Although we examined the major events in Confucius' life in
the first chapter, it may be useful to reflect briefly at
this point on how well he lived up to what he taught. If wisdom
is both knowledge and action, then words alone are not sufficient
evidence that he was a wise man. Moreover if he was to be
an effective teacher of wisdom, then his students certainly
would have looked to see if he actually practiced what he
preached. The first two chapters looked at Confucius as an
exemplar of wisdom, and in this chapter we will briefly explore
whether he lived according to the specific precepts which
This idea of not allowing one's words to outrun his deeds
was actually one of Confucius' own fundamental principles.
Confucius even in his time considered this to be an ancient
axiom. "The reason why the ancients did not readily give
utterance to their words, was that they were afraid that their
actions might not come up to them."1 Confucius knew that
words were cheap, and so recommended the following method
for keeping one's speech in line with one's deeds. Tzu-kung
had asked about the gentleman, and Confucius said, "He
acts before he speaks and then speaks according to his action."2
This is a sure way of keeping the words accurate to the actual
accomplishments. Confucius was aware of hypocrisy and warned
against it. "A man with clever words and pretentious
manner is seldom good."3 With Confucius we find that
although he has many wise things to say, he rarely makes claims
about himself, especially in The Analects, the earliest source.
Many later Confucians made extravagant claims on behalf of
their master, changing history to legend and even myth.
Confucius was described in The Analects as having no egotism,
and although he preached much, it usually was as an impersonal
ideal which anyone could learn to follow. He did not say they
should emulate him; he did not even tell them what to do.
He merely pointed out what would be the consequences of various
motivations and actions, and then let this listeners decide.
At one point while reciting the Way of the gentleman, he admitted
that he had not attained it. However, his disciples probably
Confucius said, "The Way of the gentleman is threefold.
I myself have met with success in none of them. For he who
is really good is never unhappy, he who is really wise is
never perplexed, and he who is really brave is never afraid."
Tzu-kung said, "Master, that is what you yourself say."4
Confucius is aware of his own limitations, and that he certainly
could do better in each of these aspects. Yet these are all
relative, and as compared to other men Confucius exhibited
a remarkable joy even though he was not recognized by many,
showed courage and lack of fear in his travels, and rarely
was he confused by any question put to him. "I am not
concerned that I have no office; I am only concerned how I
may make myself qualified for one. I am not concerned that
I am not recognized; I seek to be worthy of recognition."5
Even though Confucius was not in office, he was ready at
any time to put his principles into practice if he was given
an ethical opportunity. There was a conversation in which
Tzu-kung described a precious jewel and asked whether he should
wrap it up and keep it in a box or see if he could get a good
price for it. Confucius replied, "Sell it! Most certainly
sell it! I myself am one who is waiting for an offer."6
In his travels Confucius put forth great effort to put into
practice his ideas, but he also showed by refusing to cooperate
with unjust government that he lived up to his ethical ideals.
He also showed his strength of character in enduring hardships.
The following incident illustrates these points:
Duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius about military strategy.
Confucius replied, "About the ordering of ritual vessels
I have some knowledge, but I have not studied warfare."
The next day he resumed his travels.
In Ch'en supplies fell short, and his followers became so
weak that they could not drag themselves on to their feet.
Tzu-lu came to the master and said indignantly, "Is it
right that even gentlemen should be reduced to such straits?"
Confucius said, "A gentleman can withstand want; it
is only the small man who is swept away by it."7
Confucius' definition of a great minister makes clear why
he was not often in political service. The following conversation
also indicates his attitude toward two of his disciples' ability
Chi Tzu-jan asked whether Tzu-lu and Jan Ch'iu could be called
great ministers. Confucius said, "I thought you were
going to ask some really interesting question; and it is only
about Yu and Ch'iu. What I call a great minister is one who
will only serve his prince while he can do so without infringement
of the Way, and as soon as this is impossible, resigns. But
in this present case, so far as concerns Yu and Ch'iu, I should
merely call them stop-gap ministers."
Tzu-jan said, "So you think they would merely do what
they were told?"
Confucius said, "If called upon to slay their father
or their prince, even they would refuse."8
In other words, Confucius did not tend to over-rate his own
students, nor think they were completely incapable either.
Confucius believed the art of government was a skill of correcting
people. Therefore it was fundamental for the leader himself
to be correct. "To govern means to rectify. If you lead
with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?"9
Therefore, he could not allow himself to participate in a
government which was not correct.
From the evidence we have, Confucius appears to have acted
in harmony with the Way he preached.
Wealth and honor are what every man desires. But if they
have been obtained in violation of the Way, they must not
be kept. Poverty and humble station are what every man dislikes.
But if they can be avoided only in violation of the Way, they
must not be avoided. If a gentleman departs from goodness,
how can he fulfill that name? A gentleman never abandons goodness
even for the lapse of a single meal. In moments of haste,
he acts according to it. In times of difficulty or confusion,
he acts according to it.10
We find Confucius accepting humble circumstances gladly rather
than give up his principles. "With coarse rice to eat,
with water to drink, and with a bent arm for a pillow, there
is still joy. Wealth and honor obtained through injustice
are as remote from me as the clouds that float above."11
Even so, Confucius did not find much joy in bodily pleasures
but rather in loving learning and following the Way. "A
gentleman does not seek gratification of his appetite nor
comfort in his lodging. He is diligent in his duties and careful
in his speech. He associates with those who follow the Way
so that he may correct his faults. Such a person may be said
to love learning."12
Learning and teaching represent the major pursuits of Confucius'
life. His diligence in these activities indicates that he
conscientiously followed what he recommended to others. Jan
Ch'ien once asked Confucius what should be done next for a
population which had multiplied. The master counted the next
step to be to enrich them. Jan Ch'iu then asked for the step
after that. Confucius said, "Instruct them."13 This
was his role, although he knew that people must have the necessities
of life first.
What are the qualifications for a teacher? Confucius felt
he must have knowledge of the past and apply it in the present
for the future. "He who can make the old come alive to
gain knowledge of what is new is able to teach others."14
Due to his extensive knowledge of the classics and past history
and traditions while constantly endeavoring to apply these
ancient principles to contemporary situations, Confucius shows
himself to meet this requirement as well as anyone we could
Although Confucius was capable of various actions, he was
always striving for the best action possible. For example,
he said, "I could try a civil suit as well as anyone,
but it would be better still to bring it about so that there
are no civil suits!"15
As a teacher of the principles of wisdom, Confucius made
an easy target for criticism and satire, especially since
he was not in a prestigious position of the government. In
fact a couple of centuries later Confucius was extensive ridiculed
by the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu who portrayed him as a busy-body
reformer. However, these were caricatures to show how the
mystical transcends social ethics. There is an incident recorded
in The Analects of a rustic who criticizes Confucius for not
having any specific accomplishments. The master faced the
charge with a sense of humor.
A villager from Ta-hsiang said, "Confucius is no doubt
a very great man and vastly learned. But he does not bear
out his reputation by any particular thing."
Confucius hearing of it, said to his disciples, "What
shall I take up? Shall I take up chariot-driving? Or shall
it be archery? I think I will take up driving!"16
Confucius was naturally concerned more with the development
of the whole person than with one particular skill.
In one sense, maybe Confucius never really got the chance
to demonstrate his wisdom and apply his principles. Yet this
was not his fault but rather due to the moral conditions of
the times. We can only examine how he faced the challenges
of his life; and although he never was successful in government,
he did gain the respect of many disciples. As a final, pragmatic
evaluation of his teaching, then, we must examine the effect
he had on his students.
1. Analects 4:22.
2. An. 2:13.
3. An. 1:3.
4. An. 14:30.
5. An. 4:14.
6. An. 9:12.
7. An. 15:1.
8. An. 11:23.
9. An. 12:17.
10. An. 4:5.
11. An. 7:15.
12. An. 1:14.
13. An. 13:9.
14. An. 2:11.
15. An. 12:13.
16. An. 9:2.