Confucius: Sage and Moralist – Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I, The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations

Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian
Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism
Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology
Confucius: Sage and Moralist
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Socrates: Greek Philosophy
Phidias: Greek Art
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations
John Lord

Topics Covered
Early condition of China
Youth of Confucius
His public life
His reforms
His fame
His wanderings
His old age
His writings
His philosophy
His definition of a superior man
His ethics
His views of government
His veneration for antiquity
His beautiful character
His encouragement of learning
His character as statesman
His exaltation of filial piety
His exaltation of friendship
The supremacy of the State
Necessity of good men in office
Peaceful policy of Confucius
Veneration for his writings
His posthumous influence

Confucius: Sage and Moralist

550-478 B.C.

About one hundred years after the great religious movement in India under Buddha, a man was born in China who inaugurated a somewhat similar movement there, and who impressed his character and principles on three hundred millions of people. It cannot be said that he was the founder of a new religion, since he aimed only to revive what was ancient. To quote his own words, he was “a transmitter, and not a maker.” But he was, nevertheless, a very extraordinary character; and if greatness is to be measured by results, I know of no heathen teacher whose work has been so permanent. In genius, in creative power, he was inferior to many; but in influence he has had no equal among the sages of the world.

“Confucius” is a Latin name given him by Jesuit missionaries in China; his real name was K’ung-foo-tseu. He was born about 550 B.C., in the province of Loo, and was the contemporary of Belshazzar, of Cyrus, of Croesus, and of Pisistratus. It is claimed that Confucius was a descendant of one of the early emperors of China, of the Chow dynasty, 1121 B.C.; but he was simply of an upper-class family of the State of Loo, one of the provinces of the empire,–his father and grandfather having been prime ministers to the reigning princes or dukes of Loo, which State resembled a feudal province of France in the Middle Ages, acknowledging only a nominal fealty to the Emperor.

We know but little of the early condition of China. The earliest record of events which can be called history takes us back to about 2350 B.C., when Yaou was emperor,–an intelligent and benignant prince, uniting under his sway the different States of China, which had even then reached a considerable civilization, for the legendary or mythical history of the country dates back about five thousand years. Yaou’s son Shun was an equally remarkable man, wise and accomplished, who lived only to advance the happiness of his subjects. At that period the religion of China was probably monotheistic. The supreme being was called Shang-te, to whom sacrifices were made, a deity who exercised a superintending care of the universe; but corruptions rapidly crept in, and a worship of the powers of Nature and of the spirits of departed ancestors, who were supposed to guard the welfare of their descendants, became the prevailing religion. During the reigns of these good emperors the standard of morality was high throughout the empire.

But morals declined,–the old story in all the States of the ancient world. In addition to the decline in morals, there were political discords and endless wars between the petty princes of the empire.

To remedy the political and moral evils of his time was the great desire and endeavor of Confucius. The most marked feature in the religion of the Chinese, before his time, was the worship of ancestors, and this worship he did not seek to change. “Confucius taught three thousand disciples, of whom the more eminent became influential authors. Like Plato and Xenophon, they recorded the sayings of their master, and his maxims and arguments preserved in their works were afterward added to the national collection of the sacred books called the ‘Nim Classes.'”

Confucius was a mere boy when his father died, and we know next to nothing of his early years. At fifteen years of age, however, we are told that he devoted himself to learning, pursuing his studies under considerable difficulties, his family being poor. He married when he was nineteen years of age; and in the following year was born his son Le, his only child, of whose descendants eleven thousand males were living one hundred and fifty years ago, constituting the only hereditary nobility of China,–a class who for seventy generations were the recipients of the highest honors and privileges. On the birth of Le, the duke Ch’aou of Loo sent Confucius a present of a carp, which seems to indicate that he was already distinguished for his attainments.

At twenty years of age Confucius entered upon political duties, being the superintendent of cattle, from which, for his fidelity and ability, he was promoted to the higher office of distributer of grain, having attracted the attention of his sovereign. At twenty-two he began his labors as a public teacher, and his house became the resort of enthusiastic youth who wished to learn the doctrines of antiquity. These were all that the sage undertook to teach,–not new and original doctrines of morality or political economy, but only such as were established from a remote antiquity, going back two thousand years before he was born. There is no improbability in this alleged antiquity of the Chinese Empire, for Egypt at this time was a flourishing State.

At twenty-nine years of age Confucius gave his attention to music, which he studied under a famous master; and to this art he devoted no small part of his life, writing books and treatises upon it. Six years afterward, at thirty-five, he had a great desire to travel; and the reigning duke, in whose service he was as a high officer of state, put at his disposal a carriage and two horses, to visit the court of the Emperor, whose sovereignty, however, was only nominal. It does not appear that Confucius was received with much distinction, nor did he have much intercourse with the court or the ministers. He was a mere seeker of knowledge, an inquirer about the ceremonies and maxims of the founder of the dynasty of Chow, an observer of customs, like Herodotus. He wandered for eight years among the various provinces of China, teaching as he went, but without making a great impression. Moreover, he was regarded with jealousy by the different ministers of princes; one of them, however, struck with his wisdom and knowledge, wished to retain him in his service.

On the return of Confucius to Loo, he remained fifteen years without official employment, his native province being in a state of anarchy. But he was better employed than in serving princes, prosecuting his researches into poetry, history, ceremonies, and music,–a born scholar, with insatiable desire of knowledge. His great gifts and learning, however, did not allow him to remain without public employment. He was made governor of an important city. As chief magistrate of this city, he made a marvellous change in the manners of the people. The duke, surprised at what he saw, asked if his rules could be employed to govern a whole State; and Confucius told him that they could be applied to the government of the Empire. On this the duke appointed him assistant superintendent of Public Works,–a great office, held only by members of the ducal family. So many improvements did Confucius make in agriculture that he was made minister of Justice; and so wonderful was his management, that soon there was no necessity to put the penal laws in execution, since no offenders could be found. Confucius held his high office as minister of Justice for two years longer, and some suppose he was made prime minister. His authority certainly continued to increase. He exalted the sovereign, depressed the ministers, and weakened private families,–just as Richelieu did in France, strengthening the throne at the expense of the nobility. It would thus seem that his political reforms were in the direction of absolute monarchy, a needed force in times of anarchy and demoralization. So great was his fame as a statesman that strangers came from other States to see him.

These reforms in the state of Loo gave annoyance to the neighboring princes; and to undermine the influence of Confucius with the duke, these princes sent the duke a present of eighty beautiful girls, possessing musical and dancing accomplishments, and also one hundred and twenty splendid horses. As the duke soon came to think more of his girls and horses than of his reforms, Confucius became disgusted, resigned his office, and retired to private life. Then followed thirteen years of homeless wandering. He was now fifty-six years of age, depressed and melancholy in view of his failure with princes. He was accompanied in his travels by some of his favorite disciples, to whom he communicated his wisdom.

But his fame preceded him wherever he journeyed, and such was the respect for his character and teachings that he was loaded with presents by the people, and was left unmolested to do as he pleased. The dissoluteness of courts filled him with indignation and disgust; and he was heard to exclaim on one occasion, “I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty,”–meaning the beauty of women. The love of the beautiful, in an artistic sense, is a Greek and not an Oriental idea.

In the meantime Confucius continued his wanderings from city to city and State to State, with a chosen band of disciples, all of whom became famous. He travelled for the pursuit of knowledge, and to impress the people with his doctrines. A certain one of his followers was questioned by a prince as to the merits and peculiarities of his master, but was afraid to give a true answer. The sage hearing of it, said, “You should have told him, He is simply a man who in his eager pursuit of knowledge forgets his food, who in the joy of his attainments forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that old age is coming on.” How seldom is it that any man reaches such a height! In a single sentence the philosopher describes himself truly and impressively.

At last, in the year 491 B.C., a new sovereign reigned in Loo, and with costly presents invited Confucius to return to his native State. The philosopher was now sixty-nine years of age, and notwithstanding the respect in which he was held, the world cannot be said to have dealt kindly with him. It is the fate of prophets and sages to be rejected. The world will not bear rebukes. Even a friend, if discreet, will rarely venture to tell another friend his faults. Confucius told the truth when pressed, but he does not seem to have courted martyrdom; and his manners and speech were too bland, too proper, too unobtrusive to give much offence. Luther was aided in his reforms by his very roughness and boldness, but he was surrounded by a different class of people from those whom Confucius sought to influence. Conventional, polite, considerate, and a great respecter of persons in authority was the Chinese sage. A rude, abrupt, and fierce reformer would have had no weight with the most courteous and polite people of whom history speaks; whose manners twenty-five hundred years ago were substantially the same as they are at the present day,–a people governed by the laws of propriety alone.

The few remaining years of Confucius’ life were spent in revising his writings; but his latter days were made melancholy by dwelling on the evils of the world that he could not remove. Disappointment also had made him cynical and bitter, like Solomon of old, although from different causes. He survived his son and his most beloved disciples. As he approached the dark valley he uttered no prayer, and betrayed no apprehension. Death to him was a rest. He died at the age of seventy-three.

In the tenth book of his Analects we get a glimpse of the habits of the philosopher. He was a man of rule and ceremony.-He was particular about his dress and appearance. He was no ascetic, but moderate and temperate. He lived chiefly on rice, like the rest of his countrymen, but required to have his rice cooked nicely, and his meat cut properly. He drank wine freely, but was never known to have obscured his faculties by this indulgence. I do not read that tea was then in use. He was charitable and hospitable, but not ostentatious. He generally travelled in a carriage with two horses, driven by one of his disciples; but a carriage in those days was like one of our carts. In his village, it is said, he looked simple and sincere, as if he were one not able to speak; when waiting at court, or speaking with officers of an inferior grade, he spoke freely, but in a straightforward manner; with officers of a higher, grade he spoke blandly, but precisely; with the prince he was grave, but self-possessed. When eating he did not converse; when in bed he did not speak. If his mat were not straight he did not sit on it. When a friend sent him a present he did not bow; the only present for which he bowed was that of the flesh of sacrifice. He was capable of excessive grief, with all his placidity. When his favorite pupil died, he exclaimed, “Heaven is destroying me!” His disciples on this said, “Sir, your grief is excessive.” “It is excessive,” he replied. “If I am not to mourn bitterly for this man, for whom should I mourn?”

The reigning prince of Loo caused a temple to be erected over the remains of Confucius, and the number of his disciples continually increased. The emperors of the falling dynasty of Chow had neither the intelligence nor the will to do honor to the departed philosopher, but the emperors of the succeeding dynasties did all they could to perpetuate his memory. During his life Confucius found ready acceptance for his doctrines, and was everywhere revered among the people, though not uniformly appreciated by the rulers, nor able permanently to establish the reforms he inaugurated. After his death, however, no honor was too great to be rendered him. The most splendid temple in China was built over his grave, and he received a homage little removed from worship. His writings became a sacred rule of faith and practice; schools were based upon them, and scholars devoted themselves to their interpretation. For two thousand years Confucius has reigned supreme,–the undisputed teacher of a population of three or four hundred millions.

Confucius must be regarded as a man of great humility, conscious of infirmities and faults, but striving after virtue and perfection. He said of himself, “I have striven to become a man of perfect virtue, and to teach others without weariness; but the character of the superior man, carrying out in his conduct what he professes, is what I have not attained to. I am not one born in the possession of knowledge, but I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there. I am a transmitter, and not a maker.” If he did not lay claim to divine illumination, he felt that he was born into the world for a special purpose; not to declare new truths, not to initiate any new ceremony, but to confirm what he felt was in danger of being lost,–the most conservative of all known reformers.

Confucius left behind voluminous writings, of which his Analects, his book of Poetry, his book of History, and his Rules of Propriety are the most important. It is these which are now taught, and have been taught for two thousand years, in the schools and colleges of China. The Chinese think that no man so great and perfect as he has ever lived. His writings are held in the same veneration that Christians attach to their own sacred literature. There is this one fundamental difference between the authors of the Bible and the Chinese sage,–that he did not like to talk of spiritual things; indeed, of them he was ignorant, professing no interest in relation to the working out of abstruse questions, either of philosophy or theology. He had no taste or capacity for such inquiries. Hence, he did not aspire to throw any new light on the great problems of human condition and destiny; nor did he speculate, like the Ionian philosophers, on the creation or end of things. He was not troubled about the origin or destiny of man. He meddled neither with physics nor metaphysics, but he earnestly and consistently strove to bring to light and to enforce those principles which had made remote generations wise and virtuous. He confined his attention to outward phenomena,–to the world of sense and matter; to forms, precedents, ceremonies, proprieties, rules of conduct, filial duties, and duties to the State; enjoining temperance, honesty, and sincerity as the cardinal and fundamental laws of private and national prosperity. He was no prophet of wrath, though living in a corrupt age. He utters no anathemas on princes, and no woes on peoples. Nor does he glow with exalted hopes of a millennium of bliss, or of the beatitudes of a future state. He was not stern and indignant like Elijah, but more like the courtier and counsellor Elisha. He was a man of the world, and all his teachings have reference to respectability in the world’s regard. He doubted more than he believed.

And yet in many of his sayings Confucius rises to an exalted height, considering his age and circumstances. Some of them remind us of some of the best Proverbs of Solomon. In general, we should say that to his mind filial piety and fraternal submission were the foundation of all virtuous practices, and absolute obedience to rulers the primal principle of government. He was eminently a peace man, discouraging wars and violence. He was liberal and tolerant in his views. He said that the “superior man is catholic and no partisan.” Duke Gae asked, “What should be done to secure the submission of the people?” The sage replied, “Advance the upright, and set aside the crooked; then the people will submit. But advance the crooked, and set aside the upright, and the people will not submit.” Again he said, “It is virtuous manners which constitute the excellence of a neighborhood; therefore fix your residence where virtuous manners prevail.” The following sayings remind me of Epictetus: “A scholar whose mind is set on truth, and who is ashamed of bad clothes and bad food, is not fit to be discoursed with. A man should say, ‘I am not concerned that I have no place,–I am concerned how I may fit myself for one. I am not concerned that I am not known; I seek to be worthy to be known.'” Here Confucius looks to the essence of things, not to popular desires. In the following, on the other hand, he shows his prudence and policy: “In serving a prince, frequent remonstrances lead to disgrace; between friends, frequent reproofs make the friendship distant.” Thus he talks like Solomon. “Tsae-yu, one of his disciples, being asleep in the day-time, the master said, ‘Rotten wood cannot be carved. This Yu–what is the use of my reproving him?'” Of a virtuous prince, he said: “In his conduct of himself, he was humble; in serving his superiors, he was respectful; in nourishing the people, he was kind; in ordering the people, he was just.”

It was discussed among his followers what it is to be distinguished. One said: “It is to be heard of through the family and State.” The master replied: “That is notoriety, not distinction.” Again he said: “Though a man may be able to recite three hundred odes, yet if when intrusted with office he does not know how to act, of what practical use is his poetical knowledge?” Again, “If a minister cannot rectify himself, what has he to do with rectifying others?” There is great force in this saying: “The superior man is easy to serve and difficult to please, since you cannot please him in any way which is not accordant with right; but the mean man is difficult to serve and easy to please. The superior man has a dignified ease without pride; the mean man has pride without a dignified ease.” A disciple asked him what qualities a man must possess to entitle him to be called a scholar. The master said: “He must be earnest, urgent, and bland,–among his friends earnest and urgent, among his brethren bland.” And, “The scholar who cherishes a love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.” “If a man,” he said, “take no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand.” And again, “He who requires much from himself and little from others, he will keep himself from being an object of resentment.” These proverbs remind us of Bacon: “Specious words confound virtue.” “Want of forbearance in small matters confound great plans.” “Virtue,” the master said, “is more to man than either fire or water. I have seen men die from treading on water or fire, but I have never seen a man die from treading the course of virtue.” This is a lofty sentiment, but I think it is not in accordance with the records of martyrdom. “There are three things,” he continued, “which the superior man guards against: In youth he guards against his passions, in manhood against quarrelsomeness, and in old age against covetousness.”

I do not find anything in the sayings of Confucius that can be called cynical, such as we find in some of the Proverbs of Solomon, even in reference to women, where women were, as in most Oriental countries, despised. The most that approaches cynicism is in such a remark as this: “I have not yet seen one who could perceive his faults and inwardly accuse himself.” His definition of perfect virtue is above that of Paley: “The man of virtue makes the difficulty to be overcome his first business, and success only a secondary consideration.” Throughout his writings there is no praise of success without virtue, and no disparagement of want of success with virtue. Nor have I found in his sayings a sentiment which may be called demoralizing. He always takes the higher ground, and with all his ceremony ever exalts inward purity above all external appearances. There is a quaint common-sense in some of his writings which reminds one of the sayings of Abraham Lincoln. For instance: One of his disciples asked, “If you had the conduct of armies, whom would you have to act with you?” The master replied: “I would not have him to act with me who will unarmed attack a tiger, or cross a river without a boat.” Here something like wit and irony break out: “A man of the village said, ‘Great is K’ung the philosopher; his learning is extensive, and yet he does not render his name famous by any particular thing.’ The master heard this observation, and said to his disciples: ‘What shall I practise, charioteering or archery? I will practise charioteering.'”

When the Duke of Loo asked about government, the master said: “Good government exists when those who are near are made happy, and when those who are far off are attracted.” When the Duke questioned him again on the same subject, he replied: “Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs…. Pardon small faults, and raise to office men of virtue and talents.” “But how shall I know the men of virtue?” asked the duke. “Raise to office those whom you do know,” The key to his political philosophy seems to be this: “A man who knows how to govern himself, knows how to govern others; and he who knows how to govern other men, knows how to govern an empire.” “The art of government,” he said, “is to keep its affairs before the mind without weariness, and to practise them with undeviating constancy…. To govern means to rectify. If you lead on the people with correctness, who will not dare to be correct?” This is one of his favorite principles; namely, the force of a good example,–as when the reigning prince asked him how to do away with thieves, he replied: “If you, Sir, were not covetous, although you should reward them to do it, they would not steal.” This was not intended as a rebuke to the prince, but an illustration of the force of a great example. Confucius rarely openly rebuked any one, especially a prince, whom it was his duty to venerate for his office. He contented himself with enforcing principles. Here his moderation and great courtesy are seen.

Confucius sometimes soared to the highest morality known to the Pagan world. Chung-kung asked about perfect virtue. The master said: “It is when you go abroad, to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest, to have no murmuring against you in the country and family, and not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself…. The superior man has neither anxiety nor fear. Let him never fail reverentially to order his own conduct, and let him be respectful to others and observant of propriety; then all within the four seas will be brothers…. Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles, and be moving continually to what is right.” Fan-Chi asked about benevolence; the master said: “It is to love all men.” Another asked about friendship. Confucius replied: “Faithfully admonish your friend, and kindly try to lead him. If you find him impracticable, stop. Do not disgrace yourself.” This saying reminds us of that of our great Master: “Cast not your pearls before swine.” There is no greater folly than in making oneself disagreeable without any probability of reformation. Some one asked: “What do you say about the treatment of injuries?” The master answered: “Recompense injury with justice, and recompense kindness with kindness.” Here again he was not far from the greater Teacher on the Mount “When a man’s knowledge is sufficient to attain and his virtue is not sufficient to hold, whatever he may have gained he will lose again.” One of the favorite doctrines of Confucius was the superiority of the ancients to the men of his day. Said he: “The high-mindedness of antiquity showed itself in a disregard of small things; that of the present day shows itself in license. The stern dignity of antiquity showed itself in grave reserve; that of the present shows itself in quarrelsome perverseness. The policy of antiquity showed itself in straightforwardness; that of the present in deceit.” The following is a saying worthy of Montaigne: “Of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult to behave to. If you are familiar with them, they lose their humility; if you maintain reserve to them, they are discontented.”

Such are some of the sayings of Confucius, on account of which he was regarded as the wisest of his countrymen; and as his conduct was in harmony with his principles, he was justly revered as a pattern of morality. The greatest virtues which he enjoined were sincerity, truthfulness, and obedience to duty whatever may be the sacrifice; to do right because it is right and not because it is expedient; filial piety extending to absolute reverence; and an equal reverence for rulers. He had no theology; he confounded God with heaven and earth. He says nothing about divine providence; he believed in nothing supernatural. He thought little and said less about a future state of rewards and punishments. His morality was elevated, but not supernal. We infer from his writings that his age was degenerate and corrupt, but, as we have already said, his reproofs were gentle. Blandness of speech and manners was his distinguishing outward peculiarity; and this seems to characterize his nation,–whether learned from him, or whether an inborn national peculiarity, I do not know. He went through great trials most creditably, but he was no martyr. He constantly complained that his teachings fell on listless ears, which made him sad and discouraged; but he never flagged in his labors to improve his generation. He had no egotism, but great self-respect, reminding us of Michael Angelo. He was humble but full of dignity, serene though distressed, cheerful but not hilarious. Were he to live among us now, we should call him a perfect gentleman, with aristocratic sympathies, but more autocratic in his views of government and society than aristocratic. He seems to have loved the people, and was kind, even respectful, to everybody. When he visited a school, it is said that he arose in quiet deference to speak to the children, since some of the boys, he thought, would probably be distinguished and powerful at no distant day. He was also remarkably charitable, and put a greater value on virtues and abilities than upon riches and honors. Though courted by princes he would not serve them in violation of his self-respect, asked no favors, and returned their presents. If he did not live above the world, he adorned the world. We cannot compare his teachings with those of Christ; they are immeasurably inferior in loftiness and spirituality; but they are worldly wise and decorous, and are on an equality with those of Solomon in moral wisdom. They are wonderfully adapted to a people who are conservative of their institutions, and who have more respect for tradition than for progress.

The worship of ancestors is closely connected with veneration for parental authority; and with absolute obedience to parents is allied absolute obedience to the Emperor as head of the State. Hence, the writings of Confucius have tended to cement the Chinese imperial power,–in which fact we may perhaps find the secret of his extraordinary posthumous influence. No wonder that emperors and rulers have revered and honored his memory, and used the power of the State to establish his doctrines. Moreover, his exaltation of learning as a necessity for rulers has tended to put all the offices of the realm into the hands of scholars. There never was a country where scholars have been and still are so generally employed by Government. And as men of learning are conservative in their sympathies, so they generally are fond of peace and detest war. Hence, under the influence of scholars the policy of the Chinese Government has always been mild and pacific. It is even paternal. It has more similarity to the governments of a remote antiquity than that of any existing nation. Thus is the influence of Confucius seen in the stability of government and of conservative institutions, as well as in decency in the affairs of life, and gentleness and courtesy of manners. Above all is his influence seen in the employment of men of learning and character in the affairs of state and in all the offices of government, as the truest guardians of whatever tends to exalt a State and make it respectable and stable, if not powerful for war or daring in deeds of violence.

Confucius was essentially a statesman as well as a moralist; but his political career was an apparent failure, since few princes listened to his instructions. Yet if he was lost to his contemporaries, he has been preserved by posterity. Perhaps there never lived a man so worshipped by posterity who had so slight a following by the men of his own time,–unless we liken him to that greatest of all Prophets, who, being despised and rejected, is, and is to be, the “headstone of the corner” in the rebuilding of humanity. Confucius says so little about the subjects that interested the people of China that some suppose he had no religion at all. Nor did he mention but once in his writings Shang-te, the supreme deity of his remote ancestors; and he deduced nothing from the worship of him. And yet there are expressions in his sayings which seem to show that he believed in a supreme power. He often spoke of Heaven, and loved to walk in the heavenly way. Heaven to him was Destiny, by the power of which the world was created. By Heaven the virtuous are rewarded, and the guilty are punished. Out of love for the people, Heaven appoints rulers to protect and instruct them. Prayer is unnecessary, because Heaven does not actively interfere with the soul of man.

Confucius was philosophical and consistent in the all-pervading principle by which he insisted upon the common source of power in government,–of the State, of the family, and of one’s self. Self-knowledge and self-control he maintained to be the fountain of all personal virtue and attainment in performance of the moral duties owed to others, whether above or below in social standing. He supposed that all men are born equally good, but that the temptations of the world at length destroy the original rectitude. The “superior man,” who next to the “sage” holds the highest place in the Confucian humanity, conquers the evil in the world, though subject to infirmities; his acts are guided by the laws of propriety, and are marked by strict sincerity. Confucius admitted that he himself had failed to reach the level of the superior man. This admission may have been the result of his extraordinary humility and modesty.

In “The Great Learning” Confucius lays down the rules to enable one to become a superior man. The foundation of his rules is in the investigation of things, or knowledge, with which virtue is indissolubly connected,–as in the ethics of Socrates. He maintained that no attainment can be made, and no virtue can remain untainted, without learning. “Without this, benevolence becomes folly, sincerity recklessness, straightforwardness rudeness, and firmness foolishness.” But mere accumulation of facts was not knowledge, for “learning without thought is labor lost; and thought without learning is perilous.” Complete wisdom was to be found only among the ancient sages; by no mental endeavor could any man hope to equal the supreme wisdom of Yaou and of Shun. The object of learning, he said, should be truth; and the combination of learning with a firm will, will surely lead a man to virtue. Virtue must be free from all hypocrisy and guile.

The next step towards perfection is the cultivation of the person,–which must begin with introspection, and ends in harmonious outward expression. Every man must guard his thoughts, words, and actions; and conduct must agree with words. By words the superior man directs others; but in order to do this his words must be sincere. It by no means follows, however, that virtue is the invariable concomitant of plausible speech.

The height of virtue is filial piety; for this is connected indissolubly with loyalty to the sovereign, who is the father of his people and the preserver of the State. Loyalty to the sovereign is synonymous with duty, and is outwardly shown by obedience. Next to parents, all superiors should be the object of reverence. This reverence, it is true, should be reciprocal; a sovereign forfeits all right to reverence and obedience when he ceases to be a minister of good. But then, only the man who has developed virtues in himself is considered competent to rule a family or a State; for the same virtues which enable a man to rule the one, will enable him to rule the other. No man can teach others who cannot teach his own family. The greatest stress, as we have seen, is laid by Confucius on filial piety, which consists in obedience to authority,–in serving parents according to propriety, that is, with the deepest affection, and the father of the State with loyalty. But while it is incumbent on a son to obey the wishes of his parents, it is also a part of his duty to remonstrate with them should they act contrary to the rules of propriety. All remonstrances, however, must be made humbly. Should these remonstrances fail, the son must mourn in silence the obduracy of the parents. He carried the obligations of filial piety so far as to teach that a son should conceal the immorality of a father, forgetting the distinction of right and wrong. Brotherly love is the sequel of filial piety. “Happy,” says he, “is the union with wife and children; it is like the music of lutes and harps. The love which binds brother to brother is second only to that which is due from children to parents. It consists in mutual friendship, joyful harmony, and dutiful obedience on the part of the younger to the elder brothers.”

While obedience is exacted to an elder brother and to parents, Confucius said but little respecting the ties which should bind husband and wife. He had but little respect for woman, and was divorced from his wife after living with her for a year. He looked on women as every way inferior to men, and only to be endured as necessary evils. It was not until a woman became a mother, that she was treated with respect in China. Hence, according to Confucius, the great object of marriage is to increase the family, especially to give birth to sons. Women could be lawfully and properly divorced who had no children,–which put women completely in the power of men, and reduced them to the condition of slaves. The failure to recognize the sanctity of marriage is the great blot on the system of Confucius as a scheme of morals.

But the sage exalts friendship. Everybody, from the Emperor downward, must have friends; and the best friends are those allied by ties of blood. “Friends,” said he, “are wealth to the poor, strength to the weak, and medicine to the sick.” One of the strongest bonds to friendship is literature and literary exertion. Men are enjoined by Confucius to make friends among the most virtuous of scholars, even as they are enjoined to take service under the most worthy of great officers. In the intercourse of friends, the most unbounded sincerity and frankness is imperatively enjoined. “He who is not trusted by his friends will not gain the confidence of the sovereign, and he who is not obedient to parents will not be trusted by friends.”

Everything is subordinated to the State; but, on the other hand, the family, friends, culture, virtue,–the good of the people,–is the main object of good government. “No virtue,” said Emperor Kuh, 2435 B.C., “is higher than love to all men, and there is no loftier aim in government than to profit all men.” When he was asked what should be done for the people, he replied, “Enrich them;” and when asked what more should be done, he replied, “Teach them.” On these two principles the whole philosophy of the sage rested,–the temporal welfare of the people, and their education. He laid great stress on knowledge, as leading to virtue; and on virtue, as leading to prosperity. He made the profession of a teacher the most honorable calling to which a citizen could aspire. He himself was a teacher. All sages are teachers, though all teachers are not sages.

Confucius enlarged upon the necessity of having good men in office. The officials of his day excited his contempt, and reciprocally scorned his teachings. It was in contrast to these officials that he painted the ideal times of Kings Wan and Woo. The two motive-powers of government, according to Confucius, are righteousness and the observance of ceremonies. Righteousness is the law of the world, as ceremonies form a rule to the heart. What he meant by ceremonies was rules of propriety, intended to keep all unruly passions in check, and produce a reverential manner among all classes. Doubtless he over-estimated the force of example, since there are men in every country and community who will be lawless and reckless, in spite of the best models of character and conduct.

The ruling desire of Confucius was to make the whole empire peaceful and happy. The welfare of the people, the right government of the State, and the prosperity of the empire were the main objects of his solicitude. As conducive to these, he touched on many other things incidentally,–such as the encouragement of music, of which he was very fond. He himself summed up the outcome of his rules for conduct in this prohibitive form: “Do not unto others that which you would not have them do to you.” Here we have the negative side of the positive “golden rule.” Reciprocity, and that alone, was his law of life. He does not inculcate forgiveness of injuries, but exacts a tooth for a tooth, and an eye for an eye.

As to his own personal character, it was nearly faultless. His humility and patience were alike remarkable, and his sincerity and candor were as marked as his humility. He was the most learned man in the empire, yet lamented the deficiency of his knowledge. He even disclaimed the qualities of the superior man, much more those of the sage. “I am,” said he, “not virtuous enough to be free from cares, nor wise enough to be free from anxieties, nor bold enough to be free from fear.” He was always ready to serve his sovereign or the State; but he neither grasped office, nor put forward his own merits, nor sought to advance his own interests. He was grave, generous, tolerant, and sincere. He carried into practice all the rules he taught. Poverty was his lot in life, but he never repined at the absence of wealth, or lost the severe dignity which is ever to be associated with wisdom and the force of personal character. Indeed, his greatness was in his character rather than in his genius; and yet I think his genius has been underrated. His greatness is seen in the profound devotion of his followers to him, however lofty their merits or exalted their rank. No one ever disputed his influence and fame; and his moral excellence shines all the brighter in view of the troublous times in which he lived, when warriors occupied the stage, and men of letters were driven behind the scenes.

The literary labors of Confucius were very great, since he made the whole classical literature of China accessible to his countrymen. The fame of all preceding writers is merged in his own renown. His works have had the highest authority for more than two thousand years. They have been regarded as the exponents of supreme wisdom, and adopted as text-books by all scholars and in all schools in that vast empire, which includes one-fourth of the human race. To all educated men the “Book of Changes” (Yin-King), the “Book of Poetry” (She-King), the “Book of History” (Shoo-King), the “Book of Rites” (Le-King), the “Great Learning” (Ta-heo), showing the parental essence of all government, the “Doctrine of the Mean” (Chung-yung), teaching the “golden mean” of conduct, and the “Confucian Analects” (Lun-yu), recording his conversations, are supreme authorities; to which must be added the Works of Mencius, the greatest of his disciples. There is no record of any books that have exacted such supreme reverence in any nation as the Works of Confucius, except the Koran of the Mohammedans, the Book of the Law among the Hebrews, and the Bible among the Christians. What an influence for one man to have exerted on subsequent ages, who laid no claim to divinity or even originality,–recognized as a man, worshipped as a god!

No sooner had the sun of Confucius set under a cloud (since sovereigns and princes had neglected if they had not scorned his precepts), than his memory and principles were duly honored. But it was not until the accession of the Han dynasty, 206 B.C., that the reigning emperor collected the scattered writings of the sage, and exerted his vast power to secure the study of them throughout the schools of China. It must be borne in mind that a hostile emperor of the preceding dynasty had ordered the books of Confucius to be burned; but they were secreted by his faithful admirers in the walls of houses and beneath the ground. Succeeding emperors heaped additional honors on the memory of the sage, and in the early part of the sixteenth century an emperor of the Ming dynasty gave him the title which he at present bears in China,–“The perfect sage, the ancient teacher, Confucius.” No higher title could be conferred upon him in a land where to be “ancient” is to be revered. For more than twelve hundred years temples have been erected to his honor, and his worship has been universal throughout the empire. His maxims of morality have appealed to human consciousness in every succeeding generation, and carry as much weight to-day as they did when the Han dynasty made them the standard of human wisdom. They were especially adapted to the Chinese intellect, which although shrewd and ingenious is phlegmatic, unspeculative, matter-of-fact, and unspiritual. Moreover, as we have said, it was to the interest of rulers to support his doctrines, from the constant exhortations to loyalty which Confucius enjoined. And yet there is in his precepts a democratic influence also, since he recognized no other titles or ranks but such as are won by personal merit,–thus opening every office in the State to the learned, whatever their original social rank. The great political truth that the welfare of the people is the first duty and highest aim of rulers, has endeared the memory of the sage to the unnumbered millions who toil upon the scantiest means of subsistence that have been known in any nation’s history.

Confucian Temple, Forbidden City, Pekin From a photograph

This essay on the religion of the Chinese would be incomplete without some allusion to one of the contemporaries of Confucius, who spiritually and intellectually was probably his superior, and to whom even Confucius paid extraordinary deference. This man was called Lao-tse, a recluse and philosopher, who was already an old man when Confucius began his travels. He was the founder of Tao-tze, a kind of rationalism, which at present has millions of adherents in China. This old philosopher did not receive Confucius very graciously, since the younger man declared nothing new, only wishing to revive the teachings of ancient sages, while he himself was a great awakener of thought. He was, like Confucius, a politico-ethical teacher, but unlike him sought to lead people back to a state of primitive society before forms and regulations existed. He held that man’s nature was good, and that primitive pleasures and virtues were better than worldly wisdom. He maintained that spiritual weapons cannot be formed by laws and regulations, and that prohibiting enactments tended to increase the evils they were meant to avert. While this great and profound man was in some respects superior to Confucius, his influence has been most seen on the inferior people of China. Taoism rivals Buddhism as the religion of the lower classes, and Taoism combined with Buddhism has more adherents than Confucianism. But the wise, the mighty, and the noble still cling to Confucius as the greatest man whom China has produced.

Of spiritual religion, indeed, the lower millions of Chinese have now but little conception; their nearest approach to any supernaturalism is the worship of deceased ancestors, and their religious observances are the grossest formalism. But as a practical system of morals in the days of its early establishment, the religion of Confucius ranks very high among the best developments of Paganism. Certainly no man ever had a deeper knowledge of his countrymen than he, or adapted his doctrines to the peculiar needs of their social organism with such amazing tact.

It is a remarkable thing that all the religions of antiquity have practically passed away, with their cities and empires, except among the Hindus and Chinese; and it is doubtful if these religions can withstand the changes which foreign conquest and Christian missionary enterprise and civilization are producing. In the East the old religions gave place to Mohamedanism, as in the West they disappeared before the power of Christianity. And these conquering religions retain and extend their hold upon the human mind and human affections by reason of their fundamental principles,–the fatherhood of a personal God, and the brotherhood of universal man. With the ideas prevalent among all sects that God is not only supreme in power, but benevolent in his providence, and that every man has claims and rights which cannot be set aside by kings or rulers or priests,–nations must indefinitely advance in virtue and happiness, as they receive and live by the inspiration of this elevating faith.


Religion in China, by Joseph Edkins, D.D.; Rawlinson’s Religions of the Ancient World; Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions; Johnson’s Oriental Religions; Davis’s Chinese; Nevins’s China and the Chinese; Giles’s Chinese Sketches; Lenormant’s Ancient History of the East; Hue’s Christianity in China; Legge’s Prolegomena to the Shoo-King; Lecomte’s China; Dr. S. Wells Williams’s Middle Kingdom; China, by Professor Douglas; The Religions of China, by James Legge.

Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations