Confucius (551–479 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 24, 2019, from

2. Teachings

There are many sources for the teachings of Confucius that have been passed down to us today. The most authoritative among them are the Lunyu Analects. (Lunyu literally means ‘discourses’; a better translation is ‘analects’, coming from the Greek analekta, which has the root meaning of ‘leftovers after a feast’.) It is probably the case that the first fifteen books of these literary ‘leftovers’ were assembled and edited by a congress of Confucius’ disciples shortly after his death. It would seem the disciples concluded that a very special person had walked among them, and that his way – what he said and did – should be preserved for future generations. Much of this portion of the text is devoted to remembering Confucius, a personal narrative of what he had to say, to whom he said it and how he said it. The middle three chapters are like snapshots of his life-habits – Confucius never sat down without first straightening his mat; he never slept in the posture of a corpse; he never sang on a day that he attended a funeral; he drank freely, but never to the point of being confused of mind.

The last five books of the Analects appear to have been compiled some time later, after the most prominent disciples of Confucius had launched their own teaching careers and had taken it upon themselves to elaborate on the philosophy of their late Master. Confucius is less prominent in these chapters, yet he is referenced with more honorific terms, while the now mature disciples are themselves often quoted.

In addition to the Analects, the other two most important resources for the life and teachings of Confucius are the Zuozhuan (the Zuo commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals), and the Mencius. The Zuo commentary is a narrative history which purports to interpret the chronicle of the court history of the state of Lu up until the death of Confucius. The Mencius is a text named after a disciple who elaborated the doctrines of Confucius some century and a half after his death (see Mencius), and became one of the Four Books in the Song dynasty, which were from then onwards the core of the Confucian classics (see Chinese Classics).

One thing is clear about the Analects and these supplementary texts: they do not purport to lay out a formula by which everyone should live. Rather, they provide an account of one man: how he cultivated his humanity, and how he lived a satisfying life, much to the admiration of those around him. The way (dao) of Confucius is nothing more or less than the way in which he as a particular person chose to live his life. The power and lasting value of his ideas lie in the fact that they are intuitively persuasive, and readily adaptable.

Confucius begins from the insight that the life of every human being is played out within the context of their particular family, for better or for worse. For Confucius and generations of Chinese to come, it is one’s family and the complex of relationships that constitute it, rather than the solitary individual, that is the basic unit of humanity. In fact, for Confucius, there is no individual – no ‘self’ or ‘soul’ – that remains once the layers of social relations are peeled away. One is one’s roles and relationships. The goal of living, then, is to achieve harmony and enjoyment for oneself and others through acting appropriately in those roles and relationships that constitute one.

Given that we all live within the web of family relationships, it is entirely natural that we should project this institution out onto the community, the polity and the cosmos as an organizing metaphor. The Confucian community is an extension of aunts and uncles, sisters and cousins; the teacher is ‘teacher–father’ and one’s senior classmates are ‘elder–brother students’; ‘the ruler is father and mother to the people, and is the son of “Heaven”’. ‘Heaven’ itself is a faceless amalgam of ancestors rather than some transcendent Creator deity (see Tian). As Confucius says, ‘The exemplary person works hard at the root, for where the root has taken firm hold, the way will grow.’ What then is the root? He continues: ‘Treating your family members properly – this is the root of becoming a person.’

For Confucius, the way to live is not dictated for us by some power beyond; it is something we all must participate in constructing. On one occasion, Confucius said ‘It is not the way that broadens people, but people who broaden the way.’ The way is our passage through life, the road we take. Our forbearers mapped out their way and built their roads, and in so doing, have provided a bearing for succeeding generations. They have given us the culture and institutions that structure our lives and give them value and meaning. But each new generation must be roadbuilders too, and continue the efforts that have gone before.

Confucius saw living as an art rather than a science. There are no blueprints, no formulae, no replications. He once said, ‘The exemplary person seeks harmony, not sameness.’ In a family, each member has his or her unique and particular role. Harmony is simply getting the most out of these differences. Similarly, Confucius saw harmony in community emerging out of the uninhibited contributions of its diverse people. Communal enjoyment is like Chinese cooking – getting the most out of your ingredients.

Confucius was extraordinarily fond of good music, because making music is conducent to harmony, bringing different voices into productive relationships. Music is tolerant in allowing each voice and instrument to have its own place, its own integrity, while at the same time, requiring that each ingredient find a complementary role in which it can add the most to the ensemble. Music is always unique in that each performance has a life of its own.

What Confucius calls ren – literally, ‘becoming a person’ – is the recognition that personal character is the consequence of cultivating one’s relationships with others (see Confucian philosophy, Chinese §5). There is nothing more defining of humanity for Confucius than the practical consideration of one human being for another. Importantly, ren does not precede practical employment; it is not a principle or standard that has some existence beyond the day to day lives of the people who realize it in their relationships. Rather, ren is fostered in the deepening of relationships that occur as one takes on the responsibility and obligations of communal living, and comes fully to life. Ren is shared human flourishing. It is the achievement of the quality of relationships which, like the lines in calligraphy or landscape painting, collaborate to maximum aesthetic effect.

Wisdom for Confucius is relevant knowledge: not knowing ‘what’ in some abstract and theoretical sense, but knowing ‘how’ to map one’s way through life and get the most happiness out of it. Happiness for oneself and for others is isomorphic; it is mutually entailing. In discussing knowledge, Confucius says that being fond of something is better than just knowing it, and finding enjoyment in it is better than just being fond of it. Confucius associates ren with mountains; it is spiritual and enduring, a constant geographical marker from which we can all take our bearings. Wisdom is like water, pure, flowing and nurturing. The exemplary person is both ren and wise, both mountain and water.

A good way to think about ‘the way’ is the notion of passage. On one occasion, Confucius observed while standing on the bank of a river, ‘Isn’t its passing just like this, never ceasing day or night!’ Life is at its very best a pleasant journey, where the inherited body of cultural institutions and the pattern of roles and relationships that locate us within community – what Confucius calls ‘propriety’ (li) – are a code of formal behaviours for stabilizing and disciplining our ever-changing circumstances. ‘Propriety’ covers everything from table manners to the three years of mourning on the loss of one’s parent, from the institution of parenthood to the appropriate posture for expressing commiseration. It is a social syntax that brings the particular members of community into meaningful relationships. Propriety is a discourse, which like language, enables people to communicate, and to locate themselves appropriately, one with the other.

What distinguishes ‘propriety’ from rules and regulations is that these cultural norms must be personalized, and are open to refinement. Only I can be father to my sons; only I can be this son to my mother; only I can sacrifice to my ancestors. And if I act properly, performing my roles and cultivating my relationships so that they are rich and fruitful, other people in community will see me as a model of appropriate conduct, and will defer. It is precisely this power of example that Confucius called ‘excellence’ (de). Excellence is the propensity of people to behave a certain way when provided with an inspiring model.

The other side to what Confucius calls ‘propriety’ is the cultivation of a sense of shame. Shame is community-based. It is an awareness of and a concern for how others perceive one’s conduct. Persons with a sense of shame genuinely care about what other people think of them. Self-sufficient individuals, on the other hand, need not be concerned about the judgments of others. Such individuals can thus be capable of acting shamelessly, using any means at all to take what they want when they want it.

Citing this article:
Lau, D.C. and Roger T. Ames. Teachings. Confucius (551–479 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

Related Searches