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
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.