Confucius
Transforming the World through Ritual & Humaneness

 
 
Confucius (551-479 BCE) lived at the midpoint between the establishment of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1040 BCE) and the creation of the first truly centralized empire, the Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE) a time when it was clear that the old system had somehow failed, though it remained unclear whether it would be better to look for a solution in the past or the future. The so-called Analects of Confucius represent a compilation of his oral teachings (compiled posthumously by his students, probably over numerous generations) that collectively — though by no means systematically — present his solution to this collapse of the sociopolitical order. Despite the lack of a systematic presentation of his philosophy, Confucius maintained that there was a single principle that connected his moral teachings; although Confucius does not actually tell us what this principle is, one of his main students, Zengzi, explained this principle in terms of two interrelated concepts: zhong (loyalty) and shu (empathy).
 
Zhong ~ Loyalty
Defining the Self through Relationships
The goal of Confucius’ moral philosophy is to construct a moral structure for society. ... In this moral hierarchy, everyone is assigned a moral role depending on how he or she is related to others. One’s moral duties are defined in terms of the roles one plays in the political/social hierarchy. For example, the duty of an emperor is to behave in a kingly fashion and to take care of the people’s basic needs. A minister’s duty is to assist the emperor in governing the people. The duty of an ordinary citizen is to obey the superiors. In the family, parents have a duty to love their children, while children have a duty to exemplify filial piety toward their parents. The husband’s duty is to support the family, while the wife’s duty is to manage household affairs. ...

Politics in Confucius’ native Lu were extremely unstable because of the challenge to the ruler posed by the “three Huan families” which had the hereditary right to occupy the most powerful ministerial offices in the Lu government. In 517 Duke Zhao of Lu moved against the head of the most powerful — and the wealthiest — of the families: the Ji clan. But the attack failed and the duke was forced to flee from Lu and spend the remaining years of his reign in exile, first in Lu’s large neighbor Qi and then in a town in the state of Jin where he died in 510. According to Sima Qian, when Duke Zhao was first forced into exile, Confucius also went to Qi to serve as a retainer in the household of the nobleman Gao Zhaozi. The Analects mentions how, during this period in Qi, Confucius heard for the first time a performance of the sacred Shao music and was overwhelmed by the experience and then had an audience with Duke Jing of Qi ....
 
Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, Let the ruler be a ruler; the minister, a minister; the father, a father; the son, a son. Excellent,” said the duke. Truly, if the ruler is not a ruler, the subject is not a subject, the father is not a father, and the son is not a son, though I have grain, will I get to eat it?” [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 56 (Analects 12:11)]
 
... He was no doubt commenting on politics in Qi where — as was also the case in Lu — power rested not in the hands of the ruler but instead in the hands of the powerful ministerial families who were supposed to serve him. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  “Confucius”]
 
One’s moral duties shift as one adopts various roles in life, of which there will always be several in accordance with one’s various relationships with different people. However, there is one moral obligation that applies to all roles and all people: the virtue of zhong (loyalty). ... Loyalty is not a devotion directed specifically toward one’s superior: rather, it is directed toward the role one plays — being loyal means doing one’s best in whatever one does. In this sense, loyalty can be defined as “doing what one is supposed to do” or “being loyal to one’s role.” In other words, a social role is not simply a social assignment; it is also a moral assignment. ... The notion of zhong, as applied in the Confucian moral hierarchy, comprises a moral theory that focuses on moral duties or obligations, rather than on rights or entitlements. It constitutes a basic tenet of Confucianism, which is an ethics built on demands on oneself rather than on others. In contrast to the rights theory, Confucianism is a form of deontology. [An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 48-52]
  • How might this vision of a “moral hierarchy” lead to socio-political stability?
  • How does this “deontological” (i.e. based on duties and obligations) socio-political system differ from one based on rights? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
 
Shu ~ Empathy
The Confucian Golden Rule
The other half of Confucius’ “single thread” is the notion of shu (empathy). The importance of this virtue in Confucius’ moral philosophy can also be seen in another exchange he had with a student. When asked to give one word that can serve as the guiding principle for one’s entire life, Confucius replied that it is “shu”, and further elaborated: “Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire.” ... How does this notion of shu (empathy) fit into Confucius’ moral hierarchy, and how does it link up with the notion of (loyalty) to constitute his unifying principle? As explained earlier, in this moral hierarchy individuals are interconnected in a social web that includes multilayers of relationships. One needs to be loyal to the different roles one plays relative to the other person. Now with zhongshu (empathy), one can also extend oneself to appreciate what the other person in the opposite role would desire. For example, a father can do his best as a father to edify his son. But if he remembers how much he resented his father’s dictatorship, then he should modify his discipline and not impose too much restraint on his son. ... [Similarly,] if we do not wish our family members to be harmed, then we should not harm any stranger who is also a family member to someone else. ... Loyalty to one’s own role is not sufficient for securing social harmony unless it is accompanied by everyone’s empathetic understanding of other people’s wishes. In this way, the two notions, zhong and shu (loyalty and empathy), are equally essential to the establishment of Confucius’ ideal society. [An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 53-56]
  • Why is zhong (loyalty) insufficient for securing social harmony unless it is accompanied by shu (empathy)?
 

The Cardinal Virtues
From Zhong & Shu to Li & Ren

Li ~ Ritual Propriety
Yan Yuan asked about humaneness. The Master said, “To overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety is the way to become humane. If one could overcome self-centeredness and return to ritual propriety for a single day, the whole world would return to humaneness. Does the implementation of humaneness depend on oneself or on others?” Yan Yuan said: “May I ask about the details?” The Master said “If it does not accord with ritual propriety do not look; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not listen; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not speak; if it does not accord with ritual propriety do not act.” Yan Yuan said: “Though I am not clever, I will try to put these words into practice. [Analects 12:1 (translated by Brian Hoffert); cf. Sources of Chinese Tradition, 55]
 
 
Ren ~ Humaneness
With regard to humaneness: wishing to establish oneself, one helps to establish others; wishing to develop oneself, one helps to develop others. The ability to take what is close (i.e. what one wishes for oneself) as an analogy [for what others would also wish for] — this may be called the method of [cultivating] humaneness. [Analects, 6:30 (translated by Brian Hoffert); cf. Sources of Chinese Tradition, 50 (Analects 6:28)]
 
NOTE: The translation in Sources of Chinese Tradition is unclear, since it seems to imply that one must first establish/develop oneself before one can establish/develop others; the original text, however, clearly implies that it is because one wishes to establish/develop oneself that one should establish/develop others, which is to say that helping others is the means by which one helps oneself.