Confucius- Biography, Philosophy & Teachings
Born in 551 BCE, Confucius was an ancient Chinese philosopher and politician who often went by the name ‘the Great Chinese Sage’. He lived in an era that historians like to call the Golden Age of ancient China (during the Zhou Dynasty). Over the centuries, other philosophers and historians have described his era as the age of philosophical reasoning.
The Great Sage proposed several thoughts and ideas that went on to form the philosophy of Confucianism. Confucius’ ideas and contributions have influenced not just Chinese culture, but cultures all across the world. What was Confucius best known for? And what exactly is the main philosophy of Confucianism? We provide answers to these questions by exploring the life, philosophy, and teachings of Confucius- the First Teacher.
Considering how far back Confucius lived, not many details exist about his early life. What is known about his childhood often comes from the “Records of the Historian” (Shih Chi), which was written by Ssu-ma Chi’en (145- 86 BCE).
Confucius, the Great Sage, was born in 551 BCE in the Lu district (present-day Qufu, Shandong Province, China) during the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE).
According to Ssu-ma chi’en, Confucius’ family roots can be traced all the way back to the royal house of Shang. His house ruled ancient China before the coming of Chou rulers (1122 BCE- 221 BCE).
Ancient Chinese scholars believe that his father (Kong He), a soldier, died when he was only three years old. His father’s death plunged Confucius and his mother (Yan Zhengzai) into abject poverty. Prior to that, Confucius and his family lived a moderate life. They were in the middle class, also known as ‘shi’. The ‘shi’ class referred to people in between the aristocrats and the commoners. They often occupied clerk or administrative positions in their districts.
Marriage and Early Works
At the age of 19, Confucius got married to Qiguan. They had one son and two daughters. One of the children died at an early age.
It is believed that he did not start his career as a philosopher. Rather, he worked briefly as a field worker and a bookkeeper. Some specific accounts of his story state that he was a shepherd.
Later in his life, Confucius began dabbling in philosophy. Some scholars have stated that Confucius even met the renowned philosopher Lao Tzu in 518 BCE. The meeting was not so pleasant, as Lao considered Confucius an arrogant man.
Focusing on morality and ethics, he often spoke at length to people living in his district about his philosophy. Soon, he became a very well respected teacher in his village. As his reputation grew, Confucius’ teachings began to get larger audience.
He won the hearts of his people and was soon made the governor of his district. His position in power meant that he could reach an even greater audience and spread his philosophy. This marked the beginning of his illustrious career in philosophy.
Gradually and steadily, he rose from being a governor in his district to becoming a senior adviser to the government. According to ancient.eu, he attained the position of Director of Public Works in 503 BCE. Two years later, he was made the head of the justice department.
The Great S.age never regarded the philosophies that he propagated as his. Rather, he believed that he was simply a conduit through which those teachings of the ancients flowed.
Confucius Teachings and Philosophy
The sayings and teachings of Confucius are today termed as Confucianism. When Confucius started disseminating his ideas, they were not as famous as they are now. Historians believe that his philosophy was only embraced comprehensively a century or two after his death. The governments that came after the Zhou dynasty adopted them as the official philosophy. Since then, Confucianism grew tremendously, not just in China, but in places like Japan and Korea.
The genesis of his teachings and philosophy go back to the sixth century BCE. It was a time of great upheaval and unrest. Ancient China was plagued with several warring states competing for legitimacy in order to rule all of China. The Zhou dynasty was in chaos, and several aristocrats in the society were out of government employment. With vast intellectual skills and training, these aristocrats did not have readily available skills to till or tend to the fields. Their only option was to engage in teaching in return for a fee. As a result of this, several school of thoughts were born. It was a golden age of intellectual reasoning.
The teachers and philosophers worked very hard in order to restore morality in a society that was being torn apart by endless wars and strife.
Therefore, Confucius took it upon himself to educate people about the essence of having strong societal values such as respect and dedication to traditional rituals. He mainly supported most of his ideas with the “ren” principle. The principle promotes love for thy neighbor. It also entreats the individual to have strong self-discipline.
After establishing his school in his hometown, Confucius made sure that his message reached as many people possible, regardless of political or economic status.
In terms of politics, Confucius, having spent a number of years as a governor, knew how important self-discipline was. He was of the view that, a leader without self-discipline can plunge his district into the path of chaos and tragedy. A leader must therefore be self-discipline, humble and respectful. For it is only through the leader’s love and respect of others that a society can achieve the needed balance.
He believed that leaders that lead by example should make it a point to educate their people about the need of having virtues and sound rituals (commonly called ritual propriety or “li”).
It is believed that Confucius died of natural causes in 479 BCE. He was around 71 or 72 years old. His body was buried in his family’s tomb in Qufu. Prior to his death, he had lost his son, Tzu-lu. His son died in battle. He was also saddened by the death of a few of his disciples such as Yen Hui and Tzu Lu. Those deaths must have been what caused him to go into mourning and eventually die.
Legacy and Contributions of Confucius
The Great Teacher, Confucius, left a long-lasting legacy in the history of world philosophy. The following are some of his major contributions to human knowledge. They have been selected from the Analects of Confucius (a compilation his most famous works)—edited conversations that Confucius had with his disciples.
Collectively, the teachings and philosophy of Confucius make up Confucianism. Confucianism deviates from the typical sought of world religions in the sense that it focuses more on morality and ethics than on the soul. There are very few, if any, spiritual facets in Confucianism. The philosophy centers around the relationship one has with others. He advised his followers to maintain strong ethics when dealing with one another. Everything about Confucianism treads a humanistic path.
Today, the philosophy and canons of Confucianism can be found all across Asia and even in other parts of the world. There is even the Neo-Confucianism- a relatively modern version of the teachings of Confucius. Practitioners of Neo-Confucianism eliminate, to a large extent, all forms of spiritualism. This version of Confucianism started during the Tang dynasty. Zhu Xi, an ancient Chinese philosopher, was a big advocate of neo-Confucianism. His Four Books, also known as Shishu, has over the centuries helped us to gain deeper understanding of morality and ethics.
Up to this day, Confucius ideas and philosophy are often regarded as the guardian of Chinese Civilization. He grew in an era (the Zhou Dynasty) that was completely bedeviled by fighting among various Chinese states. Years of strife and chaos had eroded the moral fabric of his society. He believed that fighting was bound to perpetuate if the people did nothing to change their morals. Hence, Confucius embarked on a mission to re-introduce the classics and traditional ceremonies and rituals of the past.
He held the view that with the “Six Arts”- archery, calligraphy, computation, music, chariot-driving and rituals- the society that he lived in could start living with integrity. Confucius called on all government officials to adopt traditional values of benevolence (jen), ritual (li) and propriety (yi) in order to end all the bloodshed that was happening during his time.
FAQs about Confucius
This overview, which has been crafted in a question and answer style, provides a basic understanding of Confucius and his teachings.
What are the main teachings of Confucius?
Confucius emphasized the importance of family, respect for elders, virtue, righteousness, and proper social relationships. He believed in the cultivation of one’s character and in leading by example.
What is the Analects?
The Analects is a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to Confucius and his disciples. It’s the primary source of knowledge about his philosophical teachings.
Did Confucius create a religion?
While Confucianism is sometimes called a religion, it’s better described as a philosophical and ethical system. However, over time, religious rituals and traditions have developed around Confucian teachings.
What are the Five Relationships in Confucianism?
The Five Relationships outline the proper roles and duties in social interactions: ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother, and friend-friend.
What is the concept of “Li”?
“Li” can be translated as ritual, propriety, or etiquette. It refers to the ceremonial rites and social norms that individuals should follow in society.
Who were Confucius’s disciples?
Confucius had many disciples. Among the most notable are Zigong, Zilu, and Yan Hui.
How did Confucianism influence Chinese society?
Confucianism deeply influenced Chinese culture, governance, education, and social dynamics for over two millennia. His teachings became the foundation for the state ideology during various Chinese dynasties.
Was he ever in a position of political power?
He held minor governmental positions in his early life, but he never attained significant political power. However, he aspired to advise rulers and promote virtuous governance.
How is Confucius remembered today?
Confucius is revered as one of the greatest thinkers in Chinese history. His birthday is celebrated as Teachers’ Day in Taiwan. Numerous temples and institutes worldwide are dedicated to his teachings.
Are Confucian teachings still relevant today?
Many believe that Confucian values, emphasizing respect, familial bonds, and social harmony, remain relevant. They influence various aspects of East Asian cultures, including education, family dynamics, and social interactions.
How did Confucianism spread outside of China?
Confucianism spread to neighboring countries like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam through cultural exchange, trade, and diplomacy, becoming integral to their cultural and philosophical landscapes.