This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.
Often what a person does is not as significant as how they
do it. If Confucius exemplified wisdom to those around him, much
of it must have come across in the way he went about things, how
he was affected inwardly, his state of mind, and in what manner
he handled various situations. What characteristics enabled him
to make wise decisions, and how did he relate to people so as
to encourage them to become wiser? In the Analects Confucius'
disciples described his manner. "Confucius was completely
free from four things: He had no forgone conclusions, no dogmatism,
no obstinacy, and no egotism."1 Here we find four attributes
the disciples were probably glad that he did not have because
each of them may block wisdom. Forgone conclusions and dogmatism
may prevent a person from making new discoveries and insights.
Thus the mind must remain open to become continually wiser. Obstinacy
makes correction difficult and a person more difficult to deal
with as things change. Egotism tends to prevent others from developing
themselves and focuses attention on the limitations of personality
rather than a more universal consciousness. This tells us characteristics
he was able to avoid.
How, then, did Confucius behave? We are told, "Confucius' manner was affable yet firm, commanding but not harsh, polite but completely at ease."2 This shows that he was easy to get along with, but he was not pushed around because of weakness. His inner strength seemed to give him poise and a free-flowing manner. Ziqin observed that when his master arrived in a country, he always managed to find out about its policy. He wondered whether he was able to do this by asking questions or whether people just told him. Zigong replied, "Our master gets information by being cordial, frank, courteous, temperate, and deferential."3 Zigong went on to point out that this is quite different from the manner in which inquiries were usually made. This indicates that Confucius' manner was successful and probably the wisest way to proceed.
"In his leisure hours Confucius' manner was very free-and-easy, and his expression alert and cheerful."4 Continually we shall find that Confucius was a very positive person. He had a good sense of humor and used it often. Once when he arrived in a town where Ziyu was in command, he heard string instruments and singing. Smiling, he commented, "To kill a chicken one does not use an ox-cleaver," implying that this music was beyond the people.
Ziyu quoted a saying he had heard from the master: "A better person who has studied the Way will be all the more loving towards one's fellow people; a common person who has studied the Way will be all the easier to employ."
Confucius responded, "My disciples, what he says is quite true. What I said just now was only meant as a joke."5 This also shows how easily he could be corrected by one of his students.
Of humanity's great teachers, Confucius was probably one of the most polite. "When in Confucius' presence anyone sang a song that he liked, he did not join in at once but asked for it to be repeated and then joined in."6 Proper human relations were most important to Confucius, and even in the smallest matters he showed his respect for people.
Whenever he was visited by anyone
dressed in the robes of mourning
or wearing ceremonial headdress, with gown and skirt,
or a blind man, even if such a one were younger than himself,
Confucius on seeing him invariably rose to his feet,
and if compelled to walk past him always quickened his step.7
He was particularly respectful in matters of mourning.8 His duty to parents still allowed him to point out where they could benefit from correction, but he did it in a most respectful way.
In serving his father and mother
a man may gently remonstrate with them.
But if he sees that he has failed to change their opinion,
he should resume an attitude of deference
and not thwart them;
may feel discouraged, but not resentful.9
We see here that the attempt to educate even one's parents toward greater wisdom is not to be blocked by filial obedience, though the manner and attitude remains highly important as the personification of one's own wisdom.
Confucius may have been the first great humanist in recorded history, for his greatest concerns were for humanity and good human relations. When he heard that the stables had burned down, he asked if any person had been hurt; but he did not ask about the horses.10 In a feudal and aristocratic age he recognized the freedom of every individual. He said, "You may rob the Three Armies of their commander-in-chief, but you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his opinion."11 Confucius believed in allowing everyone the opportunity to make something of themselves, but once they have had that chance he did not necessarily treat everyone equally.
Respect the young.
How do you know that they will not one day
be all that you are now?
But if a man has reached forty of fifty
and nothing has been heard of him,
then I grant there is no need to respect him12
This attitude implies a faith in the possibilities of education
and is contrary to the stereotype of Confucian tradition that
one must respect elders just because of their age. Here we see
that Confucius recommended respecting the young even more.
Confucius believed in the positive influence of human goodness for social and cultural improvement. When he expressed a desire to live among the nine barbarous tribes of the East, someone said they are rude and asked how he could do it. Confucius replied, "If a truly better person lived among them, what rudeness would there be?"13 The power of moral goodness is attractive to people. "Virtue never dwells in solitude; it will always bring neighbors."14
Confucius' love for the common people was demonstrated by his efforts to lower taxes and cut down on the luxuries of the aristocracy. After giving such advice he once said, "A better person helps out the needy; one does not make the rich richer still."15 When Yuan Si was appointed governor, he was allowed nine hundred measures of grain; but he declined it. Confucius criticized him for his lack of concern for the poor. "Surely you could find people who would be glad of it among your neighbors or in your village."16
He had a reputation for perseverance even among his critics. Upon encountering one of his disciples, a gate-keeper commented on Confucius, "He's the one who knows it's no use, but keeps on doing it; is that not so?"17 Yet Confucius felt he was being of service to humanity even though he was not in the government. When asked why he was not in public service, he responded,
The Book of History says: "Be filial;
only be filial and friendly towards your brothers,
and you will be contributing to government."
There are other sorts of service
quite different from what you mean by service.18
Confucius recognized human limitations and did not expect to find a perfectly wise man ("Divine Sage"). The greatest ideal that he could hope for was a "truly better person."19 Even so he was not very optimistic. He said,
A faultless man I cannot hope ever to meet;
the most I can hope for is to meet a man of fixed principles.
Yet where all around I see
Nothing pretending to be Something,
Emptiness pretending to be Fullness,
Penury pretending to be Affluence,
even a man of fixed principles
will be none too easy to find.20
It was not the actual situation which bothered him so much
as the sham and deceit. "Impetuous, but tricky! Ingenuous,
but dishonest! Simple-minded, but capable of breaking promises!
To such men I can give no recognition."21
What Confucius did not countenance in others, he did not allow in himself. He declared that he could not stoop to "clever talk, a pretentious manner and a reverence that is only of the feet" nor to "having to conceal one's indignation and keep on friendly terms with the people against whom one feels it."22 The latter he demonstrated once even though he had to lie.
Ru Bei wanted to see Confucius,
but Confucius excused himself on the ground of ill-health.
When the man who had brought the message
was going out through the door,
he took up his zither and sang,
making sure that the messenger should hear.23
Although he lied on the verbal level, his letting the messenger
know that he was actually well was indicating his true feelings;
thus he was not intending to deceive at all, but he was making
a frank but polite refusal to see this person.
Confucius was often critical of the attitudes and behavior of his time. He contrasted the naiveté of the ancients to the more cynical behavior which had developed. He said,
In antiquity the impetuous were
merely impatient of small restraints;
now they are utterly insubordinate.
In antiquity the proud were stiff and formal;
now they are touchy and quarrelsome.
In antiquity simpletons were at any rate straightforward;
but now 'simple-mindedness' exists only
as a device of the imposter.24
Confucius felt that his country was in a state of decay, for
even the "barbarians of the East and North have retained
their princes," whereas in the more "civilized"
states many royal families had been overthrown by usurpers.25
Confucius had his dislikes and was not afraid to declare them. He said,
High office filled by men of narrow views,
ceremonies performed without reverence,
the forms of mourning observed without grief-
these are things I cannot bear to see!26
How else could he bring reform except to start by pointing out what is wrong and needs correction. He considered the misuse of language one of the greatest dangers. "I hate to see sharp mouths overturning kingdoms and clans."27 Why did Confucius express these criticisms as hatreds? Actually it is the most honest procedure to subjectively speak only for oneself. To say something is bad is to make a judgment one may not be capable of making correctly, and to demand change in others can be an infliction upon their freedom of choice. Thus it is proper for even the better person to have hatreds. Notice how Confucius treated Zigong as an equal in this discussion.
Zigong said, "Surely even the better person must have hatreds?
Confucius said, "He has hatreds.
He hates those who point out what is evil in others.
He hates those who dwelling in low estate
revile all who are above them.
He hates those who love deeds of daring but neglect propriety.
He hates those who are active and venturesome,
but are violent in temper.
I suppose you also have your hatreds?"
Zigong said, "I hate those who mistake cunning for wisdom.
I hate those who mistake insubordination for courage.
I hate those who mistake tale-bearing for honesty."28
Even though Confucius placed his emphasis on the human level,
he did also relate to the divine or spiritual. This emphasis is
most clearly expressed by his most celebrated humanistic declaration:
"A person can make the Way great, but the Way cannot make
a person great."29 The reference, of course, is to the Dao
(Way). This does not mean that Confucius did not believe in a
greater reality, but that it is up to us to make it manifest.
One of Confucius' rare mystical statements was, "In the morning,
hear the Way; in the evening, die content!"30
Confucius' faith in a higher power was usually expressed in terms of the "will of Heaven" (tian ming), which he claimed he knew from the age of fifty. This idea of the will of Heaven goes back to the beginning of the Zhou dynasty, who used this as the reason for taking over the government from the corrupt Shang rulers. According to the tradition the true ruler is the one who has this divine support. Thus what even appears like a revolution could be merely this shifting of Heaven's will from one dynasty to another or from one person to another as with the legendary emperors Shun and Yu, who waited to see if Heaven had selected them before they began to rule. When the people came to them for decisions, they realized that they had the mandate of Heaven. Thus China has had a long tradition of revolution.
Confucius related especially to the early Zhou rulers such as King Wen. He felt it was his destiny to spread their culture. When his life appeared to be in danger during the incident at Kuang, he said confidently,
Since the death of King Wen,
is not the course of culture in my keeping?
If it had been the will of Heaven to destroy this culture,
it would not have been given to a mortal.
But if it is the will of Heaven
that this culture should not perish,
what can the people of Kuang do to me?31
Confucius apparently believed that one way this divine mission
was communicated to him was through dreams; for he became quite
upset when the dreams stopped. "How utterly have things gone
to the bad with me! It is long now indeed since I dreamed that
I saw the Duke of Zhou."32
Confucius certainly believed in the importance of prayer. When the commander-in-chief in the state of Wei asked about the proverb that one is better off courting the favor of the kitchen god than the religious shrine, he replied, "It is not true. He who turns away from Heaven has no one to pray to."33
While not really recognized among people, Confucius consoled himself that he must be recognized in Heaven. Once when he expressed his sadness that no one knew him, Zigong asked why he was not known. The master replied that he did not "accuse Heaven nor blame people. But the studies of humans here below are felt on high, and perhaps after all I am known; not here, but in Heaven!"34 His belief in Heaven seemed to give Confucius a greater inner strength and security. He did not worry about what one renegade such as Gongbo Liao might do.
If it is the will of Heaven that the Way shall prevail,
then the Way will prevail.
But if it is the will of Heaven that the Way should perish,
then it must needs perish.
What can Gongbo Liao do against Heaven's will?35
Here we see that in Confucius' terminology the will of Heaven was placed above the Way, which would be its proper manifestation among people. Confucius was able to accept Heaven's will. Even when he saw a good man dying of a horrible disease, he said, "It is all over with him! Heaven has so ordained it-but that such a man should have such an illness!"36 When Confucius himself was ill and his disciples dressed themselves up as official retainers, he came to and said,
How like Yu, to go in for this sort of imposture!
In pretending to have retainers when I have none,
whom do I deceive? Do I deceive Heaven?
Not only would I far rather die in the arms of you disciples
than in the arms of retainers,
but also as regards my funeral-
even if I am not accorded a State Burial,
it is not as though I were dying by the roadside.37
As usual, Confucius cut through pretense and used the situation
to teach the truth of the moment that Heaven knows the reality,
and at the same time he expressed his love and loyalty to his
One of Confucius' most distinguishing qualities was his zeal to learn. He recognized his pursuit of knowledge as the key thing which made him different from most people. "In every hamlet of ten families, there are always some people as loyal and honest as myself, but none who love learning as much as I do."38 He continually strove to improve his own character and took every opportunity to do so.
Even when walking in a party of no more than three
I can always be certain of learning from those I am with.
There will be good qualities that I can select for emulation
and bad ones that will teach me
what requires correction in myself.39
Thus anyone and everyone could be his teacher. Perhaps this
attitude of openness to learn enabled Confucius to reach very
near to his full potential. He believed in the value of education
as the most important factor in what a person becomes-not necessarily
book learning, but practical development. He summarized this concisely
when he said, "By nature, near together; by practice, far
Confucius did not claim to have been born wise, but he did work as hard as he could at both learning and teaching.
As to being a Divine Sage or even a man of perfect virtue,
far be it from me to make any such claim.
As for unwearying effort to learn
and unflagging patience in teaching others,
those are merits that I do not hesitate to claim.41
In fact he felt that he got so caught up in these endeavors that he forgot even basic things. When the Duke of She asked Zilu about Confucius, Zilu did not reply. Confucius asked him why he did not say:
This is the character of the man:
so intent upon enlightening the eager
that he forgets his hunger,
and so happy in doing so
that he forgets the bitterness of his lot
and does not realize that old age is at hand.42
Another personal quality which seemed to help Confucius to
learn and teach more effectively was his humility. He did not
have difficulty accepting the ideas of his students even when
they were correcting him. Once when asked his opinion about a
man's qualifications as a ruler, he gave a brief approval. Yet
when Yong elaborated and showed how the man might not do well,
Confucius quickly replied, "Yong's words are right."43
In fact, Confucius did not consider himself to be equal to Hui.44
When Confucius discussed propriety with the Minister of Crime in Chen, this man trapped Confucius by asking him if the Duke of Lu knew propriety. Out of loyalty to his duke, Confucius felt that he should say that he did, which enabled the Minister of Crime to point out his faults to one of the disciples and scornfully conclude, "If his Highness knew propriety, then who does not?" When Confucius heard about it, he took it in stride: "I am a fortunate man. If by any chance I make a mistake, people are certain to hear of it!"45 Although he was probably being ironic, he might also have been sincere about the truth in the statement. Certainly, criticism did not appear to bother him.
Finally, Confucius was discriminating in his associations depending upon the nature of the activity.
There are some whom one can join in study
but whom one cannot join in progress along the Way;
others whom one can join in progress along the Way,
but beside whom one cannot take one's stand;
and others again beside whom one can take one's stand,
but whom one cannot join in counsel.46
Consequently knowledge of human nature and the uniqueness of
each person was necessary to Confucius if he was to be able to
act wisely in these situations.
We have examined briefly Confucius' life and character to see what kind of a person he was. When dealing with something as complex and comprehensive as wisdom can be, what someone is and how one behaves on one's own behalf may be more important than what one says or does in order to teach or assist others. Now that we have some idea as to Confucius' way of life, personal manner, and attitudes towards himself and others, we can turn toward the actual methods and techniques which he used to teach his students and to encourage them in the pursuit of wisdom.
1. An. 9:4.
2. An. 7:37.
3. An. 1:10.
4. An. 7:4.
5. An. 17:4.
6. An. 7:31.
7. An. 9:9.
8. An. 7:9.
9. An. 4:18.
10. An. 10:12.
11. An. 9:25.
12. An. 9:22.
13. An. 9:13.
14. An. 4:25.
15. An. 6:3.
16. An. 6:3.
17. An. 14:41.
18. An. 2:21.
19. An. 7:25.
20. An. 7:25
21. An. 8:16.
22. An. 5:24.
23. An. 17:20.
24. An. 17:16.
25. An. 3:5.
26. An. 3:26.
27. An. 17:18.
28. An. 17:24.
29. An. 15:28.
30. An. 4:8.
31. An. 9:5.
32. An. 7:5.
33. An. 3:13.
34. An. 14:37.
35. An. 14:38.
36. An. 6:8.
37. An. 9:11.
38. An. 5:27.
39. An. 7:21.
40. An. 17:2.
41. An. 7:33.
42. An. 7:18.
43. An. 6:1.
44. An. 5:8.
45. An. 7:30.
46. An. 9:29.
This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.
Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi