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Confucius (551–479 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Confucius is arguably the most influential philosopher in human history – ‘is’ because, taking Chinese philosophy on its own terms, he is still very much alive. Recognized as China’s first teacher both chronologically and in importance, his ideas have been the rich soil in which the Chinese cultural tradition has grown and flourished. In fact, whatever we might mean by ‘Chineseness’ today, some two and a half millennia after his death, is inseparable from the example of personal character that Confucius provided for posterity. Nor was his influence restricted to China; all of the Sinitic cultures – especially Korea, Japan and Vietnam – have evolved around ways of living and thinking derived from the wisdom of the Sage.

A couple of centuries before Plato founded his Academy to train statesmen for the political life of Athens, Confucius had established a school with the explicit purpose of educating the next generation for political leadership. As his curriculum, Confucius is credited with having over his lifetime edited what were to become the Chinese Classics, a collection of poetry, music, historical documents and annals that chronicled the events at the Lu court, along with an extensive commentary on the Yijing (Book of Changes). These classics provided a shared cultural vocabulary for his students, and became the standard curriculum for the Chinese literati in subsequent centuries.

Confucius began the practice of independent philosophers travelling from state to state in an effort to persuade political leaders that their particular teachings were a practicable formula for social and political success. In the decades that followed the death of Confucius, intellectuals of every stripe – Confucians, Legalists, Mohists, Yin–yang theorists, Militarists – would take to the road, attracted by court academies which sprung up to host them. Within these seats of learning, the viability of their various strategies for political and social unity would be hotly debated.

Citing this article:
Lau, D.C. and Roger T. Ames. Confucius (551–479 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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