There is reason to believe that the rock upon which Asia is built is a thinker from 2500 years ago. Formally, that rock is Master Kong. Westernized, his name is . . . Confucius.
The name Confucius doesn’t ring, in the West, with the same clarion power as, say, Batman, Harry Potter, Dante, Good Queen Bess, or Aristotle. But maybe it should. Maybe it’s time. (Maybe it’s past time.)
People often wonder at the calm refinement, gracious courtesy, respect for education, meticulous perfectionism, social stability, and phenomenal work ethic of Asians. The plausible explanation? Confucius.
There’s really no comparable figure in the West (The Geography of Thought, by the psychologist Richard Nesbitt). The reverence in the East for Confucian principles is both fundamental and widespread, placing the principles somewhere between a philosophy and a religion. Confucian writings carry a truly remarkable weight in Asia, conveying a quality of timeless wisdom not too far from the sun coming up in the morning and going down at night—an overall framing of life. For Asians, Confucian thought is akin to the conceptual foundation of social reality.
There may be some benefit to Westerners in having a concise, practical summary of Confucian premises and reasoning, expressed in a manner which will strike Western eyes and ears as recognizable and understandable. Businesses, government, and schools, as well as the famous residents of Anytown, may be interested in adopting some of these brilliant Confucian principles for the management of self and society.
There are, perhaps surprisingly, several problems in Westerners grasping the ideas contained in Confucian writings. First, it’s not clear if Confucius, like Socrates, ever wrote down anything at all. The gist of opinion is that “the writings of Confucius” are a composite of things Confucius may have written, notes from his students, and commentary from collaborators. That results in Confucian materials being something of an awkward, theme-based conceptual collage, with many gaps and repetitions, which is hard to follow. Second, the commonsense air and the flat, seeming arbitrariness of the observations makes their startling profundity easy to miss. Hard to follow, easy to miss. (Thus does Confucius not show up regularly on the bestseller list of the New York Times.)
Finally, somewhat off-putting is the stiff, off-kilter phrasing, possibly due in part to thousands of years of translations, as well as the transport of ideas from East to West. For example, filial piety is a primary Confucian value. But the term filial piety just doesn’t convey much to the Western mind. The typical reaction might be, “So what? Be nice to your mom and dad. What’s the big deal?”
But many people have noticed that Asians show a deep and gratifying respect not only for parents and older siblings, but for teachers and supervisors, as well as for younger siblings, children, employees, and customers, and even respect for, in a larger sense, antiquity, experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Filial piety is thus a pervasive societal attitude of reverence and cooperativeness, a deep appreciation for the tested, the true, the trusted.
Now, obviously or not, this splendid, amiable attitude makes running effective organizations soooooo much easier! You don’t hear too many teachers complaining about respectful, attentive students; managers complaining about cooperative, productive employees; customers complaining about informed, courteous salespeople; or drivers complaining about reliable, meticulously engineered cars. (Do you?)
What follows are some key summaries of translated Chinese books in the Confucian tradition (published by Foreign Language Press, Sinolingua, and Shandong). Following those is a practical synthesis of Confucian thought, expressed in terms that may register more helpfully to Western eyes and ears than typically occurs in the perusing of Confucian materials. Then a discussion of some of the notable pros and cons of Confucianism. The conclusion is a meditation on Confucius and global survival.
All the editions of the books here considered, mostly short works, happen to be similar in format. They all look as if they were printed on inexpensive, recycled, bleached paper in a high school basement, intended to be passed out free on the first day of class to the incoming freshmen. The childlike drawings of Chinese sages look like they might have been purloined from an elementary school workbook on “Our Neighbors from across the Sea”. The brief English is alternated with a multitude of Chinese characters, presumably for those industrious, sophisticated readers who want to affirm the accuracy of the current translations. These editions appear unlikely to win design awards from Architectural Digest any time soon; however, the prices are correspondingly gratifying.
As mentioned, although it is somewhat unclear as to what Confucius himself actually might have written, there seems to be good agreement that a corpus of what legitimately can be considered writings of the Master does exist. Charmingly, Confucian ideas often are presented within simple, plain-vanilla stories in a this-is-the-house-that-Jack-built style, similar to the Kabbalah stories of the Zohar. For example, “Confucius was sitting at leisure in his house, and Zeng Shen was in attendance upon him”. Zeng Shen rose from his seat to respectfully try to respond to a question. Confucius said, “Now resume your seat and I will tell you all about it”.
Therein, tale by tale, the gracious genius of Confucian principles comes shining out from the Middle Kingdom, across the ages, to hungry Western shores.
Analects: Key Ideas
This classic edition of The Analects of Confucius was translated by James Legge, a renowned Scottish scholar of the nineteenth century, and a missionary to China. The Analects is probably the core Confucian text, and the one best-known to Westerners. The forward is by Kong Jian, “Seventy-fifth generation descendent of Confucius and head of the Kong clan”. This announcement conveys, in subtly formidable fashion, just how much coherence and exacting organization is maintained in the grand sociopolitical entity that is China. Here are ten key points from the celebrated Analects.
- Cultivate a personality of universal appeal: serious and calm, courteous and friendly, while straightforward and natural. Dignified, yet without arrogance.
- Nurture your courage to a high level; without courage you cannot complete difficult tasks, or stand up for what is right.
- Dedicate yourself to virtuous principles. Be willing to die for what you believe in, for what you care about, for what you are.
- Wisdom is a highest virtue. Learning, and knowledge, are the basis of wisdom. Learn to love study and learning.
- Let your wisdom govern your emotions; do not allow your emotions to gain ascendancy, and thereby disorder your life.
- Focus on the essential; do not be misled or distracted by the trivial.
- In thinking and speech, be direct, precise, accurate.
- What you gain in wealth and position, gain honestly; untrustworthiness is its own undoing.
- Always be improving; always be correcting your faults and enlarging your knowledge.
- See all people as equal. Treat all people with respect. Love all people as family.
Great Learning: Key Ideas
- Great Learning means clearly recognizing how everything goes together, and works together, and thence how to be a good person, who can accomplish great things.
- To gain knowledge, listen and read, but also go investigate things as they are.
- Clarify for yourself your priorities, and follow those to the end.
- Whatever you decide to do, do your best; dedicate yourself wholly to excellence.
- Strive to be a paragon of virtue, gaining an admirable, lasting reputation.
- However loving you become, helping the helpless, and providing for the poor, do not reward evil.
- Leaders should lead a nation as loving parents lead a family.
Doctrine of the Mean: Key Ideas
“The mean” is one of those precise/clumsy Confucian terms that somehow never quite makes it out of the starting gate for Western ears. Not that it’s really that strange. Aristotle talked at length about the virtue of “the mean” in his classic Nicomachean Ethics, and “the mean” is a pillar of statistics and investments, a central index expressing the average.
What Confucius seems to mean by the mean is this: every system has a verifiable, probable best way to operate, and for every situation and person there is typically a best approach. That best method is the mean. In science it would be called a paradigm, in medicine it would be called the standard of care, in jurisprudence it would be called the law, in business it would be called a benchmark, and in sports it would be called the way of the champion.
For example, Confucius subtly points out that if you want people to treat you well, and to comply with your wishes (e.g., if you are in a leadership position), a best way to control others, paradoxically, is to model respectful, appreciative, generous behavior. That is, Confucius observes, what you give you will tend to get.
The “doctrine” part means that you really have to commit yourself to that method, because the best way is often the hardest way, and sooner or later you will be tempted to deviate from the mean, and start cutting corners. That would be a mistake.
- Strive to have a unified view of life and self, unhampered by useless conflicts and contradictions. Seek harmony in self and others.
- Be consistent, someone others can trust and rely on.
- Be unbiased, objective. Emotions and excessive desire distort thinking, damage knowledge. Keep a clear, balanced mind.
- Stay practical, concrete, real. Be simple and direct. Start at the beginning, and work your way forward. Minimize your risks. Succeed.
- Be capable. Polish and refine your abilities, such that you can achieve your ambitions.
- Virtuous people never show off their virtue. Be modest.
- Expect administrators, officials, and leaders to be virtuous. Reward that virtue.
Filial Piety: Key Ideas
- Everything begins with love of parents.
- From a happy, loving family grows a feeling of family in society, and respect for all people.
- A good nation is like a good family. A good prince is like a good parent.
- Strive to gain cooperation by being cooperative; strive to gain generosity by being generous; display the qualities you hope to see in others.
- Stay alert to problems. Move immediately, day or night, to correct them.
- If people are in error, speak with them in a pleasing manner, and strive to correct them.
- However, errors in self and society often can be prevented by taking time and care with instructing in the beginning, as a parent or teacher would educate a child
Synthesis of Confucian Thought (Westernized)
FAMILY: This is the beginning! Affection and respect in a family begin with conscious intent all around (filial piety). If you grow up in a family of affection and respect, you will tend to carry that attitude everywhere you go—neighborhood, school, sports, career. People appreciate that attitude, and respond to it positively. Therefore, everywhere you go in life you will start off on a positive note.
SOCIETY: Consider all people family. Approach others as brother, sister, father, mother. Such automatic respect and consideration for others will go a long way towards opening doors, and smoothing relationships. Nonetheless, be aware that there are evil people around. The leverage on evil people comes from society recognizing the evil, and refusing to let it be rewarded.
CHARACTER: The foundation of Confucian thinking is individual “virtue”, that is, high character: compassion, generosity, courage, honesty, commitment to principles, and enough will power to follow through on difficult projects and large ambitions. That high character must be inculcated by parents, schools, and society, and ultimately by individuals themselves. No excuses.
ACCOMPLISHMENT: Wealth and high position can be useful and honorable, but not at the expense of virtue. To achieve great things, set your goals, and follow the steps to the goals faithfully, embracing excellence all the way. Once you establish yourself, do not brag; rather, be modest, and help others along their way.
ADMINISTRATION: A state, or any organization, must be well-run. To have that happen, choose administrators and officials of high character, high intelligence, and excellent knowledge. Society, stakeholders, then must monitor the administrators and officials, to insure they are carrying out their duties properly. Negligent administrators and officials should be corrected, and possibly replaced.
LEADERSHIP: The person at the top of the society, the prince (CEO, president, prime minister, etc.), has the most power and influence, and therefore must be of exceptional quality—broadly informed and sophisticated, confident and persuasive, and scrupulously responsible. Reasonable operational latitude should be granted to leaders by the people, but ultimately leaders must perform properly, or be deposed.
VIRTUE: Above the leader, above the prince, resides the fundamental principles of compassion, fairness, and truth (“Heaven”). It is according to this set of principles, this doctrine, that the people judge the rightness of self and family, society and its leaders.
Hey—What’s the Bottom Line?
Confucian writings are extensive, conveying a multitude of arresting, clever points about character, refinement, relationships, careers, and just generally how to live a smart, successful life. But, ironically, his ideas on character and self-development perhaps can be summed up in one word: professional.
Be someone friendly but dignified, well-read and well-rounded, poised and capable, straightforward and trustworthy, disciplined and hard-working, and handsomely rewarded without being materialistic. Like a good doctor, honest broker, or esteemed religious leader.
A nice person.
The Paradox of East vs. West
It is, eventually, a little depressing to fully register the elegant, well-managed, systemic brilliance of Confucian thought, and to compare it to some of the vagrant, rowdy, self-defeating notions of the Western canon. Where the East has perfectly-crafted Sony cameras, Lexus automobiles, and Sanyo televisions, the West has football and rock and roll. Where did the West go wrong?
Well, not so fast. Perhaps it’s fundamentally a difference in emphasis, with traceable roots. China, a region of vast plains, found itself in one hellacious whirlwind of chaotic violence a couple thousand years ago called the Warring States. They absolutely had to get everything organized along consistent, productive lines. Therefore, a philosophy of unity and harmony, studiousness and rationality, cultivation and refinement (Confucianism) was a cultural program of immense appeal, a lifesaver on which they have imprinted.
By contrast, the culture of the West is rooted on the scattered Greek islands, which are very hard to attack, and therefore relatively safe. Thus, a more secure, exploratory, creative, individualistic mentality developed in the West, which was quite successful, resulting, as it did, in science, and in the eventual conquest of the world by Europeans. The West imprinted on that more free-flowing, experimental approach to reality and life.
Ironically, the classical Greeks and Romans, like Confucius, also recognized, the benefit of such virtues as social generosity, cultivation of character, rigorous learning, and unity of organizational purpose (Children and Childhood in Classical Athens, Mark Golden; On the Good Life, Cicero). Indeed, a striking similarity exists in the composed, refined power of the Eastern and Western classical worlds. The paradox is that the East has retained its classical awareness of the value of noble character, harmonious relationships, and meticulous productivity, whereas the West seems to have lost its classical awareness. The explanation?
Confucius, perhaps. There is no single, dominant philosophical framework in the West comparable to the thinking of Confucius. That may derive from the same source—unlike the East, the West has generated, over time, a multitude of stentorious, conflicting voices. The remedy to the West’s loss of unified classical wisdom, fortunately, lies ready at hand—study the writings of the Eastern Master.
Linking the Surface and the Depth
People are sometimes puzzled by the grace and composure espoused by Asian culture, contrasted with the relentless aggressiveness of Asian countries in politics and combat. The explanation may be lurking in Confucian writings.
Confucius appears to have no awareness of the process of repression contributing to hidden explosive rage, as if students could thoroughly instill virtuous concepts without any underlying conflicts, doubts, or resentments. (This lower, opposed mental level is sometimes called the shadow personality.) The resolution to that split between conscious intent and contrary underlying emotions is a healthy dose of humility—it’s a lot easier to presume and claim perfect virtue, than to actually become flawless. Perfection is, in reality, rare, and deep cultivation requires much time.
A truthful, comprehensive view of the self includes strengths, as well as persistent “areas for development”, as they say in HR. That is, students can display a sincere desire to become more virtuous and benevolent, and teachers and students can focus on those positive qualities, but everyone also can be comfortably candid about limitations to perfection. As limitations are recognized, they can be actively addressed; they needn’t be hidden in shame, or repressed. Thus, the surface and the depth of the mind can be linked, creating a more consistent, effective mental system, rather than one dangerously split.
Humility and truthfulness are cardinal Confucian virtues, so the linking may primarily be a matter of applying Confucian thinking to the issue of healthy candor, frankly facing, and communicating about, a realistic self-appraisal, which includes positive and negative traits, along with corresponding, progressive degrees of development.
The East-West Trade-Off: Rigor vs. Quality of Life
Undeniably, a strong thread of workaholism runs through Confucian principles of living. Up early, late to bed. Work day and night. Be the best. There are the legends of the tiger moms in China, the heartbreak stories of Asian kids who spend their entire lives studying in school or with tutors, the factory workers who labor twelve hours a day and live in dormitories for pittance paychecks (Factory Girls, Leslie Chang), the radically narrow lives, the suicides, and so on.
Yet, also undeniably, Asia is a powerhouse of first-class industrial productivity. And the neighborhoods of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong are almost totally safe at any time of day or night—rigorously virtuous and harmonious, as Confucius might put it.
It’s not completely clear where the advantages lie. Paris streets are full of excellent Asian cars, yet no Asian city can compare with the beauty and the romance, the lush and literate lifestyle, of Paris. London shops are full of excellent Asian electronics, yet no Asian city can compare with the theatrical creativity of the West End. And the top of the PISA world-wide student rankings in math, science, and reading is packed with Asian nations, yet . . .
There sits Finland, about 10th overall in PISA rankings, pursuing an educational strategy radically different from Asia (Phenomenal Learning from Finland, Kirsti Lonka)—beginning school late in childhood, minimal homework, minimal testing, lots of breaks, and an emphasis on holistic project management, rhetorical panache, and having fun learning together. Correspondingly, Finland routinely scores 1st in the world happiness ratings, whereas major Asian countries are well down the list—55th (Japan), 61st (South Korea), 75th (Hong Kong SAR), and 82nd (China).
The resolution of the rigor versus lifestyle tradeoff question probably lies where it usually does, in an algorithm more or less comfortably synergizing objectivity (technical superiority and high incomes) and subjectivity (relaxation and happiness). Finding the right objective-subjective balance is usually a matter of experimentation and reflection for any individual or society—enough rigor to acquire an excellent education and outstanding career achievement, yet enough fun and relaxation to be happy.
Confucianism, as a guide to living, at its most rigorous and extreme, may be a bit stressful and confining. But, on the whole, it is a philosophy of life of subtle genius, almost guaranteed to result in high character, excellent reputation, harmonious relationships, and economic success. Pretty impressive.
The Totalitarianism vs. Democracy Trade-Off
Perhaps a little disquietingly . . . the issue of totalitarianism hovers in the premises of Confucianism. Confucius, really, was obsessed with social control. Over and over, his writings emphasize the necessity of obedience to father and prince (top leader). This is, if one may say so, authoritarianism personified! But what if the authority is evil?
To be fair, Confucius also bent over backwards to moderate his compliance injunction, putting cautionary mechanisms firmly in place. If a prince turns out to be evil, the people can, and should, depose him. If any authority, or group, violates the principles and rules of virtue, good people will refuse to condone, or cooperate with, the violations.
Well, that segues into democracy—the people governing the government. What’s the resolution of the paradox?
It’s this: in the final analysis, Confucius can be seen as placing the principles and rules of virtue at the top of the sociopolitical system, and insisting that all people who expect to succeed in society, including leaders, comply with proper standards of benevolence and generosity (the “Ordinances of Heaven”, Analects). Accordingly, he is repeatedly inclined to favor harmonious compliance with the system, despite some defects or complaints by some questionable characters, rather than endorse potentially anarchic defiance.
(Ironically, this is the Constitutional position of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist—freely debate an issue in relation to high principles, such as equality, justice, and happiness, then let everyone vote, then comply with the group’s decision.)
Confucianism versus Legalism
Interestingly (and perhaps alarmingly), a two-thousand-year-old conflict in China between Confucianism and Legalism continues to rage. The situation is not unlike the yin and yang of the American management concepts Theory Y and Theory X.
Theory Y asserts that employees want to do well, want to cooperate with the boss, and want the company to succeed. Therefore, employees can be trusted, and ought to be appreciated.
Theory X, by contrast, asserts that employees don’t want to do well, don’t want to cooperate with the boss, and don’t care if the company thrives or tanks. Therefore, employees can’t be trusted, and ought to be reviled.
Similarly, Confucianism respects humanity, trusts humanity, and wants people to discipline themselves, and to refine their characters, so they can be responsible parents and citizens, administrators, and leaders. Good people, leading good lives, in harmony.
Legalism, by contrast, (projecting from the shadows, possibly) sees that view as hopelessly and dangerously naïve. Obviously . . . humanity is greedy, thieving, and deceitful, quick to grab any advantage, fair or not, usually by stealth. The only way to deal with such homicidal hooligans is to claim total power, promulgate draconian legislation, and crush spectacularly any miscreant foolish enough to even breathe resistance to the rules.
(You don’t realize until you study Legalism that, essentially, Machiavelli was a Boy Scout, and the Borgias were party planners.)
Do Unto Others
“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”—this compassionate proposal is popularly thought of as originating in the Levant. But the first appearance of the Golden Rule— “Putting oneself in the place of others” —was Confucius! (Great Learning, p. 70-71; Analects, pp. 161, 231; and Doctrine of the Mean, p. 33; for those of a skeptical bent.)
The classic do unto others compassion plan does not, of course, appear to be at the very top of the current Eastern To-Do list. Nor does it appear to be at the very top of the current Western To-Do list. However, if we are going to save the trees, the animals, the water, the temperature . . . and ourselves . . . maybe it should be. Maybe it’s time. (Maybe it’s past time.)