Great Chinese Philosopher Confucius
By James Donahue
The teachings of Confucius, who lived about 500 years before Christ, have probably
had more influence on the world than those of Christianity. It is said that all world religions and all governments are still
influenced by the philosophy taught in his school and by his books.
Like Jesus, Confucius never claimed personal divinity. Yet a form of a philosophical
belief system called Confucianism grew from his work. Also like Jesus, Confucius was said to have been born into poverty,
became a teacher of philosophy and principles of living, and had a band of followers, or disciples, that remained by his side.
He was born in 551 B.C. into the family of K’ung and given the personal
name of Ch’iu, thus his real name was K’ung Ch’iu. Later, after earning fame as a teacher and gaining political
power, he was called “Master Kung” or K’ung Fu-tzu. From this name springs the Latin translation that has
stuck with us: Confucius.
Details about the real life of Confucius are sketchy.
Confucius lived most of his life in the country of Lu, now a part of the Nation
of China, although it is said that he traveled extensively and was well educated because he was allowed to study with some
of the masters of his day. He reportedly studied ritual under the Daoist Master Law Dan, music under Chang Hong, and the lute
with Music Master Xiang.
He was appointed Minister of Public Works and later Minister of Crime under the
rule of Duke King of Lu, but later was forced out of office for political reasons. Confucius then spent the remainder of his
life operating a school of philosophy and writing books.
His involvement with music and the fact that Confucius spent a portion of his
life in political office appears to have a heavy influence on his teachings.
Books have been written by Chinese historians about Confucius, but many contemporary
historians doubt their authenticity.
Like the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, the historical record of this philosopher’s
life is found in a few surviving books written long after his death. Most of what we know about Confucius is found in Records
of the Grand Historian, a collection of accounts authored by the Han dynasty court historian Sima Qian in about 145 B.C.,
or 300 years after Confucius died.
Not only did Sima Qian not personally know Confucius, his work was believed to
have been an effort to enhance a myth around many of the historical figures within the dynasty.
That a man named K’ung Ch’iu existed, taught and recorded a philosophy
about life and government in his books, however, appears to be true.
Confucius taught a concept called jen, or humaneness that included humanity, benevolence,
goodness and virtue as a way of life. His message was that mankind must reach a state of personal virtue to achieve orderliness
He wrote extensively about the importance of music and dance as a pattern for
establishing and following ritual. Confucius believed that ritual was a key part of every society.
Confucius taught that people live their lives within parameters established by
both a supreme being and by nature. He revered and respected the spirits that exist around us.
His social philosophy paralleled the Golden Rule, and revolved around the concept
of love for others. He taught his students to cultivate and practice concern for others to a point where speech patterns and
actions are not offensive. Those who cultivate jen are “simple in manner and slow of speech,” that is they think
out their words carefully before they are spoken aloud.
“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others,” was among
the sayings of Confucius. Also he said men are responsible for their actions and especially for their treatment of others.
Learning self-restraint, he believed, involved studying and mastering a ritual
of forms and rules of propriety used by the society in which we live. He thought of loving others as a calling and a mission
for which one should follow to the death.
Confucius carried these principles into his political life, and taught that good
governments must live by them. He believed a ruler should learn self-discipline, should govern his subjects by his own example,
and treat all with love and concern.
“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be taught by punishments,
they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame,” he said. “If they are led by virtue, and uniformity
sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own
All individuals have a social role to play, and they should attempt to be as good
in that role as possible. He said: “Good government consists of the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister,
the father being a father, and the son being a son.”
In other words, if we claim for ourselves a title and participate in the hierarchical
relationships established by society, then we must live up to the standards of that title.
Understanding Confucius may help us understand the cultural differences that exist
between the Far Eastern societies and those of the West. People throughout China and other Far Eastern countries are still
strongly influenced by the standards set by this great philosopher.