Confucius (551–479 BCE)

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(551479 BCE)

Confucius (Kong Qiu) is one of the early Chinese philosophers and the founder of the ethical teaching known as Confucianism. He was born in a time of political, social, and spiritual crisis that had shattered the traditional way of life as well as the view of a world based on the conventions of ritual propriety (li ) and the religion of Heaven (tian ). The hierarchies of the patriarchal feudal system of the Zhou had fallen into decay, giving way to a new social mobility, and because of this, a small but influential middle class emerged. Its members became the clients of private teachers who imparted the knowledge needed in a society that ascribed increasing importance to individual capability instead of descent.

Confucius (a transcription of Kong fuziteacher Kong) was one of these teachers. He probably taught the practical "six arts" (writing, mathematics, ritual propriety, music, charioteering, and archery) and dealt with the texts handed down from the past that he is said to have edited and that constitute the core of the later Confucian classics. However, as documented by his "Collected Words" (Lunyu, a later compilation), the main focus of his teaching is morality. Confucius dedicates himself to an ideal of education that transcends the social boundaries and roles the disciples would possibly play in their present and later lifethe ideal of becoming a gentleman (junzi ), a truly moral person in solidarity with the community and rooted in self-respect. This endeavor is again embedded in the quest for a still higher goal: To rescue "this culture" from the flood in which it was drowning, and to "change the world" that had lost the dao, the right way (LY 9.5, 18.6).

To find a solution for the world in a time when tradition was in crisis enforced a reflection on the established norms in order to reconstruct and rescue their true meaning (zheng ming ). This gives a philosophical ring to Confucius's ethics. He finds one of the paradigmatic answers to the challenge China's intellectuals were facing: How to redefine humankind's position in a world that had lost its foundation, without the possibility for reiterating the past. His answer is the internalization of ethics as a new basis for the ethical life, which entails both constant self-reference of the individual and norm reflexivity. It has always remained a Confucian conviction that there must be ethical rather than legal or organizational solutions to the basic problems of human existence; that morality must have primacy over all other concerns, also over politics; and that the human being as its agent is capable of moral cultivation. This makes the Confucian position distinct both from the Daoist return to nature and the legalist social engineering.

The general structure of ethics of the Lunyu may be described as comprising three steps: (1) In view of the sobering conditions of the time, the "gentleman" turns away from society; he no longer trusts public reputation (LY 12.20) and the opinions of the majority (13.24, 15.28); and he is constantly prepared to be misjudged and not acknowledged by others (1.1, 1.16, 14.30, 15.19). He then (2) turns into his inner self where in private seclusion he develops self-respect (5.16, 13.19) as the basis for autonomous action and, given the absence of a strong religious backing of ethics, the ultimate reason for being moral. Through regular self-reflection and critical self-examination (1.4, 5.27, 12.4, 15.21) he safeguards the purity of his intentions, which, if necessary, will enable him to, as Confucius is quoted in the Mengzi, "withstand thousands or tens of thousands" (2a:2). However, in a final step, the moral actor (3) consciously "overcomes himself" and returns to society (ke ji fu li ) (LY 12.1). He thus accepts his responsibility as a moral authority in the interest of the common good, rather than simply trying to stay "clean" in a world where "the dao does not prevail" (18.7), far away from the ideal of the "great community" (da tong, attributed to Confucius in Liji 9).

Return to society implies the critical acknowledgement of the given ethos of a hierarchical world dominated by the principle of male seniority. Without the handed-down rules of propriety (li ) the human being would be without a firm "standing" (lì ) (LY 8.8, 16.13, 20.3). However, the traditional canon of normative orientations is reconsidered and realigned to a new organizing centerhumaneness (ren ). Humaneness has "to start from oneself" rather than from external guidance (12.1); it is ideally followed for its own sake rather than for reasons of utility (4.2); and it is universally valid, even when one is among barbarian tribes (13.19).

Humaneness is explicated differently, however, in the Lunyu, the most conspicuous variants being its affective reading as love (12.22) and its cognitive reading as the golden rule (5.12, 6.30, 12.2, 15.23), the maxim that "consists of one word and can be practiced through all one's life" (15.24) and the "one that goes through all" (4.15). By humaneness in terms of the golden rule, the direct reciprocal relationship with the generalized "other" becomes one of the two complementary dimensions of ethics along with the concrete role orientation.

Confucius's ethics thus promises a "mean" comprising personal integrity and social integration, allowing one to keep faith with the conventional ethos while not surrendering to it. The "gentleman" as its protagonist will fulfill the duties owed to family and society and at the same time, "harmonious, but not conformist" (13.23), maintain a moral watchfulness and inner independence.

It was possible, however, to adopt this ethics with different accents, also because of the vagueness of many Lunyu passages and the opacity of its structure. The conflict of opinions about the true teaching of the master, the attempts to regain the original spirit lost in the course of its effective history, as well as Confucius's critique as a rebel, a ritualist, and a moralist out of touch with reality, apparently started shortly after his death. The debate still continues in the twenty-first century, with deontological, pragmatist, aestheticist, communitarian, and religious interpretations competing with each other.

See also Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism.


Creel, Herrlee G. Confucius and the Chinese Way. New York: Harper, 1960.

Lau, D. C. Confucius: The Analects (Lun Yü). 2nd ed. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1993.

Roetz, Heiner. Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.

Roetz, Heiner. Konfuzius. Munich: Beck, 1998.

Schaberg, David. "Sell it! Sell it! Recent Translations of Lunyu." Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 23 (2001): 115139.

Van Norden, Bryan W., ed. Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

Heiner Roetz (2005)