The Philosophy of Confucius
The Philosophy of Confucius
For my essay I have decided to analyze the philosophy of Confucius as seen in The Analects or Lunyu (论语). I will be focusing primarily on what I have found to be the key components underlying Confucian ethics; Filial Piety (Xiao) (孝), Ritual Propriety (Li) (禮) and Authoritative Conduct (Ren) (仁). These three moral concepts are integral aspects of Confucian role ethics; they develop as a counterpart to western philosophy such as Immanuel Kant’s ethics of duty and have remained to this day sound and honourable ideologies that people should live their lives in accordance with. Confucianism has had the most the most prevalent influence on Chinese society for nearly two thousand years (c100BC-1900AD), it affected all aspects of Chinese life; education, politics and personal conduct in both one’s private and public affairs.
It became the paramount school of thought and later significant philosophies such as Daoism and Legalism would take their lead from Confucianism. The Chinese government made Confucianism the official state philosophy but that is not to say didn’t fall out of favour over the last two thousand years; from c.200-600AD there was a severe decline in followers as a result of the emergence of Buddhism and Daoism but Confucianism was fully revived by 700AD. In 1100s came Neo-Confucianism, innovated by Zhu-Xi, focussing more on Li and aspects of human nature and in the 1900s Confucianism fell out of favour with western beliefs such as communism.
However all government opposition to communism ended by 1977 and Confucianism is now being embraced again in both eastern and western cultures. Confucius is known to the Chinese as ‘Kung Fu-tzu’ (孔夫子) which has been Latinized by Europeans to Confucius. He was born in 551BC amidst the chaos of political instability and constant warring of the Zhou era into a poor family of the lower nobility. Throughout his life he made numerous attempts to gain an office with a prominent ruler willing to implement his concepts, after failing to do so he dedicated his life to teaching and accumulated an impressive amount of disciples, including Mencius and Xunzi. Confucius’ followers took it upon themselves to document and formulate their own interpretations of his interactions and teachings as Confucius never wrote anything down himself.
These records of Confucius’ philosophy can now be found in The Analects which has been translated into many languages and sold millions of copies around the world. Xiao or the notion of Filial Piety is probably the most definitive sentiment associated with Confucianism. Xiao is usually highlighted by western interpreters as it does not comply with western values and for this reason was not used as a starting point for promoting Confucianism in the western world. Confucius discusses Xiao in the context of identifying states of order and disorder in society. In a time of constant warfare Confucius conceded that this a social behaviour was due to a lack of Xiao, in The Analects Confucius tells us that a man with filial piety is unlikely to revolt in society or defy the authority of his superiors; “A man filial to his parents, a good brother, yet apt to go against his superiors – few are like that!”.
Confucius gives numerous definitions of Xiao to different students he explains that Xiao is the root of moral excellence. Like a plant, Xiao has to take place at the beginning of one’s life in order for it to flourish; “The gentleman operates at the root. When the root is firm, then the Way may proceed”. Confucius emphasized that it was imperative for people to develop this notion of Xiao in which younger generations were obliged develop emotional immediacy to their next of kin, an element of devotion was expected. Confucius put great importance in conducting numerous rituals for varying occasions; he found it essential to the well-being of society.
Religious activity was geared toward the worshipping of ancestors. When an elder died the children of the deceased were expected to undertake a three year mourning period in which they completed altered their living conditions to bear minimum and did not partake in any social conventions such as work or celebratory events; “When a gentleman is mourning, he gets no pleasure from eating sweet foods, finds no joy in listening to music, and feels no comfort in his place of dwelling.
This is why he gives up these things” Many considered three years to be an excessive period of time as we see when Zai Wo asks Confucius if he can limit the mourning period to one year and Confucius considers him perverse, he explains that only after being fully tended to for three years can one leave their parents’ bosom, parents alter their lives to accommodate the birth and raising of a child regardless of social convention. Similarly in Chinese culture it is thought that when a person dies they enter the spirit world in which they are once again rendered “new-borns” and need the care and devotion of their descendents to begin life there. It is reciprocity between generations, an exchange of unconditional loyalty and love. Xiao is initially established in these undertakings.
Ritual propriety or Li involves perfecting the art of self-governing and restraint, it refers to the secular functions of everyday life such as all formal conduct, from table manners to patterns of greeting and leave-taking, to graduations, weddings, funerals, from gestures of deference to ancestral sacrifices . Li is the mechanism by which one conveys their respect and gratuity to their elders and superiors; it also encompasses how one should act social in order to earn respect and honour in return. It is appropriate behaviour in the sense that it promotes and enhances relationships in a community.
This was essential as the social context of the Chinese was focussed on communal living, therefore Confucius tries to instruct people on how to live harmoniously with their families. Everything one says and does is brought into consideration under the concept of ritual propriety; “Look at nothing in defiance of ritual, listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, speak of nothing in defiance of ritual, never stir hand or foot in defiance of ritual”. The aesthetic aspect of Confucius is not to understand morality and judge but rather become more skilful in engaging the people around you in your endeavours, everyone has a role in society and they must uphold it.
Devoting yourself to ritual is not the same as shunning your own desires and emotions; it’s the ability to reconcile one’s own desires amicably within the social context you are occupying. In the Analects Confucius explains that by curbing our own personal agendas we can learn to appreciate the conventions of society which allows it to function harmoniously, he also stresses that with age and experience one can only truly gain this appreciation; “When I attained the age of fifteen, I became bent on study. At thirty I was a confirmed student. At, nought could move me from my course. At fifty, I comprehended the will and decrees of heaven. At sixty, my ears were attuned (to them). At seventy, I could follow my hearts desires without overstepping the lines of rectitude”. Confucius also stressed the importance of sincerity, he felt that without possessing a genuine interest in the well-being of others whatever ceremonial manners one undertook it would signify nothing.
He felt that rites should not be looked upon simply as conventions by which we did things but they should be practiced with complete reverence and honesty; “He sacrificed to the dead as if they were present. He sacrificed to the spirits as if the spirits were present. The Master said, ‘I consider my not being present at the sacrifice as though there were no sacrifice’ In the tenth book of The Analects we are effectively given the portrait of how one contending with Li should behave. The examples are given under the pretence of Confucius as a person himself and how he conducted himself. They give us direction as how to act appropriately and “how to serve the spirits to bring about good fortune”.
Each passage gives shows us a different scenario and Confucius’ exemplary behaviour in that context, a few examples are; “While eating he would not converse, and having retired for the night he would not talk”, “In asking after the well-being of a friend in another state, he would bow twice before sending the messenger on his way”, “In sleeping he did not assume the posture of a corpse, and when at home alone, he did not kneel in a formal posture as though entertaining guests” and “ On meeting someone in mourning dress, even those on intimate terms, he would invariably take on a solemn appearance. On meeting someone wearing a ceremonial cap or someone who is blind, even though they were frequent acquaintances, he would invariably pay his respects”.
These passages made Confucius the epitome of courtliness and personal decorum for succeeding generations of Chinese officials. The final focal point of Confucianism is Ren or Authoritative conduct, references to Ren appear over one hundred times in the Analects. Ren is comprised of two elements, a person and the number two, emphasizing how our own person can only be cultivated through interactions with other people as Herbert Fingarette states; “For Confucius, unless there are at least two human beings, there can be no human beings”. Ren consists of five basic virtues; seriousness, generosity, sincerity, diligence and kindness.
It is the basis of Confucian political theory, he felt that if a ruler lacked Ren it would effectively be impossible for his subjects to act humanely, he believed that people who had this mastered moral excellence inherent to Ren should be put into positions of political power; “The Master said; If people are proper in personal conduct, others will follow suit without need of command. But if they are not proper, even when they command, others will not obey”. Confucius felt that the political intuitions in his era had completely lost their legitimacy, he felt that this was due to tyrannical behaviour in the sense that those in control lacked certain attributes such as Ren, vital to successfully ruling and were not worthy of the positions they held.
We can observe through Confucius the idea that a ruler, whether good or bad has an effectively contagious effect on his subjects and if he lacks the necessary qualities that deem him worthy to rule, his subjects will similarly lack the qualities that enable them to serve efficiently, everyone most uphold their truthful role in society to achieve harmonious functioning; “Good government consists of the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son”. To cultivate one’s Ren one might look to Confucius’ ethics of reciprocity and perhaps his most famous teaching of all time, the golden rule which has been taken since the time of Confucius been included as part of numerous different religions and ideologies such as Christianity; “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.”
Interestingly, unlike Mencius and Xunzi, Confucius did not seem overly concerned about the root of human nature and whether we are innately good or bad but he did say “Human Beings are similar in their natural tendencies, but vary greatly by virtue of their habits”, implying that Confucius perceived all men to be born with intrinsic value that can be shaped or moulded by study and practice. After reading and analysing The Analects of Confucius I think it’s clearly that it is the three components of Xiao, Li and Ren that are most predominant in his philosophy but that is not to say there weren’t other valuable concepts that are crucial to Confucianism such as Xin (信) and Yi (義) but they are beyond the scope of this essay.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 26 December 2016
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