Confucius’ Views on Life
Unlike Buddha, Jesus Christ and Mohammad, Confucius focused his teachings on earthly existence. His attention was on the subjects of personal conduct and the social order rather than on the metaphysical realm and or the singular notion of a benevolent Godhead. He preferred a sacred way of life for society over monotheistic worship and or the anticipation of eternal reward in the afterlife (Subramuniyaswami 199). A harmonious society was more conducive to morality and spirituality than the concepts of a sacred deity and or the hereafter (Lee 128).
A harmonious society, in turn, was brought about by individuals who lived virtuous lives (Lee 128). Confucian teachings on life, therefore, emphasized upright thoughts, actions and speech. If people exercised moral values in their everyday interactions with one another, then peace would definitely ensue in the community in which they lived in. Social problems such as poverty, despotism and war would not exist.
Foremost among the aforementioned tradition is the Law of Reciprocity or the Golden Rule. An individual’s treatment of others determines how they will treat him or her in return. The Golden Rule is the most well-known Confucian teachings mainly because of its all-encompassing nature. It is based on the notion of shu (empathy) or the ability to be sensitive to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others despite the absence of objectively explicit communication. Shu allows a person to humbly acknowledge that he or she has no idea of what the good is – he or she would therefore just treat others the way he or she wants to be treated (Liu 53).
In the context of most religions, including Confucianism, the Golden Rule has two functions. These are to show people what love is and how to love. The Golden Rule defines love as “the need to do (others good)” (Yao 195). This desire, in turn, motivates people to do only those things that they would like done to themselves (Yao 195).
Greater emphasis is placed on how to love than on what love is. This is because the former serves as a guide to behavior (Yao 195). It calls on individuals to abandon their selfish pursuit for material happiness and instead take into consideration the needs of others. In the process, they learn to respect other people as beings like themselves and treat them as equals (Roetz 145).
The Golden Rule, however, is not without limitations. Liu (2006) asserted that it can be used as “a disguised way of advocating the adoption of one’s personal preferences” (Liu 53). The Golden Rule can have a negative formulation – hurting others as one would have others hurt him or her, for instance. If a person happens to be greedy, he or she can use the Golden Rule as a justification for imposing unreasonable demands on other people. He or she might expect other people to give him or her their money, forgive all of his or her shortcomings and do great favors for him or her without asking anything in return (Liu 54).
The Golden Rule can likewise be used to perpetuate an oppressive status quo. The state ideology of China is sometimes described as a distorted interpretation of Confucianism (Zhang 17). Communist Party officials used Confucianism’s emphasis on harmonious interpersonal relations as an excuse for mass indoctrination, legitimization of authoritarian rule and justification of oppressive policies (Fu 62). In doing so, they implied to their constituents that they must blindly submit to their rule so that their basic rights would not be curtailed through state repression.
But the truth is that Confucianism vehemently opposed despotic rule (Palumbo-Liu 364). Confucius himself argued that a ruler has a moral obligation to prioritize the welfare of his or her constituents above everything else. Should he or she to carry out this responsibility, his or her people has the right to reject his or her rule. When faced with a corrupt leader, Confucius urged the people to resort to civil disobedience – the active but non-violent refusal to obey certain laws of a regime or a colonizer (Hall and Ames 181).
Another noteworthy Confucian teaching on life is the strong allegiance to the value of community. Confucius was able to reconcile the concept of the individual with that of the collective by idealizing the local community as “a focus of social activism” (Rowe 346). Indeed, in the context of Chinese history, the development of the local society preceded the evolution of the state. It was only the advent of bureaucracy that enabled these communities to come up with a centralized form of governance.
Confucius therefore claimed that a community setting need not stifle individual creativity (Tan 63). A society, after all, has several needs which cannot be met by just one person or a group of persons. It is just a matter of common logic to assume that a community will not survive if all of its members are, for instance, doctors. Despite their high educational attainment, they do not have the capacity to produce their own food – that is the task of the farmers. Neither can they provide adequate education to their children – that is the responsibility of the teachers.
Confucius translated the numerous needs of society into opportunities for every individual to hone his or her respective faculties. A person who is good at sewing, for instance, can contribute immensely to the community that he or she lives in by becoming a tailor or a seamstress. An individual who has a green thumb, meanwhile, can help stabilize his or her community’s food supply by farming. In the Confucian society, individual creativity can shine through so as long as it is channeled towards meeting the needs of the collective.
In Book XVIII of The Analects (479-221 BC), Confucius cautioned strongly against the folly of isolating oneself from society under the guise of preserving individual creativity:
Men who withdrew from society…lowered their purpose and allowed themselves to be humiliated, but their words were consistent with their station, and their deeds with circumspection…They gave free rein to their words while living as recluses, but they were unsullied in character and showed sound judgment in accepting their dismissal. I, however, am different. I have no preconceptions about the permissible and the impermissible. (151)
As mentioned earlier, not even the brightest and the most noble individual can exist all by himself or herself. He or she has other needs that only other people can fulfill. This is probably the reason people have different talents. Human existence would be very lonely, after all, if every person has the capacity to meet all of his or her needs. If this were the case, then there would be no need for family, friends and acquaintances.
The problem with many Western interpretations of The Analects is that these immediately attach a negative connotation to the Confucian idea of the relationship between the individual and society despite failing to fully understand it. This misconstruction probably stemmed from cultural disparities between the East and the West. Western culture has a very individualistic nature – emphasis is given on rights and autonomy. Eastern culture, in sharp contrast, values collectivistic morals, practices and appraisals. Given the said orientation of their culture, Westerners would certainly scoff at the idea of using one’s talents to meet the needs of a community.
Although Confucianism is centered mainly on earthly existence, it does not deny the reality of death. In the Confucian context, both life and death are considered as “(responsibilities) to society” (Tang and T’ang 165). Both of these should prompt a person to fulfill his or her responsibilities in realizing the ideal of a harmonious society (Tang and T’ang 165). Life is short, as evidenced by the inevitability of death. This should therefore be enough of a reminder to people not to waste their existence in vices and immorality.
Furthermore, death is a means of attaining immortality. In the Confucian tradition, immortality means permanent recognition for an individual’s efforts towards attaining a congruous society. The Chinese historical narrative Zuo Zhuan, which was said to have been written roughly at the same time as The Analects, further elaborated on this belief by providing three ways in which human beings can reach immortality. The first is through setting a fine example in virtue, the second is by achieving a great career and the third is via leaving behind great writings (Tang and T’ang 165).
Given its aforementioned views on death, does Confucianism prohibit people from grieving over the demise of a loved one? The favorite student of Confucius, Yan Hui, died shortly before him. Confucius was so distraught over Yan Hui’s passing that he cried, “Alas! Heaven is destroying me! Heaven is destroying me!” (Freedman n. pag.). His grief intensified when he saw the body of a dead unicorn that still had a tattered bit of ribbon around its horn that his mother had tied there 70 years ago. In ancient Chinese culture, wounding a unicorn or even coming across the body of a dead one was regarded as a bad omen (Freedman n. pag.).
Confucius probably knew full well that the dead unicorn was a warning of his own impending demise. Although he was still mourning the death of Yan Hui, this did not stop him from preparing for his own passing. According to legend, Confucius locked himself in his bedroom for seven days before he finally expired. His disciples then buried him on the river bank that was located at the northern part of Qufu (Freedman n. pag.).
The manner in which Confucius handled the death of Yan Hui and prepared for his own passing shows that while he does not expect people to accept the demise of their loved ones without sorrow, they must still be able to face the reality of death. Death, after all, is an inseparable part of human existence – it is just a matter of when will it take place. Individuals, therefore, must be able to accept death when it comes. The first step towards doing so is confronting the loss and sorrow that the passing of a loved one brings.
Confucius believed that a harmonious society, not the concepts of a sacred deity and or the hereafter, can bring about morality and spirituality. Thus, his teachings were centered mainly on improving the earthly existence of people. In the Confucian context, this goal meant better interpersonal relationships and a serene acceptance of things that cannot be changed. When people treat one another the way they want to be treated, social ills such as penury and armed conflict would be eliminated. By accepting death as an inescapable part of human existence, people would be able to spend less time grieving and more time improving the society in which they live in by living virtuously.
It would be fair to say, therefore, that Confucianism is similar to Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. These four religions all called for social order through morality and spirituality. Confucianism, however, had a more realistic approach. Instead of seeking morality and spirituality by instilling in people the belief in the metaphysical world and or a benevolent Godhead, it instead encouraged them to work towards this objective by treating one another with kindness and respect.
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