Who Is Confucius?

Confucius lived from 551 BCE to 479 BCE during a time when imperial rule was breaking down in China. Learn about his life and philosophy.

Confucius (K'ung Fu-tzu) lived from 551 BCE to 479 BCE during a time when imperial rule was breaking down in China. Confucius was of noble decent, but his family had lost its wealth and he grew up in relative poverty. His birth place was in the state of Lu which is part of the modern state of Shantung.

Confucius settled down in the state of Lu and opened a school in his home at which he would teach anyone who came to learn regardless of their ability to pay. He flirted with the political arena, attempting to convince his contemporary political leaders the virtue of living a noble life. After 10 years or so of dismay in the political arena Confucius settled down to his school and taught for the rest of his life.

Not much is reliably known about Confucius since the first biography of him was written 375 years or more after his death by Ssu-ma Ch'ien, an unreliable historian. Since so many years had passed since Confucius' death and because he was such a reputed noble and wise man, many legends had arisen about hime by the time Ssu-ma Ch'ien collected information on his life.

Perhaps a more telling and more accurate account of Confucius can be found by analyzing his Analects, a collection of Confucius' sayings compiled by his students immediately following his death.

Confucius was obviously a very intelligent, sensitive man. He very much parallels what Plato would have called a philosopher. Confucius has a certain understanding of the way things should be (the truth) and teaches and acts according to this doctrine. Others appreciate Confucius' wisdom and seek it in times of distress and uncertainty.

Confucius seems to be concerned not only with the world of ideas and personally following the Way, but also in trying to influence the state through holding office or otherwise acting in a benevolent and gentlemanly way. He would not speak of things of which he knew he had no knowledge (i.e. gods, military formations, etc.) and portrayed humility and a love of learning in all his actions. In book VII.25 of The Analects, it is noted that "[t]he Master instructs under four heads: culture, moral conduct, doing one's best and being trustworthy in what one says."

He is somewhat pessimistic about the quality of people in his contemporary world including himself. He claims to have no hope of meeting a sage in this world (VII.26) and asserts that he dare not claim the title of sage or benevolence (VII.34). Never the less, he is willing to do his utmost to make the Way prevail in the world and instructs others on this basis. This gives us a picture of an intelligent guru who knows the futility of his actions yet insists upon doing whatever he can, both for personal morality and social morality.

Unlike a Platonic philosopher, however, Confucius puts great emphasis upon right conduct. This includes treating the commoners with reverence, following the rites, respecting one's parents, and many other details. This worldly emphasis stresses the relevance of Confucius' philosophy and the importance of the Way in the material world. In book IX chapter 4 it says, "There were four things the Master refused to have anything to do with: he refused to entertain conjectures or insist on certainty; he refused to be inflexible or to be egotistical."

In summary Confucius seems very human and conscious of his limitations, wise and fond of learning, humble yet adamant about benevolence and the Way, moral and gentlemanly, realistic yet idealistic, practical yet willing to try, reverent and respectful.

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