THE SAGE OF CHINA
Norma S. Meese 33°
The time during which the great Chinese sage lived and taught was also, roughly, that of burgeoning Greek philosophy and culture and of India's religious change. Xerxes, Cyrus, and Cambyses ruled Persia. Among the Hebrew prophets of his day were Daniel, Haggai, and Zechariah. In Greece, it was the age of the city states and of Solon, Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Pericles, Miltiades, Anaxagoras, Thales, Aeschylus, Xenophanes, Sophocles, Pindar, Sappho, and a host of others. In India, the people of the Ganges River basin had begun to listen to the words of Prince Gautama, the Buddha, and harken to bis redemptive philosophy of the Eightfold Path. Men's minds and eyes were opening to something beyond the material things of the world and the flesh, a way of life that seemed to have a strange appeal.
The teachings of Confucius do not, in any sense of the word, comprise a religious faith; they are a code of morality, a purely secular philosophy containing no trace of the spiritual element customarily associated in the minds of Western peoples with any religious belief. It is true that he spoke with reverence of the Divine Way, the Will of Heaven, the Will of God, and the Moral Sense, but these expressions represented cosmic forces which guided men to happiness if obeyed. It was his belief that the things which made people rejoice were the result of their having live in harmony with Tao, the Will of Heaven, while the things that have never failed to cause grief and sorrow on the part of people or governments were those of which Heaven does not approve. His entire philosophy stressed man's conduct and relationships in this world, but viewed them as morality divinely commanded.
Confucius seems to have remained discreetly silent if he entertained any thoughts whatever concerning a future life beyond the grave. It is of record that on occasion he refused to speculate concerning it and reprimanded his followers for attempting to pry into the secrets of Heaven.
The great Voltaire, who had delighted in the study of what Confucius had written and taught, spoke of him in this way:
How superior is Confucius, the first of mortals who did not claim to have been favored with divine revelations. He employed neither falsehood nor the sword, but only reason. As viceroy of a great province he causes the laws to be observed and morality to flourish. Later, disgraced and poor, he teaches them. He practices them alike in greatness and in humility. He renders virtue amiable and has for his disciples the most ancient and wisest people upon the earth.
The China into which Confucius was born in 551 B.C. was a feudal patriarchate torn by continued petty wars between rival rulers. Both political and cultural anarchy prevailed. Education was regarded as a means to appointment to government service or to the teaching of those who aspired to it. Confucius' father, about 70 years of age when his son was born to a wife of 17, died three years later in poverty, having spent his substance in trying to improve the condition of the people of the province of which he was governor in the Kingdom of Lu, now Shanghai.
Confucius tended cattle and goats, carried water, worked in the garden, and, by the time he was 22, had earned a name as both an athletc and a musician. He had also become skilled at settling disputes among the herdsmen who used the public pastureland. It was at this period of his life that he began to teach and to learn the great value of governing one's temper and of following what we have come to know as the Golden Rule, his version of which was, "What you do not like done to yourself, do not do to others." For this there is no direct Chinese equivalent, but it is usually expressed by a single ideogram meaning "reciprocity."
From his earliest maturity one of Confucius' greatest interests was morality in government based on the uprightness of rulers. Always throughout his teaching there shone the golden thread of man's duty to man and to Heaven. When he was 30 years of age he resigned his government position in Lu in protest against injustice, but several years later he had again attained high ministerial rank.
His attitude during the time he occupied this important position indicates quite clearly the character of the man and his determination to live by the principles he had established for himself. He made many enemies, particularly among the nobility, some of whom were powerful and corrupt. He pointed out the foibles of the society in which they moved and the wrongs that were being done the oppressed people by officials who were pretending to serve them. He severely and openly denounced hypocrisy, vanity, pretense, and the selfishness of the aristocracy. It was his continued unwavering insistence on honesty in the performance of their official duties that finally caused his deposition, at which be expressed little concern because, be said, it gave him more leisure and time to travel.
For 13 years, then, he wandered from state to state offering, in the interest of government reform, advice to those rulers who would listen to him, but he was generally given little attention. He did, however, find himself surrounded by a growing number of devoted and steadfast followers. His daily instructions to them concerned such matters as benevolence, duty to one's neighbor, and the virtues of justice and truth. His manner of teaching, much like that of Jesus five centuries later, was largely by means of parables easily understood by those who heard him, his purpose being to convey the truth in the fewest possible number of words. When he was nearing 60 he returned to Lu to teach until his death in 479 B.C.
Many of his followers, who numbered about 3,000, remained near the place of his burial for several years and formed the nucleus of the first Chinese university, an institution which retained its identity and continued active for eight centuries.
The essence of Confucius' teaching was affected to only a very minor degree by that of other philosophers and thinkers of whom China had produced a number. As a young man he had visited Lao-tsze and hid been greatly impressed, but the feeling was not entirely mutual. Later he came to the conclusion that Lao-tsze's mystical and metaphysical utterances were not sufficiently lucid and practical but used them at times to supplement what he wished to say.
It is of interest to note that when the first Jesuit priests visited China in the late 16th century they found that for two thousand years the wisdom of Confucius had been memorized by every child in the land. They became so profoundly impressed not only by his erudition but also by the veneration accorded his memory that when they returned to Rome his name, K'ung Fu-tsze (the Master K'ung), was latinized by them into its present best known form, and they urged that he be canonized as a saint. The great praise heaped upon him by the priests was viewed by the papal authorities as merely a bold attempt to justify their singular lack of success in spreading Catholic Christianity in China. A study of his doctrines, however, does much to confirm the report of the priests and places Confucius today among the half dozen or so mortals who have been called saviors of the world.
What China's great sage accomplished was the establishment of a system or code of ethical realism that profoundly affected the life of every Chinese for well over two millennia. It contained no hint of the supernatural and had in it nothing of wonder or mystery. Its doctrines had solely to do with human relationships — morals and politics and throughout its teachings runs the adjuration to adhere to the five cardinal virtues of human kindness, just and upright conduct, decorum, wisdom, and truth.
There are those who say that Confucius is long dead-has been in his grave for 2,500 years; but is he, really? Is Socrates dead — or Gautama — or Jesus — or Mohammed? The flesh in which these great spirits dwelt and labored to set men free from their grossest appetites and passions is now but a handful of dry dust, but they will live always in the hearts and minds of those who know and understand the truths they strove so mightily to impart. As Confucius himself observed,
The highest study of all is that which teaches us to develop those principles of purity and perfect virtue which Heaven bestowed upon us at our birth, in order that we may acquire the power of influencing for good those amongst whom we are placed, by our precepts and example; a study without an end — for our labors cease only when we have become perfect — an unattainable goal, but one that we must not the less set before us from the very first. It is true that we shall not be able to reach it, but in our struggle toward it we shall strengthen our characters and give stability to our ideas, so that, whilst ever advancing calmly in the same direction, we shall be rendered capable of applying the faculties with which we have been gifted to the best possible account.