I came across an article this week dedicated to Kung-fu-tsu, better known as Confucius. Re-reading some of his teachings and his philosophy, I thought they were a provocative challenge to the divisive world we live in today and, as such, were worth some serious thought over the Christmas season, and in anticipation of the New Year. I therefore offer the following for your more mellow moments of reflection this season. His words seem as relevant today as they were in the time he wrote them, over 2000 years ago.
Confucius developed a philosophy that sought to bring peace and prosperity to all people. Confucianism was deeply rooted in ethics, virtue, and correct behavior. (I have to admit that such a philosophy seems almost the antithesis of life today but, perhaps, not totally impossible to at least dream about). It taught that each person could contribute to universal harmony if they practiced self-discipline, cultivated their characters, and performed the roles that had been allotted to them. Not everyone could be born a king or lord, Confucius said, but being a good parent, or dutiful child, could be just as nourishing to the soul, and important to a peaceful existence. He also believed that fulfilling the needs of others could fill oneself with serenity and gratitude.
Confucius set out four simple virtues that he believed were enough to keep the world in its proper order:benevolence, moral wisdom, righteousness, and observance of traditional rituals.
According to Confucianism, ritual brings together a community in peace, and helps to cultivate “ren”, a Chinese word meaning humanity, goodness, and love. Confucius taught that once we understand our shared humanity, we open ourselves up to feelings of altruism, respect for one another, and even friendship.
After his death in 479 BCE, his disciples spread around the country to advise Chinese rulers on this worldview and political theories. In time, Confucianism became the dominant philosophy in China, and in many other parts of eastern Asia, and has remained so for centuries.
Here are 8 quotes from the extraordinary life of Confucius that exemplify his teachings:
- The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home – He believed a loving and respectful family unit was vital to a well-functioning society.
- Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace – To study, and not think, is a waste. To think, and not study, is dangerous.
- If you see what is right and fail to act on it, you lack courage – With no army of his own, he used words and persuasion to disarm feuding powers.
- The man of virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors – Confucius gathered many followers and disciples thanks to his profound wisdom.
- When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself – Confucius’ ideas of reform were not met with universal approval in China. His attempts to return rulers to their traditional piety and frugality hampered their lavish lifestyles.
- Within the four seas, all men are brothers – “By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart,” he said. Confucius believed we could educate ourselves to come together.
- When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self – He believed a person was only truly themselves when they were with others. Confucius believed that what is good for society is good for the individual, because each person we meet can have something to teach us.
- What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others – (This is probably his most well-known axiom, although it has been used and misused in many different ways over the centuries). The basic principle of treating others the way we wish to be treated is found across the world’s religions, cultures, and ethical theories today, and the idea was central to Confucius’ teachings. When asked whether there was one word that could guide a person through life, Confucius replied, “reciprocity”.
- After his death at age 72, Confucius’ followers spread his philosophy across China. Confucius’ ideals — such as “Jen,” compassion, and “Yi,” justice — became the foundation of Chinese education. Today, he is still revered, as generations of peoples heed his words and wisdom in a world Confucius could not have imagined, and would certainly not condone.
Food for thought and reflection this holiday season.