An Introduction to Confucius’ Life & Thought Through Two Animated Videos

Though it isn’t wide­ly acknowl­edged, there’s been a long­stand­ing and robust debate at least since the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry over whether or not a his­tor­i­cal Jesus exist­ed. The major­i­ty of Chris­tians dis­miss the evi­dence, or lack there­of, for rea­sons of belief, but on a wider view it’s not at all unique that the his­tor­i­cal founder of a reli­gion or school might be an inven­tion, or might have been noth­ing at all like the tra­di­tion sug­gests. Such ques­tions have arisen about the real­i­ty of the Bud­dha, for exam­ple, or the author­ship of Lao Tzu, writer of the Tao Te Ching, or the his­tor­i­cal exis­tence of his sup­posed con­tem­po­rary Con­fu­cius, founder of the sys­tem of phi­los­o­phy and ethics sim­ply known as Con­fu­cian­ism.

What do we know about Con­fu­cius? “Very lit­tle for cer­tain,” says Alain de Bot­ton in his School of Life intro­duc­to­ry video above. “He’s said to have been born in 551 BC in Chi­na,” and he may have been a stu­dent of Lao Tzu. Con­fu­cius sup­pos­ed­ly served as min­is­ter of crime under the ruler of the state of Lu. Many mun­dane sto­ries about the Chi­nese thinker make his exis­tence seem quite plau­si­ble, though his leg­end picked up mirac­u­lous fea­tures over time. But the say­ings sup­pos­ed­ly by and about Con­fu­cius, his­tor­i­cal or otherwise—like those of Jesus and the Buddha—were only writ­ten down many years after his death, col­lect­ed in the famous Analects (Lun­yu, or “edit­ed con­ver­sa­tions”).

These say­ings became enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar dur­ing the Euro­pean Enlight­en­ment and the 20th cen­tu­ry, writes Char­lotte Allen at The Atlantic, in part because Con­fu­cius remained “agnos­tic on whether a super­nat­ur­al world actu­al­ly exists.” Though he encour­aged par­tic­i­pa­tion in reli­gious rit­u­als, “The Mas­ter,” one of the analects remarks, “nev­er talked of: mir­a­cles; vio­lence; dis­or­ders; spir­its.” What he did talk about what was “the Gold­en Mean: all things in mod­er­a­tion, even mod­er­a­tion itself.” Con­fu­cius was a con­ser­v­a­tive thinker—in the sense that word once had of hold­ing fast to tra­di­tion, encour­ag­ing adher­ence to “rit­u­al pro­pri­ety” and fam­i­ly obser­vances, and respect­ing the rule of law.

His say­ings include a ver­sion of the Gold­en Rule, and he “is said to have taught his dis­ci­ples the cul­ti­va­tion of per­son­al virtue.… ven­er­a­tion of one’s par­ents, love of learn­ing, loy­al­ty to one’s supe­ri­ors, kind­ness to one’s sub­or­di­nates, and a high regard for all of the cus­toms, insti­tu­tions, and rit­u­als that make for civil­i­ty.” One can see his appeal to many lib­er­al West­ern philoso­phers, who have often advanced rad­i­cal the­ses along­side the con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues Max Weber char­ac­ter­ized as the Protes­tant eth­ic. Thomas Paine, writes Allen, “list­ed Con­fu­cius with Jesus and the Greek philoso­phers as the world’s great moral teach­ers” in the Age of Rea­son, and Ezra Pound had a par­tic­u­lar­ly high regard for the Chi­nese thinker.

This kind of ven­er­a­tion has meant that “to many edu­cat­ed West­ern­ers, Con­fu­cius is the very emblem of Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion and reli­gious belief.” Or as the TED-Ed video above puts it, “most peo­ple rec­og­nize his name and know that he is famous for hav­ing said… some­thing.” In this video intro­duc­tion to Con­fu­cius, the philosopher’s biog­ra­phy plays a very promi­nent role, and it does make for an engag­ing sto­ry. But we should be aware that the details of his life are high­ly con­test­ed by schol­ars in the East and West. The only sources date from “well after his death,” notes the Stan­ford Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy, and “tak­en togeth­er paint con­tra­dic­to­ry pic­tures of his per­son­al­i­ty and the events in his life.” Some schol­ars even claim he was an inven­tion of the Jesuits, who may have cre­at­ed the Con­fu­cius char­ac­ter to accord with their West­ern desire for a per­son­al founder.

But we need not believe bio­graph­i­cal details or decide between schol­ar­ly con­tro­ver­sies to appre­ci­ate Con­fu­cian thought. As de Bot­ton makes clear, Con­fu­cius’ respect for tradition—though cer­tain­ly patri­ar­chal and hierarchical—also gives us a lot of insight into how and why we should heed peo­ple with exper­tise and supe­ri­or knowl­edge, why we should val­ue edu­ca­tion and dif­fi­cult study, and why per­son­al integri­ty mat­ters in civic life. Though we can­not ver­i­fy his life sto­ry, we can see it as a pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive alle­go­ry for his ideas. Con­fu­cius exhort­ed his dis­ci­ples to obey their lead­ers, yet he also insist­ed that those lead­ers be benev­o­lent and hon­or­able.

It is said that Con­fu­cius left Lu, where he had served faith­ful­ly as a min­is­ter, when the Duke received a gift of cour­te­sans and hors­es from a neigh­bor­ing ruler, and began to spend all his time cavort­ing, and mis­us­ing the state’s resources. Thus, accord­ing to the tra­di­tion, began a peri­od of wan­der­ing as the philoso­pher pon­dered the cul­ti­va­tion of char­ac­ter. You can read the Analects for your­self in a num­ber of translations—including this free online ver­sion from Robert Eno. And if you wish to immerse your­self more ful­ly in the study of Con­fu­cian­ism and Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy and cul­ture more gen­er­al­ly, you can do so for free through Harvard’s edX course on Chi­na or, through Coursera’s “Clas­sics of Chi­nese Human­i­ties: Guid­ed Read­ings,” taught by Ou Fan Leo Lee, Pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese Cul­ture at The Chi­nese Uni­ver­si­ty of Hong Kong.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

East­ern Phi­los­o­phy Explained with Three Ani­mat­ed Videos by Alain de Botton’s School of Life

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast, Now at 239 Episodes, Expands into East­ern Phi­los­o­phy

Alan Watts Intro­duces Amer­i­ca to Med­i­ta­tion & East­ern Phi­los­o­phy: Watch the 1960 TV Show, East­ern Wis­dom and Mod­ern Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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