Lunyu, late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e. (Analects, 1861)
Uncertainty clouds our understanding of the life of China’s most important moral philosopher. The causes of confusion are multiple; one is the difficulty of translation across both linguistic and cultural traditions. The very name “Confucius” (cuhn-FYEW-shuhs), for example, is the result of the Latinization of the Chinese Kongfuzi (“Master Kung”) by his first Western (sixteenth century Jesuit) translators; his “proper” or Chinese name is Kong Qiu. The greater cause of difficulty, however, is that tradition has attributed much to Confucius that modern historians reject as problematic. Furthermore, by the period of the Former Han Dynasty (202
Statue of Confucius.
Furthermore, sinologists now dispute the traditional claim that Confucius authored several of the Chinese classic texts. For example, legend attributes the Chun Qiu (spring and autumn annals) and the ten commentaries (or “wings”) of the I ching (book of changes) to his later years; most modern scholars, however, reject these claims while recognizing that Confucius was nevertheless thoroughly familiar with these and the other four of the “Six Classics” (the Shi Jing, or book of odes, the Li Ji, or book of rites, the Yue Jing, or book of music, and the Shu Jing, or book of history). Current scholarship treats only the aphorisms collected under the title of the Analects as an accurate recording of his moral teachings. This text–probably compiled by others sometime in the third century
The Analects–approximately five hundred “chapters” or sayings, some only one sentence long–in large part reflects his reaction to the social corruption of the China into which he was born as the heir of a (perhaps) formerly aristocratic but long-impoverished family. The ancient Zhou (Chou) Dynasty was in decline, and competing feudal lords caused a disorder that Confucius interpreted as a degeneration from an ancient condition of social harmony and personal integrity. At around the age of fifteen, he set his mind on education as the way to restore what he thought of as the lost order and harmony of the past. (This has led some historians to brand Confucianism as “reactionary”; however, one famous aphorism, “Where there is education, there are no classes,” suggests the democratic quality of certain elements of his thought.) He therefore developed an ideal of social justice based upon certain ethical principles, chief among which was the then-revolutionary idea that a ruler must govern his people by moral persuasion rather than by fear and force.
Confucius was not a systematic philosopher and, in fact, seems to have thought of himself as a guardian of ancient values, not as an original thinker. Nevertheless, he made a number of enduring contributions to Chinese thought. He was the first, for example, to “democratize” teaching by accepting students of all classes, not merely those of noble birth, without regard to their ability to pay. He was also the first great teacher to advocate the pursuit of virtue (ren, or “humaneness”) for its own sake, and he invented the important concept of the classless “gentleman” (junzi) as anyone who tirelessly aspires to benevolence or righteousness. This difficult and selfless pursuit of harmonious benevolence by all who aspire to become junzi was what Confucius meant by the term dao (“the way”). “The way” was conceived of as the true mandate of Heaven (tian, the overarching and benevolent power of the universe), which is both the cause of virtue and the goal of all right action. Thus Confucius often claimed, “Heaven is the author of the virtue that is in me.” While he emphasized the importance of the observation of rituals and the strict obedience of children to parents as essential ingredients of social harmony, he also introduced the then-new principle of zhengming (“rectification of names”), which asserts the ruler’s obligation to his subjects and to the rule of benevolence. This was radical thought in an era when emperors were absolute and ruled more often by whimsy than by reason.
Confucius had nothing to say about what modern scholars would call “spiritual” or “religious” matters. As the Analects make clear, his teaching was ethical, rational, and humanistic and aimed to improve society by encouraging individuals to seek the ideal of human moral perfection. His invention and popularization of the ideal of the classless gentleman became the foundation of Chinese ideas of order for more than two thousand years. Thus the aphorisms collected in the Analects clearly deserve the esteem they have achieved, as does the sage who is their author and whose name takes its rightful place alongside those of the other great early teachers of humanity.