Confucius and his ‘golden age’

He shaped civilizations; his ancient values speak to us now

by Michael Hoffman

Is what Confucius said true? Can music, poetry and decorum govern the world? Do rulers, by cultivating benevolence in themselves, plant benevolence in their subjects, and harmony in the polity?

The chaos of our time hardly invites us to take such notions seriously. But Confucius’ time was chaotic too. The ancient Chou dynasty was crumbling, upstarts vied for power, and morality was falling apart.

In despair, a high government official proposed executing all wrongdoers. Confucius said, “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill? Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good.”

The same official asked what to do about thieves. Confucius said, “If you yourself were not a man of desires” — corrupt, in other words — “no one would steal even if stealing carried a reward.”

Asked why he did not take office, Confucius replied, “Simply by being a good son and friendly to his brothers a man can exert an influence upon government.”

A society, in Confucius’ view, was an extended family in which, ideally, family relationships and family harmony prevailed. “A youth who does not respect his elders will achieve nothing when he grows up.” A respectful son grows into a man worthy of respect and therefore a worthy ruler — of his family certainly, of society as a whole possibly. Rule meant, first and foremost, self-cultivation.

The gentleman “cultivates himself,” said Confucius, “and thereby brings peace and security to his fellow men.”

* * * * *

Confucius. The name is so familiar that we are apt to forget how little we know the man, though thanks to cryptic snatches of his conversation recorded by his disciples in a book called “The Analects” (from a Greek word meaning “collection”) he is, though elusive, not entirely unknowable.

As for his teachings, the general verdict throughout most of the revolutionary 20th century was that they (or their derivatives, legitimate and bastard) accomplished their civilizing mission millennia ago and were best relegated to the remote past, having long since grown moldy in the service of Asian autocrats — Japanese shoguns among them — who invoked him with relish, and continue to invoke him, for his supposed emphasis on unquestioning obedience.

The latest in a long line is Chinese President Hu Jintao, who, stymied by social turmoil and the ruling Communist Party’s intellectual bankruptcy, last year broke the party’s anti-Confucian mold, reminding cadres, “Confucius said, ‘Harmony is to be cherished.’ “

The fragmentary nature of “The Analects” is conducive to the selective reading that autocrats have habitually given it.

“Never disobey,” said Confucius — it is one of his several definitions of filial piety, and sounds categorical enough. But he also said, in a passage less frequently honored with official quotation, “If a man is correct in his own person, then there will be obedience without orders being given; but if he is not correct in his own person, there will not be obedience even though orders are given.”

“Correct” means above all, “benevolent.” Benevolence is easy: “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here.” But the desire for it, judging by its rarity, is difficult. It commits a ruler above all, but also human beings in general, to the quest for moral perfection, to a “return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self.”

Few rulers in any era are up to such standards, and Confucius’ impatience with those who are not is apparent in his advice to a disciple who asked how best to serve a prince: “Tell him the truth even if it offends him.”

As for the rulers of his own day, “Oh,” said Confucius, “they are of such limited capacity that they hardly count.”

* * * * *

Almost alone among the ancient teachers of mankind, Confucius (K’ung Ch’iu in Chinese; Koshi in Japanese) was neither god nor prophet nor, in sharp contrast to his Taoist near-contemporary Lao-tzu, mystic.

“Chi-lu asked how the spirits of the dead and the gods should be served,” we read in “The Analects.”

“The Master said, ‘You are not able even to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?’ “

“May I ask about death?”

“You do not even understand life. How can you understand death?”

Revere the gods and spirits, he taught, “but keep them at a distance.” They are not man’s immediate concern. Moral perfection, whose outward manifestation is “work[ing] for the things the common people have a right to,” is its own reward. There is no hint in his teaching of any other reward, natural or supernatural.

* * * * *

The China into which Confucius was born in 551 B.C. was not really China. That name derives from the imperial Ch’in dynasty, whose harsh though brief militarist, legalist, bureaucratic rule three centuries later (221-207 B.C.) represented everything Confucius abhorred. Confucius was a relatively humble citizen of the “state” of Lu, an eastern backwater, one of the least among 12 semi-independent, strife-ridden dukedoms of the tottering Chou dynasty.

It was the Chou dynasty’s golden age, 500 years before his birth, that Confucius looked back to with longing, and dreamed of reviving.

“I transmit but do not innovate,” he said. What he sought to transmit were the rites, music and poetry that had prevailed in a time, semi-mythical perhaps, when rites, music and poetry — primarily the poetry preserved in the “Book of Odes,” originating in the golden age and expressing the innocence to which Confucius aspired — in effect ruled, because sage-kings like King Wen, King Wu and the Duke of Chou, the dynastic founders, were virtuous and wise.

“When those above are given to the observance of the rites,” Confucius taught, “the common people will be easy to command.” Force is unnecessary. Law is superfluous. “There was nothing for him to do,” said Confucius of the ruler of a state in which the Way of the sage-kings prevailed, “but to hold himself in a respectful posture and to face due south” in accord with the traditions of ancient cosmology.

It was not the Way, however, but conditions approaching anarchy that prevailed in Confucius’ own time. His father was a soldier, a daring and conspicuous figure in the numerous wars of the period. Confucius was orphaned early.

“I was of humble station when young,” he later told his disciples. “That is why I am skilled in many menial things. Should a gentleman be skilled in many things? No, not at all.”

Very little is known of his childhood, but “at 15,” he said, “I set my heart on learning.” What the impetus was we don’t know, but his absorbing interest, the special focus of his studies, was li — “the rites.” It is a problematic term. No English word quite does it justice, scholars say, and a tendency to translate it as “ritual” has helped fuel modern impatience with Confucius.

Some of the li-soaked sections of “The Analects” are undeniably tiresome to our thinking.

“On going through the outer gates to his lord’s court, [Confucius] drew himself in, as though the entrance was too small to admit him. When he stood, he did not occupy the center of the gateway; when he walked, he did not step on the threshold. When he went past [his lord's empty throne], his face took on a serious expression . . . When he lifted the hem of his robe to ascend the hall, he drew himself in, stopped inhaling as if he had no need to breathe . . . “

And so on — it’s a long passage, and there are many others like it.

But, as David Hall and Roger Ames point out in an essay published in “Confucianism for the Modern World” (see accompanying story), ” ‘The Analects’ does not provide us with a catechism of prescribed formal conducts, but rather with the image of a particular historical person [i.e., Confucius] striving with imagination to exhibit the sensitivity to ritualized living that would ultimately make him the teacher of an entire civilization.”

The outward manifestation matters less than the spirit animating it. “Appropriately performed,” say Hall and Ames, “li elevates the commonplace and customary into something elegant and profoundly meaningful.”

* * * * *

Once a disciple asked Confucius what he would do first if he were ever a ruler. “If something has to be put first,” Confucius replied, “it is, perhaps, the rectification of names.”

The disciple thought Confucius was joking; it seemed rather a trivial thing — though it shouldn’t to us, living as we do in an age of government by spokespersons and spin-doctors. Confucius (with some asperity at the disciple’s “boorishness”) explained: “When names are not correct, what is said will not sound reasonable; when what is said does not sound reasonable, affairs will not culminate in success; when affairs do not culminate in success, rites and music will not flourish; when rites and music do not flourish, punishments will not fit the crimes; when punishments do not fit the crimes, the common people will not know where to put hand and foot.”

Note the absence of any mention, in connection with crime and punishment, of law.

Confucius was profoundly distrustful of laws. “If you use laws to direct the people,” he said, “and punishments to control them, they will merely try to evade the laws, and will have no sense of shame. But if by virtue you guide them, and by the rites you control them, there will be a sense of shame, and of right” — and social harmony will prevail.

Contemporaneous with Confucius were philosophers called Legalists. Their doctrine — the rule of law — seems, in light of future history, progressive, while Confucius’ notion of the rule of “rites and music” strikes us as quaint, if not hopelessly reactionary.

But some modern psychologists are learning from the horrors of our time a new respect for Confucius. Simon Leys, in an accompanying commentary to his translation of “The Analects,” quotes French psychologist Boris Cyrulnik: “When families are no longer able to generate rites that can interpret the surrounding world and transmit the parental culture, children find themselves cut off from reality, and they have to create their own culture — a culture of archaic violence . . .

“Incidences of incest are increasing,” Cyrulnik continues, “because too many men no longer feel that they are fathers. As family relationships have weakened and roles have changed, individuals do not see clearly what their proper place is. This is the symptom of a cultural breakdown.”

* * * * *

“Can I not, perhaps,” mused Confucius, “create another Chou in the east?” This was his life’s mission, to recreate in the east — in his home state of Lu — his no doubt misty-eyed image of the golden age of the Chou dynasty founded by King Wen, King Wu and the Duke of Chou.

Intermittently, he assumed official positions under unsavory usurpers in order to further his goal. He gathered round him disciples — 77 are known by name — who might in a sense be called co-conspirators. The conspiracy, in which trickery figured more than violence, was an attempt to undermine the usurpers and return power to the legitimate heirs of the House of Chou. It came undone, and Confucius fled. He spent most of his last years in exile in neighboring states, returning to Lu shortly before his death in 479 B.C.

“For 2,000 years,” says Leys, “Confucius was canonized as China’s First and Supreme Teacher. This is a cruel irony. Of course, Confucius devoted much attention to education, but he never considered teaching as his first and real calling. His first vocation was politics. He had a mystical faith in his political mission.”

It failed. Never has the world known a Confucian state, if by that we mean what Confucius meant — a state governed by family relationships, nourished by benevolence and regulated by the poetry, music and rites of ancient sage-kings.

Manuscripts burned

Korea under the Choson dynasty (1392-1910) is often said to have come closest, but what much of Asia got instead was imperial Confucianism, a creation of China’s Han dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220). The Ch’in dynasty, which the Han overthrew, had burned manuscripts associated with Confucius, but some survived to be favored by a leading Han court philosopher — who, circa 196 B.C., provoked his emperor’s impatience by vigorously advocating their official adoption.

“I conquered my empire on horseback,” snapped the emperor, “and I will rule my empire on horseback.” Replied the philosopher: “Your Majesty, one may conquer an empire on horseback but one may never rule an empire on horseback.”

Very much struck by that, the emperor proceeded to offer the first official sacrifice — of an ox — to the tomb of Confucius. This may be said to mark the birth of official Confucianism, an unwieldy collage of Confucian principle, later reinterpretation and imperial expediency. It had an awesome future ahead of it, spreading its influence well beyond China’s borders and becoming one of the most extensive and durable systems of government in all history — but it generally fell short when it came to benevolence.

“Confucius,” says Leys bluntly, “was certainly not a Confucianist.”

Indeed, the sage apparently died suspecting such would be the case. “I suppose I should give up hope,” he sighed. “I have yet to meet the man who is as fond of virtue as he is of beauty in women.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “Nectar Fragments” (Authorhouse, 2006); his Web site is www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com

For other stories in our package on Confucius, please click the following links:
A man in the soul of Japan
East and West echo the sage: ‘The ideal society is like a family’