Confucius: A Hijacked Philosophy
by John Frost
(This Reflection is a continuation of a discussion of political philosophies which may have application to current events.)
The C.C.P. (Chinese Communist Party) has proclaimed Confucianism as the Official Political Philosophy of China. To me, this is the height of hypocrisy as the tenants, beliefs and actions of the CCP simply do not reflect the political philosophy of Confucius as will be shown as we explore the origins and teachings of one of histories great teachers and philosophers.
As close as can be determined, Confucius was born September 23, 551 B.C. in modern Shandong Province of China. His father died when he was three years old. His mother raised him. He was educated in the Six Arts* (more on this later) in what we would call Public Schools. He married at age 19, he had three children. He was not an aristocrat or a member of the ruling class, nor was he a commoner. His early work life found him a bookkeeper and caretaker of sheep and horses. His teachings garnered him a reputation as a profound thinker, writer and philosopher. His views on proper conduct and righteousness, loyalty and legitimate government are admirable examples of admirable Chinese thought. Often at the center of controversy, he traveled throughout Central China learning and teaching. He died at age 72 from natural causes.
Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese people, many argue that its values are more a secular morality (ethics) than a religion. Nevertheless, his world view considers the Afterlife, the nature of a Human Soul and at the same time a belief in Astrology. His approach was to act as a “transmitter who invented nothing”. I am sure he gathered much of his wisdom from interaction with other Chinese thinkers in his extensive travels. In some respects he was simply reporting and adopting what he has learned over the years.
As a teacher of ethics, he promoted the superiority of personal exemplification over explicit rules of behavior. He emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgement rather than knowledge of rules and regulations. It is said “one cannot legislate morals or moral behavior”. His teachings often relied on reference to ethical ideals and methods conveyed indirectly, through allusion, parable, innuendo and even tautology. Here is a good example: When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court Confucius said, “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses or the barn. By not asking, Confucius demonstrates that the sage valued human beings over property; readers may wish to reflect on the proper thinking and response to the current wave of unrest today.
Another major part of Confucius ethics is the virtues of the self: sincerity and cultivation of knowledge. He felt that a virtuous disposition and acceptable behavior grows from knowledge and sincerity. In other words, both sincerity and knowledge are the foundation of true virtue. He felt the best way to gain knowledge is to study the thought, actions and accomplishments of historical figures and one’s own ancestors. This meant respect for history and those who made history. Ignoring the past is a great mistake. Statues, icons, even names, along with monuments, museums and even cemeteries reflect and remind us of our ancestry as a culture and should be preserved and respected for their symbolism.
Confucius did not believe in the concept of “democracy”, which is itself an Athenian concept of Plato and Aristotle and a concept unknown in China but accepted by most Western countries. Confucius concludes that electing political leaders by popular vote is not recommended. Ideally, he preferred that everyone is capable of self-government in most matters and leaving a small role for government in the affairs of mankind. He expressed fears that the masses lacked the intellect to make decisions for themselves, and that, in his view, since not everyone is created equal, not everyone has a right of self-government. This lends support to idea of government being ruled by a Virtuous King whose primary tool is example and virtue (knowledge and sincerity). This is the same conclusion reached in Plato’s “Republic” which suggests a Philosopher King. (As I observed in a previous Reflection, many countries around the world are ruled by a “strong man” such as a dictator, Mullah, religious leader like a Pope who purports to be flawless in faith and morals, and War Lords, Tribal Chiefs and so on. All are a form of non-democratic rule.) He supported the idea that ruling by example is best and that laws, codes, orders and regulations backed by force or punishment would not be necessary and might be ignored or opposed by many.
As I conclude, Confucius was more than a purveyor of self-evident sayings but the creator of a whole body of ethical, political and religious thought worthy of further study. Literally, hundreds of books, essays and treatises have been written about this ancient philosopher from a faraway country controlled by political party using Confucianism in a hypocritical way.
*The Six Arts which Confucius studied consisted in the following: Rites or Ritual, Music, Archery, Charioteering (horse riding), Calligraphy and Mathematics. Certainly, these lines of study have little resemblance to the curriculum taught in today’s schools, save for math and writing (which assumes reading). Maybe rites might include the “Pledge of Allegiance” or daily prayer. Music seems to be universal and taught in most schools. Perhaps, a study of the many sayings of Confucius might be a good lesson for today’s home-study students. There are translations available of his Analects and his Book of Odes. Here is a sampling of sayings might be part of schoolwork:
“By three methods we may learn Wisdom: First, by Reflection, which is noblest; Second, by Imitation, which is easiest; and third, by Experience, which is the bitterest.”
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.”
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” “He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions.” “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” “If you make a mistake and do not correct it, this is called a mistake.” “Study the past if you would define the future.”
“The funniest people are the saddest ones.”
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” “To be wronged in nothing, unless you continue to remember it.” “Respect yourself and others will respect you.”
“When you see a good person, think of becoming like him/her. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.”
Confucius say, man who keep feet on ground have trouble putting on pants. 🙂