Confucius (c. 551 BC – c. 479 BC) The Great Philosopher, The Political Failure and What We Can Learn From Him

A portrait of Confucius by the Tang Dynasty artist Wu Daozi (680–740)

Life and Times

Confucius is without reasonable doubt the most famous and the most respected of all the Chinese thinkers and philosophers. He is the founder of Confucianism, the major school of thought in China. Regarded by many in the East to be a sage, he is even worshipped as a deity in certain parts of China (Honderich, 2005). In fact, some say that Confucius is the most well known Chinese in the West!

Seldom do philosophers achieve such fame in the eyes of fellow human beings. Yet for more than 2,000 years, the people of China, Japan and Korea have lived in societies that are profoundly influenced by the thoughts and ideals of this Chinese sage. Even to this very day, the ideals of Confucius are still very much a part of the philosophical outlook in the East.

The man himself is known in China as K’ung Ch’iu, K’ung Chung-ni, or Kung Fuzi. The first Europeans that really studied Confucianism were the Jesuit Missionaries. Among them were Matteo Ricci (1552 – 1610) and his colleagues. Through their writings, they made Confucius widely known as early as 1615 in the West and Latinized the name Kung Fuzi into Confucius. The Jesuits sought to reconcile Christianity and Confucianism to ease their missionary efforts in China. They portrayed Confucius as the ‘Chinese Aristotle’ and their translation of the Confucian texts was called ‘Confucius Sinarum Philosophus’ or Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese (Clarke, 1993).

Records show that Confucius was born about 551 BC. He was born in a small state called Lu in the present province of Shantung, in Northeastern China. His father passed away when he was quite young and both his mother and himself lived in poverty.

According to historian J.W. Roberts, Confucius was a member of the lesser nobility who may have spent as a minister of state and an overseer of granaries but probably never rose above a minor official rank (Roberts, 2007).

James Legge notes the following about Confucius:

“It was about this time, probably in the year after his marriage (some say nineteen years old), that Confucius took his first public employment, as keeper of the stores of grain, and in the following year he was put in charge of the public fields and lands (Legge, 1893).”

Confucius was never very successful in his working career, especially as a government official. There may be some truth to the saying that, ‘those who cannot do, teach.’ For at age twenty-two, Confucius became a public teacher and his house became a sanctuary for the young and enquiring. According to Legge, he never refused instruction however small the fee that his pupils paid him (Legge, 1893).

In the span of his life, Confucius held a few positions in the government although he actively sought political office in an attempt to put his ideals into practice. He never gained an influential political position in the government and was frequently ousted by his political rivals. In fact when he was age fifty, he gained a more influential political position but was forced to resign from his post and go into exile (Yu-Lan, 1976).

John Keay has the following to say about the working life of Confucius:

“He has gone for thirteen years, traveling through many of ‘the central’ states’, by one of which he was briefly employed. But in a stressful age, finding a patron who met his lofty standards proved difficult, and finding one who would attend to his idealistic injunctions nigh impossible. Kong Qiu returned to Lu an admirable, if slightly ridiculous, failure (Keay, 2009).”

His failure with politics may be a blessing in disguise as it prompted Confucius to train his disciples in the hope that one day they would be able to carry out his political philosophy. Thus, he spent most of his life teaching and attracted a considerable number of disciples.

As a philosopher, Confucius had his mind set on bringing a well-ordered and harmonious society. This is probably in response to the turmoil he found in his immediate social environment roughly at the end of the Spring and Autumn period in China (770 BC – 476 BC). This was a time of great political upheaval that led to the Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC).

His remedy to the instability of his time was simple. Confucius was a conservative who upheld tradition (Legge, 1893) and he advocated the restoration of traditional values and norms. He saw the chaos and degrading of society a result of humanity losing its path and abandoning the traditions that held society together and made it run smoothly.

In ethics as in politics, Confucius called for leadership by example. He demanded that rulers foster the good behavior of their citizens not by harsh laws and punishments but by moral example. This of course, was hard for many rulers (and most politicians) and is probably the reason why his philosophy was not adopted when he was alive. ‘Do what I do,’ is seldom popular in politics that, in reality, practiced,  ‘do what I say and not what I do.’

As an educator on the other hand, Confucius educated each student to his own abilities. His goal was to train the younger generations into individuals that can work for the benefit of the society as a whole. He believed that the root of any society is the individual. In order to manage society as a whole, he believed that we must nourish and cultivate the individual roots. Also, Confucius insisted on continuous learning. An individual must always be ready to learn in order for his self-advancement. It is probably from the teachings of Confucius that the Chinese has a proverb stating, ‘preserve the old, but know the new.’

As the second millennium has passed by, we see that Confucianism still holds a very firm grip in the minds of the people of the Far East. He was the great compiler and synthesizer of the basic philosophies of the Chinese people. And even to his very day, his ethical system is practiced in much of China, Japan and Korea.

Philosophy of Education

The philosophy of education for Confucius has a simple purpose. It is mainly focused on continuous learning to produce knowledgeable individuals for the benefit of the entire society. He wanted his disciples to be “well-rounded men”, polymaths of some sort, who would be useful to the state and to the society (Legge, 1893). To this effect, he taught his disciples various branches of knowledge and the classics.

The start of the Great Learning Confucian text (not written by Confucius himself), as below, outlines this convergence of his philosophy of education, ethics and politics:

“Things have their roots and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning.[1]

Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families.

Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.

Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.

Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.

Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge.

Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.

Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts sincere.

Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified.

Their hearts being rectified, their persons cultivated.

Their persons being cultivated, their families regulated.

Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed.

Their States being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything.[2]

It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.

It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for,

And, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for.[3]

As for his method of teaching, Confucius believed in educating an individual when they are young.

In the Analects, Confucius was noted for saying:

“At fifteen I set my heart on learning.

At thirty I could practice proper conduct.

At forty I had no doubts.

At fifty I knew the Will of Heaven.

At sixty I was already obedient to the Will of Heaven.

At seventy, I could follow the desires of my mind without overstepping the boundaries of what is right.[4]

Confucius is also one of the first few educators to publicly advocate continuous learning and critical thinking in an individual during his time.

Three of the quotes below from the Analects reinforce his position that an individual should always seek to learn and be critical of what he has learnt.

“Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?[5]

“Learn as if you could not reach your object, and always fear that you would lose what you have learnt.[6]

“To learn without thinking is labor lost; to think without learning is perilous![7]

As with his philosophy in politics whereby rulers should lead by moral example, Confucius also believed that teachers should first correct their own mistakes before correcting the mistakes of others.

In the Analects, Confucius is quoted to state:

“If he cannot rectify himself, what has he to do with rectifying others?[8]

Confucius also had a practical side to learning. The quote below advocates students to be honest and frank about the things that they know and do not know:

“Shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to hold that you do not know it; that is knowledge.[9]

Moral Philosophy

The convergence of Confucius’s philosophy of education, ethics and politics is seen yet again through the quote from the Analects below:

“Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men. Those who learn, and so, readily, get possession of knowledge are the next.  Those who are dull and stupid, and yet compass the learning, are another class next to these. As those who are dull and stupid and yet to not learn; they are the lowest of the people.[10]

Confucius like Socrates believed that knowledge is virtue. We cannot live a good life if we do not know what a good life is. Hence, learning is the ultimate virtue.

Learning itself, however, is insufficient. Confucius also advocated filial piety and respect for elders. ‘A superior man,’ according to Confucius, is described as below:

“A superior man as a youth, when at home, should be filial, and, abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful. He should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good. When he has time and opportunity, after the performance of these things, he should employ them in polite studies.[11] The superior man, extensively studying all learning, and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of proprietary, may likewise not overstep what is right.[12]

“The superior man comprehends righteousness; the small man comprehends profit.[13]

“The superior man thinks of virtue; the small man thinks of comfort.”

“The superior man thinks of the sanctions of law; the small man thinks of favors that he may receive.[14]

“The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.[15]

“The superior man is full of human-heartedness that consists of loving others.[16]

He is a man who desiring to sustain himself, sustains others, and desiring to develop himself, develop others.[17]

“The superior man takes his stand in proper conduct.[18] For he knows that not to know proper conduct is to have no means of standing.[19]

“His will is set on the path of duty. His every attainment in what is good is firmly grasped.[20]

Confucius preached a hierarchical social creed: the fundamental duty was to “Know thy place (Kissinger, 2012).” Good manners and etiquette are necessary and essential in the philosophy of Confucius. The goal is to properly conduct oneself in society. Duty is above freedom. Obligations is above individual rights and freewill.

In the quote below, Confucius advocates the Golden Rule:

“He does not do to others what he does not wish for himself.[21]

At its core, Confucian ethics preaches three principle: Jen – humanity, goodness and benevolence; Li – rites, rituals, etiquette and proprietary; and Yi – rightness, duty and fittingness.

Political Philosophy

Confucius believed that rulers should set a good example of right behavior. Laws and punishment are secondary measures. Governments should serve their people and rule by moral example.

The quotes below reflect what Confucius believe to be the principles of good governments:

“Guide the people by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay our of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves.[22] The superior man will show leadership by example. We will never refuse instruction to anyone.[23] He will not be concerned at men not knowing him, but he will be concerned at his own want of ability![24]

“The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler.[25]

“A great leader would encourage his subjects to first prosper and then learn all kinds of knowledge to build a supreme state free from fear. But alas, a good leader is often lacking, a superior man is hard to hone. So many leaders has brought so many civilizations to destruction. These leaders have many vices, including being too cruel, ambitious, vain or lustful to the common citizen. Affairs may be ruined by a single sentence; a kingdom may be settled by its One man.[26]

Religious Philosophy

One thing that sets Confucius apart from other systems of ethics is that his system is based solely on reasoning. According to Historian Hendrik van Loon, ‘Confucius is almost the only one among the great moral leaders who did not see visions, who did not proclaim himself as the messenger of a divine power; who did not, at some time or another, claim that he was inspired by voices from above (Loon, 2000).’

Confucianism is at its heart a secular philosophy. Confucius himself refused to discuss about the afterlife and avoided metaphysical speculation as shown in the quotes below:

“While you do not know life,

How can you know about death?[27]

While you are not able to serve men,

How can be you serve spirits?[28]

“Wisdom is to give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men,

And, while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them.[29]

For Confucius, his major interest was in politics and ethics. This set China apart from rest of other ancient civilizations. J.M. Roberts stated that, ‘unlike the ethical sages of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, those of China tended always to turn to the here and now, to pragmatic and secular questions, rather than to theology and metaphysics (Roberts, 2007).’

According to Bertrand Russell, ‘his system, as developed by his followers, is one of pure ethics, without religious dogma; it has not given rise to a powerful priesthood, and it has not led to persecution (Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, 2009).’

But to say that Confucius did not believe in God or Heaven or a Creator would be inaccurate. In the Analects, Confucius stated, ‘but here I declare that if my principles are to prevail in the world, it is the Will of Heaven (Ming). If they are to fall to the ground, it is also the Will of Heaven (Ming).[30] The world is at it is, decreed by the Will of Heaven and there is none that can change it. He who does not know the Will of Heaven cannot be a superior man.[31]

Like many Chinese, Confucius probably believed in a Creator-like God that is very unlike the concept of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Confucius believed in a preordained destiny that the ‘heavens’ have decreed. This ‘heaven’ is a God that has no human resemblance and cannot be understood by mortals.


With the rise of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC, Confucianism fell into its darkest abyss. Emperor Qin Shih Huang Ti was determined to eradicate Confucianism in favor of Legalism (that supported harsh laws and punishment to regulate human conduct). He ordered the execution of many Confucian scholars (some were reported buried alive) and the burning of Confucian books.

However, even the mass destruction of Confucian text and scholars did not complete wipe Confucianism from China. During the Han dynasty, about 300 years after the death of Confucius, there was a great revival in his philosophy and Confucianism was finally established as the state philosophy. Confucian scholarship was to shape the education of the Chinese civil service until the abolition of the examination system only a few years before the collapse of Imperial China in 1912 (Cooper & Fosl, 2010).

What is really astonishing is how the system of beliefs that Confucius founded (and compiled) has permeated in the Chinese for so well over two thousand years. According to van Loon, ‘when Christ was born in Bethlehem, the philosophy of Confucius had already become a part of the mental make-up of most Chinamen (Loon, 2000).’ Perhaps the ease of adopting his philosophy lies in the fact that he was not asking for change but rather he reinstated the basic traditional beliefs of the Chinese.

The philosophy of Confucius is that of tolerance and continuous learning. One of his major contributions is that he grounded his ethical system is reason and common sense. By placing these two elements as the fundamentals of his system, Confucianism fostered a society that followed his form of ethics regardless of what religion they might practice. The staying power of Confucianism can be seen in history when subsequent Chinese philosophers (see Mencius (fourth century BC), Hsun Tzu (third century BC), and Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) reinterpreted his teachings rather than replacing them.

The two passages below from Bertrand Russell illustrates the society that he found in China that owe much of their current mindset and culture to Confucianism:

“When I went to China, I went to teach; but every day I stayed I thought less of what I had to teach them and more of what I had to learn from them. Among Europeans who had lived a long time in China, I found this attitude not uncommon; but among those whose stay is short, or who go only to make money, it is sadly rare. It is rare because the Chinese do not excel in the things we really value – military prowess and industrial enterprise. But those who value wisdom or beauty, or even the simple enjoyment of life, will find more of these things in China than in the distracted and turbulent West, and will be happy to live where such things are valued.  Wish I could hope that China, in return for our scientific knowledge, may give us something of her large tolerance and contemplative peace of mind (Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, 2009).”

“I have come to realize that the white race isn’t as important as I used to think it was. If Europe and America kill themselves off in war it will not necessarily mean the destruction of the human species, nor even to an end to civilization. There will still be a considerable number of Chinese left; and in many ways China is the greatest country I have ever seen. It is not only the greatest numerically and the greatest culturally, but it seems to me the greatest intellectually. I know of no other civilization where there is such open-mindedness, such realism, such willingness to face the facts as they are, instead of trying to distort them into a particular pattern (Durant, 2005).”

In the West, focus on human rights and science has brought unparallel technological progress and higher standards of living. But Confucianism reminds us that having the rights to do something doesn’t mean that an individual should do it. Obligation and duty should be above individual rights. In the West, science has destroyed some of the previous authority enjoyed by the Church. But without the Church, the ethical system in the West crumbles. No one ethical philosopher in the West has achieved the place of Confucius in the hearts of the Chinese. I believe that we should ground our ethics in reason rather than just religion. We should cultivate a tolerant society instead of an oppressive one. Nobody should be burnt on the stake for his religiously practices and beliefs.

As an endnote, I believe that the West has a lot to learn from the teachings of Confucius and the Chinese has a lot to relearn from his teachings.

Key Works

The Five Classics
The Five Classics make up the core texts of the Confucian canon of scriptures. They are regarded as products of ancient origin that were edited by Confucius.
I Ching or Yi Jing(The Book of Changes) A manual for divination. The I Ching is one of the oldest classics of the Chinese civilization. Some philosophical portions have been ascribed to Confucius.
Shi Jing (The Book of Odes) An anthology of over 300 poems of popular and courtly origin. It was much used by Confucius as a record of the “better society” which had existed three centuries or more before his own day.
Shu Jing(Book of History) A collection of historical documents attributed to legendary and early rulers.
Li Ji (Record of Rites) Consists of a large number of Confucian writings relating to ritual and rites.
Chun Qiu(Spring and Autumn Annals) A chronicle of Confucius’s home state of Lu. It is supposedly to have been edited by Confucius himself to illustrate his philosophy of history.

(Clarke, 1993)


The Four Books
During the late period of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) there were signs that Confucians were concentrating on the Four Books as the core text of Confucian thought.
Lun Yu(Analects) Consists of the scattered sayings of Confucius compiled by his disciples. It was treated as important from the start of the Confucian school that begins after the death of Confucius.
Mengzi(Mencius) Consists of the collected sayings of Mencius (c.371 – c.289 BC). He was the greatest advocate of Confucianism after Confucius himself.
Daxue(The Great Learning) Ascribed to the disciple Zeng Shen, it was part of the Li Ji collection on rituals. It outlined how individual spiritual development can help the society.
Zhong Yong(Doctrine of the Mean) Ascribed to the grandson of Confucius. This book is also part of the Li Ji. It deals with human nature and how it relates to the moral order of the universe.

(Clarke, 1993)

Works Cited

Clarke, P. B. (Ed.). (1993). The World’s Religions: Understanding the Living Faiths. United States of America: Marshall Editions Developments Limited .

Cooper, D. E., & Fosl, P. S. (Eds.). (2010). Philosophy: The Classic Reading (1st Edition ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.

Durant, W. (2005). The Story of Philosophy. New York, United States of America: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Honderich, T. (Ed.). (2005). The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

Keay, J. (2009). China. London, Great Britain: HarperCollinsPublishers.

Kissinger, H. (2012). On China. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd.

Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean. (1893). (J. Legge, Trans.) New York, United States of America: Dovers Publications, Inc.

Loon, H. W. (2000). The Story of Mankind. New York, Unites States of America: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Roberts, J. M. (2007). The New Penguin History of the World (5th Edition ed.). London, England: Penguin Books Ltd.

Russell, B. (2009). The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. (R. E. Egner, & L. E. Denonn, Eds.) London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Yu-Lan, F. (1976). A Short History Of Chinese Philosophy. (D. Bodde, Ed.) New York, United States of America: The Free Press.

[1] The Great Learning, Verse 3.

[2] The Great Learning, Verse 4-6.

[3] The Great Learning, Verse 7.

[4] Analects Book II, Chapter 4.

[5] Analects Book I, Chapter 1.

[6] Analects Book VIII, Chapter XVII.

[7] Analects Book II, Chapter XV.

[8] Analects Book XIII, Chapter XIII.

[9] Analects Book II, Chapter XVII.

[10] Analects Book XVI, Chapter IX.

[11] Analects Book I, Chapter VI.

[12] Analects Book VI, Chapter XXV.

[13] Analects, Book IV, Chapter 16.

[14] Analects Book IV, Chapter XI.

[15] Analects Book XIV, Chapter XXIX.

[16] Analects Book XII, Chapter 22.

[17] Analects Book VI, Chapter 28.

[18] Analects Book VIII, Chapter 8.

[19] Analects Book XX, Chapter 3.

[20] Analects Book VII, Chapter VIII.

[21] Analects Book XII, Chapter 2.

[22] Analects, Book II, Chapter 3.

[23] Analects Book VII, Chapter VII.

[24] Analects, Book XIV, Chapter XXXII.

[25] Analects, Book XII, Chapter VII.

[26] The Great Learning, Chapter IX, Verse 3.

[27] Analects Book XI, Chapter XI.

[28] Analects Book XI, Chapter XI.

[29] Analects Book VI, Chapter XX.

[30] Analects, Book XIV, Chapter 38.

[31] Analects, Book XX, Chapter 2.

6 Responses to “Confucius (c. 551 BC – c. 479 BC) The Great Philosopher, The Political Failure and What We Can Learn From Him”
  1. Wow, that IS a lot of information . Wonderful! :)

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  1. […] Confucius (traditionally 551–479 BCE) […]

  2. […] of such a figure in Chinese history is clouded but many believe him to be the older contemporary of Confucius. The Great Historian Sima Qian did write of such a figure in his monumental work called the […]

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