A Synopsis of the Ethics of Confucianism
In contrast to Western philosophy, Chinese thought views man as but a single, though vital part of the complexity of nature. The Chinese have aspired to attain harmony with nature as a source of spiritual satisfaction. Life is not a transitory phenomenon, but real, viewed and appreciated for its beauty and order. They, i.e. beauty and order, are esthetic entities and are to be cherished and savored in life. Man and nature are in a reciprocal relationship, thus affecting each other. Just as the forces of nature can bring bliss but also disaster, so can man upset the delicate balance by his misdeeds. Heaven (the supernatural world), Earth and man constitute a single and indivisible unity. No boundaries between the three exist. Man must do his part, by conforming to natural law. When he does so, society enjoys peace and tranquility. When he transgresses, Heaven and nature are disturbed, the intricate relationships break down, and consequently calamities follow. The preceding is characteristic of an attitude in which Confucian ethics is embedded. The source of desire for harmony lies in prehistoric times, and gave rise to cosmology and philosophy.
The Fourth Century B.C. saw the introduction of new ideas, which encompass two principles representing the two modes of primeval energy: the yang and the ying. The former is the positive and masculine, the latter is the negative and feminine. (This is a very simplistic characterization, on which I can elaborate if desired.) While such concepts are not unique in themselves, in oriental thinking however they complement one another. (In contrast to the dualism such as light and dark or good and evil, in Zoroastrianism for example, in which the forces of light and dark contend.) How does one explain the harmony between the two spheres in Chinese thinking? Tao! Its literal meaning is “a way,” “a road,” “the way of nature,” “universal law.” When integrated, the two (yang and yin) transcend their uniqueness or separateness and become the Universal. When resigning one’s will, harmony, peace and enlightenment are found. Elaborated by a succession of scholars and sages, the way of Tao became Taoism.
Confucianism is something of a derivative. As a matter of fact, Confucius insisted on close adherence to Tao. However, he was pragmatic and concerned with the existential problems of man, hence he deals less with generalities and more with the practical matters of daily and personal relationships. The essence of his system of relationships is fivefold, and fundamental to his social order: ruler and subject; father and son; husband and wife; older brother and younger brother; older friend and younger friend. The ideal of conduct, ordering all human relationships and resulting in an ideal social structure and harmony is: li. A famous Confucian maxim is: “Never do to others, what you would not like them to do to you.” (Golden Rule ?) His disciples later on developed ten attitudes that are to govern the five relationships: love in father and filial piety in the son; gentility in the oldest brother and humility and respect in the younger; righteous behavior in the husband and obedience in the wife; humane consideration in elders and deference in juniors; benevolence in rulers and loyalty in subjects. Confucius did not claim to be the originator of this philosophical/ethical code. Some of the ideas he claims to have derived from classical writings, but he codified them and illuminated them with his own insights and principles. Thus developed one the great and most durable ethical and social edifices in recorded time. It shaped Chinese thought and character.
Confucius was born into an aristocratic but poor family in Shantung province in 551 B.C. His family name was K’ung. “Confucius” is a Jesuit Latinization of his name. He spent most of his life as a teacher, moving from state to state. Although he himself wrote little (his followers recorded his ideas) he is credited with building a system of ethics by which China has subsequently lived. He died in 479 B.C. Although he disclaimed any credit for founding a faith, he was venerated by successive dynasties as a sage. Even shrines were erected in his honor, and offerings were brought. The heart of Confucian teachings is found in the Analects, the Confucian bible. They are precepts that are applicable to daily living, but the book also contains a good deal of relevant and interesting information on the life of Confucius. For example: regarding the possiblity of meeting a faultless man, he said: “A faultless man I cannot ever hope to meet; the most I can hope for is to meet a man of fixed principles. Yet where all around I see Nothing pretending to be Something, and Emptiness pretending to be Fullness, and Penury pretending to be Affluence, even a man of fixed principles will be hard to find.”
The short maxims and proverbs that constitute the core of Confucianism are all attributed to the Master. The range of topics is wide, f.ex. Ritual and Sacrifice; The Individual Path; Goodness; Aesthetics; Government and A Gentleman’s Conduct. A few excerpts and paraphrases follow:
1. “Just as lavishness leads easily to presumption, so does frugality to meanness. But meanness is a far less serious fault than presumption.”
2. “Is courage to be prized by a gentleman? A gentleman gives the first place to Right. If a gentleman has courage but neglects Right, he becomes turbulent. If a small man has courage but neglects Right, he becomes a thief.”
3. “It is Goodness that gives to a neighborhood its beauty. … Imperturbable, resolute, tree-like, slow to speak – such a one is near to Goodness. Neither the scholar who has truly the heart of a scholar nor the man of good stock who ;has the qualities that belong to good stock, will ever seek life at the expense of Goodness, and it may be that he has to give his life in order to achieve Goodness.”
4. “There are three things that a gentleman fears: he fears the will of Heaven, he fears great men, he fears the words of the Divine Sages. The small man does not know the will of Heaven and so does not fear it. He treats great men with contempt, and he scoffs at the words of the Divine Sages.”
5. “Wealth and rank are what every man desires, but if they can only be retained to the detriment of the Way he professes, he must relinquish them. Poverty and obscurity are what every man detests, but if they can only be avoided to the detriment of the Way he professes, he must accept them. … Never for a moment does a gentleman quit the way of Goodness. He is never so harried but that he cleaves to this; never so tottering but that he cleaves to this.”
Will the Confucian ethic survive Marxist-Chinese Communism? How could a disciplined, gracious society such as China produce bands of rigid zealots bent on destroying all traces of harmony, balance and justice? Is there reason for optimism? There are those, familiar with Chinese culture, who believe that Confucianism will revive in favorable weather like a dormant seed.
Confucian philosophy began its entrance into Japanese history in the sixth century, in a process that was more or less complete by the end of the ninth century. As such, it paralleled the first great wave of Chinese influence in Japan. Favored by the Tokugama, Confucianism attained great vigor in the seventeenth century, continuing into the nineteenth century, and pervading much of the philosophical temper of the time, From then on, Confucian thinking in Japan went into decline. Its cosmology, could no be sustained in the light of modern science, and its moral precepts were taken to be obstacles to the development of a society that was intended to challenge. Nonetheless, as pointed out by Reischauer, ethical values of Confucian philosophy have survived in modern Japan, and provide accepted standards of conduct in interpersonal relationships, and determine the citizen’s sense of loyalty to government and Emperor. In that sense, Reischauer’s summation of the relevance of Confucian thinking for the modern Japanese, appears to be incisive: “Almost no one considers himself a Confucianist today, but in a sense almost all Japanese are” (p. 204)