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Rodney L. Taylor, Ph.D.

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Who Was Confucius and Why Does it Matter?

Posted: 05/18/11 02:48 PM ET

Confucius was born in the 6th Century B.C.E. in the small state of Lu, located in the present Shantung peninsula. He lived during the Chou Dynasty at a point when the central authority of the dynasty was being challenged by the growth of increasingly powerful states attempting to challenge the power of the central government. Confucius himself was a member of what was referred to as the ju, a class of people primarily occupied with the study of writing from the earliest generations of the Chou period, the writings that become known as the ching or Classics, numbering five or six, but accruing additional numbers with the passage of time. So Confucius was essentially a scholar of his time.

Confucius can be understood in his historic context. That context is the slow disintegration of the stability and order of the political order of his day. His focus is upon a series of writings that described the harmonious ways of the generations before him and even further in the past, a time when sages, sheng, brought their wisdom to the governing of the world. For Confucius the Classics were the documentation that when sages governed, the world was ordered. This concept of order was defined largely in terms of a moral code of humaneness, the concept of jen, goodness, exercised by the sage rulers toward their subjects and in turn became the governing principle for all people in society.

The contrast between what Confucius read of the records of the ancients and his own age was stark. As a result Confucius sought to bring the ways of the ancients to his own generation. For many years he traveled from state to state, often at great personal risk, to attempt to inculcate the teachings of moral goodness to the rulers of the various states. In this endeavor he was a remarkable failure! No ruler was interested in a teaching of moral goodness. Is it any different today? What a surprise, such rulers were only interested in strategies to guarantee their own sustaining power and authority! Finally with no measurable success, Confucius retired to his home state and gathered increasing numbers of students around him, teaching the moral principles of the ancient sages. The formal biography ends with his role as a teacher, but his influence began with his role as a teacher.

And what was the nature of these teachings? He stressed the need to learn, hsüeh, to engage in study of the Classics and the ways of the ancient sages. His hope was that through these teachings the world would be brought back to a state of harmony and order and all society would live at peace. What were the underlying features of these teaching? The focus was upon the cultivation of a moral self, self defined in terms goodness, caring, compassion, altruism and benevolence. There are many specific teachings corresponding to these various ideas but when Confucius was asked by his disciples whether there was not one principle idea running through his teaching, he answered by saying that the "single thread" of his teachings could best be described by the term shu, most frequently translated as reciprocity.

The term reciprocity is central to Confucian teachings. The Chinese character is composed of two parts: one part means "to be like," the second part means "heart" or "mind." Taken together the character means literally "like-hearted" or "like-minded," suggesting one shows care to another. It could be expressed by our word sympathy, but sympathy suggests condescension of attitude and that is not implied. Our word empathy, however, strikes at the quintessential meaning. So reciprocity is empathy. But Confucius himself goes on to define the term in a sentence sounding remarkably familiar to our Western ears: "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." Confucian teaching is articulated in no more basic moral axiom then this statement and it remains foundational throughout the history of the Confucian tradition.

Why does it matter who Confucius was? To answer this question we need to understand that in the centuries following Confucus' death, his teaching rose to a position of greater and greater prominence in two spheres. Confucian teachings became the official ideology of the Chinese state, a position it held with virtually no break until into the 20th century. On the individual level, Confucian teachings became the central focus of individual learning and moral cultivation, the goal to become a moral person modeled upon the sages of antiquity. And this aspect of Confucian teachings lasted not only into the 20th century but to our own day and presumably into the future. Historically we also witness the spread of Confucian teaching at both levels from China to both Korea and Japan and into South East Asia as well. The entire East Asian and South East Asia spheres have been dominated by Confucian values through out their history. To understand the thought and values of East and South East Asia, particularly in our own day, we simply must understand the teachings of this man Confucius.

But it goes further: to understand why Confucian teachings addressed not only the ideology of the state, but found their true focus upon the learning of the self to create a moral self, we must understand this man Confucius. Why? Is it important to create a moral self in a world not unlike the chaos of the world Confucius himself faced? Are we so very different? Have we travelled so very far from that fundamental necessity of finding the single thread of reciprocity and living by its virtue? Perhaps we all need to return to the simple teachings of Confucius to reacquaint ourselves with the simplest principles of living as a moral person and thereby creating a moral world. The message of Confucius is nothing more than the call to each person to fulfill his or her capacity of goodness, jen, and thereby, one by one, transform the world from what it is, to what can be and ought to be.