Lao Tzu elucidated a conception of the human being which revealed humanity's metaphysical consubstantiality with great Nature, and in doing so he invoked China's ancient lineages, which embodied that unity in their spiritual philosophy, ethics and social structure. His work laid the foundations for the solitary sage, the reclusive mystic, the alchemist and the astronomer. Both science and mysticism flourished in China's Taoist soil, unmatched by the world, save for India, until many centuries later. Contemporaneously with Lao Tzu, however, others sought to discern the same hidden principles at work in civilization and history, and they turned their attention to the human being as a social entity, especially within the context of a true hierarchy of nobility of character which culminated ideally in the ruler. Confucius was the chief of these philosopher-sages, and his thought impressed the subsequent history of China so thoroughly that it is nearly impossible to imagine what that land and its people were like before him.
Although more is known about Confucius than almost any other ancient Teacher, legend pervades the story of his life to a degree which prevents any certitude in distilling the bare facts. According to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 B.C.E. in the state of Lu (in present-day Shantung province). His father was a respected military officer, but his ancestors had belonged to Sung royalty, and his great-grandfather had moved to Lu, only to watch the family slip into poverty. Originally, his name was Chung-ni Ch'iu, though he was known to his followers as K'ung Fu Tzu – the Great Master K'ung which was Latinized as Confucius. When Confucius was three years old, his father died and he was raised by his mother. He married when he was about nineteen and eventually fathered two sons and a daughter. His official career began when he was appointed steward of Lu granaries, and he was later placed in charge of public lands. His own words suggest that he never rose beyond the position of shih-shih, leader of knights, a position of significant ceremonial but little political importance. His uncompromising attitude towards the progressive corruption of social and political institutions would not allow him to follow the degenerate, if established, path of social advancement.
Legend holds, nonetheless, that Confucius rose to political eminence, becoming prime minister of Lu in 501. The neighbouring state of Ch'i became alarmed at the strength and prosperity of Lu under his guidance and sent dancing girls and musicians to Lu's ruler to distract him from the solemn duties of government. The ploy was sufficiently successful to cause Confucius to resign his high office. Taking some disciples with him, he left Lu in 497 and wandered for thirteen years through many feudal states, sometimes advising rulers, often suffering hardships, and never finding an enlightened duke or lord, until a few of his disciples who had risen to prominent positions in Lu entreated him to return.
He lived out the last three years of his life in Lu, instructing the youth of noblemen and commoners alike in the arts of being a civilized human being and a conscientious ruler. He died in 479 and was buried near his birthplace, where his tomb can be seen today. Whatever the historicity of his life as it has been recorded in the Confucian tradition, he concentrated on training disciples to become worthy citizens and responsible officials, whose sense of duty and human dignity would gradually leaven society, making its rules strict and its governance gentle, its values firm and its attitudes tolerant, its life at once righteous and civil. However distorted or perverted the later appropriation of his ideas, they became the standard of Chinese government and society for almost twenty-five hundred years, and they pervade Chinese thought despite their official displacement by modern Communism.
Confucius did not compose in written form a systematic philosophy of society and government, or even a comprehensive social or philosophical psychology. Like Socrates, he taught by engaging his disciples and followers in discussion, and he addressed critical concerns as they arose in questions put to him. Whilst he left traditional beliefs intact, he insisted upon a penetrating and sometimes sceptical examination of customs, rituals, mores, attitudes and practices. Where they adhered to the spirit and letter of ancient rites, he supported them with all his heart, but where they existed in letter only, he rejected them as useless and even insidious. For him, the period marked by the rule of the Duke of Chou, whose descendants ruled Lu, was the synthesis of the Way of the ancients, and it represented a golden age whose principles and practices set the canon of judgement for all social and political life.
Although Confucius consistently refrained from discoursing on spiritual and metaphysical matters, his dialogues and answers to enquiries are suffused with an arcane intuition that intimates a profound understanding of both. For him, the social and moral order (tao) is causally linked to the tao of the whole world. Social decay and moral corruption, which together adversely affect the health and well-being of individuals, begin at the pinnacle of the social structure, which is the root of social order. Hence, the emperor is not merely a political head of state; he is the foundation of righteousness and the model of rectitude, broadly analogous to the Indian Rama who presided over Ramarajya, the Golden Age, or, on another level, the Philosopher-King of Plato's ideal Republic. The emperor should be revered and honoured by all. In return, he should truly rule and transcend in consciousness and in act the petty and degenerate concerns which mark the loss of order. "When there is good order in the world," Confucius said, "its policy is not in the hands of ministers. And when there is good order in the empire, the people do not even discuss it."
Since for Confucius there had been a steady decline of order from the beginning of the Chou dynasty, he set out the principles for the restoration of affairs in line with the once embodied but long lost ideal. He called the means cheng ming, the rectification of names. Simply expressed, cheng ming meant that each thing should be called by its proper name and each name should be clearly defined and understood. From the standpoint of civilization, there has to be a proper distribution of roles and functions, and each person should conscientiously fulfil the role or roles which are his lot in life. Where role-correctness and role-precision exist, tao naturally leads to role-transcendence. Cheng ming stands for truth and honesty at all levels of social order.
What is called by a particular name is some actual person, thing or event, and to be called by that name rightly, it should be consonant with the ideal to which the name refers. When Chao Tun, the prime minister, fled, only to return to office after Duke Ling of Chin was murdered, Tung Hu, the official historian, confronted him. "Chao Tun has murdered his prince", the historian announced to the court. When Chao Tun called the statement false, Tung Hu replied: "Fleeing the state, you did not go beyond its frontiers; returning, you did not punish the assassin. If you are not responsible, who is?" Confucius praised the historian's action as an example of the rectification of names. He did not think that the practice of cheng ming was easy at any level. Once he said, "In vain I have looked for a single man capable of seeing his own faults and bringing the charge home against himself."
Although tao, the Way, was often expressed in terms of the practices of the ancient kings, especially King Wen and King Wu, for Confucius, the Way was closely akin to a philosophical conception of truth, reflected in but not expropriated by the Way of the ancients. Once one seeks to follow the Way, one can begin to cultivate te, virtue. Like the Latin vis, strength, from which virtus is derived, so te once meant 'power to get' but came to mean 'moral force'. Confucius held that the only justifiable purpose for which a human being can live is the cultivation of te, which is pursued for its own sake without regard to success and failure. Such terms are timebound, whilst the cultivation of te is concerned with unwavering emulation of an ideal. Confucius thought that numerous ideals could be helpful, and that one should appreciate all of them while adhering to the one suitable to one's nature and capacity. Sheng jen, the Sage, is the highest, and is characterized by concern with the whole of humanity and not any particular person or group of people. Such a being is so rare that one cannot expect to meet him, and one might not be able to recognize him if one did. A more approachable but still lofty ideal is that of the shan jen or good man. Seldom met, such a man would, if he ruled a state, remove killing and suppress cruelty within a century. The ch'eng jen or complete man is similar to the good man and is marked by his moral and social competence in every direction.
The ideal most accessible to the average person as a model for emulation is that of the chun tzu, often translated 'gentleman'. As a parapolitical ideal, fusing the social, moral and spiritual dimensions of the human being, 'civilized man' might be a better translation. Throughout the Analects (Lun Yu), a collection of sayings and brief dialogues attributed to Confucius and his disciples, Confucius illuminates one virtue after another, suggesting how they are distinct, in that they each need discerning nurture and cultivation, yet they blend together as overlapping aspects of one ideal – the chun tzu – just as the colours of a rainbow are distinguishable but nonetheless merge into one another, forming a continuous spectrum. Perhaps the most general characterization of the chun tzu is offered in contrast with the hsiao jen or small man. The chun tzu possesses a cultivated moral character, that is, has attained te in seeking to embody tao, whilst the hsiao jen is characterized by his fragmented and disordered moral life. Both have the elements necessary to be a civilized human being, but such a being does not automatically or miraculously emerge from those possibilities. Actualizing one's potentials to become a chun tzu requires strenuous, consistent, self-conscious effort. Hence Confucius and all Chinese teachers used agricultural metaphors, speaking always of cultivating te, like nurturing seeds into sprouts and caring for them until they grow into plants and bear fruit.
Of all the aspects which together constitute the chun tzu, the chief is jen, which has been translated 'humane', 'good', 'altruistic', 'benevolent', and encompasses all of these terms. Jen is virtually untranslatable because Confucius endowed its current moral meaning with something of its archaic sense. Jen originally meant 'possessing the qualities of one's tribe', in a way strikingly similar to the English 'gentleman', derived from the Latin gens, 'tribe'. For Confucius, the ethical and social senses of jen were infused with a transcendental meaning, and the concept pointed to that time when the early races breathed benevolence and were unwaveringly devoted to their divine progenitors. In depicting jen in the chun tzu, Confucius said:
Being able to take oneself as an analogy in order to discover what others wish is possible for the chun tzu – though not very effective for the hsiao jen, the small man – because he understands shu, the principle underlying the saying "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire." This, for Confucius, is not the whole of jen, but it is the guide to conduct throughout life. It is ethically dependent, however, on chung, which is doing one's best in every circumstance. On the level of conduct, the chun tzu will be recognized by his own kind everywhere, regardless of differences of custom, costume and language. He is apolitical, not from apathy or disassociation, but because he sides with the right wherever it happens to be found. Since the world may easily ignore the chun tzu, he roots out yuan, resentment, so that he will feel none of it when neglected or ignored.
For one who seeks to grow to the stature of the chun tzu, hsiao, filial devotion, is important, for one who is loving and devoted as a son and obedient (t'i) and respectful towards one's elder brothers will not rebel against one's superiors. The love, natural affection, devotion and obedience nurtured within the family is the basis for fidelity to the spiritual, social and political lineages upon which true civilization rests. Such sentiments have led some later thinkers to believe that Confucius was a reactionary who sought to preserve the forms and institutions of the dying past. In fact, his profound respect for tradition was rooted in the recognition that civilization is neither an institution nor the collective conduct of people. It is the embodiment of values found in its pillars, from the chun tzu up to the sheng jen, the Sage whose invisible presence suffuses every aspect of the people's lives. Confucius deliberately rescued the virtues from the past and applied them to the living. For example, in his time, hsiao usually referred to devotion to the spirits of the ancestors. Whilst respecting the past, Confucius saw the dangers of unthinking ancestor worship in which one unnecessarily forges links with what should not be resuscitated through one's psyche. "To devote oneself earnestly to one's duty to humanity," he said, "and, while respecting (hsiao) the spirits, to keep away from them, may be called wisdom." Again and again he warned his disciples that slavery to forms involves truth-obscuring pretension every bit as much as mindless iconoclasm and anarchy do.
Rather, his respect for rites (li) and their proper observance was founded upon the fact that, in addition to providing a common language of social participation, properly performed rites magically enact the highest ideals and timeless truths. To observe rites is to avail oneself of the insights of the ancients. Self-interest, Confucius held, is powerful and insidious in its persistent deflection of moral judgement and obscuration of moral purpose, the two requisites of the civilized man. Where rites are performed thoughtlessly, inattentively or without reverence, one's ego inserts itself and blinds one to the virtues they embody. Where they are not performed at all, the ego runs rampant and destroys civilization.
The desire to learn is essential for one seeking to become a chun tzu. Rather than claiming for himself the status of a Sage or even of a chun tzu – others have to see for themselves the truth of a person's nature – Confucius said only that he doubted that anyone surpassed him in his efforts to learn. The man of learning is not merely a scholar or a student, because what he seeks to learn is wisdom: he is a philosopher in the Pythagorean meaning of the word – a lover and seeker of wisdom. Confucius taught that in respect to wisdom there are four classes of human beings. The highest are born with knowledge, followed by those who gain it through the study of the ancient teachings and human nature. Then there are those who turn to study owing to the difficulties life has imposed upon them and who would not have otherwise been inclined to learn. Finally, there are many who have no desire to learn even when vexed by the vicissitudes of life. Whatever one's degree of knowledge, according to Confucius, it can be expressed without pretension or delusion by following a simple Socratic principle: "To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge." Just as one needs to be responsible towards the past and in dealing with others, so wisdom depends on being responsible towards knowledge.
Under the vast and subtle umbrella of jen and the means of cultivating it, Confucius placed a host of other virtues. Courage, for him, is ambiguous in that it is a virtue only when it serves jen. A man of jen will necessarily possess courage, but a man of courage may not be a man of jen. For courage to be a virtue, it must employ moral means in the service of a moral end. Because human beings are involved in yen and hsing, word and deed, it is critical that one is hsin, reliable in word. Although hsin can mean being a man of one's word in the sense of keeping promises, the doctrine of the rectification of names demands a richer interpretation of hsin. To be hsin means that one matches one's word to one's deed, but it also means that one's word is borne out by the facts, either because one's word matches the facts or because one so acts as to make one's word factual. Hence, to say falsely, or to say without subsequently doing, is to lack hsin. In practice, the prudent policy is to act before speaking about it. Hsin involves distinguishing intentions, however noble, from actual actions, fantasy from fact, wish from will. Amongst the ancient virtues to which Confucius gave fresh meaning is ching, reverence. In early Chou times, ching referred to the state of mind suitable for offering sacrifices to the gods and spirits. Because these rites magically reharmonized every aspect of society and its relation to Nature, ching meant the awareness of one's great responsibility to further the welfare of all humanity. Confucius took the concept of ching out of its ritualistic context and replanted it in the context of serving one's superiors. Ching kept its earlier religious tonality but now stood for that reverence which naturally positions one, neither too high nor too low, in the hierarchy of benevolent action. Ching is much more than kung, respect, which is restricted to appearances and demeanour, for ching is a state of consciousness from which one thinks and acts.
Having provided a rich and subtle portrait of moral character, Confucius based it upon a different kind of concept, yi. Some moral philosophies emphasize the goodness of agents and others focus on the rectitude of acts. Although a superficial consideration might place Confucian thought in the first category, his use of yi shows that he was concerned with both. Yi, which can be translated, depending on context, equally well as 'right' or 'duty', and in respect to agents as 'righteous' and 'dutiful', is the objective standard by which conduct can be judged, and there is no higher standard by which one can judge yi. Without yi, one cannot be jen. Hence, though jen is the heart of being fully human, yi is basic to jen.
Confucius did not believe that all human beings were exactly alike, even if the overlay of circumstance, environment and economic status were stripped away. Each individual is born, lives and dies under t'ien ming, the decree of heaven. Ming is one's lot in life, or destiny, analogous to the Greek moira, portion or allotment. One needs to understand one's lot and accept it without complaint, but one can never rightfully use it as an excuse for failing to learn and to cultivate jen. T'ien, heaven, is fundamentally and consistently benevolent and ever compassionate, and t'ien ming invariably provides ample space for spiritual realization, moral growth and social refinement. One can understand destiny, chih ming, because one recognizes constraints which it is futile to resist. Higher than this, however, it is possible to understand heaven's decree, chih t'ien ming, in which one knows why limits are established the way they are. One who understands this much is free to follow his heart, for it will neither quail before responsibility nor attempt to overstep limits. This is the ideal of the civilized man – creative, unburdened, restrained, effortlessly seeking the welfare of all – and it is this ideal which Confucius, whoever this mysterious being really was, exemplified in word and act for the benefit of others. He lived the motto with which the Analects close: