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Confucius, the first 'teacher' of humanism?

Of Confucius, it was once asked: "Is he the one who knows that what he does is in vain yet keeps on trying to do so?" Now, I do not know if Confucius ever felt a sense of hopelessness in the self-appointed task of trying to rectify the character of other men; but since he was a dedicated teacher, had he been there to reply I think he would have said: "Yes, I am the one who is true to himself."

In his mid-fifties and thereon till a few years before his death (in 479 B.C.E. at the age of seventy-three) Confucius wandered about the Chinese states, seeking out and instructing those of all classes who were eager to learn. Confucius said: "To learn and frequently practice what one has learned--is this not a pleasure?" As for himself, he said: "To be able to acquire new knowledge while reviewing the old, qualifies one as an instructor of men. Knowing through silent reflection, learning without satiety, and teaching others without becoming weary--these are the merits I claim."

Confucius was sustained in his purpose by a genuine sense of "human-heartedness." In Confucian conception, this is the doctrine of jen--its Chinese written character a composite of man and two, suggestive of one man carrying another, a symbol representing humanity. When asked about the nature of jen, Confucious said: "There is one central idea that runs through all my teachings--love men."

Humanism is the axis that runs through all his teachings. It is the harmonious reference from which all symmetry in his system of ethical precepts is rationally attained. Throughout all of his teachings, Confucius is clearly saying, as he did specifically on one occasion: "Without jen (benevolence) a man can not long endure adversity, nor can he long endure prosperity. A man of jen rests in jen, a man of wisdom finds it beneficial."

The Affirmations of Humanism, drawn up by the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, avow that "We affirm humanism ... as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service of others." Likewise, Confucius said: "A man of jen (charity) is one who in seeking to establish himself finds a foothold for others, and who desiring attainment for himself helps others to attain. To be able to draw a parallel in dealing with others is indeed the way to achieve jen (human-heartedness)."

The Affirmations of Humanism also avow, "We believe in common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility...." All of these virtues are embodied intrinsically in six major Confucian concepts very closely related to jen: shu (altruism), li (propriety), chung (faithfulness), hsin (sincerity), yi (correct conduct), and chih (wisdom)--none of which is paramount, but rather all conjoined in a bonded sense to jen (love for one's fellow man). These virtues stand and serve in relationship to jen in much the same way that scientific methods stand and serve as science itself. In fine, all the virtues are but the continuing daily practice of jen--and that is why it is so difficult to define the precise sense of jen, unless jen be called "perfect virtue."

The Affirmations of Humanism state: "We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence." Most certainly Confucius saw the necessity of moral growth. His philosophical approach is purely humanistic, emphasizing moral standards of excellence in the cultivation of one's personal life. He envisaged a social order based on the force of moral ideals. Confucius regarded man as inherently a social creature who is bound by kinship to his fellow men and destined in human heritage to live his life in the family and society of men. Confucius said: "It is impossible to herd with birds and beasts. If I do not live with my fellow men, with whom should I live?"

Confucius was inclined to see the better part of man's nature, but as a practical matter he understood the need for explicit moral instructions. Confucius said: "In my early dealings with men, I used to listen to their words and take their deeds on trust. Now I am obliged to give ear to what they say, and then keep a watchful eye on what they do."

Unfortunately, Confucius was not explicit in defining the moral nature of man; consequently, the divergence in Confucian thought that later came about concerning the innate quality of man's moral nature has not been resolved. Mencius, the Confucian scholar (372-289 B.C.E.) who was born about a hundred years after the death of the First Teacher (as Confucius is called and revered by the Chinese people), asserted that man's nature was innately compassionate, rather than self-seeking. Therefore, in his system of values, Mencius stressed yi (righteousness) as the prime virtue. Mencius said: "What one upholds in one's heart is jen; what one upholds in one's conduct is yi." Whereas, Hsun-tzu (315-236 B.C.E.) a late contemporary of Mencius and a scholar in his own right, took the opposite view. Hsun-tzu taught that man is selfish by nature, and thus inherently evil. He stressed li (proper conduct) as the prime virtue. Hsun-tzu said: "Man by birth has desires. When these desires for gain are not satisfied, he cannot but pursue their satisfaction. When the pursuit is carried out without restrain or limit, there cannot but be contention."

I believe that the congenital nature of man is neither good nor evil. Man is born not with sin, nor in sin, nor is man endowed with pure virtue; man is born just to be, and he simply is--and the capacity for both goodness and badness is constituted in his being. It is best to keep in mind that goodness and badness are human judgments that relate primarily to the actions of men toward other men, and only secondarily to the good or bad effects of natural phenomena on man. Nature truly knows no evil but only the immutable order of the cosmos, which is awesome but always impersonal. The calamities and misfortunes of men are of no concern to nature; this I think Confucius knew. Reason ought tell us: man's ultimate concern is man--and to bring out the best in social man requires cultivation. Confucius said: "There are sprouting crops which never come to ear; there are others, which having come to ear, never ripen to grain." I believe the vital question is not the natural disposition of the seed, but the rectification of its growing character. Confucius said: "The real fault is to have faults, and not to tend them."

When Confucius was asked: "Is there a single word that one can live by all one's life?" he replied, "Is not shu (reciprocity) such a word? Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." Again, he said, "What you do not wish to yourself, do not do to others. Then, neither in the country or in the family will there be any resentment towards you." Certainly, these expressions of the "Golden Rule" clearly illustrate the excellence of Confucian thought and Confucian morality.

In passing, I note: Confucius lived five hundred years before Christ. While not to diminish or deny Christianity's humanistic morality (I refer to Renaissance ideas of fulfillment in this life) Confucius, living before and thus preceding Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Christ, derived his ethical principles from the study of the ancients, and from the realistic observations of human desires, human needs, and human passions. When Confucius was asked: "What do you think of requiting injury with kindness?" He replied, "How will you then requite kindness? Requite injury with justice, and kindness with kindness."

The Affirmations of Humanism also state: "We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings." In the Chung Yung (The Doctrine of the Mean, one of the Four Books added to the earlier Chinese Five Classics) Confucius is quoted as saying: "I know now why the Tao (the righteous path) is not observed. The wise mistake the Tao for something higher than what it is; and the foolish overlook it; and the unworthy fall short of it." Thus, for Confucius, the best and noblest men are those who walk the pathway of "perfect virtue"; that is, the way of Chung Yung, the "Golden Mean"; the way of balance, harmony, and natural law; the way of the cosmic, universal order of things--such is the middle path taken by Chun-tzu (the ideal man).

In this regard, Confucius said: "Chun-tzu bases his character on righteousness, conducts himself according to propriety, expresses himself in modesty, and becomes complete in sincerity; such is Chun-tzu."

Thus, Confucius precedes Aristotle in the vision of the "magnanimous man"--the Chun-tzu, who by cleaving to the "Golden Mean" (doing nothing in excess) "helps the people to succeed in what is good, but does not help them in what is evil. Perfect, indeed, is the virtue which is in accord with the doctrine of Chung Yung. For a long time few have had the capacity for it."

The central idea in Aristotle's ethics is that the inherent goodness of a thing lies in the realization of its specific nature; thus, the best and noblest that man can be lies in the complete and habitual exercise of the functions that make him a human being. Confucius viewed fulfillment of man's nature as the happiness achieved by the daily practice of jen; thus, the best and noblest in man is jen, the completeness of man's humanity in the exercise of "perfect virtue." Confucius said: "Is jen really so far away |from man's nature~? I desire jen, and see it is by."

Some, who are at a distance in thought and time, misguided conservatives and liberals alike, might accuse Confucius and Aristotle (as well as Plato and Socrates) of upholding the aristocratic status quo of their cultures. Of course, since all individual and societal knowledge reflects a level of progressive accumulation, they were encumbered by the aristocratic elitism of their times; nevertheless, their views were of a radical elitism of a virtuous kind--their elitism was enshrouded in the idea of the ideal. They envisioned benevolent men, who, having attained wisdom, would inevitably rise to the top, bringing forward rationality and thus harmony to the social order necessary for men to live together in sufficiency and in peace. Such upright, compassionate men will, as Confucius said: "First practice what they preach, and preach what they practice."

In the fullest realization of the best that man can be, Confucius said: "There are nine things which occupy the thoughts of Chun-tzu: In seeing he sees clearly; in hearing he hears distinctly; in his looks, he is kind; in his manner, he is respectful; in his speech, he is sincere; in his work, he is serious; when in doubt, he asks questions; when in anger, he considers the consequences; and when he sees gains, he thinks of righteousness."

If read closely, the Lun-Yu (The Analects), from which I have quoted Confucius, is a statement of the highest degree of moral excellence, attainable by any man making an effort; sufficiently attainable in just the trying. Confucius said: "Is there anyone who is able even for a single day to apply his energy to jen? Well, I have not seen a man whose energy was not equal to it. Should there be any such man, I have never met him."

Some of the Affirmations that I have extracted and grouped together, avow, "We believe in securing justice and fairness; In eliminating discrimination and intolerance; in nourishing reason and compassion; and, in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped." All of these virtuous goals are a part of a longed-for past social order for which in both despair and hope Confucius sighed: "The practice of the Great Tao, and the eminent men of the Three Dynasties--this I have never seen in person, and yet I have a mind to follow them. When the Great Tao prevailed, the world was a commonwealth; men of talent and virtue were selected, mutual confidence was emphasized, and brotherhood was cultivated. Therefore, men did not regard as parents only their own parents, nor did they treat as sons only their own sons. Old people were able to enjoy their old age; young men were able to employ their talents; juniors respected their elders; helpless widows, orphans, and cripples were well cared for. Men had their respective occupations, and women their homes. They hated to see wealth lying about in waste, and they did not hoard it for their own use. They hated not to use their energies, and they used their energies not for their own benefit. Thus, evil schemings were repressed, and robbers, thieves, and traitors no longer appeared, so that the front door remained open. This was called Ta-tung (Grand Unity)."

To be sure, Confucius was an idealist, but he was also a pragmatist; for in his teachings he taught common sense, rather than unattainable idealism--in that tumultuous age, Hsiao K'ang (Minor Peace) was more attainable than a wishful sigh for a utopian dream. With insightful wisdom, he pointed to the Tao (the moral law) as the proper path to achieve an enlightened height. He emphasized jen (true manhood) as the way from the low to climb high. He stressed hsiao (filial piety) as the true path going to a distance from nearby. In keeping with the First Teacher's thoughts, Mencius said: "Jen is man's secure abode, and yi (righteousness) his true road. Alas for those who desert the secure abode and dwell not therein! Alas for those who abandon the true path and follow it not!" Hsun-tzu said: "Unless steps and half-steps are accumulated, no one can cover a thousand li (a great distance)." Thus, through learning and perseverance, "one who abides by li (proper conduct) never goes astray."

The Affirmations of Humanism avow: "We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children...." Confucius said: "Filial piety is the basis of virtue and the source of culture." Therefore, moral education proceeds from the natural bonds of parenthood, continuing through love and fidelity in marriage, fostered by kindness in the parents toward their son, and by reverence in the son for his parents, deference to elders, and veneration of one's ancestors. Confucius said: "A youth should be filial at home and fraternal abroad. He should be earnest and sincere, feeling an affection for all and a disposition for jen (true humanhood)."

Thereby, in a masterful concept based on the natural act of human pairing, Confucius expresses the kindred sense of humanity--hsiao (filial piety)--as not only giving one a true feeling of personal worth by the practice of proper relationships in one's family, but also as giving one a feeling of fellowship by the practice of proper relationships in one's community. Confucius said: "There is nothing better than filial piety to teach the people love for one another."

Furthermore, hsiao as giving a youth an awareness of continuity with the past by the practice of "ancestor worship" if viewed in a secular light conveys the obligation, the duty, and the responsibility of continuing and completing the good works of one's forefathers.

In the Hsiao Ching (The Classic of Filial Piety), in the chapter on mourning for one's parents, Confucius said: "When parents are alive, the are served with love and reverence; when they are dead, they are mourned with grief and sorrow. This is the performance of man's supreme duty, fulfillment of the mutual affection between the living and the dead, and the accomplishment of the filial son's service to his parents."

Moreover, Confucius viewed the social structure as an aggregation of families. Therefore, he perceived social harmony as arising from the natural love and caring within each family in that he visualized multiple happiness as diffusing into community harmony. This occurs by virtue of personal cultivation, in the manner that the goodness of yi (self-discipline) extends to the sincere practice of li (social discipline). Thus, jen (true humanhood) is fulfilled by the reciprocal quality of shu (consideration for the feelings of others) by which the given expression of it multiplies to produce unity.

Some (so-called) modern Western minds, specifically the anti-shoulds and the anti-absolutes, may simply dismiss his circular, ethical system as merely representing the despotic commands of heads of households, which is ultimately extended to include and justify a paternalistic government. Such a benevolent and moralizing government is viewed by them as repressive to individual initiative and personal freedom. In truth, I surmise, what they really fear is curtailment of unconscionable profits and gains and condemnation of immoral and licentious behavior. Be assured, Confucius did not in his ethical system confuse liberty with license. I am sure Confucius would affirm that freedom can never be absolute: it is always bounded by duty and responsibility--and it is best served when one's actions serve all men.

Now, any doctrine that by its statement of principles, and by its practices is authoritarian will bring upon itself resentment by those excluded from participation and status. Admittedly, the Confucian ideal of an ordered and regulated society is not based upon a relationship of equals. Realistically, in any social structure, one finds one's place and does one's living. As for equality, Tsun-tzu said: "When division is equal, there is no distinction; when power is equal, there is no unity; when the multitude is equal, there is not order.... For two superiors cannot serve each other; two inferiors cannot order each other."

Nonetheless, Confucian concepts when examined closely, and objectively, have a subtle sense of egalitarianism. In the Shu Ching (The Book of History) it is said: "They are only equal in that they are not equal." Thus, all men have the same natural attributes, but have different abilities and talents. Some men apply themselves and others do not. Some men have a great light, most have a lesser light. So from each expect according to capacity, to all attribute proper status, and mutual respect between non-equals will flow. When one is ordered to do what one wants to do, should there be objection? When one does what is proper to do, is there objection? As on a tight ship, all crewmen have their stations and want to do their duty, hence there is not resentment of the good captain's orders." Confucius said: "One who governs by virtue is comparable to the polar star, which remains in its place while all the stars turn toward it."

Certainly, the concept of hsiao does not preclude progressive change, though it properly inhibits any change for the sake of change, so as to assure that long-term goodness will not be abandoned for short-term gratification. Respect for one's parents which ultimately transforms into proper respect for all authority does not in gross cases mean blind obedience, nor does it preclude the right of dissent. Compare what Confucius said: "In serving his parents, a son may gently remonstrate with them. If they refuse to listen to his argument, he should remain reverent and obedient. Even if he is belabored, he should not complain." On the other hand, Confucius also said: "If a father has a son to admonish him, the father will not commit gross wrong. In case of gross wrong, the son should never fail to admonish his father against it. Hence, where there is gross wrong there should be admonition."

Applying this principle to government, Tsun-tzu said: "Choose men of worth and merit, advance those who are sincere and reverent, and encourage filial piety, and brotherly reverence; shelter the orphan and the widow, and help those who are poor and in need; then the common people will be satisfied with the government. Only when the common people are satisfied with the government is the prince secure in his position." It is said that, The prince is like the boat; The people, like the water. Water can support the boat, but it also sinks it.

Now, Confucius said: "Excess and deficiency are equally at fault." Having this principle in mind, I have tried to adhere to the Mean (a balanced way) in keeping to the theme of this essay without having an excess of deficiency in conveying the humanistic character of Confucian philosophy.

Yet, keeping a proper sense of balance has been very difficult for these reasons: (1) In our culture many people, though well educated in Western thought, have little or no knowledge of Confucianism. Therefore, it is necessary to explain focal points in some detail. (2) Many people are misled by the later works of Confucian revisionists who have infused mysticism and abstract speculations into Confucian thought, contrary to its original naturalism. Therefore, for the most part, I wanted Confucius to speak for himself. (3) Many people think of Confucianism--if at all--as the alien religion of an ancient culture. Therefore, I want to deny that tag of religion, and show Confucian humanism as being in basic agreement with the contemporary Affirmations of Humanism.

Also, some people seem only to know of the "inscrutable" Confucius: he being frequently quoted in Charlie Chan films on late-night television. Mention Confucianism to them, and they can still hear an educated Mr. Chan, speaking in pidgin English, saying to Number One Son: "Confucius say, man who sleep in day, at night bay at moon and accomplish nothing!"

Yet, in that made-up saying, there is good advice; and in its fashion it conforms to the spirit of the practical wisdom of Confucius. As an example of this spirit, I will now group together in a composite paragraph some actual sayings of the First Teacher.

Confucius said: "By nature men are nearly alike, but through experience they grow wide apart. |Therefore~ when you see a man of worth, think of attaining his excellence. When you see an unworthy one, then look within and examine yourself. In education there is no class distinction. |So~ learn as though you would never be able to master it; hold it as though you would be in fear of losing it. |Indeed~ study without thought is labor lost; thought without study is perilous. |Remember~ clever words and flattering looks seldom speak of jen (humanity)."

Such are the sayings of Confucius! In this essay, I can but touch the surface of Confucianism; perhaps it has been sufficient to arouse curiosity and to stimulate further interest. I think that you will find that the humanistic force of Confucianism by its rational thinking does not lend itself to myth making, nor to the apotheosis of Confucius himself.

It may be that I have tinged my interpretation of Confucianism with a modern brush. But I believe the evident truths in the wisdom of Confucius are timeless, and need only to be expressed in today's language and to have their goodness reaffirmed by their true practice in today's unhappy, inhumane societies. Confucius said: "Where there is a will, there is a way." It is the will, and not the way, that is wanting.

Gerald F. Rogers is a poet, writer and philosopher (as he says of himself, not "famous or infamous"). He is a member of the South Broward Humanist Club. He lives in Wilton Manors, Florida.
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Author:Rogers, Gerald F.
Publication:Free Inquiry
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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