1. Historical Background to Confucianism
2. Biographical Information on Confucius
3. The Philosophical Basis of Confucianism
   3.1. Skepticism
      3.2.1. The Way (Tao)
      3.2.2. Heaven (T'ien) and Destiny (Ming)
4. Confucian Ethics
   4.1. The Nature of Jen (Virtue)
   4.2. Observing Li (Propriety or the Rites)




1. Historical Background to Confucianism

Before one can begin to study Confucianism, one must have some knowledge of the political and social context out of which it arose. Chinese history is characterized by empire and chaos; the tendency has always been for Chinese society to be highly structured and hierarchical, being ruled by an emperor or a plurality of noble houses, a feudal system of social organization. But when this feudal social structure broke down, as it sometimes did, social and economic chaos resulted. The Chinese always preferred the stability that results from hierarchical collectivism.

The Shang dynasty lasted from 1766 to 1122 BCE; this empire was semi-feudal and agriculturally based located in Northern China. By ancient standards it was quite advanced; they worked with bronze, had a written language, the forerunner of classical Chinese. Around 1122 BCE the Chou, a less "advanced" Chinese race, took control of the Shang empire and replaced the Shang royal family as the rulers; they parceled out the empire to various Chou generals. The Chou dynasty endured until about 771 BCE when some of the feudal vassal kings in alliance with peoples outside of the empire overthrew the Chou royal family and killed the present king. The Chou dynasty moved eastward (known now as the eastern Chou) and re-established its dynasty, but this empire had little power as compared with the former Chou dynasty (770-256 BCE). It was no longer able to control the semi-autonomous vassal states that came into being with the fall of the Chou dynasty. China then entered into a period of chaos marked by discord between the various rival kingdoms left after the removal of the Chou empire. Beginning in the 5th century BCE, warfare among the states became constant, and is known as the period of the warring states (475 BCE to 221 BCE); many Chinese died in warfare or famine resulting from warfare during this period. During this period of social and political unrest in what used to be the Chou empire, certain Chinese began to ask the question of the cause of such social disorder; this led naturally to a consideration of what the ideal human society was and this led eventually to metaphysical questions of what was ultimately real and how human society fits into the structure of reality. Confucius (Chinese name K'ung fu-tzu = K'ung the Master) (551-479 BCE) was one such Chinese thinker (In fact this period of Chinese intellectual history is called the age of the hundred philosophers).

In order to appreciate most fully Confucianism, it is important to understand Chinese religious belief and practice at the time of Confucius. The Chinese also had an pantheon of gods at the head of which was Shang ti, the sky god. A common feature of Chinese religion at the time of Confucius (and in every other age with the exception of the modern period) was the veneration or worship of ancestors; the Chinese would regularly present offerings to their deceased relatives. The ancestors tended to function as gods, since they could be consulted using divination and could protect and grant favors to their kin.  In addition, the Chinese believed in gods or spirits (shen) associated with natural phenomena, such as storms, wind, or things, such as rivers, mountains, the soil and the heavenly bodies. These shen were not fully personal gods and were not clearly distinguished from the natural phenomena or things with which they were associated. This type of belief religious studies scholars have called animism: the belief that the natural world in its diversity was animated with spirits that were inseparable from those aspects of the natural world with which they were associated.

2. Biographical Information on Confucius

Confucius was born in 552 or 551 BCE, being descended from a noble family in the state of Sung; his ancestors, however, were forced to flee to the state of Lu, where Confucius was born. Confucius spent his life either studying / teaching or serving in various minor official capacities in different states. Book 10 of the Analects seems dedicated to giving a picture of Confucius the man by relating his habitual practices.  After his death his disciples collected together many of Confucius' sayings (Lun yu), which is what we know in English as the Analects; presumably these had been remembered and passed on in oral form until they were written down.  In addition, the sayings of Mencius (Meng-zi), one of Confucius' more prominent successors, are found the work known as Mencius; these along with the Analects became part of the "classics" of Chinese civilization. Confucius is also credited with writing The Doctrine of the Mean and The Great Learning.

3. The Philosophical Basis of Confucianism

3.1. Skepticism

Confucius adopts a skepticism towards matters that exceed the realm of ordinary human experience. In particular, he shows no interest in questions that relate to the existence, nature and will of the gods or to the post-mortem fate of the individual. It is not that he denies the existence of the gods or the reality of life after death, but simply that he assumes that such questions are peripheral to true human existence. In this respect, one could call him a humanist, even a secular humanist. The following passages from the Analects suggest that Confucius tended towards skepticism and humanism.

3.1.1. Analects 5.13

Tsze-kung said, "The Master's personal displays of his principles and ordinary descriptions of them may be heard. His discourses about man's nature, and the Way [tao] of Heaven, cannot be heard." 

It is said that Confucius' views on human nature and the Way (tao) of Heaven were inaccessible, implying a reluctance to speak about topics that transcend the realm of ordinary human experience. Not only is a knowledge of ultimate reality out of reach for human beings, but it seems that what a person really is, human nature, also eludes comprehension; what a person knows is human experience, or to use Kantian terminology, the phenomenal realm. What is beyond human experience is unknown to human beings.

3.1.2. Analects 6.22

Fan Ch'ih asked what constituted wisdom. The Master said, "To give one's self earnestly to the duties due to men, and, while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom." 

Confucius advocates keeping one's distance from the gods and spirits (spiritual beings) while showing them reverence; this is called wisdom. This implies that to inquire concerning what is beyond the human realm is inadvisable; rather one should define oneself by one's relationships with others and one's duties to them. The further implication is that such trans-human knowledge is unnecessary to be fully human, so that a person has lost nothing essential if he or she has little or no involvement with the spiritual world. In fact, it is possible that Confucius sees that involvement in the spiritual world as being a hindrance to leading a good life, which is understandable if sorcery was part of Chinese religion.

3.1.3. Analects 7.21

The subjects on which the Master did not talk, were-extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder, and spiritual beings.

It is said that Confucius did not speak of "spiritual beings" or the gods, nor did he concern himself with the extraordinary or unusual; rather, his concerns were related to ordinary human affairs: he taught about how to live properly in everyday existence, which presupposes order and predictability. What was beyond ordinary human experience was of little interest to him as a teacher.

3.1.4. Analects 9.1

The subjects of which the Master seldom spoke were-profitableness, and also the decrees of Heaven [ming], and virtue [jen].

Confucius is supposed to have spoken of "the decrees of Heaven," i.e., destiny (ming) only rarely, implying a reluctance to speak of things that transcend ordinary human experience. To inquire into what has been decreed by the divine is disallowed to human beings. Likewise, Confucius would seldom speak of virtue (jen), possibly because this is too theoretical and involves inquiry into the nature of a human being. Presumably his focus is on what is ordinary and easily accessible to all human beings.

3.1.5. Analects 11.12

Chi Lu asked about serving the spirits. The Master said, "While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve the spirits?" Chi Lu added, "I venture to ask about death?" He was answered, "While you do not know life, how can you know about death?" 

Confucius expresses skepticism about how to serve the spirits, probably meaning the spirits of the dead; he responds by saying that he does not even know how to serve man and that he does not know about life; how much less does he know about death and the nature of post-mortem existence.  His point is that knowledge that exceeds ordinary human experience, such as the nature of death and existence after death, is inaccessible to human beings. It is difficult enough to know how to live in this ordinary, everyday world.

3.1.6. Summary

Confucius focuses his inquiries and teaching on ordinary human experience, avoiding topics such as the gods, spirits, death or any other topic beyond the pale of everyday existence; he was even known for his reluctance to speak of the Way (tao), Destiny (ming) and virtue (jen), although these are central philosophical concepts for him, as will be seen.

Do you agree with the skeptical and humanistic impulse of Confucianism? Do you agree that human beings should concern themselves with human affairs only?

3.2. Essential but Underdeveloped Philosophical Ideas

Confucius' Analects consist mostly of social and ethical teachings. This is in keeping with his basic skepticism and humanism. Yet, every so often, there are what we could call ontological allusions: references to philosophical and/or religious ideas that serve to ground philosophically his social and ethical teachings. One could argue that, in spite of his skepticism and humanistic orientation, Confucius could not avoid introducing foundational philosophical ideas into his teaching.

3.2.1. The Way (tao)

The concept of the Way (tao) is not original to Confucius, but is a traditional Chinese philosophical and religious concept; Confucius uses the concept of Way to ground his ethical and social theory. The Way is an ambiguous term in the Analects, for never is it defined nor is it discussed at length. References to it tend to be in relation to human affairs, either individual or collective. The concept of the Way also occurs in Confucius's The Doctrine of the Mean with more of a philosophical sense.

A. Analects

1. Analects 1.15

Tsze-kung said, "What do you pronounce concerning the poor man who yet does not flatter, and the rich man who is not proud?" The Master replied, "They will do; but they are not equal to him, who, though poor, yet delights in the Way [tao], and to him, who, though rich, observant of propriety (the rites) [li]."

The Way (tao) is said to be something in which one can delight. In fact, the man who delights in the way is held up as superior to other virtuous men: "the poor man who yet does not flatter, and the rich man who is not proud." This implies that the Way stands over against the individual as an potential intentional object. In other words, the Way is something that can be pursued and understood. To delight in the Way (tao) is synthetically parallel to observing propriety, which suggests some relation between the two..

2. Analects 4.8

The Master said, "He has not lived in vain who dies the day he is told about the Way [tao]."

Whatever it is, according to Confucius, the Way (tao) is something that can be told to someone and something that is worth knowing. In this context, the Way seems to represent a body of philosophical truth, teachings about the nature of reality, transmittable from teacher to student.

3. Analects 5.7

The Master said, "If the Way [tao] should fail to prevail and I were to put out to sea on a raft he that will accompany me would be Yu, I dare say." Tsze-lu hearing this was glad, upon which the Master said, "Yu is fonder of daring than I am. He does not exercise his judgment upon matters."

Confucius explains that the Way (tao) is something that can fail to prevail in a society; the implication is that this state of affairs results when people do not heed Confucius's teaching. From this context, it seems that the Way is a socio-ethical theory or at least has such implications.

4. Analects 5.13

Tsze-kung said, "The Master's personal displays of his principles and ordinary descriptions of them may be heard. His discourses about man's nature, and the Way (tao) of Heaven, cannot be heard."

As already seen, it was said that one could not easily obtain Confucius's views on the Way (tao) of Heaven, and related to the Way his views on human nature. The implication seems to be that he has such views, but is reluctant to share these; such views seem to be something of a esoteric teaching.

5. Analects 7.6

The Master said, "Let the will be set on the Way [tao]. Let every attainment in what is good be firmly grasped. Let virtue be accorded with. Let relaxation and enjoyment be found in the polite arts."

According to these sayings, whatever it is, the Way (tao) is something on which one is set one's will or heart; it is something which one must choose and to which one must conform one's life.

6. Analects 8.4

The philosopher Tsang being ill, Meng Chang went to ask how he was.

Tsang said to him, "When a bird is about to die, its notes are mournful; when a man is about to die, his words are good.

"There are three things which the man of high rank should consider specially important in the Way [tao]:-that in his deportment and manner he keep from violence and heedlessness; that in regulating his countenance he keep near to sincerity; and that in his words and tones he keep far from lowness and impropriety. As to such matters as attending to the sacrificial vessels, there are the proper officers for them."

Three things are enumerated as being in the Way (tao); each is a virtue: non-violence, sincerity and politeness (keep far from lowness and impropriety). It seems that, in part at least, the Way consists of ethical precepts, whatever else is Confucius' teaching on the Way contains.

7. Analects 8.13

The Master said, "With sincere faith he unites the love of learning; holding firm to death, he is perfecting the excellence of his course.

"Such an one will not enter a tottering state, nor dwell in a disorganized one. When the Way [tao] prevails in the kingdom, he will show himself; when it does not, he will keep concealed.

"When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are things to be ashamed of. When the Way [tao] falls into disuse in a country, riches and honor are things to be ashamed of."

Confucius says that the Way (tao) can prevail or not prevail in the kingdom. When it does not prevail then riches and honor are shameful because they are ill-gotten and undeserved; the opposite is true when the Way does prevail. The Way in this context is a standard of justice or a socio-political theory considered to be the only just way of organizing society.

8. Analects 13.25

The Master said, "The superior man is easy to serve and difficult to please. If you try to please him in any way which is not accordance with the Way [tao], he will not be pleased. But in his employment of men, he uses them according to their capacity. The mean man is difficult to serve, and easy to please. If you try to please him, though it be in a way which is not accordant with the Way [tao], he may be pleased. But in his employment of men, he wishes them to be equal to everything."

Paradoxically, Confucius says that it is easy to serve the superior man but difficult to please him; this is in contrast to the "mean man" who is difficult to serve but easy to please. It is easy to serve the superior man because there is only one way to do so: in accordance with the Way [tao]. It is difficult to please him, however, because to act according to the Way is difficult. The "mean man" may be served in many ways, which makes it difficult to serve him because of his arbitrariness; yet, he is easily pleased because he has no ethical standards to meet in one's service to him. In this context, the Way seems to be a system of ethics, according to which one conforms one's behavior; it applies in particular to one's relationships with others.

9. Analects 14.1

Hsien asked what was shameful. The Master said, "When the Way [tao] prevails in a state, to be thinking only of salary; and, when the Way [tao] does not prevail, to be thinking, in the same way, only of salary;-this is shameful."

According to this saying, the Way (tao) can prevail or not prevail in a state, which seems to describe good government and bad government respectively. Government officials should not work for a salary either when the Way prevails or when it does not; in other words, those who govern should be motivated by something higher than merely earning a living.

10. Analects 14.36

The Kung-po Liao, having slandered Tsze-lu to Chi-sun, Tsze-fu Ching-po informed Confucius of it, saying, "Our master is certainly being led astray by the Kung-Po Liao, but I have still power enough left to cut Liao off, and expose his corpse in the market and in the court."

The Master said, "It is Destiny if the Way [tao] prevails; it is equally Destiny if it falls into disuse. What can the Kung-Po Liao do in defiance of Destiny?"

Confucius explains that it is Destiny if the Way (tao) prevails or falls into disuse, which sound historically deterministic. When the Way prevails then justice prevails, and no one does injustice at that time. No one will be able to do injustice to another at this time because they will be prevented from doing so by the prevailing of the Way, as predetermined by Destiny. The relationship between the Way and Destiny is not explained.

11. Analects 15.7

Tsze-chang wrote these counsels on the end of his sash. The Master said, "Truly straightforward was the historiographer Yu. When the Way [tao] prevailed in his state, he was like an arrow. When the Way [tao] fell into disuse, he was like an arrow. A superior man indeed is Chu Po-yu! When the Way [tao] prevails in his state, he is to be found in office. When the Way [tao] falls into disuse, he can roll his principles up, and keep them in his breast."

The Way (tao) can prevail in a state or fall into disuse. Again these are means of describing good government and bad government. Confucius commends Yu for maintaining his ethical standards even when the Way did not prevail: he was "straight" as an arrow. Chu Po-yu did not abandon his ethical principles when the Way fell into disuse, but kept them "in his breast," i.e., next to his heart in the sense of holding fast to them.

12. Analects 15.29

The Master said, "A man can enlarge the Way [tao]; the Way [tao] does not enlarge the man."

Confucius says that a man can enlarge the Way (tao), but the Way cannot enlarge a man. This seems to be a statement affirming the freedom of a man to pursue the Way or not. To enlarge the Way is to live according to it, but the Way does not impose itself on a person and therefore does not "enlarge" a man contrary to his will.

13. Analects 15.32

The Master said, "The object of the superior man is to attain the Way [tao].  Food is not his object. There is plowing;-even in that there is sometimes want.  So with learning;-profit may be found in it. The superior man is anxious lest he should not get the Way [tao]; he is not anxious lest poverty should come upon him."

Confucius explains that the superior man devotes his mind to attaining the Way (tao), not to securing food or other profit. Whatever it is, attaining the Way is more important than meeting physical needs or accumulation of wealth. To attain the Way seems to be to attain to a body of philosophical truth that includes ethical standards.

14. Analects 16.2

Confucius said, "When the Way [tao] prevails in the empire, ceremonies, music, and punitive military expeditions proceed from the son of Heaven. When the Way [tao] does not prevail in the empire, ceremonies, music, and punitive military expeditions proceed from the princes. When these things proceed from the princes, as a rule, the cases will be few in which they do not lose their power in ten generations. When they proceed from the great officers of the princes, as a rule, the case will be few in which they do not lose their power in five generations. When the subsidiary ministers of the great officers hold in their grasp the orders of the state, as a rule the cases will be few in which they do not lose their power in three generations.

"When the Way [tao] prevails in the kingdom, government will not be in the hands of the great officers.

"When the Way [tao] prevails in the kingdom, there will be no discussions among the common people."

Confucius says that when the Way (tao) prevails in the empire, things are done properly, because the emperor ("son of Heaven") is in control of the affairs of state. But when the Way does not prevail necessarily there is decline, because lesser authorities are in charge of the affairs of state, which will lead to chaos and unjust government. Likewise, when the Way (tao) prevails, the common people make no contribution to their government. From this, it is clear that for the Way to prevail is to have a non-democratic, imperial form of government, in which all authority and power are vested in an emperor; this is a type of totalitarianism.

15. Analects 19.19

The chief of the Mang family having appointed Yang Fu to be chief criminal judge, the latter consulted the philosopher Tsang. Tsang said, "The rulers have lost the Way [tao], and the people consequently have been disorganized for a long time. When you have found out the truth of any accusation, be grieved for and pity them, and do not feel joy at your own ability."

Rulers can lose the Way (tao), and when this occurs the people they rule enter into a state of confusion; conformity to the Way is essential for good government.

16. Summary

Although there is only a meager basis on which to draw, the Way (tao) in the Analects seems to represent a sort of Confucian absolute principle, which is expressible as a body of philosophical truth (The equivalent in Greek philosophical tradition would probably be Wisdom [sophia]). It is, therefore, something that can be known and taught, and has application to the individual and the state, so that both can be said to be in conformity with the Way. Good government results when the Way prevails in a state, whereas bad government results when the Way does not.  The Way is that according to which an individual and society should exist.  When the Way prevails in a state the result is an imperial form of government, a hierarchy with the emperor controlling all aspects of society.

B. The Doctrine of the Mean

1. Part 1

What Heaven confers is called "nature." Accordance with this nature is called the Way [tao]. Cultivating the Way [tao] is called "education." That which is called the Way [tao] cannot be separated from for an instant. What can be separated from is not the Way [tao]....When joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure have not yet arisen, it is called chung (equilibrium, mean). When they arise to their appropriate levels, it is called "harmony." Chung is the great root of all-under-heaven. "Harmony" is the penetration of the Way [tao] through all-under-heaven. When the mean and harmony are actualized, Heaven and Earth are in their proper positions, and the myriad things are nourished.

According to this excerpt, Heaven or the divine "confers" nature, or "what is." This seems to describe the creation of all things by the divine first principle. To live in accordance with the way things are is live in accordance with the Way (tao), or the divinely-ordained structure of reality; this structure cannot be "separated from," which seems to mean that it necessarily is the way it is and nothing can violate or run counter to that structure. To be cultivated or educated is to learn how to live in accordance with the Way (tao), the implication being that to live as such is not natural, but actually unnatural, for one does not have to learn to do what comes naturally. Nevertheless, there is no sense that there is anything hindering a human being from living in accordance with the Way (tao). A person is in a neutral state of consciousness when there has not yet arisen any states of consciousness (joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure); this is called equilibrium or mean (chung). When various states of consciousness do arise they ought to exist in accordance with the chung, which is to say, they should exist in harmony with one another and in proper balance, so that no one state of consciousness dominates. When this occurs the inner self reflects the essential harmony of the outer world. To say that "chung is the great root of all-under-heaven" is to affirm that all things are essentially in an equilibrium or balance of opposites. There is essential harmony because the Way permeates all things; the implicit assumption is that the Way is essential oneness, which explains why all things exist in harmony. He concludes by saying that when there is chung and harmony then everything is right with all things, "Heaven and Earth"; similarly, the many things in Heaven and Earth receive what they need for their existence.

2. Part 26

The Way (tao) of Heaven and Earth can be perfectly expressed in a single phrase: "Its appearance as things is not double; therefore its production of things is unfathomable (or 'bottomless')." The Way (tao) of Heaven and Earth is vast and deep, high and bright, far-reaching and long-lasting.

In this rather obscure saying, Confucius says that the Way's appearance as things or the plurality "is not double," by which he means that things or the plurality experienced by human beings is essentially one. His point seems to be that the many things are not really different from the one Way (tao), although they may appear to be distinct from the Way and one another. He infers from this that "the production of things" or the coming into existence of the plurality is "unfathomable." Presumably, this is because no one can understand how the many can still be the one Way. He concludes by saying that the Way is both without physical limits ("vast and deep, high and bright, far-reaching") and temporal limits ("long-lasting").

Is there an equivalent in Western philosophy of the Confucian concept of the Way (tao)? How does the Stoic concept of Reason (logos) compare with it?

3.2.2. Heaven (T'ien) and Destiny (Ming)

Occasionally, the terms Heaven (t'ien) and Destiny (ming) appear in the Confucius's teaching. These are usually only in passing and are left undeveloped. Nevertheless, certain philosophical views may be inferred from Confucius's undeveloped teaching about heaven (t'ien) and destiny (ming).

A. Analects

1. Analects 2.4

"At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven." 

Confucius said that at the age of fifty he understood the decrees of Heaven (t'ien ming). What he means by this is unclear, but presumably his point is that at the age of fifty he came to understand those things that are divinely predetermined or willed. Whether there is an opposite to the decrees of Heaven he does not say, but presumably it is possible for a human being to resist or reject the divine will.

2. Analects 3.24

The border warden at Yi requested to be introduced to the Master, saying, "When superior men of virtue have come to this, I have never been denied the privilege of seeing them." The followers of the sage introduced him, and when he came out from the interview, he said, "My friends, why are you distressed by your master's loss of office? The kingdom has long been without the Way [tao]; Heaven (t'ien) is going to use your master as a bell with its wooden tongue."

An official said about Confucius that Heaven (t'ien) is about to use him as "wooden tongue for a bell" (i.e., a clarion), because the empire has long been without the Way (tao). It is as if Confucius is saying that he has received a divine call to be a teacher of the Way, although such an affirmation does not necessarily imply the existence of a personal God who cares about the moral state of humanity.

3. Analects 6.28

The Master having visited Nan-tsze, Tsze-lu was displeased, on which the Master swore, saying, "Wherein I have done improperly, may Heaven's [t'ien] curse be on me, may Heaven's curse be on me!"

Confucius swore by Heaven (t'ien): "May Heaven's curse be upon me." The implication is that Heaven is the divine, by which one swears. There is no indication, however, that Heaven represents one or more of the gods of the Chinese pantheon; rather it is possible that Heaven refers to an non-anthropomorphic divine principle.

4. Analects 7.23

The Master said, "Heaven [t'ien] produced the virtue that is in me. Hwan T'ui-what can he do to me?"

Confucius says that Heaven (t'ien) is the author of the virtue (te) that is within him, which may imply an ethical determinism. His meaning seems to be that the divine or God has been at work in him, which is why he does not fear what a man can do to him. His statement implies interaction between the divine and human beings.

5. Analects 9.1

The subjects of which the Master seldom spoke were-profitableness, and also destiny [ming], and perfect virtue.

It is said that Confucius rarely taught about destiny (ming), the implication being that he was reluctant to do so. This is consistent with the humanism of Confucius, as noted above, since destiny would supercede the human will. Nevertheless, this statement implies that he could have spoken about destiny (ming), that there was something he could have said about it.

6. Analects 9.5

"If Heaven [t'ien] had wished to let this cause of truth perish, then I, a future mortal should not have got such a relation to that cause. While Heaven [t'ien] does not let the cause of truth perish, what can the people of K'wang do to me?"

It is said that Heaven (t'ien) may intend that the cause of truth (wen) perish or not; this implies a certain universal determinism, even of such things as the departure from the truth. Because of this divine determinism, Confucius does not fear what human beings can do to him, because they are not ultimately in control of their actions.

7. Analects 9.6

A high officer asked Tsze-kung, saying, "May we not say that your Master is a sage? How various is his ability!"

Tsze-kung said, "Certainly Heaven [t'ien] has endowed him unlimitedly. He is about a sage. And, moreover, his ability is various."

The Master heard of the conversation and said, "Does the high officer know me? When I was young, my condition was low, and I acquired my ability in many things, but they were mean matters. Must the superior man have such variety of ability? He does not need variety of ability. Lao said, "The Master said, 'Having no official employment, I acquired many arts.'"

It is said that Heaven (t'ien) has qualified Confucius to be a sage by giving him the necessary abilities. This implies the notion that Heaven grounds and controls all things.

8. Analects 11.9

When Yen Yuan died, the Master said, "Alas! Heaven [t'ien] is destroying me! Heaven is destroying me!"

It is said that Confucius attributed the death of Yen Yuan to Heaven (t'ien): "Heaven (t'ien) is destroying  me." This suggests that life and death are predetermined by Heaven, which seems to imply a divine determinism. Confucius blames Heaven for his distress..

9. Analects 12.5

Sze-ma Niu, full of anxiety, said, "Other men all have their brothers, I only have not."

Tsze-hsia said to him, "There is the following saying which I have heard-'Death and life are a matter of Destiny; riches and honors depend upon Heaven.'

"Let the superior man never fail reverentially to order his own conduct, and let him be respectful to others and observant of propriety:-then all within the four seas will be his brothers. What has the superior man to do with being distressed because he has no brothers?"

It is said that life and death are a matter of Destiny (ming), and riches and honor depend upon Heaven (t'ien). In this statement Destiny and Heaven function as synonyms, meaning something like fate or the divine will. This means that the two clauses in the proposition "Death and life are a matter of Destiny; riches and honors depend upon Heaven" are in synonymous parallelism. The general point is that all events in human history have been predetermined by the divine will.

10. Analects 14.35

The Master said, "Alas! there is no one that knows me." Tsze-kung said, "What do you mean by thus saying-that no one knows you?" The Master replied, "I do not murmur against Heaven [t'ien]. I do not grumble against men. My studies lie low, and my penetration rises high. But there is Heaven [t'ien];-that knows me!"

Confucius complains that no one understands him and says that he does not blame Heaven (t'ien) or man; he adds that if he is understood at all it is by Heaven (t'ien). In this passage, Heaven (t'ien) is the oposite humanity, probably denoting the divine, although the divine is not portrayed in a personal way as the gods in Chinese religion such as Shang-Ti, the sky god.

11. Analects 14.36

The Kung-PO Liao, having slandered Tsze-lu to Chi-sun, Tsze-fu Ching-po informed Confucius of it, saying, "Our master is certainly being led astray by the Kung-PO Liao, but I have still power enough left to cut Liao off, and expose his corpse in the market and in the court."

The Master said, "It is Destiny if the Way [tao] prevails; it is equally destiny if it falls into disuse. What can the Kung-PO Liao do in defiance of Destiny?"

As already seen, Confucius says that it is Destiny (ming) if the Way (tao) prevails or falls into disuse. It seems that no human being or any other being can act in defiance of (Destiny) ming. Even events that are viewed as negative by human beings, such as the non-prevailing of the Way, are determined by Destiny.

12. Analects 16.8

Confucius said, "There are three things of which the superior man stands in awe. He stands in awe of the decrees of Heaven [t'ien ming]. He stands in awe of great men. He stands in awe of the words of sages."

"The mean man does not know the decrees of Heaven [t'ien ming], and consequently does not stand in awe of them. He is disrespectful to great men. He makes sport of the words of sages."

The morally superior man is said to be in awe of the decrees of Heaven (t'ien ming). This suggests that he has some reverence for the divine and the divine will; such a statement impies some knowledge of the divine and the divine will is possible. The morally inferior man has no knowledge of the decrees of Heaven; it would seem that it is within the power of a human being to know the decrees of Heaven, so that those who do not are judged to be morally inferior.

13. Analects 17.19

The Master said, "I would prefer not speaking." Tsze-kung said, "If you, Master, do not speak, what shall we, your disciples, have to record?"

The Master said, "Does Heaven [t'ien] speak? The four seasons pursue their courses, and all things are continually being produced, but does Heaven [t'ien] say anything?"

Confucius proposes that he cease speaking and therefore cease being a teacher. When his disciples protest, it seems that he says that he should model himself on Heaven (t'ien), which does not speak. He seems to mean that Heaven (t'ien) regulates nature (the four seasons), but does so unobtrusively, so that no one but the sage perceives the indistinct Heaven behind the regularity of nature. To speak is to communicate directly and thereby to draw attention to oneself and away from what one is doing. By analogy, Heaven makes itself known by what it does, nit by what it communicates directly through speech. It is possible that Confucius assumes that Heaven is unknowable in itself and can only be understood by what it does.

14. Analects 20.3

The Master said, "Without recognizing the decrees of Heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man.

Confucius says that a man has no way of becoming a superior man unless he understands the decrees of Heaven (t'ien ming). To be superior is to be connected somehow with the divine and to understand the ways of the divine.

15. Summary

In these passages, the terms Heaven (t'ien), Destiny (ming) and decrees of Heaven (t'ien ming) occur. Heaven (t'ien) seems to be the equivalent of God or the divine, standing in contrast to humanity; nevertheless, Heaven tends to be de-personalized. (Previously, t'ien was identical with the supreme god of the Chinese pantheon, Shang ti.) Heaven predetermines all events, including whether the Way (tao) will prevail in the empire. Destiny (ming) seems to represent what Heaven or the divine (t'ien) has determined not only will occur but ought to occur (ethical requirements); if so, then Destiny as ethical requirements is a synonym for the Way (tao). The decree of Heaven (t'ien ming) seems to have the meaning of what Heaven has determined will take place, which human beings can know; it no doubt includes the ethical requirements for human beings, as determined by Heaven, in which case it means what ought to occur. Paradoxically, Heaven predetermines what will happen but also holds human beings responsible freely to conform their behavior to the Tao. What Confucius means when he says that Heaven (t'ien) is silent is unclear, but could mean that nothing can be said about it, that its nature is inexpressible by words (17.19).  The same passage may imply that nature is regulated by Heaven.

B. The Doctrine of the Mean

1. Part 1

What Heaven [t'ien] confers is called "nature." Accordance with this nature is called the Way [tao].

As already indicated, Confucius attributes the existence of "nature" or simply "what is" (or being) to Heaven [t'ien], or a divine principle. This implies some view that the divine is the creative and sustaining force behind all reality; whether it also implies a beginning of nature is not clear.

2. Part 14

Correcting yourself and not expecting things from others, you will not create resentments. You will not resent Heaven [t'ien] above, nor blame men below.

Confucius teaches that the superior man will correct himself morally and not relate to other people as if they owed him something. As a result, he will be without resentment towards Heaven [t'ien] and human beings. To have resentment towards Heaven implies that one blames the divine or God for one's unwanted circumstances.

3. Part 17

We can also know that Heaven [t'ien] develops each thing according to its preparation. Thus, Heaven [t'ien] nourishes the growing sprout, and throws down the leaning tree.

Confucius explains that Heaven [t'ien] is responsible for events in this world that are ready to occur ("develops each thing according to its preparation"). So, for example, Heaven [t'ien] gives continued life to the newly-living ("the growing sprout"), so that it can become what it is potentially; likewise, Heaven [t'ien] causes the dying tree to fall to the ground, where it will gradually disappear from existence. In other words, Heaven [t'ien] is an imminent force in existence causing all things to become what they are potentially, being the impulse behind all ordered change; Heaven also brings dynamic processes to an end when a thing has reached its potential. The view of Confucius is a type of vitalism: that the processes of life are ultimately explicable by appeal to a vital principle distinct from biochemical reactions.

4. Part 20

Wanting to cultivate his character, he cannot do it without serving his parents. Wanting to serve his parents, he cannot do it without understanding others. Wanting to understand others, he cannot do it without understanding Heaven [t'ien].

Confucius connects the ethical task of cultivating one's character ultimately with understanding Heaven [t'ien]. Intermediate is serving one's parents and understanding other people. His point is that one cannot cultivate one's character without a complete understanding of reality, which includes an understanding of the divine.

Why would Confucius be reluctant to speak at length about the topics of Heaven (t'ien), Destiny (ming) and decrees of Heaven (t'ien ming)? Does Confucius believe in a personal God, or is his God more of a depersonalized first principle? Do you agree with how Confucius describes Heaven's role as a creative principle? Is Confucius a determinist, or does he leave room for free will?

4. Confucian Ethics

There are many terms used by Confucius to denote human virtues, and his use of such terms tends to be unsystematic, so that it is not clear always how each virtue relates to the others. Nevertheless, there are two key ethical terms that predominate in his writings: jen (wren or ren) and li. An investigation of these yields an insight into Confucian ethics, which is a type of virtue ethics: the emphasis is on the character of the moral agent rather than on duty expressed as rules of actions (deontology) or consequences of the actions (consequentialism). For the proponent of virtue ethics the motivation of the moral agent determines whether the actions are morally right or wrong, with the result that opposite actions may be justifiable at different times.

4.1. The Nature of Jen (Virtue)

It is clear from the Analects that Confucius seeks to instruct the nobility on the cultivation of ethical perfection, which he calls following the Way (tao). When the nobility conforms to the Way, so will all the others in the empire, in particular the common people. For Confucius to have jen is the ethical goal. The term jen is difficult to translate, having various nuances of meaning. The English word "virtue" is an appropriate euivalent term so long as it is understood that the stress is on the character of the moral agent as intending good to others, which is why jen is sometimes translated as benevolence or goodness. Although Confucius can be imprecise in his terminology in his sayings, one could say that virtue (jen) is not one virtue among other virtues but is the essence of all other virtues: it is what all other virtues share in common, and is expressed by each of the other virtues. Virtue (jen) is inherent as a potentiality in human beings, but needs to brought to actuality by cultivation or education. The notion that human beings are innately evil is not espoused by Confucius, although human beings need to learn how to be virtuous. The Confucian ethical ideal is the "superior man" (chün tzu) who is characterized "virtue" (jen). It is better to be in poverty rather than obtain wealth improperly, i.e. by violating virtue (4.4-5).

The Master said, "If the will be set on virtue, there will be no practice of wickedness."

The Master said, "Riches and honors are what men desire. If they cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If they cannot be avoided in the proper way, they should not be avoided."

"If a superior man abandon virtue, how can he fulfill the requirements of that name?"

"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."

According to Confucius, one should be willing to give up one's life if to continue living results in violating virtue (jen), the central ethical principle (15.8). There are several key passages in the Analects that specify further the nature of virtue.

4.1.1. Analects 12.1, 2

Yen Yuan asked about virtue. The Master said, "To subdue one's self and return to propriety, is virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, an under heaven will ascribe virtue to him....Chung-kung asked about virtue. The Master said, "It is, when you go abroad, to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself; to have no murmuring against you in the country, and none in the family." Chung-kung said, "Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practice this lesson."

In general, virtue is said to be the overcoming of self, which means overcoming all behavior that is motivated solely by personal interest: "To subdue one's self and return to propriety is virtue" (12.1). When further asked about virtue, Confucius's reply is: "Not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself."  Virtue is to treat others as you would want to be treated, which will leads to treating people as if they were very important to you, even people whom one does not know: "to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice" (12.2).

4.1.2. Analects 6.30

"Now the man of virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.

"To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves;-this may be called the art of virtue."

Confucius says that the superior man is the one who helps establish another using himself as a means of knowing how to behave towards others: "To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves."  This is another version of the ethical principle of reciprocity, better known as "the golden rule." To establish another is to benefit that person.

4.1.3. Analects 12.22

Fan Ch'ih asked about virtue. The Master said, "It is to love all men." He asked about knowledge. The Master said, "It is to know all men."

When asked about virtue, Confucius says that it is to love all human beings. Coupled with this is knowing all human beings, which is necessary if one is love them, since one must know what will benefit them..

4.1.4. The Doctrine of the Mean, Part 13

The idea that one's principal duty is to love others by treating them as you would like to be treated yourself also occurs in The Doctrine of the Mean.

When being sincere and fair to all, though this is different from the Way (tao), it is not far from it. This means "not doing to others what you don't want done to yourself." There are four general ways that this can be characterized, one of which I have been able to fully practice: (1) Treating my father as I expect my son to treat me. (2) Treating my ruler as I expect my ministers to treat me. (3) Treating my older brothers as I expect my younger brothers to treat me. (4) Treating my friends as I expect my friends to treat me. In the putting into practice of virtue or the taking care of speech, if there is somewhere where I am deficient, I certainly endeavor further. If there is excess, I do not dare to merely expend it. His words reflecting his actions, his actions reflecting his words--how can this Superior Man not be sincere through and through?

To be sincere and fair is said not to be far from the Way (tao). Presumably, this means that to be sincere and fair is an imperfect or incomplete expression of the principle of reciprocity, which is the ethical principle implied in conforming one's behavior to the Way (tao): "not doing to others what you don't want done to yourself." To be sincere and fair is an expression of the principle of not doing to others as you do not want done to yourself, but are not the totality of one's ethical obligation. Confucius then specifies four fundamental relationships in which this ethical principle is put into practice: father and son; ruler and ruled; older and younger brother; friend and friend; other important relationship would include husband and wife as well as elder and younger. Virtue is relational, being an intention to do good to those with whom one is relationship. It is also important to note that a person's obligation "not doing to others what you don't want done to yourself" is not the same to all people, contrary to Mohism (the teaching of Mo Tzu) that a human being should love all equally, regardless of his or her relationship to them. Rather in the case of a conflict between one's obligation not to do to others what one does not want done to oneself, certain people with whom one is in relationship will have priority over others.

4.1.5. The Principle of Shu

Confucius also speaks of the principle of reciprocity (shu), which seems to be synonymous with virtue (jen) or at least a statement of the ethical principle underlying the behavior of the superior man, characterized by virtue.

A. Analects 4.15

The Master said, "Shan, my doctrine is that of an all-pervading unity." The disciple Tsang replied, "Yes."

The Master went out, and the other disciples asked, saying, "What do his words mean?" Tsang said, "The doctrine of our master is to do one's best (chung) and in using oneself as a measure to gauge others (shu),-this and nothing more."

Confucius explains that there is a single thread binding his way together, i.e., a single ethical principle: doing one's best (chung) and using oneself as a measure to gauge others (shu). To use oneself as a measure to gauge others (shu) is to do to them what you want done to yourself.

B. Analects 15.24

Tsze-kung asked, saying, "Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?" The Master said, "Is not Reciprocity (shu) such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

When asked for a general ethical principle, Confucius said that one ought not to impose on others what one does not desire; this is expressed by the word "reciprocity" (shu).

Is Confucius's teaching about virtue (jen) identical to Jesus' teaching that the Law and the prophets can be summarized by the directive: "Do to others as you would want them to do to you" (Matt 7:12 = Luke 6:31) and "The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil (Luke 6:45)? If so, how do you account for the similarity?


4.1.6. Mencius

More explicitly than Confucius, Mencius asserts that human nature is essentially good, rejecting the view that human beings are innately evil or even morally neutral: "Man's nature is not indifferent to good and evil. Its proper tendency is to good" (Mencius Bk. 6, pt. 1, 2.1). Proof of their original moral goodness is the fact that human beings naturally commiserate with others when they witness their sufferings. He concludes, "From this case we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration is essential to man" (Mencius Bk. 2, pt. 1, 6.4; see Bk. 6, pt. 1, 6.7) Mencius identifies this innate tendency to commiserate with others with virtue (jen) (6.5). So long as this natural tendency to the good, or to be virtuous, is not impeded, human beings will be characterized by virtue.

Do you agree that human beings naturally are inclined towards virtue (jen)?

4.2.  Observing Li (Propriety or the Rites)

Analects 12.1

Yen Yuan asked about virtue. The Master said, "To subdue one's self and return to propriety, is virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, an under heaven will ascribe virtue to him. Is the practice of virtue from a man himself, or is it from others?"

Yen Yuan said, "I beg to ask the steps of that process." The Master replied, "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." Yen Yuan then said, "Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practice this lesson."

Confucius defines virtue as overcoming the self and observing li (propriety or the rites); in this context he includes observing li as part of virtue. As already indicated, overcoming of the self is the overcoming of self-centered and self-interested behavior. In overcoming the self, however, one conforms one's behavior to propriety (the rites) (li), which are a set of rules that governs life in all its dimensions.There are three types of actions that fall under the purview of "the rites": ceremonies associated with sacrifice to ancestors and deities of various types, social and political institutions, and the protocol of daily behavior, especially related to interactions with other people. The assumption is that past wisdom relating to correct behavior is encapsulated in the rites, so that conformity to the rites in part is the actualization of virtue. Although it sometimes refers specifically to religious or political rituals, the word li has a broader meaning: good manners. In Confucianism, propriety or the rites (li) is that to which one must live in conformity; to live according to li is to recognize and accept one's place in society and fulfill the obligations concomitant with that place. It is to do the right thing in the right way at the right time in the right way. Only when one has overcome a self-centered orientation will one be in a position to conform one's behavior to the accepted standards (propriety or the rites [li]). For example, children must respect their parents and parents must provide for their children; a wife must submit to her husband and a husband must treat his wife decently. Part of conforming to propriety (or the rites) was to worship the ancestors, for this is the duty of the living to the dead.

As a socio-political philosophy is Confucianism a type of conservatism? If so, do you agree with it?