Happy Birthday, Confucius!


In honor of Confucius’ birthday on September 28th, 551 BCE*, I’m republishing a piece originally published here last year by one-time regular contributor Eric Gerlach. Following his interesting piece, you’ll find a list of great online sources and articles for learning about this seemingly timeless sage: so many of his words of wisdom seem as pertinent today as in his own time.

Confucianism & Daoism: The Basics, by Eric Gerlach

The following is a lecture I composed for teaching Confucianism and Daoism to my sister’s 6th grade History class at Star of the Sea School in San Francisco.

Confucius and Laozi, the philosophers who founded Confucianism and Daoism, lived just before the Warring States Period of ancient China (476 – 221 BCE), a time of war, tragedy and interest in philosophy.  Unfortunately, people’s lives are full of problems, but fortunately problems make people think about their lives, question the answers of authorities and experts, and reason beyond their understandings.


Each of us, as individuals, should use both belief and doubt to become better, wiser people, but how should we go about doing this?  Confucianism and Daoism, the two great philosophies of ancient China, gave people opposing ways to gain wisdom.  Many in ancient and modern times used both to compliment and extend each other.

The Confucians say we should build ourselves up to be educated, compassionate and civilized, while the Daoists say we should clear ourselves out to become open-minded, patient and peaceful.  The Confucians say we should learn from others, reason for ourselves, and do what we know to be right.  The Daoists say we should seek less for ourselves and gain perspective beyond our own interests, reasons and actions.

Confucius, the Golden Rule & Learning from Everyone

Confucius Latin

When Catholic Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the 1600s, they were astounded to find that Confucius, the most influential and central Chinese philosopher, was incredibly similar to Jesus in his sayings and teachings.  First and foremost, like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and other revered teachers, Confucius taught what has been called the Golden Rule: Do for others what you would want them to do for you, and do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.  Confucius said that this was the single thing that should guide one’s life, and that compassion is the central thread running throughout his thinking.


Confucius’ student Zigong once told his teacher, “I do not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me.”  Confucius replied, “You have not come that far yet”, probably because none of us want others to simply tell us that they are amazing. Another time, Confucius heard Zigong criticizing other people, and said, “Zigong must have already reached perfection, which affords him leisure I do not possess.”  Confucius is being sarcastic, as he often said that no one is perfect, but anyone can be excellent by continuously working to become better.


Not only can anyone be excellent, but we can each learn from anyone about how to be better ourselves.  Confucius taught that when we see great people, we should seek to be like them, but when we see horrible people, we should seek how we are like them by examining ourselves.  Confucius said, “Put me with any two people at random and they will always have something to teach me, as I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning.  Clearly, Confucius believed that we all share the same set of strengths and faults, no matter how talented (or horrible) we happen to individually be or where our talents are.


Because no one is perfect and everyone can learn from anyone, there is no one who is above criticism, not even the prince of the state.  When asked by a duke if there is a single thing that could ruin a country, Confucius said that if the prince is never told when he is in error or contradicted, it could be the ruin of everyone.  About himself, Confucius said, “I am fortunate indeed… Whenever I make a mistake, there is always someone who notices it.”



Daoism, Perspective & Less is More

The legendary Daoist sages Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi taught that human perspectives are limited, and we should always keep this in mind.  Because we only have partial perspectives, we should keep in mind that others have their own perspectives which may not be the same as ours.  In one famous story, a turtle comes across a frog living in a well, and tells the frog about the sea, water that goes beyond the horizon with no walls in sight.  The frog refuses to believe the turtle, arguing that he has lived in water all his life and knows perfectly well that it comes in wells that are only so wide and have walls.  In Zhuangzi’s book, it says:


You can’t discuss the ocean with well frogs.  They’re limited by the space they live in.  You can’t discuss ice with summer insects.  They’re bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the greater way of things with cramped scholars.  They’re shackled by their doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, and so you realize how small you are.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the greater way of things.

japanese monkey painting

If someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and they ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp?  If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey?  Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live?  We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice.  Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste?  Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish.  Men claim that Mao-Qiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run.  Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?


Daoists also teach the idea of wu-wei, or non-action.  This does not mean that one should not act at all, but that often doing less is doing more.  Being patient and paying attention can save us from doing too much or having to do things over again.  In a Japanese story that illustrates this well, a local lord has three sons and must decide who should inherit his position.  He tests them by placing a pillow on the door to his room and calling them one at a time.  The eldest son enters and annihilates the pillow in a frenzy of skilled sword strikes.  The middle son draws his sword but sees the pillow in mid-air and catches it.  The youngest son sees the pillow on the door, tucks it under his arm and enters the room to the joy of his father.  The youngest son was paying attention, and so he did not even need to pull out his sword.


There are many passages In the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, the two central texts of Daoism, that similarly teach that wanting too much and trying too hard is the wrong way to be:

Sages do not boast, and are thus admired by everyone, do not want to shine, and thus will be enlightened, do not seek excellence, and are thus excellent, and because they do not argue, no one can argue with them.


Those who know do not speak.  Those who speak do not know.

Whoever knows how to lead well is not warlike.  Whoever knows how to fight well is not angry.  Whoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them.  Whoever knows how to use others well keeps themselves low.

Those who divide fail to divide.  Those who judge are bad at judging.  What does this mean, you ask?  The sage embraces things.  Ordinary people judge between things and parade their judgements in front of others.  So I say, those who judge fail to see.


When you’re betting for cheap prizes in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.  When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim, and when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.  Your skill is the same in all three cases, but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind.  They who look too hard on the outside get clumsy on the inside.


Learn more about the great Confucius:

Confucius ~ by Jeffrey Riegel for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Confucius ~ by the editors for the Encyclopædia Britannica

Confucius (551—479 B.C.E.) ~ by Jeff Richey for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Why Is Confucius Still Relevant Today? His Sound Bites Hold Up ~ by Simon Worrall for the National Geographic, March 25, 2015

*By the way, it may seem rather amazing that we’d have an exact date for Confucius’ birthday. I’m just guessing that there might have been a cultural reason to assign this date to his birth later on. Here’s the source for that date: Confucius: A Guide for the Perplexed by Yong Huang, 2013, p. 3.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Philosophie Sans Frontières, by Graham Priest

Wood Bodhisattva, Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD), by Mountain at Shanghai Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0 US via Wikimedia Commons“East is East and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.”

Well, no. Kipling got it wrong.

The East and the West have been meeting for a long time. For most of the last few hundred years, the traffic has been mainly one way. The West has had a major impact on the East. India felt the full force of British imperialism with the British East India Company and the British Raj. Japan fell in love with German culture — especially military culture — after the Meiji restoration. The French colonization of Vietnam drew it inexorably into the Vietnam War.

In the last 40 years, however, a lot of the trade has been going the other way. The post-war developments in Japanese electronics and motorbikes came to dominate the West. Many global IT developments — not to mention call-centers — are now firmly based in India. And it is impossible for Westerners to miss all the garments now bearing the label “Made in China.”

Economy moves at the speed of money. Philosophy moves at the speed of ideas, which is somewhat slower. But the story is similar. In the last 150 years, Western philosophy has made a major impact on the East. The British Raj brought German Idealism — or at least the British take on it — to 19th and early 20th century Indian philosophy. The Japanese Kyoto school absorbed influences from Bergson, James, and — above all — Heidegger. And the influence of Marx on Chinese thinkers hardly needs emphasis.

The influence in the reverse direction is still nascent, but it is now gathering pace. As little as 30 years ago, there was hardly a course on an Eastern philosophical tradition in any Western philosophy department. In fact, it was common to hear Western philosophers claim that the Eastern traditions were merely religion, mysticism, or simply oracular pronouncements. That view was held by philosophers who had never taken the trouble to engage with any of the texts. Had they read them, with care, they would have realized that the philosophy behind them is clear, once one has learned to see beyond the cultural and stylistic differences.

Now, however, many good Western philosophy departments teach at least one course on some Eastern philosophical traditions (at least in the English-speaking world). Good translations of Asian texts are being made by Western philosophers with the appropriate linguistic skills (in the past, translation was firmly in the domain of philologists and scholars of religion). Articles which draw on Eastern ideas are starting to appear in Western philosophy journals. PhD theses are being written comparing Confucius and Aristotle, Buddhist ethics and Stoic ethics, Nyāya and contemporary metaphysical categories. Introductory text books are appearing.

There is still a long way to go until the institution of Western philosophy understands that it is just that — Western philosophy. But at least the movement is under way, though it will certainly take time to overcome the current marginalization of the other half.

What will happen to Western philosophy when full realization sets in? Of course, if we knew what philosophy was going to emerge, it would already have done so. And predictions in this area are worth little. However, I will venture a theory.

We are in the situation that arises when different cultures meet. This has happened before in philosophy. It happened when Greek philosophy met the ideas of the Jewish break-away sect based on the life and death of Yeshua Bar-Yosef. The result was the remarkable development of Christian philosophy. It happened when the ideas of Indian Buddhism came to infuse Chinese thought in the early years of the Common Era. The result was the remarkably distinctive forms of Chinese Buddhisms, such as Chan (Zen). It happened when the new scientific culture which developed in Europe around the Scientific Revolution impacted late Medieval Philosophy, to give us the wealth of Modern Philosophy. I predict that we will witness a similar progressive moment in the present context.

Why do these meetings of culture deliver such progress? It is hard to answer this question without talking about what progress in philosophy amounts to. I can only gesture at an answer here. Progress in philosophy is not like progress in science — whatever that is: as philosophers of science know, this is not an easy question either. One way to see this is to note that philosophers still read Plato, Augustine, Hume. No scientist, qua scientist, reads Newton, Darwin, or even Einstein. Nor is this because the philosophers are simply doing the history of philosophy. They read because the texts contain ideas from which one can still learn.

Cynics might say that what this shows is that there is no progress in philosophy. I demur. Progress in philosophy certainly arises when we become aware of new problems and new arguments. But old problems of importance rarely go away. Yet even here there is still progress in the depth of our understanding. We see new ways to articulate ideas, new aspects of problems, new possible solutions to them.

Now, there are at least two reasons why the impact of a new culture promotes such progress. First, it is a truism that the best way to understand your native tongue is to learn another; and the best way to understand your culture is to become familiar with a radically different one. The contrast throws into prominence things so obvious as to have been invisible. So it is in philosophy. And when these assumptions become visible, they can be scrutinized in the cold hard light of day, to expose any shortcomings.

Secondly, there is genuine innovation in philosophy, but it does not arise ex nihilo. Philosophers draw on their philosophical background for ideas, problems, solutions. The more they have to draw on, the greater the scope for creation and innovation. In the same way, when good Western chefs learn about Eastern cuisine (ingredients, preparations, dishes), they do not simply reproduce them — though of course they can do this, and they do. The most creative draw on the Eastern and Western traditions is to produce entirely new dishes. Call this “fusion cuisine” if you like, but the name is not a great one, since what emerges is not simply merging two cuisines, but creating genuinely novel fare. So it is with philosophy. An understanding of Eastern traditions, when added to an understanding of Western traditions will allow creative philosophers to come up with philosophical ideas, questions, problems, which we cannot, as yet, even imagine.

Over the last couple of decades, it has been my privilege — and that of a small band of other Western-trained philosophers — to help bring the Asian philosophical traditions to the awareness of Western philosophers. For all of us, I think it is true to say, our own philosophical thinking has been enriched by an understanding of Eastern philosophical traditions. If we can enrich the thinking of our Western philosophical colleagues in the same way, our time will have been well spent.

Graham Priest is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Boyce Gibson Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne. (Bio credit: OUPblog)

~ This piece was originally published at OUPblog

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