“If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.” – Confucius
Alfred North Whitehead once said that Western tradition is all just “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of course, Plato was arguably sketching the philosophy of Socrates, who has few equals in the Western canon. But a sound classical education does not only work with the figures and writings of the Western canon. It also looks at the insight of great writers and thinkers from around the world. So, it is wise for us to look to the East at a comparable giant of philosophy, Confucius.
K’ung Fu-Tzu (551-479 BC), better known by his Latinized name, Confucius, was born around 551 BC and lived during a turbulent time in China during the slow decline of the Zhou dynasty. Working as a minister of state who never rose above a minor official rank, Confucius saw up close how government did and did not work. He developed a great deal of political insight with recommendations while observing this interplay between individuals and the kingdom-state. When he couldn’t find a ruler to put his recommendations into practice, he turned to education. His goal was to teach for a just government schooling his students on the essential truths of the ancient ways (Tao). Eventually, Confucius traveled across China, sharing his ideas with an ever-growing group of followers.
In his teachings, Confucius advocated for the principle of order, hierarchy, and compassion, which should be of primary importance to all people. Essential tools to these principles were the clearly defined institutions of family, authority, and seniority. In practice, people should live by ethical principles where the well-being of the community trumps that of the individual. Confucius also thought that good government was the responsibility of the ruler and being good subjects was the charge of the people. Furthermore, a rightly ordered society is one in which everyone performs the duty of his or her station in life. Of course, these ideas were particularly appealing to the people of China during the turbulent times Warring States Period of the Zhou dynasty (475-221 BC).
Towards the end of his life, Confucius returned to his home state of Lu. He never did find a ruler in which to put his principled recommendations into practice. But Confucius did succeed as an educator. His philosophy thrived and spread with the hundreds of students that he taught. When he died in 479 BC, his disciples built on a temple at the site of this grave, which has been visited ever since. His disciples and their followers also compiled the teachings of Confucius in The Analects. The Confucian ideas found in The Analects spread across China and East Asia. And much like Socrates in the West, Confucius is more profoundly respected in China than any other philosopher. What he said, or was thought to have said, has shaped Chinese thought to the present day. Those ideas have extended into Western consciousness, as well.
Below are some recommended readings of and on Confucius and a great TedEd summary video.