Confucius and Socrates Contents
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Example of Confucius

by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.

Although we examined the major events in Confucius' life in the first chapter, it may be useful to reflect briefly at this point on how well he lived up to what he taught. If wisdom is both knowledge and action, then words alone are not sufficient evidence that he was a wise man. Moreover if he was to be an effective teacher of wisdom, then his students certainly would have looked to see if he actually practiced what he preached. The first two chapters looked at Confucius as an exemplar of wisdom, and in this chapter we shall briefly explore whether he lived according to the specific precepts which he taught.

This idea of not allowing one's words to outrun one's deeds was actually one of Confucius' own fundamental principles. Confucius even in his time considered this to be an ancient axiom. "The reason why the ancients did not readily give utterance to their words, was that they were afraid that their actions might not come up to them."1 Confucius knew that words were cheap, and so he recommended the following method for keeping one's speech in line with one's deeds. Zigong had asked about the better person, and Confucius said, "He acts before he speaks and then speaks according to his action."2 This is a sure way of keeping the words accurate to the actual accomplishments. Confucius was aware of hypocrisy and warned against it. "A person with clever words and pretentious manner is seldom good."3 With Confucius we find that although he had many wise things to say, he rarely made claims about himself, especially in The Analects, the earliest source. Many later Confucians made extravagant claims on behalf of their master, changing history to legend and even myth.

Confucius was described in The Analects as having no egotism, and although he preached much, it usually was as an impersonal ideal which anyone could learn to follow. He did not say they should emulate him; he did not even tell them what to do. He merely pointed out what would be the consequences of various motivations and actions, and then let his listeners decide. At one point while reciting the Way of the better person, he admitted that he had not attained it. However, his disciples probably disagreed.

Confucius said, "The Way of the better person is threefold.
I myself have met with success in none of them.
For one who is really good is never unhappy,
one who is really wise is never perplexed,
and one who is really brave is never afraid."

Zigong said, "Master, that is what you yourself say."4

Confucius was aware of his own limitations and that he certainly could do better in each of these aspects. Yet these are all relative, and as compared to others Confucius exhibited a remarkable joy even though he was not recognized by many, showed courage and lack of fear in his travels, and rarely was he confused by any question put to him. He said "I am not concerned that I have no office; I am only concerned how I may make myself qualified for one. I am not concerned that I am not recognized; I seek to be worthy of recognition."5

Even though Confucius was not in office, he was ready at any time to put his principles into practice if he was given an ethical opportunity. There was a conversation in which Zigong described a precious jewel and asked whether he should wrap it up and keep it in a box or see if he could get a good price for it. Confucius replied, "Sell it! Most certainly sell it! I myself am one who is waiting for an offer."6

In his travels Confucius put forth great effort to put into practice his ideas, but he also showed by refusing to cooperate with unjust government that he lived up to his ethical ideals. He also showed his strength of character in enduring hardships. The following incident illustrates these points:

Duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius about military strategy.
Confucius replied, "About the ordering of ritual vessels
I have some knowledge, but I have not studied warfare."
The next day he resumed his travels.
In Chen supplies fell short,
and his followers became so weak
that they could not drag themselves on to their feet.

Zilu came to the master and said indignantly, "Is it right
that even better people should be reduced to such straits?"

Confucius said, "A better person can withstand want;
it is only the lesser person who is swept away by it."7

Confucius' definition of a great minister made clear why he was not often in political service. The following conversation also indicates his attitude toward two of his disciples' ability in government.

Ji Ziran asked whether Zilu and Ran Qiu
could be called great ministers.
Confucius said, "I thought you were going to ask
some really interesting question; and it is only about Yu and Qiu.
What I call a great minister is one who will only serve his prince
while he can do so without infringement of the Way,
and as soon as this is impossible, resigns.
But in this present case, so far as concerns Yu and Qiu,
I should merely call them stop-gap ministers."

Ziran said, "So you think they would merely do
what they were told?"

Confucius said, "If called upon to slay their father or their prince,
even they would refuse."8

In other words, Confucius did not tend to over-rate his own students nor think they were completely incapable either. Confucius believed the art of government was a skill of correcting people. Therefore it was fundamental for the leader to be correct. "To govern means to rectify. If you lead with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?"9 Therefore, he could not allow himself to participate in a government which was not correct.

From the evidence we have, Confucius appeared to have acted in harmony with the Way he preached. He said,

Wealth and honor are what every man desires.
But if they have been obtained in violation of the Way,
they must not be kept.
Poverty and humble station are what every man dislikes.
But if they can be avoided only in violation of the Way,
they must not be avoided.
If a better person departs from goodness,
how can one fulfill that name?
A better person never abandons goodness
even for the lapse of a single meal.
In moments of haste, one acts according to it.
In times of difficulty or confusion, one acts according to it.10

We find Confucius accepting humble circumstances gladly rather than give up his principles. He said, "With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and with a bent arm for a pillow, there is still joy. Wealth and honor obtained through injustice are as remote from me as the clouds that float above."11 Even so, Confucius did not find much joy in bodily pleasures but rather in loving learning and following the Way.

A better person does not seek
gratification of one's appetite nor comfort in one's lodging.
One is diligent in one's duties and careful in one's speech.
One associates with those who follow the Way
so that one may correct one's own faults.
Such a person may be said to love learning.12

Learning and teaching were the major pursuits of Confucius' life. His diligence in these activities indicates that he conscientiously followed what he recommended to others. Ran Qiu once asked Confucius what should be done next for a population which had multiplied. The master counted the next step to be to enrich them. Ran Qiu then asked for the step after that. Confucius said, "Instruct them."13 This was his role, though he knew that people must have the necessities of life first.

What are the qualifications for a teacher? Confucius felt he must have knowledge of the past and apply it in the present for the future. "Whoever can make the old come alive to gain knowledge of what is new is able to teach others."14 Due to his extensive knowledge of the classics and past history and traditions while constantly endeavoring to apply these ancient principles to contemporary situations, Confucius showed himself to meet this requirement as well as anyone we could name.

Although Confucius was capable of various actions, he was always striving for the best action possible. For example, he said, "I could try a civil suit as well as anyone, but it would be better still to bring it about so that there are no civil suits!"15

As a teacher of the principles of wisdom, Confucius made an easy target for criticism and satire, especially since he was not in a prestigious position of the government. In fact a couple of centuries later Confucius was extensively ridiculed by the Daoist mystic Zhuang-zi, who satirized him as a busy-body reformer. However, these were caricatures to show how the mystical transcends social ethics. There is an incident recorded in The Analects of a rustic who criticized Confucius for not having any specific accomplishments. The master faced the charge with a sense of humor.

A villager from Daxiang said, "Confucius is no doubt
a very great man and vastly learned.
But he does not bear out his reputation by any particular thing."

Confucius hearing of it, said to his disciples,
"What shall I take up? Shall I take up chariot-driving?
Or shall it be archery? I think I will take up driving!"16

Confucius was naturally concerned more with the development of the whole person than with one particular skill.

In one sense, maybe Confucius never really got the chance to demonstrate his wisdom and apply his principles. Yet this was not his fault but rather because of the moral conditions of the times. We can only examine how he faced the challenges of his life; although he never was successful in government, he did gain the respect of many disciples. As a final, pragmatic evaluation of his teaching, then, we must examine the effect he had on his students.


1. Analects 4:22.
2. An. 2:13.
3. An. 1:3.
4. An. 14:30.
5. An. 4:14.
6. An. 9:12.
7. An. 15:1.
8. An. 11:23.
9. An. 12:17.
10. An. 4:5.
11. An. 7:15.
12. An. 1:14.
13. An. 13:9.
14. An. 2:11.
15. An. 12:13.
16. An. 9:2.

Copyright © 1996, 2006 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi

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