Kong Qiu, better known in the west as Confucius, was an ancient Chinese philosopher who’s teachings and ideas revolutionised China and are still a vital part of most of the cultures of the far east today. Confucius was born in 551BCE during the time of the warring states when China was in social chaos. His father died when he was young so he was raised by his mother. He went into politics and became very well respected but his ideas also made him many powerful enemies and eventually he was forced into exile. He spent many years travelling around the states of China teaching and gathering disciples until he was eventually allowed to return home as an old man. At his death he considered himself a failure, however his influence was so strong that it can still be seen in the attitudes, cultures and values of a quarter of the worlds population in countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and more.
Confucius’ teaching may appeal to us today because its core is Humanism. Confucius was not really interested in metaphysics or speculation about the supernatural. His interest was in the world of the human, of society and his focus was on human interactions. In a time of so much chaos, he dreamed of a society of social harmony. He made the secular sacred.
Confucius’ focused on five relationships – the relationships between ruler and ruled, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother to young brother and between friend and friend. He taught that if these relationships were right, if everyone accepted their place in the social order and behaved accordingly, then there would be social harmony. This led him to develop five principles for how people should act towards one another – Ren (benevolence), Yi (righteousness/ justice), Li (etiquette/ propriety), Zhi (knowledge/ wisdom), Xin (integrity). Interestingly, he was the first person to come up with the golden rule (6 centuries before Jesus) of “treat others as you’d want to be treated” i.e. benevolence.
Li, or etiquette/ courtesy, was central for Confucius. He believed that one showed Li through ritual and that ritual was vital to creating a harmonious society. Ritual developed reverence for others, it developed good manners and it developed personal morality. Ritual helps people to overcome selfish desires and focus on the needs of others. By ritual, he meant acts of reverence and respect in our everyday lives. For example, saying please and thank you, bowing when greeting or leaving someone and so on. Filial Piety was a very important part of his teaching concerning the relationship between father and son, and veneration of ancestors at a home altar, along with respect for the wisdom of the aged, were key rituals in this relationship. For Confucius, the family home was sacred and was the centre of ritual – if it was in order, society would be in order.
Confucius was very involved in politics and taught the children of many rulers. He emphasised the importance of ritual in this too. He argued that good government was when you ruled through ritual and example rather than through laws and the threat of punishment. If the ruler set a good moral example, the people would follow. If they didn’t act morally then society would descend into chaos and the people had a right to overthrow the ruler. To govern others, Confucius believed that one must first govern themselves. He was a firm believer in meritocracy and argued that meritocracy not accident of birth should decide one’s station in life. This later led Chinese emperors to institute exams and tests for their civil service to ensure the best people became ministers.
Confucius had another reason for supporting education – he believed that it was through education that people became better – they developed knowledge of ritual and how to cultivate themselves morally. For Confucius, people’s aim in life should be to become like a sage (similar to the Victorian image of the English gentleman). They should cultivate themselves morally, show filial piety and loyalty and cultivate benevolence towards others. They should seek knowledge and study so they can become a better person. In other words – the aim in life was to cultivate your character to become the best you could be. This would happen through education, ritual, mindfulness and self examination.
Unfortunately, there are some criticisms to make of Confucianism. The philosophy was developed in an age of kings and emperors so there is little focus on democracy or equality. It has consistently been used to promote authoritarian and patriarchal values against democratic values or equality. Confucius taught that women should obey their husbands and so I don’t think feminists would take too kindly to his ideas. However, most Confucian societies have now become democracies which suggests that it can be adapted to fit western ideas. Their focus on communitarian rather than individualistic values makes them some of the safest and most respectful societies around. When I look at western civilisation today, I wonder whether we need a modern day Confucius, or someone to adapt his philosophy to the modern world so we too can become a lot safer and respectful.
From a personal and humanistic perspective, I think Confucius was onto something in the methods he suggested for creating a more moral society. I think making our aim in life to cultivate our characters to become the best we can be is a very valid purpose in life for a Naturalistic Pantheist, although I would argue that it needs to be related to trying to live in harmony with the world around us – human and nature. I think we can learn from his emphasis on ancestor veneration – that it develops within us reverence and respect for others. I think we can realise that ritual doesn’t have to mean grand ceremonies at the eight festivals of the year but also means small daily acts of respect. I think we can learn to develop our characters through educating ourselves, doing meditation to become more mindful, using methods of self examination from Stoicism and making sure we always show courtesy and respect to those around us. What do you think of Confucius’ ideas? Is there anything you can learn from them?