Confucius' basic idea:the renewal of antiquity

In the troubled times following the disintegration of the Empire, Confucius was one of the many wandering philosophers who aspired to save the country with their counsels. All found the way in knowledge, Confucius in knowledge of antiquity. His fundamental questions were: What is the old? How can we make it our own? How can we make it a reality?

This way of looking at the old was itself something new. Past realities are transformed by present reflection. The translation of tradition into conscious principles gives rise to a new philosophy which identifies itself with the old. The philosopher does not advance his ideas as his own. The Jewish Prophets proclaimed God's revelation, Confucius the voice of antiquity. He who submits to the old is saved from the presumption of basing great demands on his own infinitesimal self. He improves his chances of being believed and followed by those who still live in the substance of their origins. Independent thought, springing from the nothingness of mere reason, is futile: "I have gone without food and sleep in order to think; to no avail: it is better to learn." But learning and thinking go hand in hand. One demands the other. "To learn without thinking is vain."

"I am a traditionalist, not one who creates new things: I am faithful, a lover of the old." The substance and source of our being is to be sought in history. His view of history attaches little importance to the great inventors of wagon, plow, ship. True history begins with the founders of society and government, manners, and customs. At the beginning stand the ideal figures, Yao, Shun, Yu: they beheld the eternal archetypes in heaven. For these men Confucius has the highest praise: "Only heaven is great; only Yao was equal to it." These greatest of founders and rulers chose the best of men as their successors. Evil began with the Hsia dynasty when the principle of heredity set in. Inevitably the rulers declined in stature. In the end a tyrant, because he was not a ruler, was overthrown, in accordance with the will of heaven, by a revolution which once again appointed a true ruler, T'ang, founder of the Shang (Yin) dynasty. But since the throne remained hereditary, the same thing happened all over again. the last of the dynasty, again a ruthless tyrant, was overthrown in the twelfth century by the Chou dynasty, which once more renewed the age-old Chinese world. But in Confucius' lifetime the new dynasty had become enfeebled in its turn and the Empire had crumbled into innumerable states. Confucius wished to work for a renewal.

This implies a "critical" view of history; in examining the past, Confucius distinguishes between the good and the bad; he selects facts that are worth remembering as models to be emulated or examples to be avoided. Moreover, he knows that in restoring what was good in the past one should not try to make something outwardly identical. "A man born in our days who returns to the ways of antiquity is a fool and brings misfortune upon himself." What he advocates is not imitation of the past, but repetition of the eternal true. The eternal ideas were merely more clearly discernible in antiquity. Now, in his own dark times, he wishes to restore them to their old radiance by fulfilling himself through them.

But this belief in a final, eternal truth derives movement from the way in which we assimilate the old. It does not bar our way but spurs us forward. Confucius finds a living solution to the problem of authority, which for him is not merely a monopoly on the exercise of violence. Here for the first time in history a great philosopher shows how the new, merging with the tradition flowing from the source of eternal truth, becomes the substance of our existence. He points the way to a conservative form of life, made dynamic by a liberal open-mindedness.

If the truth has been manifested in the past, we shall find it by investigating the past, but in so doing we must distinguish between what was true and what was false. This is done by learning, which means not merely to acquire information about something but to make it our own. This true "learning" is gained by books and schooling. Confucius provided the books by selecting ancient text, documents, songs, oracles, codes of manners and customs, and reworking them with a view of truth and effectiveness. He laid the groundwork of school education, first of all with his own private school in which he strove to shape young men into future statesmen.

With him the mode of learning and teaching becomes a fundamental problem. The aim of all learning is practical efficacy. "If a man can recite all three hundred pieces in the Book of Odes by heart and, entrusted with the government, is unable to preform (his duties) or if, sent abroad as an ambassador, he is incapable of replying on his own, where is the good of all his learning?"

But without learning, all other virtues are obscured as though by a fog and degenerate: without learning, frankness becomes vulgarity; bravery, disobedience; firmness, eccentricity; humanity, stupidity; wisdom, flightiness; sincerity, a plague.

Now let us see how, in philosophy of Confucius, the new expressed itself in the form of the old. First we shall take up the moral and political ethos culminating in the ideal of the "superior man"; secondly, the ideas constituting the fundamental wisdom; and thirdly, we shall see how an element of uncertainty is introduced into the perfection of this edifice of thought by Confucius' awareness of limits-the limits of education, communicability, knowledge-by his awareness of his own failure and his contact with the factor which sustains his whole work, but at the same time opens it to question.