Confucius – 08/02/2016

Confucius (551?-479? BCE) is one of the oldest and best known ancient Chinese philosophers (that is to say: he was born in the state of Lu in what is now called China.) Many ideas that might sound familiar to you can already be found in his collection of writings: the Analects. The Golden Rule, for instance: “what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”, or does the idea that the key to moral living is compassion sound familiar to you? Well, Confucius said it well before any Western thinker did. Indeed, he said it before the history of Western philosophy even started. Although some might find his philosophy too conservative for their taste, it is impressively rich and remarkably current today.


Students and followers of Confucius have collected some of his sayings and writings in a book that is now known as the Analects, or Lunyu. From this work, it is clear that Confucius was mostly interested in the question: What is needed for a society to be a healthy society?

To answer this question, Confucius appealed to the Heavens and the Ancestors. That was conventional in his day. The Heavens were a central notion in ancient Chinese religion, but what philosophers mean when they refer to the Heavens is not like anything we in the West know. The Heavens can mean a Supreme Being, but it is also used to refer to nature or natural laws, or fate, or the realm of the spirits. Confucius says he had a special relationship with the Heavens, and that he understood what the Heavens wanted from him and mankind. In his days, saying this lends extra credibility to a philosopher. It’s like a modern scientist saying: “I understand the laws of nature, so trust me, I’m a good scientist.” A philosopher who understood the ways of the Heavens was trusted to be a good philosopher. The Ancestors were also a central notion in ancient Chinese historical awareness. These weren’t ordinary Ancestors. They weren’t somebody’s great-great-great granddads. They were legendary figures. The ancient Chinese people believed that their societies were the messy remnants of much earlier, much more harmonious societies, ruled by legendary rulers with superhuman abilities and extremely long life spans: the Ancestors. Confucius claimed that he appealed to the values and ethics that made one of those societies – the kingdom of Zhou – flourish. This is another move of Confucius to make himself look better: a philosopher who says: “I’m not making this philosophy up, I’m just reminding you of what worked in the good old days.” shows not only modesty, but also reassures his audience that what he proposes is not some weird radical idea. Since an appeal to the Heavens and to the Ancestors makes a philosopher look more credible, it was conventional for philosophers of the time to do so. It may also be that Confucius never made these appeals himself, but that his followers credit these statements to him as a form of respect.

In this class, we’ll discuss a central in Confucius’ philosophy: the idea of ren, which is often translated as ‘compassion’, which is to be achieved by looking at roles within the family and by cultivating the rituals.

We will also discuss two criticisms of the Confucian model at the time: that of the Mohists and that of Zhuangzi.


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