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Confucius 551(?) B.C.-479 B.C.

(The name Confucius is a Latinized version of the transliteration K'ung-fu-tzu.) Chinese philosopher.

A thinker of unmatched influence in Eastern civilization, Confucius was a teacher and minor government official whose philosophy has been preserved in the Lun-yu (The Analects), a collection of sayings attributed to him and his disciples. The Analects contains remarks on a wide variety of subjects, including government, personal conduct, warfare, and family, and has been subject to diverse, even diametrically conflicting interpretations. For over two thousand years, Confucianism has endured as the foundation of Chinese philosophy.

Biographical Information

It is generally believed that Confucius was born in the state of Lu during the Chou dynasty and was orphaned at an early age. Some of Confucius's ancestors had been aristocrats in the state of Sung, but the family had immigrated to Lu to escape political unrest and intrigue. As a descendent of ancient nobility, Confucius occupied a middle position in Chinese society—between the impoverished peasantry and the ruling aristocracy. By the age of fifteen he had decided to become a scholar and worked to educate himself in music, literature, and ancient history. He began teaching in his early twenties and also served for a time as manager of Lu's state granary and supervisor of public fields. He also studied ancient governments under a scholar known as the master of Tan. Making use of an informal, discursive teaching style, Confucius became extremely popular with his students, many of whom became important government officials. In 479 B.C. Confucius left Lu on a sometimes perilous fourteen-year journey during which he taught and spread his ideas on society and government throughout China. Confucius's son died the year he returned to Lu, and two years later his student Yan Hui died. Reportedly inconsolable over the death of his beloved student, Confucius died less than three years later.

Major Works

The objective of Confucianism, the body of thought and writings inspired by Confucius, is the elucidation and encouragement of three main principles: Jen, Tao, and Li. In his teachings, which have been recorded in such works as The Analects, Li Chi (Book of Rites), and I Ching (Book of Changes), Confucius encouraged his students to think for themselves; he also endeavored to define concepts in an abstract manner so that they could be universalized and applied to all cultures. Confucius's principles therefore are never succinctly defined and have engendered a multitude of interpretations, resulting in diverse readings of his works. Although scholars acknowledge problems with The Analects as the direct transcription of Confucius's utterances, it is nonetheless regarded as the best possible summation of his philosophy. The Analects are composed of twenty books, each made up of aphorisms, questions, and notes attributed to Confucius and twenty of his disciples, most notably Master Tseng, who is credited with twelve sayings of his own; Jan Ch'iu, who went on to become a lieutenant in the powerful Chi Family; and Tzu-kung, who went on to become a prominent diplomat. Alternately translated as "humanity," "good," "love," and "reciprocity," Jen, according to Arthur Waley, is "a sublime moral attitude, transcendental perfection attained to by legendary heroes … but not by any living or historical person." This opinion contradicts the belief, often espoused by earlier scholars, that all humans are endowed with Jen. Thomas Cleary argues that "humanity is to love people" and contends that "Confucius believed the moral foundation of social order must rest on the primary virtue of … humanity." Tao, translated as "way," had been used before Confucius to describe both positive and negative ways of...

(This entire section contains 1332 words.)

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doing things. Confucius's innovation, according to H.G. Creel, was to recast the word as "the way … that individuals, states, and the world should conduct themselves and be conducted." Taoism, the philosophical school based upon theTao te Ching of Lao Tzu—who may have been a contemporary of Confucius—offers a similar interpretation of the term, albeit in a more mystical and personal context. Benjamin I. Schwartz defines Li as "all those 'objective' prescriptions of behavior, whether involving rite, ceremony, manners, or general deportment, that bind human beings and the spirits together in networks of interacting roles within the family, within human society, and with the numinous realm beyond." The discipline required of strict adherence to the ideals of duty and etiquette has inspired some political leaders to impose dictatorial rule on their subjects in the name of Confucius. Confucius's teachings, however, stress the opposite, as one of the philosopher's central tenets is that a state should be designed to serve the people. According to Thomas Cleary, Confucius "envisioned a social order guided by reasonable, humane, and just sensibilities, not by the passions of individuals arbitrarily empowered by hereditary status, and warned of the social consequences if men in positions of power considered personal profit and advantage over public humanity and justice. Confucius believed in the regeneration of public and private conscience through education and the influence of unifying cultural ideals."

Critical Reception

The first important thinker to expand upon Confucius's work was Meng-tzu, better known by his Latinized name, Mencius. Active during the fourth century B.C., Mencius, like Confucius, was a teacher and counselor. In the collection of his teachings, the Mencius, he furthered the concept of Jen, arguing that the potential for exemplifying such an honorable trait exists in every human being. In direct contrast, the teachings of Hsun-tzu, the prominent Confucian thinker of the third century B.C., stress the evil nature of humanity. For Hsun-tzu, Li functions to suppress selfish instincts. Subsequent philosophers of the ancient world incorporated mystical schemes, numerology, and aspects of Taoism into traditional Confucian thought. Although the resulting philosophy was in many ways a diluted and contradictory imitation of Confucianism, it was during this period that the movement gained wide acceptance, becoming the official state religion of China in the second century B.C. and eventually spreading to other Asian nations. Wang Ch'ung, a logician of the first century A.D., is credited with eliminating the mystical and supernatural elements of Confucianism as superfluous. Most of the first millennium A.D. is regarded as a period of relative diminution for the influence of Confucianism in China, during which time Taoism and Buddhism flourished. Neo-Confucianism arose in the eleventh century largely owing to the scholarship of Chu Hsi, whose historical writings focused on what are now known as the Classical Confucian texts—thirteen works of ancient origin that deal with a wide range of topics pertaining to Confucianism. Chu Hsi also explored the metaphysical side of Confucianism, engineering a path to spiritual enlightenment that has been viewed as a response to the challenge posed by Buddhism. During the seventeenth century a second wave of Neo-Confucianism arose; comparable to the earlier efforts of Wang Ch'ung, it aimed at reestablishing the original intent of The Analects, necessitating the purgation of all extraneous commentary and speculation. The influx of Western culture into twentieth-century China considerably altered the society's political and philosophical traditions. Mao Tse-Tung neglected Confucius in favor of Marxist ideology when he organized the People's Republic of China in 1949, effectively removing the Confucian tradition from political discourse, although its principles survive in literature and philosophy. Ironically, the decline of Confucianism in China was accompanied by a recognition—evinced by the numerous English translation of The Analects—on the part of the Western world of the depth and sophistication of Confucianism. Many scholars have observed similarities between the teachings of Confucius and those of Socrates and Jesus and often debate whether Confucianism should be characterized as a religion or a secular philosophy of ethics. Commentaries on Confucius usually center on differing interpretations of such key terms as Li and Jen as well as themes of proper government and individual behavior. D. Howard Smith celebrated the profundity of Confucius as a thinker: "He was convinced that there was a divine order which worked for love and righteousness, and taught that in obedience to that divine order man will find his highest goal."


Principal Works