Confucianism in Context
Ancient Chinese religion was a devout ancestry worship. Heaven and earth were a continuum, governed by spirits, themselves governed by Shangti, their one, omnipotent god. The spirits were deceased ancestors, with older ones ruling heaven, and thus authoritative over earth's inhabitants, living or otherwise. The people gave many sacrifices to worship heaven, and heaven responded by warning people (especially descendents) with signs as subtle as an itch or as glaring as a thunderstorm. Many Chinese took to astrology or interpreted the patterns in thrown sticks to divine the future's events.

Confucius agreed with all this, but he shifted focus. Instead of devoting so much time to ancestry worship, Confucius argued one should spend most of one's effort in caring for one's living family. Ancestors must still be honored, but more time ought to be devoted to current family members.

"His philosophy was a blend of common sense and practical wisdom. It contained no depth of metaphysical thought, no flights of speculation, no soul-stirring calls to cosmic piety . . . Consequently, whenever he was questioned about other-worldly matters, Confucius drew the focus back to human beings." (Smith, 185)

Confucius was devoted to the here and the now. The great god Shangti isn't given much voice in this matter; perhaps he cares naught about human affairs, except that they be generally good. Such is the god of many agnostics today.

"This strained and somewhat attenuated theism enables us to understand why a contemporary Confucian scholar can write that 'the highest Confucian ideal is the unity of Man and Heaven,' adding that in the Doctrine of the Mean this is described as 'man forming a trinity with heaven and earth.' With this unity or trinity established as the consummating goal of the Confucian project, we can pick up on its successive steps . . . The project of becoming fully human involves transcending, sequentially, egoism, nepotism, parochialism, ethnocentrism, and chauvinistic nationalism, and (we should now add) isolating, self-sufficient humanism." (186-187)

But a social, interpersonal humanism is still humanism. Doing good works and living by moral ethics is a good thing, but not when it ignores Yahweh. This quote makes it obvious that Confucianism is really just another self-deifying worldview, here aiming to joine man to nature, all accomplished through good works. Smith quotes from contemporary Confucian Tu Wei-ming's The World and I:

"Confucian humanism is inclusive; it is predicated on an 'anthropocosmic' vision. Humanity in its all-embracing fullness 'forms one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things' and enables us to embody the cosmos in our sensitivity." (187)

Life's goal, then, is to become one with the universe; then "ye shall be as gods" (see Genesis 3:5). Such a religion is quite compatible with other human-based beliefs, and in China, it was said that "Every Chinese owns a Confucian hat, Taoist robes, and Buddhist sandals" (189). Buddhism we have discussed, and now Confucianism also; the beliefs of Taosim will next be considered.

Author's age when written


I found this extremely helpful. I've had several acquaintances claim that the teachings of Confucius and Jesus were equivalent and have been meaning to look into this for about three years. It's good to finally see the differences.

I really appreciate your essays. They are informative and contain intellectual depth, and keep the attention of your readers. Thank you so much for posting.

“D’ye know what Calvary was? What? What? What? It was damnation; and he took it lovingly.”
~John Duncan