Jun 12 2007


Confucianism is an interesting religion that is little known or understood outside the countries where it is practiced. It is often portrayed merely as a bunch of fortune cookie type sayings, leading to jokes of the form “Confucius say. . .”

Although Confucius did say many things that can be quoted as aphorisms, the real religion is far more deep and interesting. (The source for my information is primarily the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith (p. 154-195). This is an excellent book for anyone seeking to understand the essences of religions. The author takes a non-judgmental, non-comparative approach to each one, trying to simply summarize its basic principles and practices.)

Confucius was born around 551 BCE and lived to the age of seventy three, making him a contemporary of the Buddha. Like the Buddha, he too did not claim to be anyone special or have special powers, and just saw himself as a teacher. The Buddha’s teachings were not primarily social but instead focused inwards, on internal reflection and on what it takes for an individual to shed himself or herself from worldly entanglements and achieve enlightenment. Confucius’s teachings, on the other hand, were explicitly social and this-worldly, trying to teach people how to live in order to create a better society.

Whereas the Buddha turned away from worldly things and adopted the life of a monk and a mendicant, teaching his disciples his philosophy, Confucius earned his living as a tutor almost all his life, teaching his students “history, poetry, government, propriety, mathematics, music, divination, and sports.” Like Socrates, he was a kind of one-man university and taught in the Socratic style, with probing questions and dialogue rather than lecture, and he seemed to have been very modest, never claiming to be better than his students, although his reputation as a great teacher was huge.

To understand what Confucius was trying to achieve, we need to understand his times. Up to the eighth century BCE, China under the Chou Dynasty had been a more or less orderly society with a strong sense of custom and tradition and propriety that together kept the society cohesive and functioning. But this began to disintegrate, with self-interest beginning to predominate over group-interest and by the time Confucius came along, lawlessness had become rampant.

One response to this state of affairs was the Realist school which argued that what ‘people understand best is force.’ They believed that the ruler must maintain an “effective militia that stands ready to bat people back when they transgress. There must be laws that state clearly what is and is not permitted and penalties for violation must be such that no one will dare incur them. In short, the Realists’ answer to the problem of social order was laws with teeth in them. . Those who did what the state commanded were to be rewarded; those who did not were to be punished. . .[T]he laws had to be long and detailed. . .every contingency must be provided for in detail. . .Not only must the requirements of law be spelled out; penalties for infractions should likewise be clearly specified. And they should be heavy.” (p. 164)

The Realists, in short, were the Bush/Cheneys of that time. And like with the Bush-Cheney doctrine, they initially achieved some success in controlling society but created a mess thereafter. The Ch’in dynasty (221-206 BCE) fashioned its policy on Realist lines and succeeded in uniting China for the first time (and giving it its current name) but it collapsed in less that one generation.

Directly opposed to this was the philosophy developed by Mo Tzu, known as Mohism, which argued that the solution to China’s social problems was not force but universal love, where one should (he said) “feel toward all people under heaven exactly as one feels towards one’s own people, and regard other states exactly as one regards one’s own state.”

Confucius rejected both these extremes as unlikely to succeed in achieving the desired goal of social cohesion. He rejected the Realists use of force as clumsy and external. Smith summarizes Confucius’ critique of the Realists: “Force regulated by law can set limits to peoples’ dealings, but it is too crude to inspire their day-to-day, face-to-face exchanges. With regard to the family, for example, it can stipulate conditions of marriage and divorce, but it cannot generate love and companionship. This holds generally. Governments need what they cannot themselves provide; meaning and motivation.” (p. 167)

As for the Mohist philosophy, Confucius rejected it as utopian and unrealistic. He acknowledged that love has an important, even essential role to play in maintaining harmonious social relations but it is effective only if it is supported by the appropriate social structures and a collective ethos.

Confucius thus thought that the Realists were mistaken in their belief “that governments could establish peace and harmony through the law and force that are their domain” and that the Mohists were also mistaken because they “went to the opposite extreme; they assumed that personal commitment could do the job.”

Next: How Confucius set about creating a middle path.

POST SCRIPT: The Politics of Stem Cell Research

(Thanks to MachinesLikeUS for the link.)

1 comment

  1. 1

    Confucianism is not a religion.

    See the second entry on this page


    for thoughts on why people tend to make this error.

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