To the west, Confucius is often known as a wise man, with simple yet profound aphorisms that offer a deep source of self-reflection. Beyond this, what do we know of the man and his works? What his story and legacy tells us is that aside from memorable words of wisdom, Confucius put forth an enduring model of social order, manifesting in individual, ethical excellence. This high ideal came at a time when China’s long standing feudal system was in decadence and in need of correction. Confucianism greatly influenced China for nearly two and a half thousand years reigning as the chief political, ethical and spiritual practice of the people until the rise of the communist party.

The historical account of Kong-Fuzi (known in the west as Confucius) is peppered with legendary embellishments highlighting his great standing in the annals of humanity’s sages. Of noble birth and destined for greatness, a pair of dragons held vigil over his cot. Even as a child he was a wellspring of knowledge and held deep and complex discussions with the elders of his town. His precocious and evolved intelligence led to him reading and assimilating all the classical wisdom of his time so that it was said he had no masters, only disciples. 

Historical details demonstrate his keen aptitude for and interest in politics. Being a public servant was the highest honour for him and to lead and shape his country’s future was his greatest aspiration. At the age of 17 he had a senior position in local government and by 25 he founded his own school where philosophical teachings were available to all people, regardless of their class or status. For a feudal society this was revolutionary.

After a fabled meeting with the Master of Tao, Lao-Tzu, Confucius’ own reputation spread far and wide. Where the Tao promotes an understanding of material life being insubstantial and that wisdom is achieved only through the transcendence of duality, Confucianism (while not dismissing the spiritual and ephemeral aspect of life) seeks a more practical path. Confucius believed the path to wisdom lay in order, ethics, politics and virtue and that the formation of the human being is here, in the world we live in. He believed we should seek to resolve the inner challenges preventing us from living in harmony with others before concerning ourselves too much with the mysteries of the universe. Or in his own words:

“Before you serve the Gods, concern yourself with serving those around you, making the noble, courageous, honest, just and virtuous; and once you accomplish this, devote yourself to the Gods.”

Later, Confucius rose through the ranks of political service in the capital of his state Lu, eventually serving as Minister for Justice, the highest political office outside of royalty. His methods helped to grow his region in prosperity and civil obedience. Lu became a shining beacon of morality as well as an economic powerhouse. Rival states grew jealous and plotted against Confucius, seeking to sow discord between him and the Prince of Lu, who had become his disciple. Despite Confucius’ best efforts to instill in the Prince a noble and upright character, he was easily seduced by the lavish gifts and concubines sent to him by his clever enemies. Corruption soured the Prince towards his former master and Confucius was banished from his home.

Being a great and wise individual, Confucius took his crisis and converted it into a huge act of generosity, travelling the country and sharing his teachings with all. From kings to peasants, he advised all indiscriminately and when asked to stay and settle in any region he refused, assuring his requestors that his sacred duty was to be available to all. A champion of the people, an untiring reformer, Confucius died at the age of seventy-three, leaving a legacy of justice and fraternity that continues to inspire us to this day.

At the heart of Confucianism is the concept of Li, a rationalised order based on Natural or Universal Law, comparable to Dharma in India or Maat in Egypt. Li can be understood as a system of regulation and evolution. When applied to the individual it is ethical development awakening the human beings’ virtues of Justice and Goodness. In the political arena, Li is the harmonisation of these individuals so that, guided by virtue, people are united and verticalised towards a higher collective ideal, namely, the common good. In this way, Confucianism transcends the barriers between individual and society, between ethics and politics and marries them in a single ideal of living. For Confucius, these ideas were inseparable; ethical people would lead to a Just society and noble rulers would elevate the people to aspire to noble ideals.

“If you guide the people by governmental measures, and if you regulate them by threats of punishment, people will try to avoid prison, but they will lack a sense of honour. Guide the people by Virtue and regulate them by the Li, and people will have a sense of honour and of respect.”

Beyond the maxims captured in his Analects, which remain a tremendous source of wisdom, his political philosophy should also give us serious pause for thought and trigger a deep reflection on our current relationship between the individual and society.

Aidan Murphy