The Humanism of Confucius

An excerpt from The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism by Peter M.K. Chan

An abridged and systematic reconstitution of their words


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                                                          The Humanism of Confucius


1.1  Destiny and the Decree of Heaven

1.2  The Importance of Learning

1.3  The Kingly and the Humane

1.4  Humaneness, Propriety, and Righteousness

1.5  The Principle of Chong and Shu

1.6  Essentials of Government

1.7 On Filial Piety


        In the history of China, Confucius (551-479 BC) was the first to have brought education to the poor and common of his day. His motto was “to teach all without distinctions. 有教無類。[Analects,15:39] This revolutionary endeavor of his is said to have claimed a total of three thousand students and seventy-two virtuous disciples, some of whom had also gone on to become government officials. He was also known to have compiled and commented on a number of works known as the Six Classics pertaining to the legacy of earlier dynasties regarding which subsequent generations of intellectuals would study and comment upon once and again. They include the book of Propriety, Music, Odes, Historical records, Book of Change, and the Spring-Autumn Annuals. Because of the above outstanding achievements, Chinese history has also seen fit to confer upon him honorific titles such as “the Model Teacher of Ten Thousand Generations” and “the Most Sagely of Ancient Masters”. 

        The main body of his teaching is to be found in the Analects (Lung Yu), which is a collection of his discourses and sayings collected and compiled by his followers. Two other short pieces, known respectively as the Great Learning (Dai Shia) and the Doctrine of the Mean (Chung Yung) also contain records of what he said. Originally, these were chapters in the Book of Propriety. It was Chu Hsi, the reigning Confucian of the 12th century, who hived them off to form part of what has come to be known as the Four Books (of Confucianism). The other two are the Book of Mencius and the Analects


        In the following, I shall extract, organize, and examine the core teaching of Confucius as it is recorded in the Analects. Where relevant, occasional reference to some of his sayings as contained in the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean will also be made. 


1.1 Destiny and the Decree of Heaven


         Before we get into the teaching of Confucius, it will serve to know what he was really like in the eyes of his students


 It was the master’s intention to comfort the old, to be faithful to his friends, and to be concerned about the young. 子之志....老者安之,朋友信之,少者懷之[Ibid. 3:25] He was mild but strict, dignified but not mean, polite and completely at ease.子溫而厲,威而不猛,恭而安。[7:38] He fished with a line but not a net; and did not shoot at birds that are at rest. 子釣而不綱,弋不射宿。[Ibid. 7:27]


 The master seldom talked about personal benefits in connection with destiny and humaneness. [子罕言利,與命,與仁。Ibid. 9:1] He rejected arbitrariness of opinion, dogmatism, obstinacy, and egotism. [子絕四,毋意,毋必,毋固,毋我。Ibid. 9:4] He was apprehensive about fasting, war, and pestilence. [子之所慎:齊,戰,疾。Ibid. 7:13]


Confucius was great. His learning is broad beyond description. 大哉孔子,搏學而無所成名。[Ibid. 9:2] He was well versed in poetry, history, and propriety (or proper behavior).子所雅言,詩﹑書﹑執禮,皆雅言也。[7:18] He taught us literature, conduct, loyalty, and faithfulness. 子以四教:文,行,忠,信 [Ibid. 7:25]   In short, Chung-Ni (Confucius) is beyond reproach.... He is like the sun and the moon. 仲尼,日月也,無得而踰焉[Ibid. 19:24] 


         As ancient history had also seen fit to record, Confucius’ father died when he was three, and his mother when he was about fifteen. For this reason, he had to work for a living by taking on various low paying jobs during his teens and twenties. The following is what he said about this difficult period of his life. I was poor when I was young; that is why I can do many humble chores. 吾少也賤,故多能鄙事。 [Ibid. 9:6] I was not born with knowledge, but admire and quick to seek the teaching of the ancients. 我非生而知之者,好古,敏以求之者也。[Ibid. 7:20] As he had also come to realize, nothing is more natural to me than to learn quietly, study unceasingly, and persuade others untiringly! 默而識之,學而不厭,誨人不倦,何有於我哉! [Ibid. 7:2] But it was not until he was thirty that he began his private endeavor to propagate the teaching of the ancients. As he put it: I transmit but do not create; I believe in and love the teaching of the ancients. 述而不作,信而好古,[Ibid. 7:1]


         For the twenty years or so that followed, he was sought after by students from near and far. Thus, by the age of fifty, he was known to many to be an outstanding scholar and educator. For this reason, he was invited by his home state of Lu to serve in a number of official positions, including a three-month stint as deputy prime minister. However, for reasons that the ruler of Lu was not prepared to put his ideas into practice (or political intrigue if I may add), he resigned and took his disciples to travel from place to place to see if he could sell his ideas elsewhere. To him, one should not cooperate with those who follow a different Way. 道不同,不相為謀。[Ibid. 15:40] With some rice to eat, water to drink, and a bent arm as pillow, I still find life to be enjoyable. To me, unrighteous wealth and honor are but floating clouds. 飯疏食飲水,曲肱而枕之,樂亦在其中矣。不義而富且貴,於我如浮雲。[Ibid. 7:15] Besides, A kingly person is not an instrument (for others to use). 君子不器。[2:12] He works for the Way (of Humanity) rather than food, and can always relieve himself by working in the fields. 君子謀道不謀食;耕也,餒在其中矣。[Ibid. 15:32]


         By this time, Confucius was already fifty-five years old. Despite having to contend with difficulties every now and then, as we are also told, he was welcomed and provided for first in the state of Wei for a period of five years, and then by the state of Chen for another three. To his disappointment however, none were prepared to put his ideas about government into practice. For this reason, he had to confide with his students saying: if the Way prevails, it is destiny. If it is obliterated, it is also destiny. (道之將行也與?命也;道之將廢也與?命也Ibid. 14:36) Further, it was also his view that one who does not know destiny cannot be a kingly person. (不知命,無以為君子也。Ibid. 20:2) Thus, at the age of sixty three and getting too old to travel, arrangement was made for him to return to his home state of Lu, where he continued to study and teach until his death at the age of seventy three. 


         The purpose of recounting the life of Confucius is to show that his autobiography, short as it comes in the Analects, is quite on the mark. At fifteen, I dedicated to my studies. At thirty, I stood on my own (financially and intellectually). At forty, I was without doubt (or confident). At fifty, I knew the decree of Heaven (or what he took to be his destiny). At sixty, I was at ease with whatever I hear (no longer bothered by criticisms nor excited by praise). At seventy, I could follow my desires without violating rules (his hormones were no longer sufficient to drive him in the wrong way). 吾十有五而志於學,三十而立,四十而不惑,五十而知天命,六十而耳順,七十而從心所欲,不踰矩。[Ibid. 2:4]


             One question that calls for attention is what Confucius meant exactly by “knowing the decree of Heaven”. Was he advocating the view that whatever happens in life is actually not of one’s own doing? More bluntly put, was he promoting the idea (then popular) that one’s destiny is really prefixed by Heaven? Well, one may argue that this is so. For he is also known to have said that a kingly person holds three things in awe: the decree of Heaven, great personalities, and the words of the sages. 孔子曰:君子有三畏:畏天命,畏大人,畏聖人之言。[Ibid. 16:8] That is to say, had he not assumed that Heaven is able to dictate, reward and punish as IT wishes, why should anyone, kingly persons in particular, be afraid of Heaven? And how about his admonition that anyone who commits a crime against Heaven has no one to pray to? 獲罪於天,吾所禱也。[Ibid. 3:13] Does it not also indicate that the (then) anthropomorphic view of Heaven is very much on his mind?


         On the other hand, it could also be pointed out that Confucius had also said the following: Does Heaven really speak so as to make seasons change and things grow? Does Heaven really speak? 子曰:天何言哉!四時行焉,百物生焉;天何言哉?[Ibid. 17:19] If Heaven does not speak, or so he seemed to be saying, how could anyone claim to know the decree of Heaven? What worries me is that I will not be able to cultivate virtue, teach what I have learned, follow what is righteous, and correct my own mistakes. 德之不修,學之不講,聞義不能徒,不善不能改,是吾憂也。[Ibid. 7:3] He also advised his students not to blame Heaven and complain against men; and to reach for higher understanding by learning what is basic. 不怨天,不尤人;下學而上達。[Ibid. 14:37] That is to say, had Confucius been of the view that one’s destiny is really decreed or prefixed by Heaven, why should he worry about making mistakes and so on, as well as urging his students to study hard, improve and correct themselves. Besides, it was also his view that it is man (i.e., not Heaven) that makes the Way great, and not the other way round. (人能弘道,非道弘人Ibid. 15:29) And, despite his knowing that riches and honors are what men desire, and poverty and low status are what men hate, (富與貴,是人之所欲也.…貧與賤惡也。Ibid. 4:5) he still wanted to take upon himself the difficult task of cultivating the moral character of man – government officials and those in power in particular.

       Under this light, or so it could be argued, what he meant by “knowing the decree of Heaven” is but an sloppy (metaphysically speaking) way of saying that by the time he was fifty, he became aware of the fact that he was really capable of teaching others, and was on the way to help govern his home state in according with the Way of the early Zhou dynasty. If any state employs me, I shall think of it as the early Zhou. (如有用我者,吾其為東周乎! Ibid. 17:5) And in his saying that whether or not the Way will prevail is all a matter of destiny (14:36 quoted), and that an accomplished person would think of righteousness in the presence of benefits as he would accept his destiny in the face of danger (見利思義,見危授命, 亦可以為成人矣Ibid. 4:12), what he meant to say is that despite best of effort, one must still gracefully accept consequences that are beyond one’s control. This is also why he had to say that one who does not know destiny cannot be a kingly person. (不知命,無以為君子也。Ibid. 20:2) 


     Well, to make purchase of these two contrary points of view, I believe that it is perhaps better to say that Confucius was metaphysically ambivalent in this regard. As we shall see, his main concern was with issues ethical rather than metaphysical. This is also why he had to dismiss questions about ghosts and death. If we do not know how to serve men, how can we serve ghosts? If we do not know about life, how can we know about death? 未能事人,焉能事鬼?未知生,焉知死?[Ibid. 11:11] To perform one’s duties due to men and respect ghosts and spiritual beings from a distance is what understanding is really all about. 務民之義,敬鬼神而遠之,可謂知矣[Ibid. 6:22] As some of his students had also seen fit to report: The master did not talk about things strange, miraculous, mysterious, (including) spiritual beings;子不語怪,力,亂,神。[7:21] and that they had not heard anything about inborn nature and the Way of Heaven from the master. 夫子之言性與天道,不可得而聞也。[Ibid. 5:13]


Comment: As readers can see, by the time of Confucius, the (then) popular religious and anthropomorphic view of Heaven was already at risk in the minds of intellectuals. That Confucius was found to speak of tien-ming (天命 decree of Heaven) as well as ming (命 destiny) without tien, and his advice to respect ghosts and spiritual beings at a distance, was perhaps a prelude to what might be called “a dawn of enlightenment”, represented by a less superstitious way of understanding life and reality.



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