On this episode of the podcast, we continue learning about Eastern philosophy, this time focusing on Confucianism.
Confucianism is the philosophy of a man known throughout his life as Kong Fuzi who was born in China in 551 BC. He became known as Confucius thousands of years later, when the name was coined by a Christian missionary.
Confucius was born into poverty to a teenage mother and an elderly father who died when we was only three years old. From a very young age, he worked to help his mother make ends meet by doing odd jobs around town. Having been born with a variety of physical birth defects, Confucius was rejected by his peers and had very few friends.
However, one gift Confucius was born with was a genuine interest in learning. He filled his time by studying history and constantly trying to improve himself. Confucius was a strong advocate of education and believed that it was the key to dissolving the class system that existed at the time. As Confucius got older and saw China collapsing all around him, he knew that he wanted to find a way of governing that would save China.
During his studies, Confucius became obsessed with traditions and rituals; he wanted to find out what had been successful in the past, with the hope that it could be successful again. He began to develop his philosophy, which was split into two categories. The first is called ‘Li’, which encompasses his theories on the proper decorum for governing a populace. The second is called ‘Jen’, which encompasses his theories on the proper way to govern oneself.
As Confucius developed his philosophy, he didn’t write detailed arguments or treatises; instead, he spoke his ideas in an ambiguous way that allowed room for interpretation. This ambiguity makes it easy to apply much of Confucius’ philosophy in a modern context.
In order to spread his ideas, Confucius began hosting informal, conversational classes with the followers he began to attract. Anyone was welcome in these classes, regardless of social standing, and Confucius hoped that one of these followers could eventually carry out his ideas in political office.
The most prominent idea behind all of Confucius’ views on government was that government officials should lead by example. He believed that if rulers were ethical, the populace would follow suit. Confucius believed this was the most effective way to govern and, when executed properly, it essentially makes government unnecessary. If the governing officials leads by example, then the people will live virtuous lives because they believe it’s the right thing to do, and not out of fear of punishment.
When it came to his views on individuals, Confucius believed that humans have a duty to better themselves, and that morality should be pursued for its own sake, with no regard to rewards or punishments. He believed that it was each person’s duty to live by four principles--loyalty, filial piety, ritual propriety, and reciprocity. By mastering all of these principles, you could become ‘Junzi’, which translates to ‘gentleman’ or ‘superior man’.
Confucius believed that in order to act virtuously, you first had to understand each of the five types of relationships you might find yourself in at any given time. These include Ruler vs. Subject, Father vs. Son, Husband vs. Wife, Elder Brother vs. Younger Brother, and Friend vs. Friend. By learning how to act in each of these relationships, you could fulfill the first of the four principles of ‘Junzi’--loyalty. Filial piety meant respecting your elders, worshiping your ancestors, and understanding your role in all relationships wherein you are viewed as inferior. Ritual propriety meant honoring rituals in every context. Reciprocity meant following the golden rule, which Confucius states as follows: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”
After many years of teaching and gathering followers, Confucius was finally offered a position in government. However, as he began making changes and trying to implement his philosophies, other government officials began to feel threatened and were eventually able to have Confucius removed from office.
Although discouraged, Confucius continued to spread his ideas by traveling around the country, teaching his beliefs, and attracting new disciples. After thirteen years of traveling with little success, Confucius was 67 years old, and his only hope was that one of his disciples would carry on Confucianism after he died. However, when Confucius’ favorite and most capable disciple died suddenly at age 41, Confucius sank into a deep depression and died at age 73, believing that he had failed.
Two centuries after Confucius’ death, the Han Dynasty established the first great period of Chinese culture orchestrated and nurtured by Confucian thought and principles. The Confucian philosophy worked so well, the Han Dynasty flourished for more than 400 years. Confucianism remained the dominant philosophy of China until the Communist revolution of 1949.
Philosophize This! If you could eliminate or create one thing that would make the world a much better place, what would it be?
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