Confucius is one of history's most influential philosophers. His insights have shaped the cultures of East Asia and beyond for centuries. Confucius was a reformer who aimed to refashion society on the basis of justice and virtue. And yet, during his lifetime, his teachings were largely ignored.
The traditional dates for Confucius’s life are between 551 and 479 BCE. This makes him the contemporary of Greek philosophers like Heraclitus and Anaxagoras. He was born in the small state of Lu, now in present-day China. Confucius’s ancestors were high-ranking, but his father died when he was young, and Confucius was brought up in relative poverty.
In his early adulthood, Confucius served in various offices in the court of Lu. According to one account, he was for a while in charge of rituals; and this may be reflected in his lifelong interest in the importance of ritual for social life. According to other accounts, he was also put in charge of granaries: an important function in a small state that relied on adequate supplies of food for its survival.
Looking Back, Looking Forwards
Confucius spent his life looking backward to a lost past and looking forward to a hoped-for future. Chinese history has been marked by alternating periods of fragmentation and unity: the famous 14th century Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms begins with the words, 'It is said that this is the great tendency of the world: long divided, it must unite; long united, it must divide.' Confucius lived in a period of fragmentation and division; and he looked back to the greatness of the Western Zhou dynasty (1050-771 BCE) as a period of unity, virtue and good governance.
But Confucius was not just nostalgic for the past. He was also optimistic about the future, and he looked forward in the hope that it might be possible to re-establish this lost order among the fragmented states of his day.
Principles and Politics
In a famous story retold by the historian Sima Qian (c. 145 — c. 186 BCE) — who as a writer is always entertaining, but not always to be trusted — Confucius left his official post after losing faith in the Duke of Lu. The story told by Sima Qian is that the ruler of the rival state of Qi was worried the state of Lu was becoming too powerful. To distract the Duke of Lu from the reforms he was putting in place, the ruler of Qi sent him eighty courtesans and a hundred horses as a distraction. The duke’s head was easily turned. He shut himself away with the women and gave himself over to pleasure. Confucius was disgusted by the duke’s neglect of his responsibilities, choosing self-imposed exile over a dissolute employer.
Confucius’s philosophy can be frustrating to make sense of, because based on his recorded teachings, it can seem on first acquaintance to be both somehow intangible and also all-encompassing. There is none of the close argument that you find in Plato or Aristotle, for example. Not only this, but Confucius has become so centrally important for philosophy in East Asia, his thought has been continually reinterpreted for around two and a half thousand years.
But one way of getting hold of the core of Confucius’s thinking is to see him as a relentlessly and deeply social thinker. He was a philosopher who was concerned not with human beings in isolation, but instead with the ways that we interact, the ways that we come together to form functional, or dysfunctional, societies.
Two of the key ideas in Confucius’s Analects or collected saying are that of ren (仁), or fellow-feeling, and li (禮), or ritual.
The word ren causes problems for Confucius’s translators to other languages. It is a term that appears absolutely everywhere in Confucius's work. But it is hard to find exact equivalents in English. The Chinese character ren (仁) is made up of the character for 'person' or 'human being' (ren or 人), and the character for 'two' (in modern Mandarin Chinese, er, or 二). So you could see ren as the optimal interpersonal relationship, the ideal way we should relate to each other. Some people translate ren into English as 'humaneness' or 'humanity' or 'benevolence', but I prefer to think of it as something like 'the ideal way of being and acting with others.'
For Confucius, ren is the knowledge that at the deepest level, we are not singular, but we exist in relationship to others. So it is better to think of ren not as something to which we aspire, but as something to which we can always return home. In one passage in the Analects, Confucius asks rhetorically, 'Is ren far away?’ And then he answers his own question by saying, 'If I wish for ren, then ren is there!' In other words, we can read Confucius as saying that our deepest nature is that we are social beings. Because this is who we are, it is something with which we can always reconnect.
The other idea that is important to Confucius is the idea of ritual or li (禮). The Chinese character represents an offering made before an altar. But for Confucius, ritual isn’t just a matter of religious ceremonies. Instead, it is something that pervades all life.
Confucius sees li as something that grows out of, and also sustains, the fellow-feeling of ren. In the Analects, Confucius asks:
If you are human, but don’t have ren, what purpose is there in ritual?
This is an idea that takes a bit of unpacking. One reason modern readers sometimes stumble over this is that in many cultures, ritual has quite a poor reputation. We can think of ritual as something cold, stilted and awkward, something that is the opposite of that warm, mutual connection between human beings.
But for Confucius, ritual is a conduit for feeling. In the Analects, Confucius wrote, 'When undertaking ritual, take harmony as what is most valuable.' Think of how you offer a friend a cup of tea, or how you bring over a bottle of wine, or a bunch of flowers, when you are invited for dinner. These are all ritualised gestures. But they don’t feel forced or strained. Instead, they open up a pathway to a deeper, more harmonious connection between you.
So what Confucius is saying is this: if we care about how to live together as best we can, then we need to be able to cultivate shared practices of ritual to ensure that our collective lives are harmonious. Ritual is like the music of our shared lives. And when we can play in harmony, then life is good!
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The lunyu is the collected saying of Confucius. It is known in English as The Analects, and there are multiple translations available. There’s a good online translation by Charles Muller that is free to access.
If you want a good, readable translation of the Analects, then try Edward Slingerland's Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Hackett 2010). It is both scholarly and approachable.
For an interesting philosophical take, try David Hall and Roger Ames's Thinking Through Confucius (SUNY Press 1987). Another old-but-good book is Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Waveland Press 1998), which is a fascinating study of the role ritual plays in human life.
For an introduction to the influence of Confucius throughout history, Daniel Gardner's Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2014) is a good place to start.
National Geographic has an article on the continued relevance of Confucius.