Confucius' philosophy

As Confucius’ philosophy still remains in the heart of many Chinese people. His images of the greatest professional teacher of all time, the greatest philosopher in Chinese history and his influence toward the future and the past 2000 years of Chinese civilization has made his thought the essence of the Chinese culture. He always said the importance of teaching could change the future of the civilization. And he also encouraged his students to explore the various things to learn, but be very selective and careful.

The purpose of Confucius’ teaching was practical and designed to help each person improve his character and conduct, and perhaps become prepared for an official position in the court. According to one passage in the Analects, Confucius taught four things: culture, conduct, loyalty, and truthfulness. 1 Culture consisted of literature and music. Confucius suggested the value of each: Let a man be stimulated by poetry, established in character by the rules of propriety, and perfected by music. 2 These pursuits were means by which one may achieve the higher ideal of following the Way.

The gentleman extensively studies literature and restrains himself with the rules of propriety. Thus he will not violate the Way. 3 And also Set your heart upon the Way. Support yourself by its virtue. Rely on goodness. Find recreation in the arts. 4 Confucius put the moral duties before the arts as the essential activities of the gentleman. A young man’s duty is to behave well to his parents at home and to in love to all, and to cultivate the friendship of the good. If, when all that is done, he has any energy to spare, then let him study the cultural arts. Confucius taught many topics around these subjects, but the most importance of these is the propriety, ritual and the Way of being a Gentleman.

From these to achieve the Jen. Confucius had one overwhelming message: if we are to achieve a state of orderliness and peace, we need to return to traditional values of virtue. These values are based entirely on one concept: Jen, which is best, translated as humaneness. This humaneness is a relatively strange concept to Western people, because it is not primarily a practicable virtue.

The rules of propriety offered a code of accepted behaviour that demonstrated to themselves and others that they were cultured and proper gentlemen. For Confucius, the gentleman knew and behaved according to the rules of propriety. In the first chapter of Analects, Yu-Tzu gives the value of the rules of propriety. Among the functions of propriety the most valuable is that it establishes harmony. The Way of the ancient kings from this harmony got its beauty. It is the guiding principle of all things great and small.

If things go amiss, and he who knows the harmony tries to achieve it without regulating it by the rules of propriety, they will still go amiss. 6 Confucius explains what can happen if conduct is not guided by propriety. Courtesy not bounded by the rules of propriety becomes tiresome. Caution not bounded by the rules of propriety becomes timidity, daring becomes insubordination, straightforwardness becomes rudeness. 7 Nevertheless, Confucius did not believe in over-wallowing in ceremonies, and the feelings should be proper to the situations. In ceremonies it is better to be sparing than extravagant.

Funeral ceremonies should be observed in deep sorrow rather than in fear. 8 By the same mean, When substance, one becomes pedantic. When substance and refinement are properly blended, then one is a gentleman. 9 Confucius knew that the ancient routes had been reduced in his time, and that such reduction was politic. Were anyone today to serve his prince according to the full rules of propriety he would be thought a sycophant. 10 Many Confucius’ students were interest to become officials in government and so as Confucius himself, wanted the opportunity to advise rulers.

His aim is to put his knowledge into practice. A man may be able to recite the three hundred Odes; but, if when given a post in the government, he does not know how to act, or when sent on a mission to far parts he cannot answer specific questions, however extensive his knowledge may be, of what use is it to him. 11 Nevertheless, an official must improve himself and regulate his own conduct before he could hope to rule over others. Hence, self-improvement was prerequisite to engaging in politics. If a minister makes his own conduct correct, he will have no difficulty in assisting in government.

But if he cannot rectify himself, how can he possibly rectify others? 12 Despite Confucius illustrates wisdom and Jen as essential to ruling, they still must be accomplished with dignity, and according to propriety. He explains why. He whose wisdom brings him into power, needs goodness to secure that power. Else, though he gets it, he will certainly lose it. He whose wisdom brings him into power and who has goodness to secure that power, if he has not dignity to approach the common people, they will not respects him.

He whose wisdom brought him into power, who has goodness to secure that power, and dignity to approach the common people, if he handles them contrary to the rules of propriety, full excellence is not reached. 13 Confucius believed that official’s political action should follow the Way. His actions will vary depending on whether the government is following the Way or not. Confucius gives this advice for the different circumstances: Have sincere faith and love learning. Be not afraid to die for pursuing the good Way.

Do not enter a state that pursues dangerous courses, nor stay in a chaotic one. When the Way prevails under Heaven, then show yourself; when it does not prevail, then hide. When he Way prevails in your own land and you are poor and in a humble position, are ashamed of yourself. When the Way does not prevail in your land and you are wealthy and in an honourable position, are ashamed of yourself. 14 These was someone misunderstand how to put the Way into practice. Chi K’ang-tzu asked Confucius if it would be a good idea to kill those who had not the Way in order to help those who had the Way.

Confucius said, You are there to rule, not to kill. If you desire what is good, the people will be good. The essence of the gentleman is that of wind; the essence of small people is that of grass. And when a wind blows over the grass, then it bends. 15 The proper relationship between a ruler and his minister is the ruler should love his people, while the minister should be loyal to the ruler. Confucius explains the proper behaviour of each. How can he be said truly to love, who exacts no effort from the objects of his love?

How can he be said to be truly loyal, who refrains from admonishing the objects of his loyalty? 16 Confucius summarizes the art of the ruler as follows: A country of a thousand war-chariots cannot be administered unless the ruler attends strictly to business, punctually observes his promises, is economical in expenditure, loves the people, and uses the labour of the peasantry only at the proper times of year. 17 The main subject matter in Confucius’ teachings was how to become a good and virtuous person by improving his own character.

When Tzu-lu asked if courage was to be esteemed by the gentleman, Confucius said, The gentleman holds justice to be of highest importance. If a gentleman has courage but neglects justice, he becomes insurgent. If an inferior man has courage but neglects justice, he becomes a thief. 18 Confucius’ main methods for achieving these virtues was learning. However, learning is not enough to fulfil the need. People must be able to think. He who learns but does not think is lost; he who thinks but does not learn is in danger. 19 Confucius also mentions the friendship and the virtues of faithfulness and sincerity.

First and foremost, be faithful to your superiors, keep all promises, refuse the friendship of all who are not like you; and if you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending your ways. 20 Confucius explain to his students which kinds of friends are beneficial and which are harmful to their characters. There are three sorts of friendships which are advantageous, and three which are injurious. Friendships with the upright, friendships with the sincere, and friendships with those well informed are advantageous.

Friendships with those who flatter, friendships with those of weak principle, and friendships with those talk cleverly are injurious. 21 The master also reveal there are three sorts of pleasures which are advantageous, and three which are injurious. Finding pleasure in the discriminating study of ceremonies and music, finding pleasure in discussing the good points in the conduct of others, and finding pleasure in having many wise friends, these are advantageous. But finding pleasure in profligate enjoyments, finding pleasure in idle gadding about, and finding pleasure in feasting, these are injurious. 2 Ritual, was an important subject of study. It has been illustrate by the poetry and music from the study of Confucius.

It is also the Way of teaching people to the Gentleman level. If a man is not humane, what has he to do with ritual? If a man is not humane, what has he to do with music? 23 Confucius had explain the relationship between ritual and Jen in greater details. Yen Hui asked about humaneness. The master said, To subdue oneself and return to ritual is humane. If for one day a ruler could subdue himself and return to ritual, then all under Heaven would respond to the humaneness in him.

For does humaneness proceed from the man himself, or does it proceed from othersdo not speak what is contrary to ritual, and make no movement, which is contrary to ritual. 24 Poetry had broader humanistic values for understanding oneself and other people, and even increased one’s awareness of the natural world. My children, why do you not study the Book of Poetry? The Odes serve to stimulate the mind. They may be used for purposes of self-contemplation. They teach the art of sociability. They show how to regulate feelings of resentment.

From them you learn the more immediate duty of serving one’s father, and the remoter one of serving one’s prince. From them we become largely acquainted with the names of birds, beasts, and plants. 25 Confucius was also a great lover of music and played some himself. However, the teaching of this art was apparently handed over to the Grand music master to whom Confucius gave his ideas on how music should follow the ideal of the ancient pattern and then allow for some improvisation while still maintaining harmony. Their music in so far as one can find out about it began with a strict unison.

Soon the musicians were given more liberty; but the tone remained harmonious, brilliant, consistent, right on till the close. 26 Ssu-ma Ch’ien quotes this exact passage, but then goes on to give more information in regard to Confucius’ use of poetry and music. He once also said, After my return to Lu from Wei, I have been able to restore the musical tradition and classify the music of sung and ya and restore the songs to their respective original music. In the ancient times, there were over three thousand songs, but Confucius took out the duplicates and selected those that were suited to good form.

The collection began with the songs of Ch’i and Houchi, covered the great period of the Shang and Chou kings and carried it down to the times of the tyrants Yu and Li. It begins with a song of marital love, and therefore it is said the song Kuan-ch’ih heads the collection of Feng; Luming heads the collection of the ‘Little ya’; and Ch’ingmiao heads the collection of the Sung. Confucius personally sang all the three hundred and five songs and played the music on a string instrument to make sure that it fitted in with the score of hsiao, wu, ya, and sung.

Through his efforts, the tradition of ancient rites and music was therefore rescued from oblivion and handed down to posterity, that they might help in the carrying out of this ideal of a king’s government and in the teaching of the Six Arts. 27 Lin Yutang tells us that the six Arts could not only refer to the six classics mentioned above but also to the six branches of study practised during these times, namely propriety, music, archery, carriage-driving, reading, and mathematics. 28 Also in considering these later accounts, we must be aware of the tendency to glorify and expand on what Confucius did.

Although Ssu-ma Ch’ien often went against orthodox Confucian beliefs, he was susceptible to exaggeration, as can be seen from this: Confucius taught poetry, history, propriety, and music to 3,000 pupils of whom 72, like Yen Tutsou, had mastered the Six Arts. 29 There is one more marvellous anecdote from Ssu-ma Ch’ien concerning Confucius’ playing of music. Confucius was once learning to play on ch’in (a string instrument) from the music master Hsiang-tzu, and did not seem to make much progress for ten days. The music master said to him,

You may well learn something else now, and Confucius replied, I have already learned the melody, but have not learned the beat and rhythm yet. After some time, the music master said, You have now learned the beat and rhythm, you must take the next step. I have not learned the expression, said Confucius. After a while, the music master again said, Now you have learned the expression, you must take the next step. And Confucius replied, I have not yet got an image in my mind of the personality of the composer.

After some time the music master said, There’s a man behind this music, who is occupied in deep reflection and who sometimes happily lifts his head and looks far away, fixing his mind upon the eternal. I’ve got it now, said Confucius. He is a tall, dark man and his mind seems to be that of an empire builder. Can it be any other person than King Wen himself? The music master rose from his seat and bowed twice to Confucius and said, It is the composition of King Wen. 30 The term Gentleman, chun-tzu, is mean to be the member of the upper class by Confucius, the man of virtue and propriety.

The Analects appears to be the earliest work in which chun-tzu was used to imply high moral standards in a person; here it denotes the ideal man whom all men should cultivate their characters to imitateSuch a man, noble in virtue, was not necessarily a noble in social status. 31 This is an indication of the tremendous influence Confucius must have had. Ssu-ma Niu once asked Confucius what the term gentleman meant. Confucius said that a gentleman has no distress or fear. Ssu-ma Niu then asked if this is meant by being a gentleman.

The master said, On looking within himself he discovers nothing wrong. What is there for him to anxious about of fear? 32 A gentleman is not worried by what others think of him, only that he corrects himself. There are three things, which a gentleman must watch out for certain main inclination. There are three things which a gentleman guards against. In his youth when his physical powers are not yet settled, he guards against lust. In his prime when his physical powers are full of vigour, he guards against strife. In old age when his physical powers are decaying, he guards against avarice. 3 Confucius gives his students an elaborate catalogue of the concerns of a gentleman as guidelines for their behaviour.

The gentleman has nine cares. In seeing he is careful to see clearly; in hearing he is careful to hear distinctly; in his looks he is careful to be kind, in his manner to be respectful, in his words to be sincere, in his work to be diligent. When in doubt he is careful to ask for information; when angry he has a care for the consequences; and when he sees a chance for gain, he thinks carefully whether the pursuits of it would be right. 34 The essential purpose of Confucius philosophy was to help people to become good.

The propriety, ritual, and the Way to be a Gentleman are just the first step of the Confucius’ theory. Self-improve, unionize family, rule the state, and conquer the world. 35 These are the levels a superior man must go through. In order to become the superior man, self-improvement is the fundamental part of the success. Although Confucius might be not a modern Master, but his sayings and his encouragement of personality development will never be forget. As the Chinese people and the world stepping into the next millennium, Confucius will be in the minds of many people, as they think of the greatest teacher in Chinese history.


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