SHADOWS

CONFUCIUS: HUMANITY, CHARACTER, AND ALTRUISM

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. After Plato (some say with Plato), Western Philosophy took a decided turn toward science and technology. Recall Aristotle's interest in knowledge of the universe for its own sake. This emphasis on the intellectual and the scientific made both technological progress and social alienation possible. Chinese Philosophy, on the other hand -- despite China's many technological achievements -- remained, on the whole, throughout its history, primarily ethical and aesthetic in its approach. Confucianism, with its emphasis on human values -- family, village, and community -- represents the ethical side of Chinese culture. Taoism, which accented the sublimity of nature and the need to attune human behavior with the ebb and flow of nature -- represents the aesthetic side of Chinese culture. The two taken together attest to the persistent fact of the Chinese people's closeness to the earth and to one another. Harmony with nature and harmony within family and society have taken precedence over scientific and technological advancement.

Question: How does concentration on social values inhibit technological development?

2. Confucius (551 - 479 B.C.), like Plato, attempted to bring moral and political reform to a society he viewed as corrupt and chaotic. Like Plato, he believed that if leaders were morally upright, civil order would follow. To this end, he spent his life teaching moral values -- as he rediscovered them in traditional writings. Like Socrates, he was a remarkable conversationalist; he drew many followers from all classes of society. These disciples committed his words to memory and were responsible for the four main Confucian classics: The Analects (or "Sayings" of Confucius), The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and The Mencius (writings of Mencius). Of these, we will focus first upon The Doctrine of the Mean.

3. Both the universe and the superior person (chun-tzu) follow the "Mean" or, in Chinese, chung-yung. Chung means center, equilibrium, balance; yung means harmony. The compound chung-yung means "central harmony," mean between extremes, middle way, balanced course. Thus, the way of chung-yung involves a sense of justice and fairness, a spirit of tolerance, a state of harmony, a sense of propriety, an intuition of correct behavior, a knack of knowing and doing what is right in a particular situation, motivated by jen (humanity or "love") and guided by li (moral principles or standards of correct conduct). Jen and li are key concepts for Confucianism. The Chinese character for jen signifies people taken together, human-to-human, concern that includes both self and other. Humanity means co-humanity.

4. For Confucianism, the balanced way is embodied in the morally superior person (chun-tzu). The order of the universe is completed only with the appearance of real moral order in human affairs. For Taoism, the perfection of nature does not depend on the cultivation of human virtue; rather, human virtue imitates and depends on the Way of Nature. Confucianism is humanistic; Taoism is naturalistic.

5. Our original nature is like a seed planted in the ground; it contains within it potential humanity or compassion. This nature must be cultivated or consciously formed through education or culture. With learning and study and practice of what is good, original compassion can be nurtured and become fully mature moral character or jen. Education is the nurturing and refinement of co-humanity.

Question: In general, Chinese philosophers have presupposed that human nature is originally good or innocent. Compare this view to that of medieval and modern Western philosophy.

6. Like nature as a whole, human nature, free of passion and movement, is in equilibrium, perfect balance. When our passions are awakened, when we are in movement or being active, we may lose our balance and our external relations may be unharmonious. By following moral principle (traditions and "etiquettes" that govern moral behavior), we can train our character and make our actions harmonious. Our whole life can become with education, discipline, and practice, a kind of symphony -- an orderly whole in harmony with others in society. Thus, with education and moral cultivation, we discipline and train (or form) our original nature so that each passion or activity is appropriate. In the superior person, the harmony of the self extends outward and harmonizes the world it inhabits. The inferior person's chaos brings ruin both to himself and to society (including his family). The superior person's life is, as it were, a work of art, a ritual, a ceremony, wherein every movement has its place, is exactly as it should be, a perfect harmony. It is implied that the universe, with its regularity, awaits the ordering of human society (which all too often is the least orderly part of the universe). When equilibrium is regained, the universe then becomes a cosmos (orderly whole).

7. The superior person holds to the mean, has perfect moral balance. For this person, judgment and timing are perfect; emotions and actions are balanced and coordinated. Actual performance fits the situation. The inferior person is reckless, imbalanced, and has no idea what harm this recklessness and imbalance can inflict on himself and others. Such a one is a cart without a driver, a horse without reins, energy without direction and discipline.

8. The Way is very simple really, very ordinary, not very exciting. Some expect too much of themselves; others expect too little. Neither cultivates the Way. We are not expected to do extraordinary things; we are expected to do little ordinary things well. We are not expected to save the world; we are expected to refine our relations with family and friends. The Way to human self-fulfillment is not so much to achieve mystical union with the All, but rather to learn how to be a good person in a concrete and particular way (e.g., a good son or daughter, a good father or mother, a good husband or wife, a good brother or sister, a good friend, a good villager, a good "citizen," a good ruler) and thereby bring about moral social order. Unlike Buddhism or Stoicism, Confucianism does not pursue loosening of attachments, but cultivation and refinement of attachments.

Question: Compare this view with that of Buddhism. Compare love of family and friends (Confucianism) with universal and impartial love of mankind (Buddhism).

9. Historically, Confucius and other citizens were appalled by disorder and conflict in their society, in which clan war, corruption, and inhumanity prevailed. According to Confucius, conditions can change. Order and harmony can ultimately radiate outward from person to family to village to nation and downward from rulers to citizens. If families are harmonious and if rulers are good, then society will be good.

10. Confucius asserts that strength of character includes inner steadfastness and steadiness in persevering according to the moral law and outer gentleness and flexibility in dealing with others. The Confucian chun-tzu is firm within and gentle without, self-responsible and generous toward others. This person holds unswervingly onto the right way, but accommodates and adjusts speech and action in accordance with the requirements of particular persons and social conditions.

Question: In general, Chinese philosophy stresses flexibility and adaptibility in conduct and finds blunt and rigid self-assertion to be disruptive of family and social ties. The tree that bends with the wind will not break. The tree that is rigid and hard will not stand. Compare this view to Western views.
11. The truly moral person "un-self-consciously" lives a life in entire harmony with the universal moral order and lives unknown to the world and unnoticed by those who are unconcerned. When correct action becomes second nature through consistent practice, moral persons are no longer aware of trying to be good. They simply are good. They no longer need to strive consciously to carry out moral principles. Human beings have to work and to discipline themselves to achieve the balance appropriate to human self-fulfillment (which includes fulfillment of others -- especially those nearest and dearest).
Question: How does Confucian self-fulfillment differ from modern Western notions of self-fulfillment?
12. The Way is not far from "man." The Way is a "humanistic" standard. One must study human beings in order to learn how to act. The measure of what it means to be a human being is the character and conduct of actually morally good human beings. We ought not to look to some non-human standard or transcendent concept. Even the concept of "love" is, by itself, too abstract. We must look to concrete human models (such as the chun-tzu), concrete family relations, and social structures governing these relations. Jen or human-heartedness operates differently in different situations with different persons. It would be inappropriate to love our parents in the same way as we love our friends. It would be inappropriate to love strangers or enemies in the same way as we love our friends.
Question: How is this like and unlike Aristotle's view?
13. Conscientiousness and reciprocity are the subjective and inter-human sides of human growth and development. Self and society are inextricably linked together. Following the moral law or Way (tao) means developing our full humanity (jen). To be fully human means to include the fulfillment of others in our own fulfillment. Humanity means co-humanity. Jen includes both chung (internal straightening, self-improvement, moral earnestness) and shu (reciprocity, mutual improvement, concern for the well-being and improvement of the other). Jen means chung-shu, co-development of self and other. One who acts without concern for family and friends and society has not developed humanity, is not completely human. Individual humanity is inextricably linked to regard for others. Human means co-human. Jen is the virtue of cooperation and accommodation, not individual enhancement at the expense of others. In fact, no one can enhance himself or herself at the expense of others; what one believes to be "self-enhancement" is that case is actually "self-diminishment."
Question: Contrast this "self-improvement" with individualistic notions of self-improvement.
Question: How does this differ from "self-extinction" in Buddhism?

14. "What you do not wish others to do to you, do not do to them." This is similar to the Western golden rule, stated by Confucius in negative terms. Elsewhere, Confucius states it in positive terms. Keep in mind that the golden rule for Confucius is not an abstract principle applied in the same way to all persons. It is a principle that is applied concretely and differently in different human relations (parent-child, husband-wife, friend-friend, etc.)

15. Superior persons are attentive to small details, and they try everywhere to be careful in speech and action or careful that words correspond to actions and actions corresponds to words. What one is subjectively should be consistent and harmonious with what one does.

Question: How is this like Socrates?
16. Moral persons are flexible and adapt to circumstances. What is appropriate in one situation may not be appropriate in another. Moral persons hit upon what is best according to position and circumstances and do not depend on luck. Like the archer, when they miss the target, they criticize themselves and not persons and things outside of themselves. They are true to themselves, honest with themselves, and do not deceive themselves about their shortcomings.
Question: Recall Dewey's view that each moral situation is unique and requires flexibility.
17. The two bases of all social relations are filial piety (reverence of child towards parent) and fraternal love (love between brothers and sisters). Honoring one's parents continues long after their death. Filial piety is a harmonization of past and present (respect for tradition), a kind of vertical continuity throughout time. The respect for tradition is in effect a respect for what is older and wiser. Families and society pass on their wisdom from old to young. Fraternal love shows the horizontal dimension of social relations -- equality, etc. All human relations combine both the "vertical" (continuity of respect for the elder and nurturing love for the younger) and the "horizontal" (continuity of friendship with "peers"). In this way, society is woven with both warp and woof, harmony throughout time and harmony throughout space. When the young no longer respect the old and the old no longer attend to the young, when friends compete but do not cooperate, then the fabric of society is broken asunder.
Question: Explain what happens when a generation lives only for itself and the very old and very young are disregarded.
Question: Explain in your own words how human society remains cohesive to the extent that human beings practice filial piety and fraternal love.
18. Confucius believed that if leaders are good (have cultivated jen in accordance with tao -- the way or moral law), then people will be inclined to be virtuous. It is important to have morality in high places. If the ruler lacks compassion, the people will lack compassion. The ruler rules by moral example. In The Book of Mencius, we read that, if a ruler no longer follows moral principle, the ruler loses both the support of the people and -- necessarily -- loses the "mandate of heaven." "Heaven" represents, for Confucius, a transcendent order of moral principle and harmony.
Question: Do you agree with this view? Give some modern day examples.

19. Morality requires humanity (jen), a sense of what is right or just (yi) and attention to social structures and conventions (li, principles of social order).

20. There are five basic duties of universal obligation or basic human relations:

(1) between ruler and subject
(2) between father and son
(3) between husband and wife
(4) between elder brother and younger
(5) between friends

All other social relations are based on these, and one could develop an exhaustive list of particular social relations that would include countless variations of human relations and their corresponding "propriety." (grandparent-grandchild, neighbor-neighbor, teacher-student). Each relation requires different attitudes and behaviors, although all are based on fundamental family relations. We learn in our family how to get along with people everywhere. For example, we learn how to cultivate friendship by learning how to be a good brother or sister.

Question: Confucians believe that one learns how to be a human being by practicing being a good family member. Explain how this works out in real life.
21. Persons can not rule others until they have mastered (ruled) themselves. Having ordered their own lives in accordance with the Way, superior persons are ready to order society.
Question: What other philosopher shares this view? Explain.

22. In order to be affectionate to one's parents, one must be true to oneself or sincere (ch'eng). Ch'eng means sincerity, being true to oneself, being real, being genuine, being authentic (not counterfeit), not deceiving oneself, being honest with oneself. Ch'eng also means possessing loyalty or faithfulness. It is a kind of self-transparency, like Socratric self-understanding -- a self-knowledge, an awareness of one's place and limits, a sense of who one is and how one fits in. It includes solidity and strength of character without pretense.

23. Becoming sincere or genuine (the "real thing") requires great effort and study. One must study the way to be sincere assiduously; this is the the kind of knowledge that truly matters, the knowledge of one's character and how it may be improved in the light of moral principle. Understanding leads to sincerity; sincerity leads to understanding. Understanding and education are to be understood as moral understanding and moral education. The goal of both is jen, genuine humanity (as opposed to only the semblance of humanity). One might say it requires hard work and study of li (principle) to become in truth what we have called ourselves all along -- human. Jen means "true humanity." Sincerity is the knowledge of where we stand; it is integrity, absence of falsehood, absence of artificiality.

24. Critics of Confucianism point to the proliferation of principles or rules of conduct. In fact, throughout twenty-five hundred years of development, Confucian principles became both numerous and complicated. At its worst, Confucianism became "formalistic": one would follow rules of conduct or "etiquette" mechanically and to the letter. On the other hand, the "spirit" of Confucianism was quite simple: Chung-shu (establishing oneself while establishing others -- conscientiousness and altruism) was the single thread that ran through all Confucian principles.

Question: The Taoists especially believed the Confucian conscious cultivation of character according to prescribed "rules" was artificial and against human nature. What is your view?

25. The truly superior person does not stand out, is not ostentatious. Like water that refreshes, but has no distinctive taste, the superior person follows a middle course of doing small things well. Truly good persons harmonize quietly, modestly, and without calling attention to themselves or applauding their acts. They build no monuments to themselves. As "the operations of Heaven have neither sound nor smell," so the superior person brings order to the world without noise or show.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Discuss the meaning and importance of the following terms:

  • a. chung-yung
  • b. jen
  • c. li
  • d. chun-tzu
  • e. chung-shu
  • f. ch'eng

2. Compare and contrast Chinese and Western priorities.

3. Discuss the importance of order for both Plato and Confucius.

4. List similar views found in both Plato and Confucius.

5. Discuss the relation between original equilibrium and achieved harmony.

6. How is Confucianism like and unlike Buddhism?

7. Why is the family so important for Confucianism?

8. One who has no regard for others is not really a human being. Discuss this statement from a Confucian point of view.

9. What are the bases of all human relations? Explain how this is so.

10. Explain the importance of moral leadership for Confucius.

11. What are the five most basic human relations?

12. Explain the importance of sincerity.

13. Discuss Confucianism in terms of attachment and detachment.

14. Compare self-fulfillment in Confucianism to self-fulfillment in Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Descartes, Hobbes, and Kant.

15. How does Confucian morality differ from that of Kant? Are there any similarities? Explain.

16. Discuss how both "inwardness" and "outwardness" are stressed in Confucianism. How is the Confucian perspective like and unlike that of Kierkegaard and Dewey?

See also these notes compiled for "Eastern Religions."

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Copyright © 1995 - 2012 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.