Island of Freedom
The scholars of antiquity learnt for themselves; the scholars of today learn for others . -- Confucius
The Tao
Confucius Corner
Bhagavad Gita


Kong Qiu, The Master

551-472 B.C.


Confucian Classics - The Analects, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Great Learning, Classic of Filial Piety

He found himself surrounded by continuous warfare. The Chou Dynasty was in collapse and rival baronies vied for power. He heard of mass executions of 60,000, 80,000, and even 400,000 people, some being thrown into boiling cauldrons. Soldiers in chariots with ever-increasingly destructive weapons, bored with meaninglessness and the loss of any social cohesion, drank together and raided villages. Tradition and customs were scorned by a population of self-conscious individuals who were replacing social conventions with self-interest. Their parents' and grandparents' opinions and past actions were "obsolete." Passions and factionalism poisoned any possibility of a rational order.

There are three options in such a situation. One is Hobbesian; life is nasty, brutish, and short, so there must be laws with teeth. The state must take over with a strong militia behind it, with innumerable laws and tight control over people's lives. Another option is sentimental utopianism. Mo Tzu, a proponent of what is known as Mohism, proposed chien ai, universal love. "Major calamities in the world... arise out of want of mutual love... what is the way of mutual love? It is to regard the state of others as one's own, the houses of others as one's own, the person's of others as one's self... it is all due to mutual love that calamities, strifes, complaints, and hatred are prevented from arising." In other words, in modern terms, the choices are some form of right- or left-wing totalitarianism. Either one will have too many "laws with teeth." A cynical military state is crude, repressive, and paranoid. Utopia is silly; love never fails, but not everyone will do it. It must come from within, and therefore it can't be forced. But they will try to force you through laws with teeth. Confucius knew better.

Confucius rejected both options and turned to tradition. China's golden age, the Age of the Grand Harmony, was his model. If mores could cultivated again, the traditions of civility which ruptured into factional wars would be reestablished. He would keep tradition at the center and reformulate where applicable. He lectured to his pupils on the ancient classics. He taught the great value of the power of example. Rulers, he said, can be great only if they themselves lead exemplary lives, and were they willing to be guided by moral principles, their states would inevitably become prosperous and happy.

The principles of Confucianism are contained in the works handed down by Confucius and his followers. The Chunqiu, the only work reputedly compiled by Confucius himself, is a chronicle of major historical events in feudal China from the 8th century BC to Confucius's death early in the 5th century BC. The Shih Shu (Four Books), compilations of the sayings of Confucius and Mencius and of commentaries by followers on their teachings, are the Lun Yü (Analects), a collection of maxims by Confucius that form the basis of his moral and political philosophy; Ta Hsüeh (The Great Learning) and Chung Yung (The Doctrine of the Mean), containing some of Confucius's philosophical utterances arranged systematically with comments and expositions by his disciples; and the Mencius (Book of Mencius), containing the teachings of one of Confucius's great followers.

The keynote of Confucian ethics is jen, variously translated as "love," "goodness," "humanity," and "human-heartedness." Jen is a supreme virtue representing human qualities at their best. In human relations, construed as those between one person and another, jen is manifested in chung, or faithfulness to oneself and others, and shu, or altruism, best expressed in the Confucian golden rule, "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." Other important Confucian virtues include righteousness, propriety, integrity, and filial piety. One who possesses all these virtues becomes a chün-tzu (perfect gentleman). Politically, Confucius advocated a government in which the sovereign is benevolent and honorable and the subjects are respectful and obedient. The ruler should cultivate moral perfection in order to set a good example to the people. In education Confucius upheld the theory that "in education, there is no class distinction."

In the view of some scholars, Confucius will be revered in the future as China's greatest teacher; Confucian classics will be studied, and Confucian virtues, embodied for countless generations in the familiar sayings and common-sense wisdom of the Chinese people, will remain the cornerstone of ethics.

Excerpts from The Analects

1.14 The Master said: "The gentleman, in eating, does not seek satiety; in dwelling, does not seek comfort. He is brisk in action and discreet in speech. He goes to those who possess the Way for rectification. Such a man may be said to love learning indeed."

2.1 The Master said: "He who conducts government with virtue may be likened to the North Star, which, seated in its place, is surrounded by multitudes of other stars."

2.3 The Master said: "If you govern them with decrees and regulate them with punishments, the people will evade them but will have no sense of shame. If you govern them with virtue and regulate them with the rituals, they will have a sense of shame and flock to you."

2.11 The Master said: "He who keeps reviewing the old and acquiring the new is fit to be a teacher."

2.14 The Master said: "The gentleman is all-embracing and not partial; the small man is partial and not all-embracing."

2.15 The Master said: "Learning without thinking is fruitless; thinking without learning is perplexing."

2.16 The Master said: "To apply oneself to heretical theories is harmful indeed."

2.19 Duke Ai asked: "What must we do to make the people obedient?"
Master Kong replied: "Promote the upright, place them above the crooked, and the people shall be obedient. Promote the crooked, place them above the upright, and the people shall be disobedient."

4.1 The Master said: "To live among humane men is beautiful. Not to reside among humane men -- how can one be considered wise?"

4.2 The Master said: "An inhumane man cannot long abide in privation, nor can he long abide in comfort. A humane man is at ease with humanity; a wise man benefits from humanity."

4.3 The Master said: "Only a humane man is capable of loving men, and capable of loathing men."

4.5 The Master said: "Wealth and rank are what men desire: If you come by them undeservingly, you should not abide in them. Poverty and lowliness are what men loathe: If you come by them undeservingly, you should not abandon them. If a gentleman abandons humanity, how can he fulfill that name? A gentleman will not, for the space of a meal, depart from humanity. In haste and flurry, he always adheres to it; in fall and stumble, he always adheres to it."

4.6 The Master said: "I have never seen anyone who loves humanity, nor one who loathes inhumanity. One who loves humanity places nothing above it; one who loathes inhumanity, in practicing humanity, never allows anyone inhumane to affect his person. Is there anyone who can, for a single day, exert his energy on humanity? I have never seen any whose ability is insufficient. There may be such people; only I have not seen any."

4.11 The Master said: "The gentleman cherishes virtue; the small man cherishes land. The gentleman cherishes institutions; the small man cherishes favors."

4.12 The Master said: "Acting solely in pursuit of profit will incur much resentment."

4.14 The Master said: "Do not worry about having no office; rather, worry about whether you deserve to stand in that office. Do not worry about nobody knowing you; rather, seek to be worth knowing."

4.17 The Master said: "On seeing a worthy man, think of equaling him; on seeing an unworthy man, examine yourself inwardly."

4.18 The Master said: "In serving your parents, be gentle in remonstration. Seeing that they are not inclined to comply, remain reverent, and do not disobey them. Though weary, do not feel resentful."

4.23 The Master said: "Those who err through self-restraint are rare indeed."

4.24 The Master said: "The gentleman wishes to be slow in speech but brisk in action."

4.25 The Master said: "The virtuous are not solitary. They surely have neighbors."

6.12 Ran Qiu said: "Not that I do not like your Way, sir, but that my ability is insufficient."
The Master said: "Those whose ability is insufficient give up halfway. Now you have drawn a halting line."

6.19 The Master said: "That man lives owes to uprightness; that a crooked man lives with impunity owes to sheer luck."

7.3 The Master said: "Virtue uncultivated, learning undiscussed, the inability to move toward righteousness after hearing it, and the inability to correct my imperfections -- these are my anxieties."

7.15 The Master said: "Eating course food, drinking plain water, and bending one arm for a pillow -- happiness also lies therein. Wealth and rank acquired through unrighteousness means are to me like drifting clouds."

7.35 The Master said: "Extravagance leads to presumption; frugality leads to shabbiness. However, shabbiness is preferred to presumption."

8.10 The Master said: "He who loves courage and hates poverty will rebel; he who is inhumane and is hated excessively will also rebel."

9.18 The Master said: "I have never seen anyone who loves virtue as much as he loves beautiful women."

12.7 When Zi-gong asked about government, the Master said: "Have ample food and ample armament and the people shall trust you."
Zi-gong said: "If it is absolutely necessary to cut one item, which of the three will you cut first?"
The Master said: "Cut armament."
Zi-gong said: "If it is absolutely necessary to cut another, which of the remaining two will you cut?"
The Master said: "Cut food. Since time immemorial, all men are subject to death. If the people do not trust you, you have nothing to stand on."

13.11 The Master said: "'If benevolent men were to rule a state a hundred years, they would be able to tame brutes and abolish capital punishment.' How true this saying rings!"

14.3 The Master said: "When the state possesses the Way, speak uprightly and act uprightly; when the state loses the Way, act uprightly, but speak modestly."

14.24 The Master said: "The scholars of antiquity learnt for themselves; the scholars of today learn for others."

14.27 The Master said: "The gentleman deems it shameful if his speech exceeds his action."

14.30 The Master said: "Do not worry about men not knowing you; rather, worry about your incapability."

15.2 The Master said: "The gentleman rests at ease in adversity; the small man, once reduced to adversity, becomes reckless."

15.12 The Master said: "If a man does not have long-range considerations, he will surely incur imminent afflictions."

15.15 The Master said: "Be more demanding with yourself and less so with others and you shall keep resentment away."

15.27 The Master said: "Sweet words undermine virtue; intolerance in small matters undermines great enterprises."

15.28 The Master said: "If the multitude loathes him, it must be looked into; if the multitude loves him, it must be looked into."

15.32 The Master said: "What the gentleman seeks is the Way and not food. If he farms, hunger lies therein; if he learns, an official's salary lies therein. What the gentleman worries about is the Way and not poverty."

16.7 The Master said: "The gentleman has three abstentions: in adolescence when his sap has not settled, he abstains from sex; in the prime of life when his sap is exuberant, he abstains from belligerence; in old age when his sap has waned, he abstains from greed."

16.10 The Master said: "The gentleman has nine things to think about: In seeing, he thinks about clarity; in hearing, he thinks about distinctness; in facial expression, he thinks about gentleness; in appearance, he thinks about respectfulness; in speech, he thinks about wholehearted sincerity; in his duties, he thinks about reverence; in doubt, he thinks about inquiry; in anger, he thinks about its aftermath; on seeing gain, he thinks about righteousness."

17.25 The Master said: "If, at forty, a man is still loathed, he is done for."