Confucius ( 551–479 BC) was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history.
The philosophy of Confucius, also known as Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. His followers competed successfully with many other schools during the Hundred Schools of Thought era only to be suppressed in favor of the Legalists during the Qin dynasty. Following the victory of Han over Chu after the collapse of Qin, Confucius’s thoughts received official sanction and were further developed into a system known in the West as Neo-Confucianism, and later New Confucianism (Modern Neo-Confucianism).
Confucius is traditionally credited with having authored or edited many of the Chinese classic texts including all of the Five Classics, but modern scholars are cautious of attributing specific assertions to Confucius himself. Aphorisms concerning his teachings were compiled in the Analects, but only many years after his death.
Confucius’s principles have commonality with Chinese tradition and belief. He championed strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, recommending family as a basis for ideal government. He espoused the well-known principle “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself”, the Golden Rule. He is also a traditional deity in Daoism.
Confucius is widely considered as one of the most important and influential individuals in shaping human history. His teaching and philosophy greatly impacted people around the world and remains influential today.
One of the deepest teachings of Confucius may have been the superiority of personal exemplification over explicit rules of behavior. His moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules. Confucian ethics may, therefore, be considered a type of virtue ethics. His teachings rarely rely on reasoned argument, and ethical ideals and methods are conveyed indirectly, through allusion, innuendo, and even tautology. His teachings require examination and context to be understood. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:
When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court Confucius said, “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.
Analects X.11 (tr. Waley), 10–13 (tr. Legge), or X-17 (tr. Lau)
By not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrates that the sage values human beings over property; readers are led to reflect on whether their response would follow Confucius’s and to pursue self-improvement if it would not have. Confucius serves not as an all-powerful deity or a universally true set of abstract principles, but rather the ultimate model for others. For these reasons, according to many commentators, Confucius’s teachings may be considered a Chinese example of humanism.
One of his teachings was a variant of the Golden Rule, sometimes called the “Silver Rule” owing to its negative form:
“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
Zi Gong [a disciple] asked: “Is there any one word that
could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied: “How about ‘reciprocity’! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
Analects XV.24, tr. David Hinton
Often overlooked in Confucian ethics are the virtues to the self: sincerity and the cultivation of knowledge. Virtuous action towards others begins with virtuous and sincere thought, which begins with knowledge. A virtuous disposition without knowledge is susceptible to corruption, and virtuous action without sincerity is not true righteousness. Cultivating knowledge and sincerity is also important for one’s own sake; the superior person loves learning for the sake of learning and righteousness for the sake of righteousness.
The Confucian theory of ethics as exemplified in lǐ (禮) is based on three important conceptual aspects of life: (a) ceremonies associated with sacrifice to ancestors and deities of various types, (b) social and political institutions, and (c) the etiquette of daily behavior. It was believed by some that lǐ originated from the heavens, but Confucius stressed the development of lǐ through the actions of sage leaders in human history. His discussions of lǐ seem to redefine the term to refer to all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society, rather than those simply conforming with canonical standards of ceremony.
In the early Confucian tradition, lǐ was doing the proper thing at the proper time, balancing between maintaining existing norms to perpetuate an ethical social fabric, and violating them in order to accomplish ethical good. Training in the lǐ of past sages cultivates in people virtues that include ethical judgment about when lǐ must be adapted in light of situational contexts.
In Confucianism, the concept of li is closely related to yì (義), which is based upon the idea of reciprocity. Yì can be translated as righteousness, though it may simply mean what is ethically best to do in a certain context. The term contrasts with action done out of self-interest. While pursuing one’s own self-interest is not necessarily bad, one would be a better, more righteous person if one’s life was based upon following a path designed to enhance the greater good. Thus an outcome of yì is doing the right thing for the right reason.
Just as action according to lǐ should be adapted to conform to the aspiration of adhering to yì, so yì is linked to the core value of rén (仁).Rén consists of 5 basic virtues: seriousness, generosity, sincerity, diligence and kindness.[Rén is the virtue of perfectly fulfilling one’s responsibilities toward others, most often translated as “benevolence” or “humaneness”; translator Arthur Waley calls it “Goodness” (with a capital G), and other translations that have been put forth include “authoritativeness” and “selflessness.” Confucius’s moral system was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely ordained rules. To develop one’s spontaneous responses of rén so that these could guide action intuitively was even better than living by the rules of yì. Confucius asserts that virtue is a mean between extremes. For example, the properly generous person gives the right amount—not too much and not too little.