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Confucius

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

B. C. 550-478

THE SOURCES OF WISDOM IN ANTIQUITY

If the merit of a teacher is to be gauged by the number of his pupils, then must Confucius, the sage of China, head the list of the world's great philosophers. Nearly one-third of the human race today hang upon the lips of Confucius. Temples are erected to him, and universities are established, where learned professors expound his doctrines, while peasants in the common schools commit to memory and daily repeat his maxims.

A sage who has won for himself so high a place in the veneration of a people can, we may be certain, have been no ordinary personage. And yet the story of the life of Confucius is, on the whole, a disappointing one. We fail to discover in his biography, as it has come down to us, when stripped of its plainly fictitious details, any evidence of extraordinary mental vigor in the man, while the few writings which can with certainty be referred to Confucius are almost painfully deficient in any of those marks of greatness of intellect which we naturally look for in them. We shall be led to conclude that the secret of the great popularity of Confucius was less in the quality than in the character of his teaching. He was essentially and emphatically a Chinaman an embodiment of one of the strongest traits of the Chinese character, profound respect for the past and aversion to progress.

Confucius was born in the year 550 B. C., and was therefore very nearly a contemporary of the Greek sage Pythagoras. He was of noble lineage, though his father was in straitened circumstances, tracing his genealogy back over 500 years to the Kings of the dynasty of Shang. His family name was Kung, and the name Confucius, by which he is best known to us, is a Latinized form of Kung Fu-tze, by which designation he came to be known finally —that is, Kung the Philosopher. Before giving some of the few facts in his life which seem to be authentic, it will be best to glance at the condition of China at that period in its history.

In the time of Confucius, China or, more properly, the Kingdom of Chow had less than one-sixth of its present extent of territory. It consisted only of what is now the province of Honan, together with some bordering portions of the present surrounding provinces. The home of Confucius was in the State of Lu, eastward of Honan, in the present province of Shantung. Through the north-ern part of the kingdom ran the River Ho, or Yellow River. The population of the country at that time has been estimated at from 10,000,000 to 15,000,000. Chow was a feudal kingdom, quite closely resembling in its constitution France during the Middle Ages. The reigning dynasty that of Chow had been in possession of the Government since 1 122 B. C., but its authority had long been waning, until it had become little more than nominal. The real power was in the hands of a nobility, which consisted of several orders, closely resembling the marquises, dukes, counts, etc., of Europe in the feudal times. The system of the government required that these princes, on the occasion of a fresh succession, should appear at the court and receive their investiture from the King, and thereafter should visit the court at stated times. They were required to pay annually certain specified tributes, and they might be called out with their levies at any time to render military service. Practically, however, they were so many petty independent sovereigns, each supreme in his own little state, and there were among them jealousies and rivalries, which kept the kingdom in a perpetual state of internecine war. The chronicles of the period are filled with tales of violence and rapine and atrocious crimes. Good government had ceased anywhere to exist in the kingdom, and in its place were disorganization, misrule, and misery for the mass of the people.

Such was the condition of affairs in China at the time of the birth of Confucius. How to remedy the evil, how to bring order out of chaos, and to restore peace and happiness to his distracted country, was a question to which he early began to devote his serious thought. He turned to history to find an answer to the question, for already China had an historical literature, covering, or professing to cover, a period of over twenty centuries. His study of the good old times led him to see in the present a deplorable state of degeneracy. The remedy was to destroy the present and restore the past. An implicit faith in the wisdom of the men of former generations was a distinctive feature, as has already been intimated, in the Confucian philosophy. Confucius never laid claim to any peculiar wisdom in himself. He was not of a speculative or imaginative turn of mind. He claimed only to have learned by diligent study the wisdom of the fathers, and his highest aspiration was to imitate their example. He always looked backward; never forward. With this habit of mind, Confucius could have no conception of progress, for in his eyes all change meant deterioration.

Confucius tells us that he began to devote his attention to learning at the age of fifteen, but that it was not until he had passed his thirtieth year that he "stood firm" in his convictions on all of the subjects to the learning of which he had bent his mind. In his twenty-second year he opened a school for the instruction of young men in the principles of good government, probably at first in a modest way, though he seems soon to have gained a high reputation, and to have secured many disciples, and also to have attracted the attention of the leading men in his state. He accepted from his disciples substantial aid; but he rejected none who could give him even the smallest fee, and he would retain none who did not show earnestness and capacity.

But Confucius aspired to be more than a teacher. Having made himself a master of the wisdom of the ages, he longed for an opportunity to put his wisdom to the practical test of actual administration of affairs. It was not, however, until he had reached his fifty-second year that he attained to this goal of his wishes, through an appointment as chief magistrate of the city of Chung-too, in his own State of Lu. A marvelous reformation, we are told, at once took place in the manners of the people. He was called, in consequence, to a higher office. He was finally appointed Minister of Crime, and, if we may trust his biographers, forthwith all crime ceased. At the same time two of his disciples obtained influential positions in Lu, and assisted him in the work of reform. One object at which he aimed was to restore the Prince to his legitimate authority, and this he accomplished by dismantling the fortified cities in which the great chiefs maintained themselves, like the barons of Europe. For two years Confucius continued at this work of reformation, and so remarkable a change for the better did he bring about that he became the idol of the people. Then came a check in the good work, before which even Confucius was helpless. The Prince of an adjoining state, observing the tide of prosperity that was rising over Lu, and fearing lest that state should become supreme in the kingdom, conceived a novel but effective expedient for undermining its power. He sent to the Prince of Lu a corps of beautiful women, skilled in music and dancing, and a troop of fine horses. Thenceforward Confucius was neglected; the Prince of Lu yielded supinely to the fascination of the harem.

Confucius now departed from Lu in sorrow and disappointment, and set out on a wandering, which lasted thirteen years, through the various states of the kingdom, hoping continually that the Prince of Lu would discover his error, and would recall him; but no recall ever came. In the course of his travels he seems to have tried to induce some Prince to give him office; but though many offered him a home and support, he found no one who was willing to trust him with the management of his affairs. In this long and famous wandering Confucius was accompanied by his favorite disciples, and the many incidents which occurred and adventures which befell them, make interesting reading in the biographies of the sage.

Confucius returned to Lu in his sixty-ninth year. The state was now in the hands of the son of the Prince who had neglected him; but Confucius would not again take office. During the remainder of his days he devoted himself to literary work and the giving of lectures to his disciples. He died in 478 B. C., at the age of seventy-two.

The grave of Confucius stands in a large rectangular enclosure, outside the city Kiuh-fow. A large and lofty mound, which is approached through a long avenue of cypress trees, has standing in front of it a marble statue, bearing the title given to Confucius under the Sung dynasty: "The most ancient Teacher; the All-accomplished, the All-informed King."

Confucius was a student, rather than a philosopher--- a man learned in all the lore of the ancients; not an original thinker in a metaphysical sense. He simply drew lessons from what he read or from what he observed. He was, as he himself said, not a "maker," but a "transmit-ter." Nor did he ever lay claim to divine inspiration. Looking backward over the past, he found existing certain institutions and relations which must be conceived to have been divinely established. There were five relations in particular which might be considered as forming the basis of society, as it had been ordained by heaven. These relations were those of King and subject, husband and wife, father and son, elder brothers and younger, and the mutual relation of friends. On the one side, in the case of the first four, there was authority; on the other submission. So long as these relations continued unimpaired, society was safe. But the authority should be wisely exercised; the submission should be unquestioning. Between friends, the mutual promotion of virtue should be the guiding principle. These divinely ordained relations were, however, continually disturbed by the human passions. Hence came all the evils which afflicted society. Restore the relation to their pristine perfectness, and all social disorders would cease. Let the King be a true King, exercising his authority firmly but wisely; let the people be submissive, and similarly let all the other relations be maintained, as it was the design of heaven that they should be maintained, and there would be no social disturbances. More than this, the natural relations might always be maintained, provided the controlling member in each couple were guided by right principles. Let the model ruler appear and forthwith there would appear the model people. He himself could form the model. Confucius once said : "If any ruler would submit to me for twelve months, I should accomplish something considerable, and in three years I should attain the realization of my hopes." How his first and only experiment in governing was frustrated by the seductions of beauty, has already been related.

The scope of the studies of Confucius took, however, a much wider range than the management of affairs of state. He descended into all the minutiae of the relations of man to man in even the most trivial affairs of daily life. He gave minute instructions for the nurture and education of children; he impressed upon children the duty of filial obedience; he gave rules of etiquette and conduct for the intercourse of all classes of society. No important action, whether in the family or in society at Iarge, was overlooked or left by him without some rule for guidance.

Underlying all these rules of social intercourse forming their basis was the "golden rule," which has often been quoted, "What you do not like when done to your-self, do not do to others." By a peculiarity of the Chinese written language this Confucian rule may be expressed by a single monogram. Confucius himself is said to have first drawn it, when asked by one of his disciples whether there was not one word which would serve as a rule of practice for all one's life. The monogram consists of a character which means "heart," with which is combined a symbol which means "as." It is therefore to be read "as heart," which may easily be expanded into "as the heart dictates" a formula whereby Confucius doubtless intended to express his conviction that our impulses are always right, though passion may interfere with action. It has been said that Confucius gave the rule in a negative form only. But he himself understood it also in its positive and most comprehensive application, and on one occasion deplored that he had not been able always him-self to follow it.

The teachings of Confucius are known to us mainly through the writings of his disciples. Very little which he himself wrote has been preserved. And, indeed, those writings which are accepted generally as having come from his pen throw little or no light upon his doctrines. On the contrary, they are so entirely without any traces of. his reputed wisdom, that one cannot but regret that we are obliged to credit him with their authorship. The Chun Tsu, or Spring and Autumn Annals, is the only extensive work which can be attributed to Confucius. It deals with the history of the State of Lu during a time when, says Mencius, "the world was fallen to decay, and right principles had fallen away," when "perverse discourses and oppressive deeds were again waxen rife," and when "ministers murdered their rulers and sons murdered their fathers." One would suppose that in treating a subject such as this, Confucius would have found abundant food for reflection and comment, and would have pointed to the moral of so wretched a tale. But if one turns to the work in the expectation of finding in it any-thing of this sort, he is doomed to be grievously disappointed. The work is the baldest of all annals, consisting simply of sententious statements that such or such a thing happened at such or such time, with no thread of narrative to connect the events, and not a word of comment. Here is a sample of this great work of Confucius, selected by Dr. Legge a work by which Confucius declared that he would be known to posterity and by which he would be judged:

"1. In the 15th year in spring the Duke went to Tse. 2. A body of men from Tsoo invaded Sen. 3. In the third month the Duke had a meeting with the Marquise of Tse and others, when they made a covenant in Mow-Kew, and then went on to Kwang. 4. Kung-Sun Gaou led a force, and with the great officers of other Princes endeavored to relieve Sen. 5. In the summer, in the 5th month, the sun was eclipsed." And so on through page after page.

From this dreary book of annals we turn to the Confucian Analects, which are records of the doings and sayings of the sage, written by one of his faithful disciples, and here, let us hope, we get a better idea of what manner of man he was. The following are a few of the reputed sayings of Confucius :

"What the superior man seeks is in himself ; what the small man seeks is in others.

"A poor man who does not flatter, and a rich man who is not proud, are passable characters; but they are not equal to the poor who are yet cheerful, and the rich who yet love the rules of propriety.

"Learning, undigested by thought, is labor lost; thought, unassisted by learning, is perilous.

"In style all that is required is that it convey the meaning.

"The cautious seldom err."

Sententious sayings such as these form the bulk of the Confucian philosophy. It is in this form that the wisdom of the sage is memorized by the millions of his followers. Thousands of the literati in China can repeat by heart every sentence of the classical books; while the less highly educated people of the lower classes have scores of these Confucian maxims in their memories, and little else in the way of moral precept.

Confucius was a moralist only, and in no sense the founder of a religious creed. Indeed, he purposely and expressly kept aloof from the subject of religion. "While you cannot serve man," he replied to one of his disciples who had questioned him on this subject, "how can you serve spirits?" And to the question, "What becomes of man after he has taken his departure from this world?" his reply was, "While you do not know life, what can you know about death ?" Confucius confined his thoughts and those of his disciples to the affairs of this life. There was, he conceived, enough in this world to occupy man's thought, and it were folly to perplex one's self over the uncertainties of a future state. And such is Confucianism today an unreligious rationalism, or, as is the approved modern term expressive of this undecided state of mind, agnosticism. Missionaries have told us that the educated in China, who are all followers of Confucius, and are therefore atheists, ordinarily return in the hour of death to the belief and practices of Buddhism, and the statement seems probable, for gloomy indeed in that hour must appear the soulless wisdom of Confucius.

Historians have credited Confucius with having molded the national character of the Chinese. That he gave it the medium of its expression, would, perhaps, be a more exact statement of his influence in this direction. It is not easy to believe that any one man can ever have formed the character of a nation. China is stationary to-day, not because Confucius bound it to the past, but because of the essentially immobile character of its people, and Confucius is great in China because he is the apostle of immobility.

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