74. Confucius - The Eternal Philosopher and Messaiah of Ethics

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Who was Confucius ?

Confucius ( 551 BC–479 BC) was a Chinese philosopher and politician of the Spring and Autumn period.

The philosophy of Confucius, also known as Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. His followers competed successfully with many other schools during the Hundred Schools of Thought era only to be suppressed in favor of the Legalists during the Qin dynasty.

Following the victory of Han over Chu after the collapse of Qin, Confucius's thoughts received official sanction in the new government and were further developed into a system known in the West as Neo-Confucianism, and later New Confucianism (Modern Neo-Confucianism).

Confucius is traditionally credited with having authored or edited many of the Chinese classic texts including all of the Five Classics, but modern scholars are cautious of attributing specific assertions to Confucius himself. Aphorisms concerning his teachings were compiled in the Analects, but only many years after his death.

Confucius's principles have commonality with Chinese tradition and belief. He championed strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives, recommending family as a basis for ideal government. He espoused the well-known principle "Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself", the Golden Rule. He is also a traditional deity in Daoism.

Confucius is widely considered as one of the most important and influential individuals in human history.

His teaching and philosophy greatly impacted people around the world and remain influential today.

I. Growing Up

Not a lot is known about the childhood of Confucius. He was born in the state of Lu in 551 BC. His father was a soldier named Kong He who died when Confucius was three years old. The rest of his childhood was spent in poverty as Confucius was raised by his mother.

Confucius' family was part of a growing middle class of people in China called "shi." They weren't part of the nobility, but were considered above the common peasants. This gave him a different outlook on life than the majority of people. He thought that people should be promoted and rewarded based on their talents, not on what family they were born into.

II. Early Career

Confucius didn't start out as a wise teacher, he worked a number of normal jobs first. They included being a shepherd and a clerk,. Eventually, Confucius came to work for the government. He started out as the governor of a small town and worked his way up until he became an advisor at the top levels of government.

III. Later Life

Confucius quit his government job at the age of 51. He was disappointed that the leaders were not following his teachings. He then traveled throughout China for many years teaching his philosophy. Some of his followers wrote down his ideas in a book that would later be calledThe Analects of Confucius.

IV. Death

Confucius died in 479 BC of natural causes. He spent his last few years in his hometown of Qufu teaching his disciples.

V. Some of Confucius Quotes

  • What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

  • To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous.

  • The cautious seldom err.

  • Isn't it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned?

  • If you see what is right and fail to act on it, you lack courage.

  • When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weaknesses.

VI. Interesting Facts about Confucius

  • His family name was Kong Qiu and he is called "Kongzi" in China, which means "Master Kong."

  • Some people consider Confucianism a religion while others consider it a philosophy.

  • He married at the age of 19 and had a child named Kong Li.

  • There are over 2 million known and registered descendants of Confucius.

VII. His Philosophy

Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, many argue that its values are secular and that it is, therefore, less a religion than a secular morality. Proponents argue, however, that despite the secular nature of Confucianism's teachings, it is based on a worldview that is religious. Confucianism discusses elements of the afterlife and views concerning Heaven, but it is relatively unconcerned with some spiritual matters often considered essential to religious thought, such as the nature of souls.

However, Confucius is said to have believed in astrology, saying: "Heaven sends down its good or evil symbols and wise men act accordingly".

The Analects of Confucius

In the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a "transmitter who invented nothing". He puts the greatest emphasis on the importance of study, and it is the Chinese character for study () that opens the text. Far from trying to build a systematic or formalist theory, he wanted his disciples to master and internalize older classics, so that their deep thought and thorough study would allow them to relate the moral problems of the present to past political events (as recorded in the Annals) or the past expressions of commoners' feelings and noblemen's reflections (as in the poems of the Book of Odes).

Confucius developed his own philosophy which he taught to others. Today, his philosophy is known as Confucianism. His ideas didn't become popular until years after his death when they became the basic philosophy of the Chinese culture for over two thousand years.

Here are some of the basic ideas of Confucianism:

  • Treat others kindly.

  • Have good manners and follow daily rituals.

  • A man should have good morals and ethics.

  • Family was important and ancestors were to be respected

  • A true man had the qualities of integrity, righteousness, altruism, goodness, and loyalty.

  • One should practice moderation in all things.

  • He believed in a strong and organized central government.

VIII. Ethics

One of the deepest teachings of Confucius may have been the superiority of personal exemplification over explicit rules of behavior. His moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules. Confucian ethics may, therefore, be considered a type of virtue ethics.

His teachings rarely rely on reasoned argument, and ethical ideals and methods are conveyed indirectly, through allusion, innuendo, and even tautology. His teachings require examination and context to be understood. A good example is found in this famous anecdote:

廄焚。子退朝,曰:“傷人乎?” 不問馬。

When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court Confucius said, "Was anyone hurt?" He did not ask about the horses.AnalectsX.11 (tr.Waley), 10–13 (tr.Legge), or X-17 (tr.Lau)

By not asking about the horses, Confucius demonstrates that the sage values human beings over property; readers are led to reflect on whether their response would follow Confucius's and to pursue self-improvement if it would not have. Confucius serves not as an all-powerful deity or a universally true set of abstract principles, but rather the ultimate model for others. For these reasons, according to many commentators, Confucius's teachings may be considered a Chinese example of humanism.

One of his teachings was a variant of the Golden Rule, sometimes called the "Silver Rule" owing to its negative form:


"What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.


Zi Gong [a disciple] asked: "Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?"

The Master replied: "How about 'reciprocity'! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."AnalectsXV.24, tr. David Hinton

Often overlooked in Confucian ethics are the virtues to the self: sincerity and the cultivation of knowledge. Virtuous action towards others begins with virtuous and sincere thought, which begins with knowledge. A virtuous disposition without knowledge is susceptible to corruption, and virtuous action without sincerity is not true righteousness.

Cultivating knowledge and sincerity is also important for one's own sake; the superior person loves learning for the sake of learning and righteousness for the sake of righteousness.