Confucius - The Man and the Myth - Part 2

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Confucius Facts and Myths

Confucius - The Failure and Success

Despite his initial success, Confucius left this position, apparently frustrated that the ruler would not adopt his reforms and advice on a wider scale. It was to mark one of his many breks with the ruling elite.Confucius embarked on a new course in life, one which would shape his destiny and that of China. Despite being only in his early twenties and lacking the life experience that comes with maturity, Confucius decided that he wished to a be a teacher, not a classroom teacher but a teaching philosopher in the tradition of Socrates and Pythagoras.

Confucius gathered a group of students around him, all young men, of simiilar ages who came to learn from him. What he could have taught them at this early stage, when his moral and practical philosophy had not yet fully formed, is not clear. However, there is no doubt that he was a popular teacher, drawing students from all parts of China. He is noted for having accepted students regardless of their financial means, asking only that they pay what they could afford and that they be willing and eager to learm. However, this commendable attitude of making education available for all, or at least all males, since there were no girls among his disciples, was undermined by his uncompromising attitude. Confucius is quoted as saying that: “When I have presented one corner of a subject,” said he, “ and the pupil cannot go on to learn the other three, I do not repeat the lesson.”

To modern eyes, and anyone with common sense, this sort of teaching seems grossly inadequate. In fact, a student teacher who adopted such a style of teaching today would likely be failed from their course and fail to qualify. Yet this quote, and the educational philosophy that it demonstrates, is quoted repeatedly as a sign of Confucius's wisdom and intellect. It simply goes to show that sometimes reputation is unearned and undeserved.

When he was 24 years old, Confucius's beloved mother died. Confucius undertook a lengthy period of mourning and is said to have used his time to study the classics and rediscovering the ancient virtues and wisdoms. Throughout his later career as a moral and practical philosopher, Confucius would explain that he was not an innovator and he justified all of his teachings by reference to ancient quotations and examples of conduct. He described himself as a restorer of traditions. Very often he altered historical events to make them suit his didactic purposes, even to the point where his commentary on the event and the supposed virtue of a past ruler bears absolutely no resemblance to the written record, which reveals that the ruler in question acted in an egregiously cruel or corrupt manner.

When he was in his thirties, Confucius was given an opportunity to apply his theories. Two of his disciples were of noble birth. Through them, Confucius was allowed to visit the kingdom of Chow in 517 B.C. and examine the treasured books of the royal library. On his return to his native state of Lu, Confucius found the state in turmoil.The Marquis of Lu had ben defeated in a power struggle with his nobles and had fled to the neighboring state of Tsi. Confucius, ever conservative in matters of politics and social development, refused to countenance the rebels and instead joined the Marquis in exile, accompanied by an entourage of disciples.

Legend has it that as he traveled into exile, Confucius passed a woman weeping in a remote spot of the wilderness. One of his disciples asked the woman the reason for her sadness and she replied: “My husband's father was killed here by a tiger ; my husband was also killed, and now my son has met the same fate." The woman was asked why she did not leave this place and she answered that at least here government was not oppressive. Confucius therefore said to his disciples, “ Remember this, oppressive government is fiercer and more dreaded than a tiger.”

The story of the woman and the tiger is surely a made-up parable meant to illustrate that bad governments are really bad, but it does stand for Confucius's idea that the government must not be oppressive. He expanded his theories of good government including how taxation and military affairs should be handled in a a number of anecdotes and observations which would later be collected by his disciples in books called the Analects.

The Marquis of Tsi welcomed Confucius and offered him a considerable income in exchange for his counsel. Confucius however refused unless the Marquis would implement all of his proposed methods and reforms, which he believed would usher in the perfect state. And so Confucius left in a huff. If he could not have his way then the State of Tsi could not have the benefit of his wisdom. Confucius packed up and took his disciples with him.

When he was 54 years old, Confucius was welcomed back into Tsi which was now governed by the son of the previous Marquis. The new Marquis was at first inclined to accede to Confucius's demands and Confucius was put in charge of the administration of justice and other important departments, each time bringing about important reforms and improvements to the economy and social condition of the people. But later a neighboring marquis sent over a troupe of dancing girls and a collection of fine horses to distract the Marquis away from these dangerous reforms. The ruse worked and the Marquis was soon enamored both by his new harem and his new stable and forgot Confucius and his crazy ideas. Confucius left, dejected and disappointed once more. He apparently had been bluffing because Confucius waited a while at the border, hoping that the Marquis would send a messenger to recall him but none came. In the world of philosophy, the strongest philosophical argument always loses against a bevy of beautiful girls and fine horses and so Confucius left again.

Confucius now became an itinerant philosopher/teacher for the next 13 years. Despite his failure to reshape society, Confucius refused to withdraw from it and become a hermit. He stated: “ It is impossible to withdraw from the company of men, and associate with birds and beasts, that have no affinity with us. The disorder which prevails among men requires my efforts. If right principles ruled throughout the kingdom, there would be no necessity for me to change its state.” Yet the sage could not find a ruler who would accept his guidance.

When he was sixty-nine years old, Confucius returned to Lu. He received a better reciption under the new ruler, but was not granted any government office. His life indeed declined into the bitterness of old age He outlived his wife (apparently not a huge loss to Confucius), his son, and his favorite disciples. One day, just after he had risen, Confucius was heard reciting a verse,

“ The great mountain must crumble,

The strong trees must fall,

The wise man must wither as a plant.”

When Tze-Kung, one of his disciples, asked an explanation, Confucius told him that a dream had presaged his death. Seven days later he expired, 478 b.c. His disciples buried him with great pomp, and mourned for him for nearly three years. Tze-Kung continued mourning as much longer. The grave of Confucius is in a cemetery near the city of Kiuh-fow.

The disciples of Confucius did much to glorify the memory of the philosopher and systematize his teachings. They collected his best aphorisms and anecdotes in the Analects and other books, for although he was literate Confucius had surprisingly left no significant books or essays expounding his own theory. What remains of Confucianism is hearsay recollection from his disciples, who often did not disdain to invent their own teachings and attribute them to the Master, just as Confucius had cast his own teachings and philosophy as a recovery of past wisdom.

Viewed objectively, the life of Confucius was an abject failure. He never succeeded in doing anything of note and no one accepted his teachings. In fact, his teachings and his disciples were later persecuted by later Chinese emperors, who found his political philosophy antithetical to their quest for unfettered power. Many of his disciples were martyred by being buried or burned alive when they would not renounce their master. How this little effete man preoccupied with complex and stifling rules of decorum could have inspired such devotion unto death is unclear.

Incredibly, despite despite this persecution or perhaps because of it, Confucius and his teachings only rose in stature and eventually became ingrained inextricably in the fabric of Chinese society. Later emperors stopped the Confucian persecutions and adopted his teachings and sought to legitimize their rule with reference to Confucianism.

There is an obvious parallel between the persecution and eventual triumph of Confucianism by Chinese emperors and the persecution and eventual rise of Christianity under the Roman Empire. However Confucius was no Christ figure or messiah of any sort. Despite the apocryphal stories of a miraculous birth, Confucius never claimed to have supernatural powers or to be a divinity. And unlike Jesus, Confucius was no rule breaker. No could imagine Confucius chasing money lenders from the temple with a whip or forgiving the woman caught in adultery. In the same circumstances, Confucius would have likely favored the stoning of the adulteress on the grounds that this was tradition and promoted social and matrimonial harmony; on the same grounds he would have favored money lending in the temple as being traditional and therefore good.

Confucius left no writings detailing the principles of his moral and social system. From his oral teaching his grandson Tze-sze wrote, “ The Doctrine of the Mean,” and his disciple, Tsang Sin, “ The Great Learning.” Other disciples compiled his discourses and dialogues in the “ Analects." Of later writers, who treat of his opinions, the most noted is Mencius, who was born in 371 B.C., and died in 288, being thus contemporary with Aristotle and Demosthenes. Mencius, while professing profound respect for Confucius, amplified his doctrine, acting thus somewhat as Plato did towards Socrates.

Confucius never claimed to have a divine revelation. Though he was scrupulous in performing the ritual ceremonies, it was out of respect for antiquity rather than belief in communion with God. For the older words denoting the Supreme Being or Almighty Ruler he substituted the impersonal term Heaven. Though Confucius said, “ I have long prayed,” he did not command or even recommend prayer. Men were advised to study themselves. In the “ Analects ” it is said that there are four subjects of which Confucius seldom spoke: extraordinary things, feats of strength, rebellion and spiritual beings. Confucius did not attempt to explain the custom of sacrificing to the spirits of the departed. To an inquirer he said, “While you do not know life, what can you know about death?” But while Confucius avoided dogmatizing about spiritual existence, he had a strong belief in human nature, as fitting man to live in society, and to this his thoughts were chiefly directed. Good and evil would be recompensed by their effects either on the actor or on his descendants. His teaching was purely ethical. He emphasized the power of example and urged upon all in authority the duty of benevolence. A bad man is unfit to rule, and will therefore lose the power of ruling. But a virtuous ruler will secure virtue among his subjects. The ideal at which he aimed he called “the superior man.” He considered all men as having moral sense, and that compliance with its indications is the rule of life. The duty of a ruler is to enable his subjects to pursue this course tranquilly. The following are some of his sayings with regard to the superior man:

“ The superior man is dignified, and does not wrangle; he is social, but not a partisan.”

“What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the inferior man seeks is in others.”

The loftiest of his utterances is his form of Golden Rule :

“ What you do not like when done to yourself do not do to others.” Though negative in form it was interpreted as positive in application. At the request of a disciple Confucius expressed it also by a single word or symbol {shu) meaning literally, “as heart.” This is imperfectly translated by the English word “reciprocity;” it denotes full sympathy with the feelings and desires of others.

Prior to the Communist Revolution, standards of ethics and morality in China were largely formed by the study of the sayings of Confucius, whether genuine or apocryphal. The learned classes could repeat every sentence of the classical books; the masses of the people delighted in recalling the Confucian maxims. All practiced the ceremonies which he constantly performed and enjoined.

Although the Cultural Revolution, and the recent economic boom have done much to alter Chinese society, many of its roots can still be traced back to the teachings of Confucius.