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Confucius: Myth and Muddle, 551-479 BCE

Ancient Greece had Plato. Ancient China had Confucius, who like Plato also concerned himself with heavenly perfection and politics. The earliest copy of the writings of Confucius available to modern scholars dates back to the fourth century CE, seven centuries after Confucius lived, plenty of time for creative changes.

Legend describes Confucius as having completed his studies and having earned the title of scholar after marrying at the age of nineteen. As a scholar he was considered a master of religious ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and arithmetic, and he had some familiarity with poetry and history.

Confucius has been described as blaming the ills of his day on leaders neglecting the rituals of the old Zhou emperors, who had ruled since around 1046 BCE. The Zhou emperors had lost power a couple of centuries before the time of Confucius, and during the time of Confucius their rule was only nominal. Society during the time of Confucius had been changing, and changes were disturbing to a conservative ideologue like Confucius. The use of iron had brought a higher productivity in agriculture and a rise in population, there was more trade, new wealth and a loosened social stratification may have led Confucius to view society as having become chaotic.

Controversy exists over whether Confucius actually revered the early rule of the Zhou emperors or merely pretended such reverence in order to make his views more palatable to contemporaries – a subterfuge that would have contradicted sayings attributed to Confucius about honesty, sincerity and straight-forwardness. Confucius, at any rate, has been described as seeing politics as a morality play directed from heaven and believing the claim by the Zhou Dynasty that their rule was a mandate from heaven rather than just the result of a bloody conquest. Confucius appears to have believed the Zhou propaganda and to have wanted a return to a golden Zhou age when a king's ethical and wise rule earned him a mandate from the Lord of Heaven.

Confucius saw the Lord of Heaven not as a tyrant but as the embodiment of a system of laws. He believed that kings should conduct themselves in accordance with these laws. He believed that the king should set a moral example for commoners, and legend has it that he believed commoners should conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of heaven and remain obedient to the rule of the king. Confucius is described as believing that people should respect and obey their parents as well as the king who ruled over them. The state, he believed, was an extension of the family and a collection of families. As elsewhere among ancient civilizations he believed that a family should be ruled by the eldest adult male and that families should be led by the superior family of the emperor. He was a man of his time: he placed his hope for humanity in the sincerity of the ruler rather than in checks and balances in government and the watchful eye of the public.

According to he claimed that the right course was for a king to behave like a king and a son to behave like a son. It was his theory of authenticity. Confucius created what he called categories and held that a king who did not behave as a king was not a king, and a son who did not behave as a son was not a son. According to Confucius, obedience was the prime ingredient of the authentic individual. To maintain harmony, believed Confucius, people should not wander from what is authentic.

Confucius is described as believing in class distinctions – what he called social categories. He not only supported the religious values of the elite, he supported their good manners, and he dissociated himself from the religion that was identified with the common people: shamanism, witchcraft and sorcery. Although he favored the elevation of males according to their learning and superior moral qualities, he appears to have failed to see that equal opportunity was not possible in an autocratic society dominated by aristocrats.

When Confucius was around fifty, he served as a minister of public works and minister of justice, but it's not hard to imagine his boss, the local ruler of his home state, Lu, ignoring him. The local ruler owed his power to his independence from the powerless Zhou emperor on his little territory a couple hundred miles or so to the west. One can imagine the moral posturing of Confucius alienated the local ruler and his loyal servants.

Growing old, Confucius was disappointed that his views had not been put into practice. His optimism from earlier years and not been rewarded. He left politics in disgust and went on a decade of dangerous travels through various states. When he was sixty-seven, he responded to an invitation from disciples to return to Lu, and there he taught five more years. He died he died with his political beliefs not established. He died like Plato, his politics ignored.

After Confucius died, his teachings were overshadowed by the scholar Mo, known by his title: Mozi (470-391). Like Confucius, Mozi was trained in classical literature. There were followers of Confucius around whom Mozi saw as pretentious and selfish aristocrats. He condemned Confucian preoccupation with religious ritual, and he ridiculed Confucianists for putting family and class above the welfare of common people.

Another philosopher opposed to Confucianism was Yang Zhu (440-360?). A Confucian scholar named Mencius (372-302?) defended Confucius by accusing Yang Zhu of failing to recognize the need of a king, and he said that to fail to recognize the primacy of a father and a sovereign "is to be a bird or beast." Mencius argued that the substance of being human was serving one's parents and that "the basis of righteousness" was obeying one's elder brothers. While advocating heaven's harmony through the virtue of emperors and the obedience of common people, Mencius claimed that people overall were essentially good but that anarchy made them evil and that people had to be encouraged to be good.

And hostile to Confucianism during the time of Mencius were the Taoists, who complained of what they described as Confucianism's pretended wisdom and support of authoritarian rule.

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.