Confucius Today

A slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of Modern Age. The essay is also available in Dutch.

Confucius has had distinguished individual admirers[1] in America but otherwise no perceptible influence on our political thought. We have lost by our failure to attend to him. He sets forth a way of drawing a workable and highly ethical way of life out of things of a kind found in every society: myth and tradition, natural human impulses, and the practicalities of daily life.[2] Since his method relies on moral leadership rather than political power, in times of fundamental political conflict it may be useful more for the ideals it maintains than its immediate practical efficacy. However, it is simple, flexible, and consistent with a reasonable interpretation of our own fundamental traditions. In confused times like our own we would do well to consider it; even if it does no more immediately than add to our stock of ideals, we should remember that ideals are eventually decisive.

Our indifference to Confucius is not surprising. In his own time his thought met in practice only with rejection. He remained an unemployed and wandering teacher, and few of his students ever held important government positions.[3] On the face of it, the outlook for greater success in America today seems dim. Neither John Locke nor MTV would mix easily with his views. Much of our intellectual heritage is against him, while our institutions and fellow citizens give public allegiance to an anti-Confucian mixture of individualism, egalitarianism, and hedonism.

Worse, it seems that Confucius’ thought is chiefly relevant to a society with features that ours increasingly lacks: definite standards of manners and ceremony, a compact literary, artistic and musical canon, and families with traditions of public service and concern with cultural matters. None of these features seems likely to reappear soon. The pursuit of wealth, position, and power have crowded out public service and cultural refinement, and agreement on cultural canons and standards of manners has seemingly become impossible. Worst of all, modern life seems unfavorable even to survival of nuclear families, let alone development of tradition.

Under such conditions it seems difficult to contemplate following Confucius in basing politics on tradition and continuity. Nonetheless, we should hesitate before concluding that the obstacles to drawing on his thought are insuperable. Against a background of political incoherence and social dissolution, recent talk of an end of history seems to foreshadow a dead end from which the obvious exit is catastrophe. Even if our true situation is less desperate, trying to transform our public life has become more important than calculating the likelihood of success. We need the things Confucius emphasized, such as integrity, loyalty, personal culture, and public spirit, but we can not make them part of practical politics. If he can give us a chance of doing so he deserves our attention.

Nor are circumstances necessarily as adverse as they seem. Confucius developed his thought for a time of confusion, and his method of starting with what is closest and most natural should be no less suited to dealing with information overload than with conflicting feudal loyalties. The decline of the social particularism that supports tradition has resulted intellectually from acceptance of ideals based on universal rationality and institutionally from dominance of centralized systems of communication and control. Such conditions do not last forever. Philosophical universalism and rationalism have recently been weakening, and the fax and Internet have reversed the trend toward centralization.

The tendencies that in economic life have shrunk business enterprises and defeated government controls, in politics have overthrown socialism, and in cultural matters have led to fragmentation on ethnic and gender lines are ambiguous. However, to the extent they make bureaucratic institutions unworkable they are likely to lead in the end to greater reliance on the family and other small tradition-based forms of organization. Among the ruins of the welfare state and its official culture kinship networks and religious communities may become the institutions people count on. If so, our common life will develop in a direction more hospitable to Confucius.

Confucius was flexible by principle, and a republican Confucianism would be no less authentic than that of the authoritarian empire established in China long after his death. Socially, such a Confucianism might be based on a decentralized society in which kinship and community ties are important and the informal relative standing of families is based on long-term contributions. In America it would undoubtedly be part of something called by a different name and appealing to our federal and republican traditions.

The usefulness of the thought of Confucius would then depend largely on what it can add to ways of thought already current among us. Confucius is close in many ways to Western conservatives such as Edmund Burke. Like them, he is concerned to maintain the proper relationship among practical politics and the things that determine it: exigencies of the moment, current views and practices, history and tradition, and ultimate moral truths. He draws on history and tradition to reconcile practical matters with things that transcend them, rather than basing politics, in the manner of pragmatists or ideologues, solely on dominant social forces or ultimate truths.

The contrast between Confucius and other thinkers troubled by the decline of the Chou feudal order in China displays his conservatism.[4] Many such thinkers, whether they were Mohists trying to feed the people or Legalists trying to maximize state power, called for centralization of society on functional lines. Others, like the Taoists, favored mysticism and withdrawal from society as a response to disorder. Whatever their differences, such proposals would have destroyed the special position of family and other traditional attachments and the importance of public standards of conduct and value not devised by the state.

Confucians rejected such views as unbalanced and inhuman. In their view, neither the rational centralized state nor liberation from restraint could bring a better life because social order can neither be dispensed with nor constructed arbitrarily. Confucius sought a middle way that accords with natural moral tendencies. For him, good social order consists in a cultivated harmony between nature and social institutions. That harmony grows out of attentiveness to family and other unplanned natural relationships, and is promoted and preserved by ethical principles such as reciprocity, loyalty, forbearance and benevolence.

Confucius believed a harmonious social order had once existed in China. It had been expressed most concretely in traditional ceremonies and could be recaptured through observance of those ceremonies, through education in music and poetry, and through moral self-cultivation. Few were capable of the devoted effort required fully to comprehend moral order and actively to take part in reestablishing it. Accordingly, although good social order could exist only with the participation of the people at large, the movement for a better society would be carried forward by the few who possessed the necessary ability, integrity, and love of the good. Such men would develop their character and culture and then seek government positions from which they could influence things in the right direction, withdrawing from office if circumstances made that impossible.

Such an outlook reflects the circumstances of Confucius’ time and place. In drawing on it we would adjust it to suit our circumstances, looking to our own cultural and ceremonial traditions rather than those of ancient China and treating tales of a Golden Age as a poetic way of making concrete the relation of tradition to political life. Such adjustments would not betray Confucius because his highly adaptable approach relies less on particular rules or beliefs than on dealing with experience in the right spirit.

Confucius characteristically starts with what is nearby and concrete: “To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves;—this may be called the art of virtue.”[5] It is the commonplace virtues of daily life and not lofty pursuits that matter most:

“A youth, when at home, should be filial, and, abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful. He should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good. When he has time and opportunity, after the performance of these things, he should employ them in polite studies.”[6]

The exercise of the basic virtues leads to refinement of ethical understanding and the growth of communities bearing ethical traditions that reflect and shape the lives of their members.

In an age of confusion the Confucian method of basing political life on everyday morality has the advantage of offering guidance without dogma. A disadvantage of the method from the modern point of view, of course, is that it is not one that can be embodied in a party platform and implemented by legislation and regulation. It requires a change of heart that can be encouraged by leadership and example but not forced.

Nonetheless, formal politics is not useless. It can cooperate in curing social ills by accommodating the character that a modern society informed by Confucius’ outlook would have. In such a society the principles governing public affairs would be firmly rooted in morality. Accordingly, the character of those in office would be taken seriously and there would be no wall of separation between private morality and government policy, which would support the accepted moral order when relevant. The political aspects of that order would be embodied in concrete symbols; in America these would likely include, as traditionally, the Constitution and high government officials in their ceremonial capacities. As in ancient China, where the Emperor was expected to rule by ceremony and by moral rather than physical force, the effectiveness of the symbolism would be preserved by limiting the practical activity of the things and persons serving as symbols: “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn toward it.”[7]

The state, as an expression rather than master of the social order, would be less intrusive than today. The libertarian and egalitarian impulses that dominate our politics would be channeled into support of particular institutions rather than understood as absolutes requiring the continual reconstruction of society. Social legislation would become less prominent, and welfare laws changed or eliminated to the extent they tend to reduce people’s responsibility for their actions or make individuals independent of their families.[8] A state under the influence of Confucius might nonetheless have its own form of social legislation designed to limit the growth and influence of rationalized forms of social organization such as large industrial corporations. These changes would be part of an overall reversal in the modern tendency to make social relationships a matter of law, a tendency that replaces particular human relationships with impersonal rules enforced centrally and promotes the manipulative self-seeking Confucius detested.

Thus, in our current situation Confucius’ thought is sufficient to define both an orientation toward private life and a general policy of social conservatism and limited government that already have substantial support from other traditions of thought. Confucian thought could contribute to our public life by adding to the intellectual and moral richness of those traditions. It could make of conservatism a perennial and non-parochial philosophy growing out of natural impulses and daily life. Through its emphasis on moral leadership, ceremony, and the reform of private life it could enrich our understanding of how a conservative vision of society might be realized. In Confucius himself those sympathetic to conservatism could find a compelling figure who combines tradition with independent thought, poetry with practicality, and humility with enterprise and integrity.

Perhaps most importantly, the thought of Confucius could aid the struggle for a middle way between anarchy and the total organization of society for pragmatic goals with lessons from a similar struggle more than 2OOO years ago. Quite possibly today’s struggle will be no more successful than that of Confucius and his followers during the Warring States period, which ended with the triumph of absolute state power under the First Emperor, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti. It is difficult for serious political and moral discussion to have much practical effect in an age dominated by money, propaganda and power politics. Nonetheless, the thought of Confucius survived Ch’in tyranny and is still alive today. No defeat is permanent, and those who maintain and develop a tradition in bad times perform no less a service than those who represent it during its moments of triumph.

The outlook for the thought of Confucius is not, of course, determined solely by its relation to philosophical conservatism. The dominant view in serious public political discussion among us is still liberalism. Although most people do not adhere strictly to the principles of contemporary American liberalism, and many reject them outright, those principles remain in general the ones that can be asserted without argument and deviation from which must be justified.

Many of those principles are anti-Confucian. Characteristically, modern liberals aspire to base social order on equal rights and obligations of each individual with respect to society at large. The prime embodiment of involuntary duties to particular persons, the family, they would prefer to treat as a private sentimental or contractual arrangement among its members. They lack respect for the authority of tradition because they are uneasy with wisdom that can not be articulated and tested. Since they view satisfaction of actual preferences as the political good, they are reluctant to admit that preferences can be cultivated and that the cultivated few have a special role in government.

General acceptance of an outlook as divergent from that of Confucius as contemporary liberalism would make it difficult to apply his ideas. Quite apart from the difficulty of getting votes, it would be difficult for a follower of a man who had “no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egoism”[9] to do battle with the settled moral sense of his own society. While liberalism is certainly not the only political outlook current in America today, it has enormous institutional power and carries a great deal of intellectual and moral authority among many serious people. Even those who reject certain aspects of it retain their loyalty in other respects; in America even conservatism usually speaks the language of liberalism. Accordingly, Confucius will be most useful if the gap between his outlook and any practical form that liberalism might take is narrower than it seems, and if on disputed points liberalism does not clearly have the stronger position within our tradition.

Superficial comparisons of Confucius’ outlook and liberalism can be misleading because the two start from different perspectives. Confucius begins by considering man in society, contemporary liberalism by considering individual preferences. However, when the two views are examined more carefully many apparent oppositions fall away. What remain are chiefly differing conceptions of the public good and the role of the administrative state.

For example, Confucius wanted to limit and channel political power by putting government in the hands of cultivated and disinterested civil servants acting in accordance with traditions expressing the natural moral order. In contrast, liberals prefer to rely on abstract constraints such as equal opportunity for political participation and equal possession of certain rights and liberties.

However, the constraints imposed by liberalism must become much more concrete in order to be put in effect. If liberals accept majority rule, as seems required by equal participation,[1O] equal rights and liberties will be maintained only if the majority never chooses to deny them or if some superior power prevents the majority from doing so. The first possibility can not be relied on, especially in a liberal society that accepts the legitimacy of conflicts of interest; hence, liberalism must establish and rely on a power of some sort that is superior to the majority.

It seems unrealistic to think such a power could consist purely in formal arrangements. For example, a special procedure for enacting constitutional provisions relating to minority rights might rely on formalities such as concurrent majorities. It would be difficult, however, for either formalities or majority rule to govern such things as the phrasing of the questions to be decided, the timing of votes, or the business of interpreting and applying the provisions adopted. For these purposes a body of specially-qualified constitutional experts would be needed. Such a body would necessarily have very great power, and to preserve its power would require reliable support from other influential classes.

Thus, the development of liberalism appears to depend on the existence of powerful elites selected and educated to secure their collective commitment. The power and political tendencies of our leading educational and legal institutions and of our news media confirm that conclusion. In other respects liberalism also shows a tendency to converge with Confucianism. Social values do not exist in a vacuum, and liberals no less than Confucians need to inculcate the ones they favor through social observances. The strength of demands for such things as inclusive language and a Martin Luther King holiday reflect their consciousness of such a need. Finally, now that foundationalism in moral and other branches of philosophy has fallen into disrepute, liberals have come to view the understanding of equality as developing within a tradition by reference to which the relevant issues must be discussed and evaluated.

Thus, in practice the fundamental differences between liberalism and the views of Confucius can not consist in the acceptance or rejection of authority, ceremony and tradition, since modern liberalism relies on all three. Rather, the difference appears to consist in the understanding of the purpose of social order and the preferred means of attaining that purpose. Modern liberals tend to view the purpose of social order as the maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences and to pursue that purpose through uniform centralized administration. Confucius viewed the purpose as the ordering of human relationships in accordance with principles not reducible to actual desires, and believed such a purpose could be realized only through personal leadership and individual moral effort. The choice between liberalism and a Confucian outlook thus turns on such things as whether there are goods not reducible to individual preference, whether morality is primarily a property of social systems or of individual acts and character, and whether the claims of family and other involuntary relationships can be ignored without harm. While arguing the Confucian side of these issues is beyond the scope of this essay, it seems clear that side is sufficiently plausible and rooted in Western tradition to avoid the reproach of sectarian dogmatism for those who affirm it.

One source within Western tradition from which the Confucian side can draw support for its claim that morality has components that can not be reduced to the social organization of personal preferences is, of course, Christianity. More generally, comparison with Christianity confirms the compatibility of the thought of Confucius with what is most important in the thought of the West. Consistency with our religious tradition is important for its own sake, and also because Confucianism has been more concerned to instruct the upper classes how to act in a way that justifies their position than to give ordinary people something for which to live. In a society that takes the popular element in government seriously, Confucian thought would need to associate itself with ways of thinking that engage the loyalty of the people. Moreover, we cannot easily derive a self-sufficient understanding of politics and morality from Confucius. He could rely on Chinese traditions such as the receipt of the mandate of heaven by the former kings, but we must build on our own political mythology and religious views.

Apparent contrasts between the thought of Confucius and Christianity tend to relate more to orientation and focus than substance. Confucius dealt by preference with the things of this world. He refused to comment on spirits or the dead, preferring to discuss matters such as principles of social order and conduct in office. Accordingly, he directed his message mainly to the upper classes, although he was willing to teach men and boys of any background. In contrast, Christ preached the kingdom that is not of this world to the poor and despised, men and women alike. He did not discuss political matters, apart from his observation that we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Confucius’ statement that the common people could be brought to follow but not understand his way, and Christ’s statement that a rich man could hardly enter his kingdom, strikingly bring out the difference in focus and social orientation.

Such contrasts should not be exaggerated, however; when we abstract from social orientation similarities of ethical substance stand out. Confucius emphasized the value and Christ the limitations of traditions and institutions. Nonetheless, Christ disclaimed any intention of abolishing the Law and Confucius admired virtuous poverty and favored moral integrity over social expectations. Confucius adhered to a form of the Golden Rule (“what you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others”)[11] and like Christ emphasized avoidance of evil thoughts, self-seeking, and pride.[12] Above all, each emphasized the spirit in which people live here and now more than tradition, eschatology, legal reasoning, or weighing of consequences.

In many ways, the difficulties of reconciling Confucius with Christ are the same as those of applying Christianity to ordinary life in society. Very few feel able to cut earthly ties for the sake of evangelical perfection. If we accept ordinary political and social life, as most of us do, Confucianism seems generally compatible with the form of Christianity that remains. Christ enjoined us to forgive sins, but it appears to make more political sense to respond to injury with justice, as Confucius would have us do, and in practice all Christian societies have punished crime. So to the extent it is possible for most of us to be Christian at all it should be possible for us to be Christian while following Confucius. As Christ said to those shocked by the saying about the rich man and the camel going through the needle’s eye, for many Christianity is possible only because with God all things are possible.[13]

It may be helpful to finish by commenting on a few common Western objections to Confucius, in particular those based on his attitudes toward ceremony, social roles, and authority. Many such objections arise out of misunderstanding or our habit of calling “Confucian” everything distinguishing the societies of East Asia from our own. Others are based on egalitarian utopianism and need not detain those who reject that outlook.

Confucius’ attitude toward ceremony sometimes puzzles Americans, but our notorious informality should not blind us to things that support that attitude. Ceremony promotes thoughtful conduct by ensuring that actions accord with forms that reflect long experience. It restrains those in power without creating a superior power that then also has to be restrained. It requires us to do things that neither satisfy desire nor promote further purposes and so are fitted to remind us of ultimate goods.

Respect for ceremony can degenerate into superstitious formalism, but Confucius was no formalist. Ethical substance was primary for him and ceremony a “subsequent thing”.[14] He emphatically preferred economy to lavishness and right spirit to correctness. He sometimes spoke as if ceremony had magical power, but such language reflects how we experience it. Ceremony defines and makes concrete what our world is for us. Its effect is to constitute our world rather than to act within it, and accordingly it works by principles different from the ordinary laws of cause and effect. While Confucius’ way of speaking may have been factually false it was thus psychologically true.

Confucius is often accused of overemphasizing social roles at the expense of individuality. Certainly he saw man as a social being whose nature is partly constituted by his roles, but he was far from believing that a man and his roles were the same. He gave virtue absolute priority over social position: “When a country is ill-governed, riches and honor are things to be ashamed of.”[15] The purpose of his educational efforts was to develop the capacity to transcend the expectations of other people through the exercise of individual moral judgment, and he recognized that such judgment could lead to defiance of convention or even withdrawal from society. In personal life he was notable for his shrewd assessments of character and appreciation of individual differences, and he rejected conventional valuations to the extent of marrying his own daughter to a former prison inmate.

Claims that Confucius was authoritarian are mistaken. He was the educator who said that “the accomplished scholar is not a utensil”[16] in the hands of those in power. He insisted that love and loyalty require inferiors to admonish their superiors, complained that his favorite disciple was no help because he always agreed with him, and refused to accept students who lacked enthusiasm or could not think things out for themselves. Complaints that he accepted established authority too readily show mostly that utopianism was foreign to him. He saw little to be gained by unsettling prescriptive authority, and thought rulers would rule better if they were secure and were served by men who were loyal but independent-minded. He did not favor giving the people any direct role in government, saying that “he who is not in any particular office, has nothing to do with plans for the administration of its duties”.[17] Nonetheless, he believed that the support of the people was essential to good government and could be obtained if the rulers themselves were upright and observed the rules of propriety. Above all, he took the people seriously as moral beings:

“The commander of the forces of a large State may be carried off, but the will of even a common man cannot be taken from him.”[18]

“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue [te, “moral force”], and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety [li, “ceremonies”], they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.”[19]

In the educational efforts that were his life work, Confucius taught anyone who wanted to learn without regard to social position and gave credit to virtue and ability wherever found. We should be no less catholic, and look for good wherever we can find it. Our difficulties today go deeper than we can manage. In times like the present, when the best we can do in our political and social efforts is concentrate on the most critical points and hope for the best, someone who shows us how to proceed with a minimum of arbitrary assumptions can help us greatly. A thinker who can draw as much out of natural inclinations and daily life as Confucius, whose views can readily be understood in a way compatible with our own deepest commitments, and who has profoundly influenced a great, civilized, and very practically-minded people for millenia is assuredly worthy of our closest attention.


1 See, for example, A. Owen Aldridge, “Irving Babbitt in and about China”, 35 Modern Age (Summer, 1993), 332- 339.

2 Confucianism is, of course, a tradition with a very long and complex history. The “thought of Confucius” I discuss in this essay is that of the Analects, which are generally thought to present the most accurate picture of Confucius himself and his views.

3 Centuries later the Han dynasty adopted the views of the Confucian school as the official philosophy of the empire. Nonetheless, imperial China, with its emphasis on regulation, punishment and unconditional dynastic loyalty, always remained less Confucian than Legalist in substance.

4 Vitaly A. Rubin provides a brief and accessible introduction to several of these thinkers in his Individual and State in Ancient China: Essays on Four Chinese Philosophers (New York, 1976).

5 James Legge, translator, Confucian Analects (various editions), Bk. vi, ch. 28.

6 Bk. i, ch. 6.

7 Bk. ii, ch. 1.

8 While Confucius considered providing for the economic well-being of the people one of the main responsibilities of government, the methods he had in mind seem to have been limited to encouraging productive activity and keeping government expenditures and taxes low and demands for labor service limited. For discussion, see Kung-chuan Hsiao, A History of Chinese Political Thought (Princeton, 1979), 1O9-11O.

9 Bk. ix, ch. 4.

1O This requirement might also be met if decisions were made by magistrates chosen by lot, but such a procedure would make it no easier to ensure compliance with liberalism.

11 Bk. xv, ch. 23.

12 Confucius’ “Heaven” had many similarities to the Christian God. An important difference, no doubt related to his this- worldliness, is that Heaven was not for him an object of personal devotion. He personalized it to the extent of attributing to it will and intention, and believed it revealed itself through history and in the lives and sayings of specially illumined men. Nonetheless, it was impersonal good rather than Heaven that was the object of his love and loyalty. In addition, his emphasis on moral striving excluded all notion of the need to depend on grace in a fallen world, although he recognized that there was almost nobody who could be called good or who even made any very serious effort to become so.

13 While I have compared Confucius’ views only with the Gospels, some of his views also recall later Christian themes. For example, his view of ceremony is somewhat reminiscent of the view of the sacraments as the ordinary means of grace. He also shares with Christians the view that political authority is justified and limited by reference to a transcendent moral order that in general requires submission but sometimes calls for opposition to the actions of those in power.

14 Bk. iii, ch. 8.

15 Bk. viii, ch. 13.

16 Bk. ii, ch. 12.

17 Bk. viii, ch. 14.

18 Bk. ix, ch. 25.

19 Bk. ii, ch. 3.