Confucius, A Throneless King

I’ve been boning up on Chinese history, and my knowledge of Confucius was in dire need of improvement. This is a biography, based on the mass of information available from Chinese historical records. 

It’s interesting to compare Confucius with Socrates, who lived at about the same time. The most striking difference is the uncertainty of our knowledge of Confucius, because almost everything we know about him was hagiographic, written a generation or two after he died. For Socrates, on the other hand, we have a solid collection of information, some of it antagonistic, so we have a more complete picture of the man. Moreover, even the material supplied by Socrates’ admirers falls short of hagiography. 

Socrates refused to write down his thinking; he felt that the written word was inferior to the spoken word because it was not interactive. Really! Confucius, on the other hand, wrote extensively, but we have nothing original from his hand – his writing was mostly directed towards restoring and extending the four classic works of ancient Chinese thinking: The Book of Songs, The Book of Rites, The Book of Music, and the Book of History. These books, Confucius felt, constituted the essence of all that was good and right, and he believed that mastery of these four books was essential to the education of a gentleman. 

Confucius taught four fundamental values:

A gentleman should be concerned about the well-being of others, and should always act in accordance with due concern for their well-being. This applied especially to kings, who had a fundamental duty to care for their subjects. Kings who reveled in luxury to the detriment of their subjects were unworthy of their thrones, and it was right and proper to overthrow them.

This is the converse of benevolence. Just as a gentleman should care for those under him, those who are under him should harbor strong feelings of loyalty and obedience towards their superiors. This was especially important for children; they were required to treat their parents with extreme deference.

Propriety, Custom, or Ritual
This is an area in which Confucius’ teachings differ greatly with Western beliefs. The gentleman must study all the complex rules of social interaction and observe them punctiliously. These rules themselves took quite a bit of effort to learn; having good intentions was not enough. For example, the gentleman followed strict rules regarding the correct rituals to be carried out in honor of ancestors. Funerals were laden with rules. For example, when one of Confucius’ favorite students died, his comrades gave him an elaborate funeral to honor him. Confucius was furious; he claimed that the dead man deserved a student’s funeral, much less ornate than the one that the others had given him. In Confucius’ view, the others had dishonored the dead man.

In order to learn all the ins and outs of the above three requirements, the gentleman must study the four classic books for his entire life, extracting ever more subtle meanings from them. Although they were too voluminous for complete memorization, he should certainly be able to quote important points from them. 

This emphasis on the four classic books might be understood by a Westerner as akin to a requirement that one must learn the Bible in agonizing detail if one is to be considered a gentleman. 

Confucius was, during his life, a failure. He wandered from kingdom to kingdom, trying to convince kings to hire him as an adviser and follow the path of righteousness. However, he was a pedant and an ideologue; he had no social skills. Those who hired him soon regretted it, as he antagonized just about everybody with his constant sermonizing and his contempt for real-world considerations. He never lasted long in any position. He was honored rather like the classic Hebrew ‘prophet in the desert’: his harangues drove people crazy, but they knew that he was a holy man, so they gave him money and encouraged him to go elsewhere.

He was much more appealing after he died; his ideals could then be honored to a comfortable degree. The true basis of his appeal was his emphasis on loyalty to one’s superiors. In the West, the Church cooked up the ‘divine right of kings’ to secure its political position in Christendom. The Chinese kings embraced Confucianism for the same reason. This assured its eventual adoption as the offical state philosophy.

They were able to recruit the powerful through a clever application of his emphasis on education. They established a test system to fill positions in the bureaucracy. At first blush, this seems an admirable meritocracy. But consider my comparison to the Bible. Suppose that France in the Renaissance had implemented a similar system based on the Bible. Only those who could pass an exacting test on the Bible were allowed into government office. The obvious question to ask of such a system is “what does the Bible have to do with good governance?” The answer, of course, is “nothing”. The real significance of the tests was to insure that only those wealthy enough to afford tutors could enter the government. There were always a few exceptional cases of masterful but poverty-ridden test-takers, of course, but the system insured the support of the powerful.

Confucius’ teachings continue to influence Chinese society. Loyalty to the state is inculcated by the government. Filial piety is considered fundamental. Education is highly valued, but now it is not confined to the four classic books. This is in turn rapidly generating a highly educated population.