Confucius: Society should be ordered on the basis of virtue, not greed

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Confucius said, “At fifteen my mind was set on learning.  At thirty my character had been formed.  At forty I had no more perplexities.  At fifty I knew the Will of Heaven (T’ien-ming).  At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard.  At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing moral principles.”


Confucius was born in 551 B.C. (6th century) in the state of Lu in modern Shantung.  His family name was K’ung, birth name Ch’iu, and he has been traditionally honored as Grand Master K’ung (K’ung Fu-tzu, hence the Latinized name Confucius).  He was a descendant of a noble family, but because his father died when he was three he had no notable teacher and few prospects.  Nevertheless, he became perhaps the most learned man of his time.

Confucius began his career in his twenties or thirties.  He was the first man in Chinese history to devote his whole life almost exclusively to teaching. He sought to inaugurate private education, to open the door of education to all, to offer education for training character instead of for vocation, and to gather around him a group of gentlemen-scholars (thus starting the institution of the literati, which has dominated Chinese history and society).

In his younger years Confucius served in minor posts in Lu.  At fifty-one he was made a magistrate, and he became minister of justice the same year, perhaps serving as an assistant minister of public works in-between.  At fifty-six, facing the disapproval of his superiors, he gathered some pupils, and for thirteen years traveled about promoting his political and social reforms.

3:24 The guardian at I (a border post of the state of Wei) requested to be presented to Confucius, saying, “When gentlemen come here, I have never been refused a meeting.”  Confucius’ followers introduced him.  When he came out from the interview, he said, “Sirs, why are you disheartened by your master’s loss of office?  The Way has not prevailed in the world for a long time.  Heaven is going to use your master as a bell with a wooden clapper.”

Confucius sent Tzu-lu to ask Chieh-ni where the river could be forded.  Chieh-ni said, “Are you a follower of K’ung Ch’iu of Lu?”  “Yes.”  Chieh-ni said, “The whole world is swept as though by a torrential flood.  Who can change it?  As for you, instead of following one who flees from this man or that man, is it not better to follow those who flee the world altogether?”  And with that he went on covering the seed without stopping.

Tzu-lu went to Confucius and told him about their conversation.  Confucius said ruefully, “One cannot flock with birds or herd with beasts.  If I do not associate with men, with whom shall I associate?  If the Way prevailed in the world, there would be no need for me to change it.”

At the age of sixty-eight Confucius returned to Lu to teach, and perhaps to write and edit the Classics.  According to the Shih chi (Records of the Historian), he had three thousand pupils, seventy-two of whom mastered the “six arts.”  He died in 478 B.C. at the age of seventy-three.

* * *

1:1. Confucius said, “Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat or practice from time to time what one has learned?  Is it not delightful to have friends coming from afar?  Is he not a superior man if he does not feel hurt even though he is not recognized?”

1:2. Yu T’zu said, “No filial sons and respectful brothers fail to honor superior men, and no man who unfailingly honors superior men has ever created disorder.  A superior man is devoted to the root.  When the root is firmly established, the Tao will grow.  Filial piety and brotherly respect are the root of humanity (jen).”

1:4. Tseng-Tzu said, “Every day I examine myself on three points: whether in counseling others I have not been loyal; whether in intercourse with my friends I have not been faithful; and whether I have not repeated again and again and practiced the instructions of my teacher.”

1:6. Young men should be filial when at home and respectful to their elders when away from home.  They should be earnest and faithful.  They should love all extensively but associate with men of humanity.  When they have any energy to spare after the performance of moral duties, they should use it to study literature and the arts.

1:8. Confucius said, “If the superior man is not grave, he will not inspire awe, and his learning will not be on a firm foundation.  Hold loyalty and faithfulness to be fundamental.  Have no friends who are not as good as yourself.  When you have made mistakes, don’t be afraid to correct them.”

16:4. Confucius said, “There are three kinds of friendship which are beneficial and three kinds which are harmful.  Friendship with the upright, with the truthful, and with the well-informed is beneficial.  Friendship with those who flatter, with those who are meek and do not stand firm on principles, and with those who speak cleverly is harmful.”

1:14. Confucius said, “The superior man does not seek fulfillment of his appetite nor comfort in his lodging.  He is diligent in his duties and careful in his speech.  He associates with men of moral principles and thereby achieves self-realization.  Such a person may be said to love learning.”

1:16. Confucius said, “A good man does not worry about not being known by others, but rather worries about not knowing them.”

16:8. Confucius said, “The superior man stands in awe of three things.  He stands in awe of the Mandate of Heaven; he stands in awe of great men; and he stands in awe of the words of the sages.  The inferior man is ignorant of the Mandate of Heaven and does not stand in awe of it.  He is disrespectful to great men and is contemptuous toward the words of the sages.”


IF ONE WORD could characterize the entire history of Chinese philosophy, that word would be humanism.  This is not the humanism that denies or slights a Supreme Power, but one that professes the unity of man and Heaven. In this sense, humanism has dominated Chinese thought from the dawn of its history.

Humanism was an outgrowth, not of speculation, but of historical and social change.  The conquest of the Shang (the Yin Dynasty, 1384-1112 B.C.) by the Chou in 1111 B.C. inaugurated a transition from tribal society to feudal.  To consolidate the empire, the Chou challenged human ingenuity and ability, cultivated new trades and talents, and encouraged the development of experts from all levels of society.  Prayers for rain were gradually replaced by irrigation.  Ti, formerly the tribal Lord, became the God for all.  Man and his activities were given greater importance.  The time finally arrived when a slave became a prime minister.  Humanism, in gradual ascendance, reached its climax in Confucius.

Having overthrown the Shang, founders of the Chou had to justify their right to rule.  Consequently, they developed the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, a self-existent moral law whose unchanging basis was virtue.  According to this doctrine, man’s destiny—both mortal and immortal—did not depend upon the whim of a spiritual force but upon his own good words and good deeds.  The Chou therefore asserted that the Shang, though they had received a mandate to rule, had forfeited it because they failed in their duties.  The mandate then passed on to the founders of Chou, who deserved it because of their virtue.  Obviously, the future of the house of Chou depended upon whether future rulers were virtuous.

They (descendants of Yin) became subject to Chou.
Heaven’s Mandate is not perpetual.
The officers of Yin were fine and alert.
They assist at the libation in our capital.
In their assisting in the libation,
They always wear their skirted robes and close caps.
Oh, you promoted servants of the king,
Do not follow your forefathers!
Do not follow your forefathers!

Cultivate your virtue [instead].
Always strive to be in harmony with Heaven’s Mandate.
Seek for yourselves the many blessings.
Before Yin lost its army,
Its kings were able to be counterparts to the Lord on High.
In Yin you should see, as in a mirror,
That the Great Mandate is not easily held on to.
(Book of Odes, ode no. 235, “King Wen”)

The idea that the destiny of man or the future of a dynasty depended upon virtue rather than upon the pleasure of an otherworldly being marked a radical development from the Shang to the Chou.  (Significantly, the term te is not found in the oracle bones on which Shang ideas and events are recorded, but it is a key word in early Chou documents.)  During the Shang, the influence of spiritual beings on man had been almost total, for no important thing could be done without first seeking their approval.  But under the Chou (1111-249 BC) the dwelling places of the spirits were regulated by the rulers.  As the Book of Rites says, “The people of Yin honor spiritual beings, serve them, and put them ahead of ceremonies. . . . The people of Chou honor the ceremonies and highly value the blessings received.  They serve the spiritual beings and respect them, but keep them at a distance.  They [the people of Chou] remain near to man and loyal to him.”2

Similarly, belief in the Lord underwent a radical transformation.  In the Shang, he was the supreme deity who sent blessings or calamities, gave protection in battles, sanctioned undertakings, and passed on the appointment or dismissal of officials.  Such belief continued in the early Chou, but was gradually replaced by the concept of Heaven (T’ien) as the supreme reality.  Spiritual beings continued to be highly honored, but their personal interventions were supplanted by human virtue and human effort, and man, through his moral deeds, could now control his own destiny.

It was in this light that ancestors were regarded in Chou times.  During the Shang, great ancestors were either identified with the Lord, or considered as mediators through whom requests were made to the Lord.  In the Chou, they were still influential but their influence was felt through their moral example and inspiration.  They were to be respected, but were to be prevented from interfering with human activities.  Individual and social categories were to be stated in moral terms according to a “Great Norm.”

1:12.  Yu T’zu said, “Among the functions of propriety (li), the most valuable is that it establishes harmony.  The excellence of the ways of ancient kings consists of this.  It is the guiding principle of all things great and small.  If things go amiss, and you, understanding harmony, try to achieve it without regulating it by the rules of propriety, they will still go amiss.”

2:1.  Confucius said, “A ruler who governs his state by virtue is like the north polar star, which remains in its place while all the other stars revolve around it.”

2:2.  Confucius said, “All three hundred odes can be summed up by one line, and that is: Have no depraved thoughts.”

2:3.  Confucius said, “Lead people with governmental measures and regulate them by law and punishment, and they will avoid wrongdoing but will have no sense of honor and shame.  Lead them with virtue and regulate them by the rules of propriety (li), and they will have a sense of shame and, moreover, will set themselves right.”

2:12.  Confucius said, “The superior man is not a tool.”

2:13.  Tzu-kung asked about the superior man. Confucius said, “He acts before he speaks and then speaks according to his action.”

2:14.  Confucius said, “The superior man is broadminded and not partisan; the inferior man is partisan and not broadminded.”

2:15.  Confucius said, “He who acquires knowledge but does not think is lost; he who thinks but does not acquire knowledge is in danger.”

2:17.  Confucius said, “Yu, shall I teach you about knowledge?  To say that you know when you do know and say that you do not know when you do not know — that is knowledge.”

2:24.  Confucius said, “To see what is right and not to do it is cowardice.”

15:4.  Confucius said, “To have taken no action and yet have the empire well governed, Shun was the man!  What did he do?  All he did was to make himself reverent and correctly face south.”


CONFUCIUS (551-479 B.C.) can truly be said to have molded Chinese civilization in general.  But he also molded Chinese philosophy in particular, as Confucianism was an important reference point for later philosophers.

Neo-Confucianism, the full flowering of Chinese thought, developed during the last eight hundred years.  Its major topics of debate, especially in the Sung (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) periods, are the nature and principle (li) of man and things.  (For this reason it is called the School of Nature and Principle, or Hsing-li hsüeh.)  Supplementary to these topics are the problems of ch’i (force), yin and yang (passive and active), t’ai-chi (Great Ultimate), being and non-being, substance and function, and the unity of Nature and man.  But Confucius himself had nothing to do with these problems and never discussed them.  In fact, the words li, yin, yang, and t’ai-chi are not found in the Lun-yü (Analects). (The word ch’i appears several times, but is not used in the sense of force.)

Confucius’ pupils said that they never heard the Master’s views on human nature and the Way of Heaven.  He did not talk about human nature except once, when he said that “by nature men are alike; through practice they have become far apart.”  However, if a man can become perfect, it stands to reason that perfection is his original nature, since one cannot become that which is not his nature.  This is the conclusion reached later by the Confucian school, which embraced the doctrine (also that of Ch’an Buddhism) that the original nature of human beings is good (t’ai-chi, or Great Ultimate).3

6:17.  Confucius said, “Man is born with uprightness.  If he loses it he will be lucky if he escapes with his life.”

The present discussion is based on Analects, which is generally accepted as the most reliable source of Confucius’ doctrines.  In this work we find that Confucius exerted its influence on Chinese philosophy by defining its outstanding characteristic: humanism.

As pointed out in the previous chapter, the humanistic tendency had been around long before Confucius, but it was he who turned it into the driving force in Chinese philosophy.  Confucius did not care to talk about spiritual beings or even about life after death.  Instead, believing that man “can make the Way (Tao) great,” and not that “the Way can make man great,” he concentrated on man.1  His primary concern was a good society based on good government and harmonious human relations.  To this end he advocated a government that rules by virtue and moral example rather than by punishment or force.  His criterion for goodness was righteousness as opposed to profit.  For the family, he particularly stressed filial piety, and for society in general, proper conduct or li (propriety).

15:17. Confucius said, “The superior man regards righteousness (i) as the substance of everything.  He practices it according to the principles of propriety.  He brings it forth in modesty, and he faithfully carries it to its conclusion.  He is indeed a superior man!”

More specifically, Confucius believed in the perfectibility of all men, and in this regard he radically modified a traditional concept, that of the chün-tzu, or superior man.4  Literally “son of the ruler,” it came to acquire the meaning of “superior man.”  The term appears 107 times in Analects.  In some cases it refers to the ruler; in most cases, however, Confucius used it to denote a morally superior man.  In other words, to him nobility was no longer a matter of blood, but of character — a concept that amounted to social revolution.  Perhaps it is more correct to say that it was an evolution, but certainly it was Confucius who firmly established the new concept.  His repeated mention of three sage-emperors — Shun (3rd millenium BC), Yao and Duke Chou — as models seems to suggest that he was looking back to the past.  Be that as it may, he was looking to ideal men rather than to a supernatural being for inspiration.

Not only did Confucius give Chinese philosophy its humanistic foundation, but he also formulated some of its fundamental concepts, five of which will be briefly commented on here: the rectification of names, the Mean, the Way, Heaven, and humanity (jen).

In insisting on the rectification of names, Confucius was advocating not only the establishment of a social order in which names and ranks were properly regulated, but also the correspondence of words and action, or in its more philosophical aspect, the correspondence of name and actuality.  This has been a perennial theme in the Confucian school as well as in nearly all other schools.

15:40.  Confucius said, “In words all that matters is to express the meaning.”

13:3.  Tzu-lu said, “The ruler of Wei is waiting for you to serve in his administration. What will be your first measure?” Confucius said, “It will certainly concern the rectification of names.”

Tzu-lu said, “Is that so? You are wide of the mark.  Why should there be such a rectification?”

Confucius said, “Yu! How uncultivated you are!  With regard to what he does not know, the superior man should maintain an attitude of reserve.  If names are not rectified, then language will not be in accord with truth.  If language is not in accord with truth, then things cannot be accomplished.  If things cannot be accomplished, then ceremonies and music will not flourish.  If ceremonies and music do not flourish, then punishment will not be just.  If punishments are not just, then the people will not know how to move hand or foot.  Therefore, the superior man will give only names that can be defined and say only what can be carried out in practice.  When it comes to his speech, the superior man does not take it lightly.  That is all.”

By the Mean, Confuius did not have in mind merely moderation, but that which is central and balanced.  This, too, has been a cardinal idea in Chinese thought.  In a real sense, the later Neo-Confucian ideas of the harmony of yin and yang, and that of substance and function, did not go beyond this concept.

6:16. Confucius said, “When substance exceeds refinement (wen), one becomes coarse.  When refinement exceeds substance, one becomes refined.  It is only when one’s substance and refinement are properly combined that he becomes a superior man.”

In his interpretation of Heaven, Confucius departed from traditional belief even more radically.  Up to the time of Confucius, the Supreme Power was called Ti (the Lord) or Shang-ti (Lord on High) and was understood in an anthropomorphic sense.  Confucius never spoke of Ti; instead, he often spoke of T’ien (Heaven).  To be sure, his Heaven is purposive and is the master of all things.  He repeatedly referred to the T’ien-ming, the will or what is ordained by Heaven.  However, Heaven is not a spiritual being who rules in a personal manner, but Beingness, which only reigns, leaving its Moral Law to operate by itself.  This is the Way according to which civilization should develop and men should behave.  It is the Way of Heaven (T’ien-tao), later called the Principle of Heaven or Nature (T’ien-li).

Most important of all was the way Confucius evolved the new concept of jen (humanity), which was to become central in Chinese philosophy.  All later discussions on principle and material force may be said to serve the purpose of helping man to realize jen.

The word jen is not found in the oracle bones.  It is found only occasionally in pre-Confucian texts, and in all these cases it denotes the particular virtue of kindness, more especially the benevolence of a ruler toward his subjects.  In Confucius, however, all this is greatly changed.  In the first place, Confucius made jen the main theme of his conversations.  In Analects, fifty-eight of 499 chapters are devoted to the discussion of jen, and the word appears 105 times.  No other subject, not even filial piety, engaged so much attention of the Master and his disciples.  Furthermore, instead of perpetuating the ancient understanding of jen as a particular virtue, he transformed it into general virtue.  It is true that in a few cases jen is still used by Confucius as a particular virtue, in the sense of benevolence.  But in most cases, to Confucius the man of jen is the perfect man.  He is the true chün-tzu, superior man.  He is a man of the golden rule, for, “wishing to build his own character, he also builds the character of others, and wishing to distinguish himself, he also helps others to distinguish themselves.”

4:2.  Confucius said, “One who is not a man of humanity cannot endure adversity for long, nor can he enjoy prosperity for long.  The man of humanity is naturally at ease with humanity.  The man of wisdom cultivates humanity for its advantage.”

4:3.  Confucius said, “Only the man of humanity knows how to love people and hate people.”

4:4.  Confucius said, “If you set your mind on humanity, you will be free from evil.”

13:23.  Confucius said, “The superior man is conciliatory but does not identify himself with others; the inferior man identifies with others but is not conciliatory.”

13:26.  Confucius said, “The superior man is dignified but not proud; the inferior man is proud but not dignified.”

13:27.  Confucius said, “A man who is strong, resolute, simple, and slow to speak is near to humanity.”

15:23.  Tzu-kung asked, “Is there one word which can serve as the guiding principle for conduct throughout life?” Confucius said, “It is the word altruism (shu). Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”

In these balanced and harmonized aspects of the self and society, jen is expressed in terms of chung and shu, or conscientiousness and altruism, which is the “one thread” running through Confucius’ teachings, and which is in essence the golden mean as well as the golden rule.  It was the extension of this idea of jen that became the Neo-Confucian doctrine of man’s forming one body with Heaven, or the unity of man and Nature, and it was because jen was innate in man that Confucianists have maintained that the original nature of man is good.


4:5.  Confucius said, “Wealth and honor are what every man desires.  But if they have been obtained in violation of moral principles, they must not be kept.  Poverty and humble station are what every man dislikes.  But if they can be avoided only in violation of moral principles, they must not be avoided.  If a superior man departs from humanity, how can he claim that title?  A superior man never abandons humanity even for the lapse of a single meal.  In moments of haste, he acts according to it.  In times of difficulty or confusion, he acts according to it.

4:6.  Confucius said, “I have never seen one who really loves humanity or one who really hates inhumanity.  One who really loves humanity will not place anything above it.  One who really hates inhumanity will practice humanity in such a way that inhumanity will have no chance to get at him.  Is there anyone who has devoted his strength to humanity for as long as a single day?”

4:8.  Confucius said, “In the morning, hear the Way; in the evening, die content!”

4:10.  Confucius said, “A superior man in dealing with the world is not for anything or against anything.  He follows righteousness as the standard.”

4:11.  Confucius said, “The superior man thinks of virtue; the inferior man thinks of possessions.

4:15.  Confucius said, “Shen, there is one thread that runs through my doctrines.”  Tseng Tzu said, “Yes.”  After Confucius had left, the disciples asked him, “What did he mean?”  Tseng Tzu replied, “The Way of our Master is none other than conscientiousness (chung) and altruism (shu).”

4:16.  Confucius said, “The superior man understands righteousness (i); the inferior man understands profit.”

6:5.  Confucius said, “About Hui (Yen Yuan), for three months there would be nothing in his mind contrary to humanity.  The others can attain to this for a day or a month at the most.”

7:15.  Confucius 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 unrighteousness are but floating clouds to me.”

8:13.  Confucius said, “Have sincere faith and love learning.  Be not afraid to die for pursuing the good Way.  Do not go to live in a state that is about to fall nor stay in a chaotic one.  When the Way prevails in the empire, then show yourself; when it does not prevail, then hide.  When the Way prevails in your own state and you are poor and in a humble position, be ashamed of yourself.  When the Way does not prevail in your state and you are wealthy and in an honorable position, be ashamed of yourself.”

12:5.  Ssu-ma Niu, worrying, said, “All people have brothers but I have none.”  Tzu-hsia said, “I have heard [from Confucius] this saying: ‘Life and death are the decree of Heaven; wealth and honor depend on Heaven.  If a superior man is reverential (or serious) without fail, and is respectful in dealing with others and follows the rules of propriety, then all within the four seas are his brothers.’  Why should the superior man worry because he lacks brothers?”

14:45.  Tzu-lu asked about the superior man.  Confucius said, “The superior man is one who cultivates himself with seriousness (ching).”  Tzu-lu said, “Is that all?”  Confucius said, “He cultivates himself so as to give the common people security and peace.”  Tzu-lu said, “Is that all?”  Confucius said, “He cultivates himself so as to give all people security and peace.  To cultivate oneself so as to give all people security and peace, even Yao and Shun found it difficult to do.”5

15:20.  Confucius said, “The superior man examines himself; the inferior man examines others.”

1.  “The Tao cannot make man great”: the Tao cannot make man great because only the Tao exists: there is no vessel known as a man that the Tao could endow with greatness.  “Man can make the Tao great”: perhaps Confucius meant “Man can glorify the Tao by emulating its greatness.”

2.  “They remain near to man and loyal to him.”  It is acceptable for a holy man to live apart from people, but unacceptable for the ruling class to hide behind the walls of a fortress, indifferent to the well being of their subjects.

3.  The almost universal confusion concerning the perfection of man vs. the imperfection of man comes from people’s inability to accept that no individual man has any real existence.  As a nonexistent thing, man can neither be imperfect nor perfect, because he isn’t.  God alone is.

4.  The term Confucius used for ‘superior man’ is chün-tzu, which literally means “son of the ruler.”  ‘True man’ (chen-jen) is a Taoist term used by Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zhou) and signifying an enlightened person (Watson: Lin-Chi, p. 13).  Taoism came into being in around 500 B.C., at a time when Confucius had a great following.

5.  All beings are raised up when just one attains complete liberation.


Wing-Tsit Chan (1963).  A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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