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Confucius C.E. 551-479
Confucius was a famous thinker and social philosopher of China, whose teachings have deeply influenced East Asia. Living in the Spring and Autumn period, he was convinced of his ability to restore the world's order, but failed.

After much travelling around China to promote his ideas among rulers, he eventually became involved in teaching disciples. His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China over other doctrines such as Legalism or Taoism during the Han dynasty. Used since then as the imperial orthodoxy, Confucius' thoughts have been developed into a vast and complete philosophical system known in the West as Confucianism. They were introduced to Europe by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who was the first to Latinise the name as "Confucius".

The Analects is a short collection of his discussions with disciples, compiled posthumously. It contains an overview of his teachings. describes Confucius as a "transmitter who invented nothing", whose greatest emphasis was on study, the Chinese character that opens the book.

Personal life and family
At 15, I set my mind upon learning;
At 30, I took my stand;
At 40, I no longer had doubts;
At 50, I knew the will of the heavens;
At 60, my ear was attuned;
At 70, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule.

(Analects, translation by James Legge)

According to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 BCE (during the Spring and Autumn Period, at the beginning of the Hundred Schools of Thought philosophical movement) in the city of Qufu in the Chinese State of Lu (now part of present-day Shandong Province and culturally and geographically close to the royal mansion of Zhou). He was born into a once noble family who had recently fled from the State of Song.

The Records of the Grand Historian compiled some 400 years later indicate that Confucius was conceived out of wedlock. His father was seventy and his mother only fifteen at his birth. His father died when he was three and he was brought up in poverty by his mother. His social ascendancy links him to the growing class of Shì , between old nobility and common people, which later became the prominent class of literati because of the cultural and intellectual skills they shared.

As a child, he is said to have enjoyed putting ritual vases on the sacrifice table. As a young man he was a minor administrative manager in the State of Lu and rose to the position of Justice Minister. After several years, disapproving of the politics of his Prince, he resigned. At about age 50, seeing no way to improve the government, he gave up his political career in Lu, and began a 12-year journey around China, seeking the "Way" and trying unsuccessfully to convince many different rulers of his political beliefs and to push them into reality. When he was about 60, he returned home and spent the last years of his life teaching an increasing number of disciples, trying to share his experiences with them and transmit the old wisdom via a set of books called the Five Classics.

When Confucius held the post of the highest officer in Lu, he issued an arrest and execution order for Shao-Zheng-Mao, a respected person in Lu. The order gave five rather vague reasons:

Having a recalcitrant mind
Alienating himself and refusing changes
Enjoying specious arguments
Broadcasting others' faults
Supporting and profiting from others' bad deeds

This has been interpreted as an act of judicial murder, an accusation which has been denied by Confucius' admirers.

The King of Lu was unhappy at this abuse of power, and during an annual ritual he refused to distribute the sacred meat to Confucius, a strong indication of disapproval. In fact, Confucius was forced into exile from Lu after these accusations. During his exile (called “touring the kingdoms” in Confucianism), Confucius was not widely welcomed; some kingdoms even forbade him to cross their borders.

Confucius' descendants were repeatedly identified and honored by successive imperial governments. They were honored with the rank of a marquis thirty-five times since Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, and they were promoted to the rank of duke forty-two times from the Tang Dynasty to 1935. One of the most common titles is Duke Yansheng, which means "overflowing with sainthood."

Today, there are thousands of reputed descendants of Confucius. The main lineage fled from the Kong ancestral home in Qufu to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. The latest head of the household is K'ung Te-ch'eng who is of the 77th generation and a professor at National Taiwan University. The Republic of China appointed him President of the Examination Yuan. Kung married Sun Qifang, the great-granddaughter of the Qing dynasty scholar-official and first president of Beijing University Sun Jianai, whose Shouxian, Anhui, family created one of the first business combines in modern-day China that included the largest flour mill in Asia, the Fou Foong Flour Company. The Kongs are related by marriage to a number of prominent Confucian families, among them that of the Song dynasty prime minister and martyr Wen Tianxiang.

In the Analects, where one can find the most intimate descriptions of him, Confucius presents himself as a "transmitter who invented nothing" and his greatest emphasis may be on study, the Chinese character that opens the book.

In this respect, he is seen by Chinese people as the Greatest Master. Far from trying to build a systematic theory of life and society, he wanted his disciples to think deeply for themselves and relentlessly study the outside world, mostly through the old scriptures relating past political events (like the Annals) or past feelings of common people (like the Book of Odes).

In these times of division, chaos and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven that could unify the "world" (i.e., China) and bestow peace and prosperity on the people. Therefore, Confucius is often considered a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he proposes often shows that he used (and maybe twisted) past institutions and rites to push a new political agenda of his own: for example, he wanted rulers to be chosen on their merits, not their parentage. He wanted rulers who were devoted to their people. And he wanted the ruler to reach perfection himself, thus spreading his own virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with laws and rules.

One of the deepest teachings of Confucius, and one of the hardest to understand from a Western point of view, may have been the superiority of exemplification over explicit rules of behavior. His ethics may be considered one of the greatest virtue ethics. This kind of "indirect" way to achieve a goal is used widely in his teachings, where allusions, innuendo and even tautology are common ways of expressing himself. That is why his teachings need to be examined and put into context for access by Westerners. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:

When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court, Confucius said, "Was anyone hurt?" He did not ask about the horses.

What seems a matter of tiny importance has been long commented on and shows another of the Confucian specificities that have to be underlined. When one knows that in his time horses were perhaps 10 times more expensive than stablemen, one can understand that, by not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrated his greatest priority: human beings. Thus, when one sees a little bit of the greater picture, according to many ancient or recent Eastern and Western commentators, Confucius' teaching can be considered as noteworthy Chinese variant of humanism.

Confucius also heavily emphasized what he calls "rites and music," referring to these social conventions as two poles to balance order and harmony. While rites, in short, show off social hierarchies, music unifies hearts in shared enjoyment. He added that rites are not only the way to arrange sacrificial tools, and music is not only the sound of stick on bell. Both are mutual communication between someone's humanity and his social context; both feed social relationships, like the five prototypes: between father and son, husband and wife, prince and subject, elder and youngster, and between friends. Duties are always balanced and if a subject must obey his ruler, he also has to tell him when he is wrong.

Confucius' teachings were later turned into a corps de doctrine by his numerous disciples and followers. In the centuries after his death, Mencius and Xun Zi both wrote a prominent book on it, and in time a philosophy was elaborated, which is known in the West as Confucianism.

Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, argument continues over whether to refer to it as a religion because it makes little reference to theological or spiritual matters (god(s), the afterlife, etc.).

Confucius's principles gained wide acceptance primarily because of their basis in common Chinese opinion. He championed strong familial loyalty, ancestor worship, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, and used the family as a basis for an ideal government. He expressed the well-known principle, "Do not to others what you do not want done to yourself" (the Golden Rule). He also looked nostalgically upon earlier days, and urged the Chinese, particularly the politicians, to model themselves on earlier examples.

The Confucian theory of ethics is based on three important concepts:

While Confucius grew up, li referred to three aspects of life, that of sacrificing to the gods, social and political institutions, and daily behavior. It was believed that li originated from the heavens. Confucius redefined li, arguing that it flowed not from heaven but from humanity. He redefined li to refer to all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society. Li to Confucius became every action by a person aiming to meet the person's surface desires. These can be either good or bad. Generally attempts to obtain short term pleasure are bad while those that in the long term try to make your life better are generally good. It is all about doing the proper thing at the proper time.

To Confucius, yì was the origin of li. Yì can best be translated as righteousness. While doing things because of li, your own self-interest, was not necessarily bad, you would be a better, more righteousful person if you base your life upon following yì. This means that rather than pursuing your own selfish interests you should do what is right and what is moral. It is doing the right thing for the right reason. Yì is based upon reciprocity. An example of living by yì is how you must mourn your father and mother for three years after their death. Since they took care of you for the first three years of your life you must reciprocate by living in mourning for three years.

Just as li flows out of yì, so yì flows out of rén. Ren can best be translated as human heartedness. His moral system was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely ordained rules. To live by rén was even better than living by the rules of yì. To live by rén one used another Confucian version of the Golden Rule: he argued that you must always treat your inferiors just as you would want your superiors to treat you. Virtue under Confucius is based upon harmony with others.

He applied an early version of the Golden Rule: "What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to any one else; what one recognizes as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others." (Confucius and Confucianism, Richard Wilhelm)

Confucius' political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through "rites" and people's natural morality, rather than using bribery and force. He explained this in one of the most important analects: 1. "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good." (Translated by James Legge) This "sense of shame" is somewhat an internalization of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.

While he supported the idea of the all-powerful Emperor, probably because of the chaotic state of China at his time, his philosophies contained a number of elements to limit the power of the rulers. He argued for according language with truth—thus honesty was of the most paramount importance. Even in facial expression, one sought always to achieve this. In discussing the relationship between a son and his father (or a subject and his king), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors; this demanded that the inferior must give advice to his superior if the superior was considered to be taking the wrong course of action in a given situation.

This was built upon by his disciple Mencius to argue that if the king was not acting like a king, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. Therefore, tyrannicide is justified because a tyrant is more a thief than a king (but attempted tyrannicide is not).

Confucius' philosophical school was continued by his direct disciples and by his only grandson, Zisi. Mencius and Xun Zi are his two great followers, one on each "side" of his philosophy, perhaps simply described as optimism and pessimism. They built upon and expanded his ethico-political system.

Home town
Soon after Confucius' death, Qufu, his home town, became a place of devotion and remembrance. It is still a major destination for cultural tourism, and many Chinese people visit his grave and the surrounding temples. In China, there are many temples where one can find representations of Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius together. There are also many temples dedicated to him which have been used for Confucianist ceremonies.

The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
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