Heptune presents:

What Confucius Thought

by Megaera Lorenz

Confucius, since he lived in a war-torn society, was largely concerned with improving government and society. He was convinced that the problem with government and society was a lack of virtue. There were not enough government workers of the ideal kind that Confucius's pupil Zizhang described:

    A public servant who on confronting danger is prepared to lay down his life, who on confronting gain
    concentrates on what is right, who when sacrificing concentrates on reverence, who when mourning concentrates
    on grief should definitely be all right. (19:1, Analects)

    This description covers most of the qualities Confucius considered virtuous: sincerity and a willingness to learn, minimal desire for material things, and loyalty. Other factors important in being virtuous included self cultivation, filial piety, extensive knowledge of ritual and poetry, humility, and a good grasp on how to conduct oneself when dealing with other people. Confucius also thought that how you go about trying to achieve something is more important than actually achieving it.
    Confucius believed that, because the rulers at his time were not virtuous, they did not please the common people (another important requirement for good government), and incited attacks on themselves from the other warring states. He pointed to the actions of successful historical figures as examples of good and virtuous behavior.

The Advantages of Virtue:

    If you are virtuous, Confucius argued, people will be attracted to you (and, if you are a ruler, your government), willing to provide you with help and information, and happily follow orders. (1:10, Analects; 4:25, Analects; 2:3, Analects)
    Virtue is not for the sake of getting material rewards. One should not be extravagant or self serving. Self cultivation is done for the betterment of the rest of society. Confucius said that "In serving one's ruler one deals reverently with the tasks involved and makes the livelihood involved a secondary consideration" (15:38, Analects), and "A public servant who is intent on the Way, but is ashamed of bad clothes and bad food, is not at all fit to be consulted" (4:9, Analects).

Self Cultivation, Ritual and Education:

    In Confucian philosophy, ritual was crucial to being a gentleman and running a good government. By "gentleman," Confucius seems to have meant a person who is virtuous and well educated in ritual. A good knowledge of ritual could only be acquired through study. Other important things to study included music and poetry. Confucius told his son that if he did not study poetry, he would "have nothing to talk about," and if he did not study ritual, he would "have no way of taking [his] stand" (16:13, Analects).
    Self cultivation involved not only educating oneself, but also picking up on the good traits in others and imitating them (4:17, Analects). To Confucius, imitation of successful people was a very important aspect of good government (thus his emphasis on the learning of history).
    Even without a good education, if one possessed some basic virtues (respect, love of one's parents, loyalty, obedience, humility, trustworthiness), one could be considered virtuous (1:7, Analects). However, a combination of knowledge of ritual and of natural virtue was best. Master Kong explained to his pupil Zixia that ritual was secondary to natural virtue, but added the polish to a person that made him a true gentleman (3:8, Analects).
    Here are some of the basic principals of virtue that Confucius tried to get across to his students:

    Don't be concerned about whether other people appreciate you, or if you don't get a job. Just strive to be worthy of these things. If people won't recognize what you have to offer, it's their loss. Examine your character, correct the bad, and accentuate the good.

1:1, Analects

1:4, Analects

             1:8, Analects 4:14, Analects     Be humble, obedient, trustworthy, and loyal. Maintain high standards in those with whom you associate, serve, and/or emulate. 1:7, Analects

1:8, Analects

             1:13, Analects

    Never do anything to anyone else that you wouldn't want them to do to you. This, like most principles of virtue, applies to both everyday life and government.

4:15, Analects     Learn ancient poetry and music. It will give you a broader perspective on things, give you more to talk about, and help you succeed in your family life and at work. 16:13, Analects

17:8, Analects

    Ritual must regulate all your conduct. 1:12 , Analects              12:1, Analects All of Book 10 of the Analects is devoted to specific rituals associated with various activities, such as how to dress at a particular time (10: 5), what facial expression and way of walking to adopt while interacting with certain people (10: 3 and 10: 4), and what should or should not be eaten at any given time (10: 6).     However, mere knowledge of ritual, music, and good conduct amounted to nothing without meaning, proper intent, and sincerity. As Confucius said, "When one talks repeatedly of ritual, does one really only mean jades and silk? When one talks repeatedly of music, does one really only mean bells and drums?" (17:9, Analects) If a ritual or a duty was performed without reverence, it lost its meaning. (2:7, Analects).

Filial Piety:

    Confucius firmly believed that good family relationships were the key to reforming society, and thus reforming government. One of Confucius's disciples and fellow teachers, Master You, said:

    Few indeed are those who are naturally filial towards their parents and dutiful towards their elder brothers but are
    fond of opposing their superiors; and it never happens that those who do not like opposing their superiors are
    fond of creating civil disorder. The gentleman concerns himself with the root; and if the root is firmly planted, the
    Way grows. Filial piety and fraternal duty--surely they are the roots of humaneness. (1:2, Analects)

    Confucius advised his students that if they would "show solicitude for parents at the end of their lives and continue this with sacrifices when they are far away," then "the people's virtue will be restored to fullness" (Book 1: #9, pg. 4, Analects). He believed that, if people could learn to perform their familial roles properly, they would in turn be able to perform their roles in society and government properly (4:20, Analects). The emperor's role was like that of a father: he would love his subjects as if they were his children, and they in turn would show loyalty and respect for him.
    Confucius said that filial piety consisted of obedience to, respect for, and loyalty to one's parents. A man would be truly filial if he did not stray from his father's occupation and behavior for several years after his father's death: "When his father is alive, you observe a man's intentions. It is when the father is dead that you observe the man's actions. If for three years he makes no change from the ways of his father, he may be called filial." (1:11, Analects).
    Filial piety was so important, in fact, that Confucius felt that it should be considered more important than the law. He told the Duke of She that "Fathers cover up for their sons and sons cover up for their fathers. Uprightness is to be found in this" (13:18, Analects).

History as a Guide to Successful Government:

    Confucius stated that, "If by keeping the old warm one can provide understanding of the new, one is fit to be a teacher" (2:11, Analects).
    Confucius often taught by pointing to examples of the behaviors of successful and unsuccessful historical figures. He praised legendary heroes like Bo Yi and Shu Qi (5:23, Analects) and Yao and Shun (6:30, Analects).
    Confucius said that successful rulers had been virtuous, and had also benefited the people that they governed (6:30, Analects). He did not approve of rulers who did not follow the examples of famous sage kings, scholars and culture heroes (7:15, Analects).
    In fact, much of Confucian philosophy was drawn from that of ancient Chinese politicians, kings and legendary figures. Confucius was inspired by the legends of the Sage Kings, and by the early kings and officials of the Chou dynasty. Both Confucius's love of imitating history and his admiration for the Chou rulers are well represented in his statement that "Chou observes the example set by two dynasties, so how splendid is its culture! And we take Chou as our model" (3:14, Analects).
    The Chou ruling family had invented the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which stated that heaven chose rulers on the basis of their virtue, and if they were not virtuous, they would be overthrown. This Mandate was one of the three things Confucius said the "gentleman holds in awe" (16:8, Analects).
    Probably the greatest influence on Confucius was the philosophy of the Duke of Chou, whom Confucius described as having "perfect virtue" (8:20, Analects). The Duke advised his nephew, the Emperor, in proper decorum and virtuous behavior, and did not hesitate to criticize and correct the Emperor's behavior. This fits with Confucius's idea of how to serve a ruler: "It means don't be deceitful. But do stand up to him" (14:22, Analects). His ideas were similar enough to Confucius's that he had a saying attributed to him in the Analects:

    The gentleman does not neglect his relations, and does not cause his chief officials to feel resentful at their
    advice not being taken. If there is no important reason, officials of long standing are not cast out; and he avoids
    seeking perfection in one man. (18:10, Analects)

    Confucius was also inspired by the legendary Sage Kings. The first one, Yao (who was supposedly living between 2357 and 2256 BC), had a reputation for having promoted moral cultivation through the proper use of ritual and music. As mentioned earlier, Confucius considered the arts quite important, and considered ritual to be of tremendous value. He praised Yao profusely:

    Great indeed was Yao as a ruler! Sublime indeed was he! It is only Heaven that may be deemed great, but only
    Yao modeled himself upon it. So boundless was he that the people were without the ability to put a name to him.
    Sublime was he in the works which he achieved and glorious in the accomplishments which he possessed. (8:19,

    The second of these kings, Shun, was appointed by Yao because of his great filial piety, yet another paramount concept in Confucianism. The last, Yu, was so dedicated to his job that he put everything, including family, second to it. While Yu's lack of attention to family might have been somewhat in conflict with Confucianism, his devotion was much admired by Confucius (8:21, Analects). Confucius praised both Shun and Yu for not wallowing in their power (8:18, Analects).


    While Confucius was inspired by many historical figures, he in turn inspired many philosophers, the most prominent of whom was Mencius.
    Mencius differed from Confucius in his lavish and extravagant behavior, and his skill as a sharp-tongued debater (Hucker, pg. 80). Confucius, as noted earlier, did not approve of a desire for material things, or for extravagance, and would often denounce witty speakers and debaters with sayings like "Clever words and a plausible appearance have seldom turned out to be humane" (1:3, Analects).
    All the same, Mencius had many beliefs which were very much in keeping with Confucian philosophy. One such belief was that a virtuous ruler would naturally attract subjects, and people would find obeying the ruler to be irresistible (Hucker, pg. 81; 2:3, Analects). Mencius's belief in the basic good nature of people (Hucker, pg. 81) is similar to that expressed by Confucius, such as the view that ritual is secondary to the natural virtue of humans (3:8, Analects).

All contents copyright © 1998 Brenna Lorenz, Megaera Lorenz, Malachi Pulte. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction of any part of site without express permission is strictly prohibited.

Published 4/10/01.
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