Confucius is an iconic figure, almost mythical in the modern world, often credited with saying things he did not say. But who was the man behind the myth?
A Philosopher by Any Other Name
You cannot open a book without learning something.
The philosopher known to Westerners as Confucius would not have answered to that name. He was born as Kong Qui - family name first and given name last. He is best known in China as Zhongni, which means "Master Kong." This was melded into "Confucius" under Latinization by the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionaries to China, notably Matteo Ricci.
Confucius is also referred to by other names, including "Laudably Declarable Lord Ni," "Great Sage," "First Teacher," and "Model Teacher for Ten Thousand Ages."
The "Analects," a book written by followers of Confucius after his death, contains his thoughts and conversations, if not his precise words. Any quote attributed to Confucius must be taken in the proper spirit, as a paraphrase representing his sentiments, not as an exact transcript. Confucius would most likely approve, as he saw himself as a transmitter who invented nothing.
Confucius was born in 551 B.C., in Zou, Lu state, near present-day Qufu, China, during the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. His family belonged to the class of shi, between the aristocracy and the common people. People in this class had to rely on their skills, rather than on nobility of birth.
Some historians speculate that Confucius may have been illegitimate - his father, an officer in the Lu army, was much older than his mother. His father died when Confucius was only three, and the boy was raised by his mother in poverty.
At the age of 19, Confucius married a woman by the surname of Qiguan, and a year later they had their first child, Kong Li. Confucius worked as a shepherd and a clerk.
Confucius' mother died when he was 23, and, per tradition, he mourned for three years. He later credited this seclusion with giving him time for deep thought and intense study of history. Confucius said, "I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there." He also said, "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."
Few details of the life of Confucius are certain, but by the age of 30 he was respected as a great teacher. In 501 B.C., he was appointed as Minister of Justice, sometimes referred to as Minister of Crime, because three Lu ruling families valued his philosophy of proper conduct and righteousness in government. Confucius said, "He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it."
China needed a man such as Confucius at the time. During the sixth century B.C., the Chou Empire, which had held supreme rule for over 500 years, was being undermined by competing Chinese states. The result was a period of moral decline. Confucius stepped in, ready to preach the importance of morality in both personal and political life. As he once said, "To rule a country of a thousand chariots, there must be reverent attention to business, and sincerity; economy in expenditure, and love for men; and the employment of the people at the proper seasons."
Confucius felt nostalgia for the past. He advocated a revival of a unified royal state, in which rulers were chosen based on royal merit rather than lineage. He believed that the feudal system, which divided China into territories not controlled by the king, was tearing China apart.
Confucius served as a valued adviser to the prince of Lu. Over time, as the state of Lu prospered, the prince grew greedy and disinterested, leaving governmental decisions to Confucius. For Confucius, the prince was a disappointment. Per the teachings of Confucius, "He who acts with a constant view to his own advantage will be much murmured against." As a result, Confucius left Lu and wandered for twelve years, eventually returning in 483 B.C., at the age of 68.
Confucianism is essentially humanistic. It is or is not a religion, depending on how a person defines the term. Confucius was concerned only with earthly issues, not with the nature of souls. For him, true wisdom came from knowledge of these earthly issues. "By three methods we may learn wisdom," he stated. "First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest."
Ren is the good feeling a person experiences when being virtuous - both the inward and outward expression of Confucian ideals. Everyone is born with a sense of Ren, an innate sense of what is right. To embrace Ren, Confucius advised, "Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety." Ren is achieved through five basic virtues: seriousness, generosity, sincerity, diligence, and kindness.
The concept of Ren is connected with Li and Yi. Li involves ritual, or something that has been approved by society - the outward expression of Confucian ideals. Yi involves righteousness, or the moral path - the inward expression. Confucius said, "If some years were added to my life, I would give fifty to the study of the Yi, and then I might come to be without great faults."
The ideal man, or gentleman, is known as a junzi. Each individual has a role to play in society, from the common man to the king, and success can only be achieved by virtuous actions. Confucius said, "The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger, he cleaves to it."
Confucius believed that an educated person must be proficient in the Six Arts: archery, calligraphy, computation, music, chariot-driving, and ritual. Regarding music, he said, "How to play music may be known. At the commencement of the piece, all the parts should sound together. As it proceeds, they should be in harmony while severally distinct and flowing without break, and thus on to the conclusion."
In general, every man should increase his knowledge to his fullest potential: "To those whose talents are above mediocrity, the highest subjects may be announced. To those who are below mediocrity, the highest subjects may not be announced."
Confucius advocated strong family connections, even though he reportedly spent little time with his wife and children. He said, "A youth, when at home, should be filial, and, abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful. He should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good. When he has time and opportunity, after the performance of these things, he should employ them in polite studies." A virtuous man must also respect his elders and worship his ancestors.
Confucius spent his final years teaching more than 70 disciples his version of the old wisdom, via texts known as the "Five Classics." He died in 479 B.C., one year after losing a son in battle.
Confucianism became the official imperial philosophy after the death of Confucius. His teachings were especially influential during the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties.
His philosophy can perhaps be summed up in what we now refer to as the Golden Rule. In the words of Confucius: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."