Confucius, Selections from the
To many of us, the words "Confucius say" are the preamble to a witticism, but to billions of Chinese people over thousands of years
the sayings of the master have been words of highest wisdom, to be received with respect, if not with reverence. As a result, Confucius
has molded the Chinese mind and character in a manner and to an extent that has hardly been equaled by any other single figure in the
history of a major civilization.
Although it is difficult to summarize briefly the teachings of Confucius, certain of their basic features are apparent. He was an
optimistic moralist; believing people to be fundamentally good, he thought that with proper education and leadership they could
realize their potential and achieve the form of life which he described as that of "the superior man." A social order composed of such
individuals, including particularly its political leaders, would constitute the ideal society. Although he also believed that such a society
is in harmony with the will of heaven, Confucius, unlike many early social philosophers, did not found his ideal society on principles
derived from theology. On the contrary, he is well described as a humanist.
Many of the details of the moral and social ideals of Confucius appear in his
or "Collection" (of sayings). This collection,
which is rambling, ill-arranged, and repetitious, contains twenty "Books," which include the master's sayings, descriptions of
contemporary Chinese society, excursions into past history, and stories about various political leaders.
Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was bom of a poor family that apparently had ancestors of substance. Early in life he decided to become
a scholar and teacher. He soon gathered a group of disciples about him, and, because he believed that society could be reformed only
if those who were properly educated held the reins of government, he sought public office and encouraged his students to do so as
well. During his career he held a number of government posts, some of consequence. But practical politicians were suspicious of his
lofty ideals and he was finally dismissed. He spent the twilight of his career wandering about China while still teaching.
Near the end of his life he wrote the following succinct autobiography: "At fifteen, I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I was firmly
established. At forty, I had no more doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, I was ready to listen to it. At seventy, I
could follow my heart's desire without transgressing what was right."
The moral teachings of the Analects, which Confucius did not actually originate but which he edited and molded to reflect his own
ideals, were gathered together, mainly after his death, by his admirers. The selection that follows includes some of his central sayings.
These have been rearranged to give them greater coherency, and the topic headings have been added.