Confucius can be appreciated only in his historical setting. It has been made a reproach to the sage that his vision was retrospective and conservative; but he cannot be charged with a mere desire to bring back “the good old days.” When, at the court of Chou, he first inspected the ancestral shrines and the arrangements for the great annual sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, he exclaimed: “As we use a glass to examine the forms of things, so must we study the past to understand the present.” The past, moreover, really held models of statecraft from which his own times had fallen away. The great Chou dynasty, which through a succession of able princes had ruled the whole valley of the Hoang Ho, had in the sixth century B. C. dwindled to a shadow of its early power. The emperor (or rather king for the title Huang-ti was then applied only to deceased monarchs) was reduced to a headship merely nominal, and the old imperial domain was broken up among turbulent vassals, each fighting for his own hand. The China of Confucius was pretty much in the condition of France before Louis XI broke the power of the feudal dukes and counts. With the tradition behind him of a nation united by wise leadership, Confucius is no more to be blamed for looking back than is Aristotle, whose Ethics and Politics show plainly that his sympathies were not with the advancing career of Macedon but with the old polity of Athens.

The first group of the Confucian books, the Five Classics, are fruits of this regard for the past, the sage being the reputed compiler of four of them, and author of the fifth. These classics are the “Shu Ching” or “Book of History,” made up of documents covering a period from the twenty-fourth to the eighth century B. C.; the “Shih Ching” or “Book of Odes,” 305 lyrics dating from the eighteenth to the sixth century; the “Yi Ching” or “Book of Permutations,” an ancient manual of divination; the “Li Chi,” a compilation of ceremonial usages; and the “Ch’un Ch’iu,” annals (722–484) of Confucius’s native state of Lu. The second group in the canon, the Four Books, convey his actual teachings. They are the “Lun Yü” or “Sayings of Confucius”〖Harvard Classics, xliv, 5ff.〗; the “Ta Hsueh” or “Great Learning,” a treatise by his disciple Tsang Sin on the ordering of the individual life, the family, and the state; the “Chung Yung” or “Doctrine of the Mean,” a treatise on conduct by his grandson K’ung Chi; and the “Book of Mencius,” his great apostle.

The distinctive features of Confucian doctrine may be summarized as follows:

(1) Filial piety is the cardinal social virtue. A dutiful son will prove dutiful in all the five relationships: those of father and son, ruler and subject, husband and wife, elder brother and younger, and that of friend. Such a tenet was naturally acceptable to a social system like the Chinese, with its patriarchalism and insistence on the family rather than the individual as the unit of society. Loyalty to family it raises to a religious duty in the rite of ancestor worship. Here Confucius did no more than emphasize with his approval a national custom—mentioned in the earliest odes—of offering food and wine to departed spirits. How far this family cult is to be construed as actual worship is disputable: some would compare it merely with the French custom of adorning graves on All Souls’ Day. But it effectively strengthens the family bond, impressing as it does the sense of family unity and perpetuity through the passing generations.

(2) Between man and man the rule of practice is “reciprocity.” “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” Benevolence—an extension of the love of son and brother—is the worthy attitude toward one’s fellows, but it should not be pressed to fatuous lengths. When asked his opinion of Lao-tse’s teaching that one should requite injury with good, Confucius replied: “With what, then, will you requite kindness? Return good for good; for injury return justice.”

(3) The chief moral force in society is the example of the “superior man.”〖In the version printed in H. C., this term is translated “gentleman.”〗 By nature man is good, and the unrighteousness of society is due to faulty education and bad example. Virtue in superiors will call out virtue in common folk. The burden of Confucius’s teaching is therefore “superior” character—character so disciplined to a moral tact and responsive propriety that in every situation it knows the right thing and does it, and so poised in its own integrity as to practice virtue for virtue’s sake. “What the small man seeks is in others; what the superior man seeks is in himself.”

(4) Toward the world of spiritual beings the Confucian attitude is one of reverent agnosticism. The sage would have nothing to say of death and the future state. “We know little enough of ourselves as men; what, then, can we know of ourselves as spirits?” In his habit of referring to “T’ien” or “Heaven,” Confucius may not have deliberately avoided the more personal term “Shang-ti” (Supreme Lord), and expressions of his are not lacking which suggest a personal faith: but speculation on the nature of being and the destiny of the world he treated simply as a waste of time. On a report that two bereaved friends were comforting themselves with the doctrine that life is but dream and death the awakening, he remarked: “These men travel beyond the rule of life; I travel within it.”

In summary one might say that Confucius did not found any religious system, but transmitted one with a renewed stress on its ethical bearings. His interest was in man as made for society. Religious rites he performed to the letter, but more from a sense of their efficacy for “social-mindedness” than from any glow of piety. His faith was a faith in right thinking. The “four things he seldom spoke of—wonders, feats of strength, rebellious disorder, spirits”—were simply the things not tractable to reason.

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