28 September 2017


Confucius would be 2,568 years old today. May the Great Sage and Uncrowned King be remembered forever!

Confucian philosophy is every bit as important in East and Southeast Asia, as Platonic philosophy is in the West. And the two men shared many similar ideas, despite their standing at the wellsprings of two very different civilisations.

It is important to understand the importance of maintaining healthy and loving relationships with the people around us. Before we are even complete human beings, we are first sons and daughters: our parents’ love for us shapes us into healthy human beings, and therefore we ought to reciprocate that love. The family is the crucible of virtue. Only within the family can we learn those competencies which carry into the broader society and hold it up. That is not to say that society should not have norms of its own, nor is this reason to lapse into a kind of reductive individualism. It is only by our relationships that we are made humane.

It is important to understand that poverty and inequality are evils to be fought. Confucius and his students all uniformly criticised rulers, laws and states that allowed their people to starve. The very best scholars in the tradition of Confucius and Mencius went to bat to combat such abuses of the people: righteous people like Dong Zhongshu, Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, Wang Anshi and Gong Zizhen.

It is important to understand that rituals matter. Our personalities are developed by our habits of thought and action. Only in our observances of ritual are we able to show truly what we value and what we devalue; what we honour and what we dishonour. For this reason Confucius spoke of ritual as a foundation of education.

It is important to understand that we are not the first people to live on this earth, nor will we be the last. The multigenerational ethics of care promoted by Confucius concern primarily people, but they do not end with people. The wisdom of Confucius follows heaven and earth in charting out a way for man; it therefore follows that following Confucius means respecting the ways of heaven and earth.

It is important to understand that the ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are incomplete, and that China must be encouraged to struggle forward on another path. It is important to be honest and sincere in that pursuit, and not to use the Classics as an excuse to smuggle ideological agendas into China’s civic conversation.

The lessons of Confucian philosophy are as important now as they have ever been.

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