Wisdom of the Ancient Sages
An Introduction to Confucius
Confucius, a Chinese teacher, philosopher and political theorist, lived in the 6th century BC and dedicated his life to a continuous attempt to relieve people's sufferings. He tried to integrate virtuous living and morality with systems of governance. His goal was to re-unite the nation, which was facing internal division and strife between city-states for the past few centuries, a situation which had degraded ethics and morals over time, in favor of "power makes right".
His way of achieving this was to spread moral living to the people through the exemplary lives of virtuous leaders, whom he sought to influence. While this was an enormous goal unto itself for any single man to achieve, and despite the fact that he failed to accomplish it himself, he left behind a philosophical system that endures up to this day and has greatly affected consequent generations and the eastern school of thought as a whole. His influence on the Chinese and Eastern culture can be compared to the influence of Socrates on the West.
Confucius was born in 551 BC in the Chinese state of Lu. His birth name was K'ung Ch'iu but the name Confucius is actually a Latinized version of the Chinese K'ung-fu-tzu, which he took later in life, and meant Master / Teacher K'ung.
He was a descendant of the house of Shang, which ruled China between the 17th and the 12th century BC. Confucius' father died when he was 3 years old and his mother raised him in poverty. After the age of the 15 he set his mind on studying and at the age of 17 he employed himself in book-keeping and watch-care of animals, agricultural production and state parks. He got married when he was 20 and had two daughters and one son. His mother died by the time he was 23 and then Confucius retreated from public activities for a three-year period to mourn.
Illustration of Confucius from "Myths & Legends of China", 1922.
At about the age of 30 he began teaching, while always acquiring further knowledge through studying, and by the age of 35, he had a significant number of students. After the age of 50 Confucius became active in politics and was appointed minister of Justice in the State of Lu and later on he served as prime minister. He governed the state in such a way that the community flourished, something that competing neighbouring states viewed with worry, fearing the rise of power of the Lu state. However, Confucius had to resign after 4 years, probably due to differences of opinion in State-management with the nobility in Lu. He then travelled to other States for a period of approximately 13 years where he sought to shift people of authority towards more rightful and virtuous ways of management, in an effort to implement his dominant idea of spreading virtuousness. He seldom achieved his target, as most leaders were not so open to his advice and some were even hostile. Confucius put himself at risk on several occasions during his travel period.
At the age of 68 he was called back in the state of Lu, where internal problems were brewing, however he did not assume any governmental position, rather he continued teaching. Confucius died at the age of 72, which was considered a number of great significance in Chinese culture, and his disciples mourned for many years after his death. His tomb was later turned into a great cemetery that has been expanded over time and is in very good condition for almost two and a half millennia.
Key Ideas & Beliefs
Confucius' philosophy was all about learning, ethics and morality, unity of people and proper governance. He believed that the ultimate virtue was the love of man and the ultimate wisdom the understanding of man.
His general stance was that one should actively pursue learning and studying to become nobler and more virtuous. For him this kind of learning had a broader meaning than just reading textbooks. It included all acts of examination that could lead one to become better, by extracting life lessons from various life events and adopting virtuous life principles from role-model figures.
Regarding ethics and morality, while he gave abundant practical "do-good" advice, he knew that this could only be maintained on humans that actually had the tendency to do good by recognizing that they lived in a brotherhood of man. He maintained that all people are fundamentally the same but are differentiated through their life condition and he proposed examination of self and others that would in turn even out perceived differences between humans. Generally, Confucius tried to make people change their approach to the way they saw life. His wish was not to give them a list of regulations for their daily living but to make them realize the benefits of following a virtuous life. He knew that if they aqcuired a philosophical point of view, then virtue would become part of their lives, resulting in the prosperity of the community without the need of strict laws. Being sincere, having respect and caring for family and people, not doing what one would not want done to them, were a few of those umbrella-ideas.
It was Confucius' belief that unity and well-being in society could be brought forth through virtuous leadership, which citizens would respond well to. And it was to this end, that he advised leaders with instructions like promoting the worthy, respecting even the lowest of standing and not asking citizens to do things that they themselves would not. Confucius used the "template" of Chinese unity prevalent in previous generations for spreading his vision of a new type of Unity, that could be applied during his time, a time of severe conflict for domination between states. He believed that when citizens were infused with the value of an ideal leadership, they would react positively to the prospect of the states being united again.
Over the ages, Confucius' humanistic thoughts have influenced the lives of millions of people in the East. Through his code of ethics and the development of Confucianism, he has left an indelible mark, not only on the way of government, on family life and social conduct, but also on literature and art. His teachings acted also as a religion in many Eastern countries , thus influencing the cultures in countries neighbouring to China, like Korea, Vietnam even Japan.
Confucius had a deep respect for tradition but sensing his heavenly mission and following the Way (Tao) of Heaven, he served as a model among men, and he never hesitated to come forward with novel ideas and practices. He professed the equality of men and education for everyone without discrimination. Piety, wisdom, virtue, loyalty, righteousness and love for man were characteristics of the Superior Man, who led a life of jen, the key concept of a loving nature, magnanimity and human-heartedness.
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