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Confucius (c.551-479 BCE)
by Terence Green
Old ways of doing
Right ways of being in life
As is the case with many of the great thinkers of the past who offer us clarity amidst the confusion, light where there is darkness, and consistency in the place of contradiction, the details of Confucius’s life are confused, opaque, and contradictory. Confucius – better known to his followers as Kong Fuzi, ‘Venerable Master Kong’ – may have had ancestors of the royal bloodline. His childhood may have been spent in the town of Yu, where he may have been born, and it may have been one of poverty. He was possibly born under the sign of the dog. As a young man, Confucius may have even gotten his hands dirty caring for livestock (although given the lack of Confucian sayings on animal husbandry, I find this a doubtful claim). And so on. Still, if there’s one thing we can say with confidence, it is that no other philosopher has influenced more people in human history than Confucius.
We also know that he lived at a time of civil war and chaos, which tended to disturb his preference for quiet contemplation. With a view to putting things right, he tried to persuade the warlords he met to practise his moral philosophy. This said that a person should ‘cultivate humanity’ through honouring society by recognising and responding to one’s place in it. This will lead to greatness in both personal and public life, as well as, in turn, bringing about happiness. He further said we need to observe the traditional ways of doing things (his knowledge, he said, came to him from the past), revere our ancestors, and not make fun of old people for being slow. Drawing on Laozi, Confucius added to this the need to follow the Dao.
Confucius’s pithy sayings and insights were later put together in the Lun Yu (Analects). Combined into a complete philosophy, they offer a guide for the construction of an orderly society and were used that way for thousands of years.
© Terence Green 2019
Terence is a writer, historian, and lecturer, and lives with his wife and their dog in Paekakariki, NZ.