If an Average Joe in any given situation brought a collection of his own phrases to a modern-day publisher, he would likely be laughed out the door. How is it, then, that Confucius’ Analects, a compilation of his adages, continues to have a timeless effect on populations worldwide? Undoubtedly a brilliant philosopher, leader, and teacher, Confucius did not gain widespread support until after his death in 479 B.C.E. In fact, during his life he was continually shunned by authority figures for failing to pervert his own beliefs in the interest of gaining status. His theory of human nature and morality, and actualization of said characteristics, were innovative at the time and expanded upon by some, while rejected by many. Confucius’ determination to educate the citizens came from a deeply ingrained sense of improving society and therefore caused his collection of simple phrases and ideas to be preserved throughout centuries.
Even though Confucius’ philosophies are still widespread and well-matriculated into societies all over the world, Confucius was hardly well-known while he was alive. In fact, when attempting a career in politics, no high standing official valued his philosophies or morals. Perhaps Confucius’ direct criticism of the officials and their methods of rule were to blame; however he was all the more wise for refusing to misrepresent his ultimate beliefs and principles simply to gain status. Ironically, the same bureaucrats who turned The Master1 away put his students to great use in following years.
Born in c. 551 BCE, Kong Fu-zi2 lived in the Lu province of China, the town of Tsou. Some sources indicate he was born of noble blood, but lived in impoverished conditions. Irregardless, Confucius was not wealthy growing up, raised solely by his mother who died when he was still very young. A nobleman of the time, Li Meng, professed on his death bed to his son, Yi, that he must keep a watch on Confucius because he would prove to be a great philosopher and lover of history. Heeding his father’s advice, Yi put Confucius in charge of, his brother, Chi’s granary, even though Confucius was (possibly) a commoner.
Confucius focused his philosophy on how to successfully carry out day-to-day life in order that we may all achieve ultimate harmony. He speculated that such harmony could manifest out of two ideals: the true gentleman34. If all men, according to Confucius, strive to achieve the status of Chun tzu, accord with heaven5 could be achieved. Also essential to world harmony according to Confucius’ teachings are the five basic human societal relationships. The relationships are interpreted as: ruler and citizen6, father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, friend and friend. Confucius theorized that each human has a pre-ordained duty and each duty could be fulfilled within the five relationships. If such fulfillment occurs, says Confucius, the world will be at peace and nothing could be lacking.
Above and beyond the duties, The Master stressed filial loyalty, love, and allegiance. He believed that the basic structural unit of society did not fall within the individual, but the family. Honoring the family, and particularly the elders in a family, are still important Chinese values today. His reverence for ancestors was the basis for many of his aphorisms in The Analects.
More than fulfilling duties, Confucius emphasized the basic jen of human nature. He believed that all humans are born of good nature, with a willingness to help each other, and through proper education such good could be manifested and remain into later life. Proper education was defined by Confucius as being the intake of as much knowledge as possible from the elders in society, as well as having educators uplift their students and teach them how to elicit the good. He believed that through praise, each child would actualise the praise into reality and live up to it. Miseducation or even the lack of education, and scolding children rather than encouraging them, often leads to corruption in the world, cogitated Confucius.
Confucian theory embraces the concept of self-contribution to better the larger group, as opposed to some theories which stress group contributions. His feeling is shown when he says, “Concern not with holding onto a life-long position; concern with contributions you can make.”7 His care for individual roles was perhaps the influence of his adolescent years without a caretaker. Psychological studies done in the present have found that children who are abandoned during childhood or in adolescence are more likely to grow up feeling detached from the whole of society, therefore causing them to focus on their personal contributions. Many of those same children also adopt practices or occupations which may help keep the same kind of feelings from being imposed on other future generations.8 Confucius was conceivably one of those children, theorizing about harmony of the world because he felt disharmonized during youth.
Hypotheses like the above still do not substantiate why Confucian theory, not to mention The Analects, has been victorious in the test of time. In order to understand that, one must consider first the purpose of conceiving of religious thought. As explanations for many aspects of life were being cultivated, man needed to have justification for other aspects of life. Man naturally fears what he cannot explain, so great men like Confucius set out to explain them through typically-heavenly devices. Confucius was different, however, because he relied on his philosophies of the natural human state to fortify his notions. Rather than preaching that certain actions or a sinless life could help one to reach the heavenly afterlife, Confucius focused on what would better society in the future.
Ironically, Confucian theory did not end up having a positive effect on any society until his scholars9 and their scholars passed on and matriculated the theory into mainstream Chinese culture. Because men in power at the time were not in favour of Confucius, many attempts were made at taking his life, forcing him to move about the countryside10. It is not that any of Confucius’ theory presented a threat, but rather that most respected scholars of the time procured their status by altering their philosophies to match those of the ruling body. Confucius had a mind and a will of his own and therefore, his theories would remain his own forever. Perhaps the local leaders were so threatened by a man who stood his ground in a basically subservient time that they feared for the status of the society. Whatever the justification may be, Confucius was repeatedly fleeing in fear of unlawful death while maintaining his positions of harmonious achievement.
Confucian theory continues to stand the test of time, not only with millions of copies of The Analects bought each year, but also in fortune cookies11, anti-hate propaganda campaigns12, and other philosophers13 who have built upon The Master’s wisdom.
- Confucius is the Latinised form on Kong Fu-zi, otherwise known as Master Kong. Therefore, The Analects refers to Confucius as ‘The Master.’
- Some sources attest that Confucius was born Kong Fu-zi, while others claim K’ung Ch’iu, K’ung Chunghi, or other resemblances. Confucius literally translates to ‘K’ung the Master.’
- Confucius took the term ‘Chun tzu’ which literally meant ‘the aristocrat’s son’ to apply it to the ideal up to which every man should live.
- Jen is the Christian ideal of charity, or loving kindness for others, and a respect for life.
- Confucius referred to heaven as an ideal present in life, not a place for which to strive in the afterlife.
- Ruler and citizen are sometimes also translated to master and servant.
- The Analects, 4.14
- Psychological evidence given by Peter Grey in his textbook Psychology, third edition, in the adolescent development chapter.
- Some of his disciples, or scholars, are quoted in The Analects, among which are Master Kong, Master Zeng, Zi-gong, Zi-lu, and Fan Chi along with many others.
- In 497 BCE, Confucius was employed in the services of Ji Huan-zi, but soon after was threatened into leaving Lu and moving onto Wei. In 496, leaving Wei, he and his entourage were attacked and forced to return. In 493 in Soong, Confucius was forced to leave as the minister had a design on his life. In 490, Confucius wanted to return to Lu but was forced into retreating to Chu instead in fear of his life.
- Though it may seem a preposterous allegation, fortune cookies originated as philosophies on scraps of paper, most of which are currently adapted from some of Confucius’s most popular adages.
- One example is from the National Coalition against Prejudice and Hate, which produces t-shirts and buttons which boast “Children are not born bigots,” strengthened by an African-American child hugging a Caucasian child.
- John Locke, in the seventeenth century, theorized that humans were born as “blank slates,” and therefore acting basically good, while every negative chalk mark on the blank slate added hatred to the world.
Carmody, Denise Lardner. In the Path of the Masters. New York: Paragon House, 1994.
Confucius. The Analects. Bethesda, MD: Premier Pub. 1999
Confucius. The Essential Confucius. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1998.
Confucius. The Wisdom of Confucius. New York: Random House, 1939.
Creel, H. G. Confucius and the Chinese Way. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949.
Hsieh, Tehyi. Confucius Said it First. Norwood, MA: Chinese Service Bureau, 1936.