Ancient Chinese Philosophy: How to Live Life
Ancient Chinese Philosophy: How to Live Life
How do I live my life? Since the early beginnings of society people have always been concerned with our behavior in public and conduct towards others: how should I behave towards my parents, how should I treat my friends, and in what way can I best show my respect for the gods? Religion was the first form of moral code; the writers would present their ideas about truth and morality, and reinforce their opinions with omnipotent deities who would, in a way, scare believers into acting accordingly.
As society began to develop and powerful empires began to expand religion was no longer a priority. Many of the rituals necessary to appease the various gods were impractical. Furthermore, skeptics and other logical thinkers began to question their existence. However, moral code still needed to be maintained—especially in the growing empires—and people began searching for other forms of guidance. Moral philosophy most likely developed for this reason; to rationally investigate the truths and principles of knowledge, behavior and conduct. Around the fifth century B.
C. in China (which today is known for strict guidelines regarding respect and obedience) two great philosophers, Confucius and Lao Tzu emerged who devoted their lives to explaining how to live life virtuously, and righteously. Though the two philosophers differ extremely in the presentations of their ideas, and the ideas themselves, together they create a full and detailed moral code. Confucius, the earlier of the two philosophers, (died in 497 B. C. ) analyzes various daily situations and suggests how one should behave in them in The Analects.
The Master, as his pupils call him, repeatedly mentions the importance of behaving like a gentleman. But what exactly does this entail? What does one need to do to be considered a gentleman? There are many virtues that Confucius finds essential to being a gentleman, the most critical one being benevolence, which he discusses primarily in the first four books. Benevolence in the eyes of The Master, however, is very different from our current perception; we see it as kindness and sympathy while Confucius evidently sees it as something much greater.
For us today benevolence can be seen in simple acts of compassion. For example, a common act of benevolence is putting your extra change into the plastic cup of a homeless person in Washington Square Park. I see a benevolent professor as one who is respectful of his students’ other responsibilities and gives them ample time to prepare their assignments. To Confucius, this would not be enough; he describes benevolence as a quality that is very difficult to achieve; apparently, it is something that does not even seem appealing to many.
According to The Master, it encompasses our values, loyalty, pride, and honesty, and it manifests itself in our relationships with friends, parents, and superiors—only one who is perfect in all these categories can be considered benevolent, and therefore a gentlemen. The idea that Confucius describes as most vital to achieving the status of gentlemen is filial piety, the reverence for ones parents. The virtuous child would give their parents no other cause for anxiety than illness, The Master says.
He must never stray too far from their “fields,” and if he does, he must always make his whereabouts known. To serve one’s parents to the fullest, he must also follow their instructions (or advice) exactly, even if they might not be beneficial or even good for his well-being. This must be done without questioning them. He can try to “dissuade” his parents on to a more righteous path if it is done subtly and respectfully, but cannot blatantly point out mistakes in his parents’ suggestions. It does not stop there; the child must cover up any blunders the parents make from the eyes of the world.
Whether Confucius puts filial piety on a higher level than law is unclear, and he may not have considered extreme examples. But I am. If your father, for example, would murder someone, should you take the Euthyphro approach of bringing him to justice, or should you become an accomplice in his crime by tampering with evidence, or perhaps burying the body? I doubt that any fair gentleman would ever involve himself in a crime so grave under any circumstances. When the parents begin to age the child should take note of it. The old age of your parent’s should bring you anxiety, The Master suggests.
It is obvious that at some point the responsibilities of the parents and children reverse; during childhood it is children who bring stress to their parents (or in the case of perfect children, don’t), and during adulthood it is parents, and their health, who should bring stress to the children. Confucius never completely mentions but implies that as the parents’ age advances the child must make changes in his life to accommodate his parents. Perhaps, in today’s society that would mean to spend more time with them when they retire and monitor their health more often than before.
The child’s obligations do not end during the lifetime of the parents; to be a good son you must live with reverence towards your parents even after their deaths. One way to do this is to not change his father’s “ways” for three years. Another is to present their spirits with offerings and sacrifices. Some of these ideas, however, leave the boundaries of respect and move towards expressions of love. You are expected to feel anxious when they are not in good health, but that can only be felt if you truly love them. And how can anyone oversee whether you are presenting their spirits with offerings?
You must be truly devoted and love them to continue respecting them even after they are dead (or just very fearful of their spirits). It appears that Confucius never draws a clear line between respect and love; maybe in his view one cannot exist without the other. The respect and awe of parents from an early age shapes the child into a polite and well-rounded adult, one who is not too arrogant and knows his place in society. Whatever filial piety is, it is clear that it is only a small aspect of benevolence an insufficient virtue on the road to becoming a gentleman.
But before we can even explore what qualities you need to be a gentleman, we must ask what The Master means when he says “gentleman. ” There is certainly some idealism and imagination involved in his construction of the gentleman. In a way, the gentleman is a perfect and unattainable feat that everyone should strive for. Confucius advocated for respect of tradition, culture and knowledge; without showing interest in these aspects of society, all hope of becoming a gentleman is lost. A gentleman must respect and live by the traditions, but at the same time distinguish himself from everyone around him.
Though Confucius advises against questioning what has already been explained and accomplished. So how does he propose to become better? His analects are somewhat contradictory: how do you have any voice if you cannot speak out against old tradition, or create new ones? At the same time, the ideal man should learn from the people around him and be open to criticism. In a society which was so concerned with accordance and conformity, however, his ideas seem reasonable. By following these traditions, you are being polite and respectful, obviously, important qualities.
Perhaps his greatest explanation of the qualities necessary to be a gentleman comes in Book V, where he describes the qualities that make Tzu-ch’an a gentleman, “He was respectful in the manner he conducted himself; he was reverent in the service of his lord; in caring for the common people, he was generous and, in employing their services, he was just. ” To be a gentleman, you must have compassion and generosity, qualities that I believe every human has innately; therefore, it would be possible for anyone to be a gentleman if they can harness those traits.
In his description of Tzu-ch’an it appears that he had some form of authority over others, possibly a duke or a nobleman in China. It is quite possible that his descriptions of a gentleman aim to describe the ideal ruler. Indeed, all of the qualities he portrays throughout The Analects are vital in a successful ruler: leading by action, not by word (avoidance of hypocrisy), fairness and justice to subordinates, acting reasonably, and using good judgment. Confucius’ teachings are very practical not only to the common man, but to the ruler as well.
It is no surprise that this ancient text is still used by today’s societies as guidelines for good leaders. Though it is unclear what exactly a gentleman is, there is an explicit moral code that Confucius believes we should live by. The philosophy recounted in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, on the other hand, is far less practical, in my opinion. His teachings are more spiritual and are harder to live by because of their vagueness and ambiguity. He created the idea of “Tao,” which is more than just a way of life, it’s even more than life itself—it is everything!
Heaven and Earth, Yin and Yang, and all other complementary opposites are Tao. It is likely that by Tao, Lao Tzu is referring to the Universe and everything it engulfs, as he is known to have theorized about the flow of nature. Lao Tzu explains how Tao should be embraced. His philosophy creates a sense of unity among humans, and encourages them to become one with their surroundings. But there are a few ideas which he must not have fully thought through. Is Tao really everything? Everything includes the good and the bad, and Tao is described as all good.
Furthermore, there should be no desire to stray from Tao because of its idealism. But is it even possible to stray from Tao if it is everything? Evidently, Tao itself is an idea too complex and difficult for most people to understand, at least for me it is. For this reason (and maybe others as well), Lao Tzu created Te, which is more concrete than Tao—it is the manifestation of Tao, the person walking on the path, rather than the actual path. Through his use of Te, Lao Tzu is still able to create some moral code.
By today’s standards, Lao Tzu’s philosophy is in some ways outdated and obsolete. He values inaction, and feels that everyone should be satisfied with what they know and have. To some this may seem like lack of ambition; how can a philosopher possibly be advising against ambition? But I find his advice to be pointing out the faults of over-ambition, and possibly greed. As with everything, there should be harmony, and an equal balance between ambition and satisfaction with the status quo.
This is a sound suggestion because through out history we have seen overachievers fall repeatedly: Alexander the Great and his empire, the Roman Empire, the infamous Hitler and his empire as well. Maybe this is not what he intended at all; maybe he meant that lack of action is better than the wrong action. If the action we make will steer us further from the end of Tao, then it may be wiser to not act at all. Or perhaps, through inaction one can reflect and further his spirituality, and by doing so take one step closer to Tao.
Maybe, it is for this reason that Lao Tzu chose to leave Taoism so open-ended—so that the reader could interpret Tao in his own way—one person’s path may be radically different from another’s. Though his value of inaction may not make sense to the modern eye, his idea of simplicity and potentiality resonate strongly with us. He compares potentiality to an uncut piece of wood. There are so many possible directions we can take with that single piece of wood—it can become anything! He suggests that a person remain this way, maintaining innocence and openness to new experiences.
No matter what we may have seen or felt in the past, we should not be biased towards what the future holds. This is not easy, but is a desirable trait, and probably must be attained to achieve Tao. He also stresses the values of simplicity, which is completely necessary to follow the path. How can one possibly see the path, if he is distracted by what he does not need? Often, it is our embrace of personal possessions and wealth that hinder us from true reflection and meditation. Maybe, it is for this reason that Lao Tzu speaks out against ambition; because you will never see truth if you are blinded by desires.
It is likely that Lao Tzu was in some way associated with Confucius, as there is visible influence Lao Tzu in Analects and influence of Confucius in Tao Te Ching. Confucius mentions “the Way” numerous times, but never explains what it means. Lao Tzu mentions benevolence and vaguely describes what a good ruler is, “a shadowy presence to his subjects. ” Both place high importance on remaining within society’s norms, Confucius through his awe of traditions, and Lao Tzu through his inaction. Both agree that one should live by their word, and that honesty, integrity, and consideration for others desires are important.
On their own, neither of the texts adequately describes a fulfilling way of life; together, with Confucius addressing practical matters and Lao Tzu focusing on the spiritual ones, a complete and detailed moral code is constructed. The way of life that these two ancient philosophers described so centuries ago still holds strong today. Though they are difficult to follow with all the temptations of modern society, and the vices of modern man, every one of us still strives to be a gentleman on the path of Tao.
Subject: Tao Te Ching,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 1 November 2016
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