By Gabriel Blanchard
Confucius merits recognition not only as an architect of Chinese civilization, but as a shaper of culture across the world.
At first glance, Confucius is a peculiar presence on our author bank; the overwhelming majority of our authors are from the Euro-American tradition. But the edges of every tradition are porous, both chronologically and geographically, and several aspects of Confucian thought are strikingly familiar.
Confucius lived from the mid-sixth to the early fifth centuries B.C., and worked as a state minister and diplomat, as well as a scholar of the Chinese classics. His works came to mold China (and several of its neighbors, notably Korea, Vietnam, and Japan) for over a thousand years. They began to enter the European world in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thanks to the translation work of Jesuit missionaries. The Enlightenment showed great enthusiasm for him, including several names on our author bank, such as Voltaire and Leibniz.
Though the system as a whole is far too complex to summarize here, the central concern of Confucianism is behavior, and the central principle of Confucian behavior is a quality called rén, usually translated “benevolence” or “humanity.” This indicates empathy, fellow-feeling, love, or common decency. (The Chinese character that denotes it, 仁, is a combination of the characters meaning “man, human” and “two”; one is almost tempted to render it “two-manity,” before one remembers one’s last scrap of dignity and resists.) Rén in turn moderates two further principles, lĭ and yì: lĭ means “propriety, ritual, custom” and indicates external decorum and respect for convention, while yì means “righteousness, justice,” i.e the wisdom to see and pursue what is good in a given circumstance.
Avoiding extremes of rebellion and tyranny, in every sphere and type of relationship, was the goal; one can imagine Confucius and Aristotle taking great pleasure in one another’s works on ethics. The point of these virtues, in the opinion of Confucius, was to foster a benevolent, stable, harmonious order in both the family and society in general. Accordingly, the Confucian system works out in immense detail, covering everything from the philosophic principles of political science to the correct ways of performing music. He particularly emphasized five kinds of relationship as the archetypal aspects of society: ruler-subject, parent-child, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother, and friend-friend (this last being the only one without a hierarchical aspect). “Rectification of names,” by which Confucius meant acknowledging reality and one’s appropriate place in it, was the key to a flourishing realm. It is also noteworthy that though he lived and worked in a fairly feudal society and spoke in aristocratic terms, his philosophy of leadership was entirely meritocratic, and he accepted students from all classes and backgrounds. Indeed, the Confucians were so successful in inculcating meritocratic views that they were able to institute a written examination as the sole qualification for work in the imperial administration (ousting wealth, power, and ancestry) from the seventh century until the beginning of the twentieth.
Confucianism is not without its critics; not only did the Maoist government of China excoriate his philosophy, but he had more contemporary rivals as well, notably the authoritarian Legalists and some quietistic schools of Daoism. Nevertheless, few figures in Chinese history have proven more significant, not only for China but for the world.
Page image of Wulingyuan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, courtesy of Wikimedia.