Confucian Paradox

Criticism of Confucius's emphasis on personal morality while elevating social conformity, leading to a paradox in the two most important morals in Confucianism.

The Analects is an interesting work. Aside from the structure of quote after quote, which seems somewhat trite, there is an interesting substance to Confucius' thoughts. Confucius' thoughts are an interesting mixture between personal morality and social conformity. Over and over again Confucius emphasizes the positive aspects of respecting ones parents even when they are in error, following the rites as they are written, respect of formal social position, etc.

A pertinent example of this social conservatism is as follows: "The Master said, 'When you are alive, comply with the rites in serving them; when they die, comply with the rites in burying them; comply with the rites in sacrificing to them'" (II.5). Themes of obedience, duty, and respect reverberate throughout The Analects.

This would be in seeming contrast to Confucius' morality. Confucius' morality emphasizes the preferability of understatement and substandard performance. In other words, being poor is valued above wealth; frugality is valued above extravagance; grief is valued above formality. Confucius considers the ultimate virtue to be benevolence and a man who follows benevolence to be a gentleman. These are Confucius' definitions for the enlightened, wise, and beneficent human beings in society.

This is the interesting paradox. Confucius obviously values an individual's morality as the utmost testament to their worth. He speaks of how one should treat peasants and commoners, and his ideas include justice, kindness, and dignity. These ideas are not necessarily homogeneous with ritual and the "old ways" which Confucius also shows deference and respect for. Can the seeming paradox between formal social structure and personal morality be worked out? Is this paradox a result of idealism and Confucius' goal to make the Chinese governments follow the Way?

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