Confucius: the Practical Sage

By Peter H. Samson

The Good Master Kung Fu Tze, better known to the world as Confucius, is first among the axial thinkers to be considered in appraising the gifts bequeathed to the later world by that remarkable set of teachers and prophets who appeared in widely separated parts of the globe during the 6th century B.C. An old saying among the Chinese is that one may be a Buddhist, a Taoist, a Moslem, or a Christian, but that at heart a Chinese is always a follower of Confucius. His practical teachings have entered deep into the mind of the people, and have long been a force in Chinese thinking about wise living.

It is often claimed by Western religionists that Confucianism is not a religion at all, but rather a code of ethics. From a Chinese point of view, this is a distinction without a real difference. To the classical Chinese way of thought, ideas and ideals that have to do with how a person lives and how he believes are all religious in nature, since both belief and conduct are equally aspects of religion and of life. It is not necessary, as Western religionists often assume, for religion to furnish gods and spirits and immortalities in which to believe. These are but a few of the many possible ways of giving sanction and strength to the ethical requirements of living.

Confucianism is a completely humanistic, down-to-earth, commonsensical approach to life, dispensing entirely with theology, metaphysics, creeds, and the whole paraphernalia of salvation-securing that occupies so large a place in Western religions. This attitude was neatly summarized by Confucius himself when a disciple asked him to comment on the possibility of life after death:

We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know what comes after death? We do not yet know how to live. Do not trouble with another life before you know how to live a good life with men on earth. Live in one world at a time.

Worth noticing is it that Confucius does not here deny an afterlife: he was too respectful and reverential for such dogmatism. He simply insisted that a good man practices good not for rewards now or later on, but for the sake of the good life itself.

On another occasion he remarked: "To devote oneself earnestly to one's duty to humanity and, while respecting the spirits of the departed, to keep them at a distance, may be called wisdom." His was an ethical religion which left people free to hold whatever private gods they wished. Such breadth of tolerance seems impossible for religions which make believing central in the religious life. "Always and in everything, let there be reverence" was belief enough for Confucius.

Confucius' writings contain innumerable sayings of value, but no extended argument or systematic expositions of a coherent philosophy of life. Yet his wise observations do combine to form an ethical teaching, the most influential ever propounded in terms of the number of people affected by it. Because of this, the Chinese have through much of their long history been a rational, practical people, cherishing high standards of government, family cohesion and personal character.

Actually there is little that is especially remarkable about Confucius. He called himself a "transmitter," not a maker or creator. He was born about the same time as Buddha (6th century B.C.), his father being then seventy years of age. The young man soon became noted for his intellectual brilliance. Again like Buddha, he was a born teacher, compiling the ancient wisdom of China into readable books, attracting a following by his way of going about in an oxcart, talking to groups gathered around him, much as Socrates in the Athenian marketplace, and Jesus on the hillsides and lakeshores of Judea. As a teacher, he held that "only the stupidest and the wisest were beyond benefitting from instruction."

It is said of Confucius that all through his life there was about him an aged gravity." Portraits by Chinese painters show him in his later years with an almost hairless head and a face gnarled and knotted with experience, having a terrifying seriousness that gave no inkling of his humor, his tenderness, or his keen aesthetic sensitivity -- qualities that made him human, despite his almost intolerable perfection.

Like both Jesus and Buddha, Confucius would take a text from some incident along the way, as when he found a woman weeping at a roadside grave, and asked concerning her sorrow. "At this spot, some years ago, my husband's father was killed by a tiger, and so was my husband later, and now I have just buried the torn body of my son." Confucius, ever the practical sage, replied, "Why then do you stay here, in this dangerous neighborhood?" "Because, sir, though there are tigers around here, the government at least is not harsh." Confucius turned to the group gathered around them and said, "Listen, my people, and note well -- fiercer even than a tiger is a government which oppresses."

Confucius did not merely talk about his principles, but had occasion to put them into practice. He became Minister of Works and then Minister of Justice in the province of Lu, and conducted his administration with such success, it is reported, that his province was regarded as a model. Centuries later a historian wrote: "After three months of Confucius' rule, butchers ceased adulterating their meat, things lost in the streets were not stolen, and even foreigners did not have to go to the police but felt perfectly at home."

Confucius recreated the tie between the living family and its dead ancestors, strengthening a bond that developing civilizations usually tend to weaken. The heart of wisdom is to live according to nature's fundamental harmony. Life in nature and in human society is a web of relationships, and to live wisely we must understand how to live harmoniously in the various involvements of which we are constantly a part. Confucius was a conservative in that he felt the best of the past should be retained and improved upon. He did not try to inaugurate a new religion or a new system of ethics, any more than did Buddha or Jesus, but, like them, affirmed what he felt was wise and sound in a way of thought and living already ancient in his time. A concern with daily personal relationships was the central focus of Confucian ethics.

The essence of right living to him was to abide by the five enduring virtues in the five basic relationships in life: parent and child, husband and wife, brother and brother (we must suppose he meant this to include sisters in the relationships!) ruler and subject, friend and friend. In these relationships the necessary virtues are decorum, humanity, uprightness, tolerance and sincerity. All the rules of living derive from these basic qualities. In addition, Confucius himself set forth what seems to our minds today a painfully detailed list of rules covering the minutest matters of etiquette, dress, posture, and conversation, as well as larger matters of moral principle. The importance of this was to make politeness a moralizing and civilizing influence.

Confucius brought into being a universal personality embodying these civilized traits. He created the "scholar-gentleman," with every part of human nature tempered, balanced and controlled according to the ideal of the golden mean. Based on the five essential virtues are the typical Confucian values that have endured through the centuries: a high regard for intelligence and learning, the sacredness of all toil, the importance of this life on earth, the value of good manners, and above all, the two supreme Confucian ideals, the middle way and reciprocity.

What the Greeks at that same time were calling the golden mean, Confucius and Buddha spoke of as the middle way, avoiding excess in anything, whether in vice or in virtue.

Nothing in extremes, either in the matter of feasting or fasting, of rejoicing or mourning, of working or resting, of spending or saving. No extravagances in manner of conduct, or speech, or thought. The wisdom of the superior man is to avoid all extremes.

In expressing affection to a child, for example, effusiveness has less value than the assurance to the child that an adult can be depended on to try to understand him and to be fair. Confucius was suspicious of those who claimed to love while being unwilling in practice to be just.

Equally fundamental -- and directly connected with such moderation -- was Confucius' teaching of reciprocity. He was the first of the axial teachers, four centuries before Hillel and five centuries before Jesus, to enunciate the Golden Rule, which every major religion in time came to include among its teachings, though some claimed to be unique in this. In particular, Christians have deprecated as merely negative Confucius' contribution: "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." Jesus is reported to have put it positively: 'Do unto others what ye would that others should do unto you."

Even in negative form, the Golden Rule has advantages over the more familiar positive 'Do unto others . . ." Both more practical and considerate -- typically Confucian traits -- it is to avoid doing to others what you would object to having done to you. People who refrain from making problems of themselves through aggressively "doing good" to others have more to be said for them than is usually admitted. He who does not do to others what he does not want done to himself refrains from invading other people's privacy, and avoids deciding what is good for them according to his own personal preferences. "Doing unto others" is sometimes a glorified form of self-centeredness.

A similar realism is expressed in Confucius' variant on the familiar theme that we must repay evil with good and love our enemies, Asked about this, he replied that we should repay good with good, and evil with justice. There is an attractiveness in Confucian ethics for any who are troubled by the impossibility of practicing the Christian teaching of loving one's enemies in a world where turning the other cheek and laying down one's defenses can result, not necessarily in more and more love ruling the world, but in self-destruction and the triumph of injustice.

A little of the Puritan appears in Confucius' effort to bring under control of reason and moderation the animal appetites of human nature. He tried to check and balance the natural Epicureanism of the instincts with the Stoicism of his doctrine. Will Durant comments that "Only in Buddhism and Christianity can we find again so heroic an effort to transmute into decency the natural brutality of men"

Confucius' passion was for morality. The chaos of his time was a moral chaos, to be cured not by going back to old beliefs that had been weakened by the dissolving of ancient traditions, but by an earnest searching for better personal character. Sincerity and trust were for him the foundation of every virtue possible to mankind. All this has an intensely modern relevance, and is not merely the bygone wisdom of an ancient sage.

The legacy of Confucius to today, across twenty-six centuries of human experience, is personal integrity, expressed in his classic statement of which this is an indicative fragment: "Wishing to order well their own states, they first regulated their own families. Wishing to regulate their own families, they first cultivated their own selves. . . .

China is old, immensely old, and has held together politically and ideologically longer than any other large segment of mankind. Change has come to China, but until this century it came slowly and imperceptibly. Every conqueror in the history of mankind has had to come to tenns with basic values in the minds of those he sought to subdue. Meanwhile the enduring Confucian ideal of ethical integrity in human relations is part of the world's treasury of wisdom, and is Confucius' gift to mankind. The social system he supported may pass, but his humaneness, gentility and call to integrity will remain imprinted on the consciousness of the human race.

(From Sunrise magazine, February 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)

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