Confucian Moral Theory and Practice

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Confucian Moral Theory and Practice

While Western states used to have dominant religions, Asian countries did not choose one God to worship; they favored ethical or moral teachings. One of such teachings is Confucianism. Despite taking its Western name from Chinese sage-man Confucius, Confucianism was not founded by this person. The teaching had originated long before Confucius was born, and he structured and developed the tradition. A Chinese name of this teaching sounds ru and it generally means “the doctrine of scholars” (Yao 17). In China, statesmen and scholars practiced ru and it came to denote the followers of Confucianism. Confucius was born when the Zhou Dynasty experienced a period of decline. He came to believe that the government system of feudalism that had functioned well before went wrong because higher-ups stopped following the rules, i.e. they forsook rituals and traditions. Confucius spent his life trying to amend habits of people in following rituals. According to him, it should be started with the government. Showing a positive example, the rulers could lead people and help them to mend their ways. Therefore, the process of improvement could begin only from the top. The ruler leads the way, his ministers set the example for the officials, and they are emulated by common people. Parents serve as role models for their children, and husbands for their wives. Hierarchy is observed and moral virtues are established and propagated (Yao 22). Although Confucianism can regard personal development, in terms of the state the teaching of Confucius is used to govern and rule in the best efficient manner.

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According to Confucius, ancient rites should be followed. The goal is to cultivate moral virtues in oneself. The power of moral virtues observed in the ruler and officials had the ability to transform ordinary people and give them strength to improve themselves and cultivate these virtues in themselves. In contrast, punishments and other coercive methods have a temporal effect and do not intrinsically change people. Through performing rituals moral virtues are getting stronger. Also, music helps to remember and ponder about virtues. Despite following all necessary religious rituals, Confucius placed emphasis on his secular teaching. Basically, he developed the ancient rites into a harmonious humanistic system. The central tenets of his ethical system were “that goodness can be taught and learned, and that society can only be in harmony and at peace under the guidance of wisdom” (Yao 26). Furthermore, Confucius singled out the Dao and a necessity to follow rituals and cultivate humanness in oneself as the most important.

The Confucian teaching says that the world is sustained by the mutual influence of the three forces such as Heaven, earth and people. The Way of Heaven, or Dao, is expressed through the concept of yang and yin. Asian people tend to seek harmony rather than confrontation. Therefore, the concepts opposite for a Western person, such as light and dark, active and passive, cold and warm, etc. are complimentary in the Eastern philosophy. In the symbol of the yang and yin, white and black forms complement each other. Meanwhile, the Way of People is to try to be virtuous and righteous (Yao 139).

A combination of the Dao, the Way of People and harmony assures a righteous life. These three ways are inseparable from each other and all three are needed for an individual. Dao is a principle of the universe and of a human life. It is difficult to explain, however, it can be observed in lives of righteous people and in wisdom of wise people. The chief principle of the Way of People is a union between Heaven and people. The Way of Heaven and the Way of People are interdependent and cannot exist separately (Yao 140). However, they are supplemented with a search for harmony. Harmony should be on all the levels of the society. Confucius did not offer to eliminate classes or unite religions. Quite the opposite, he insisted that the world order should be left as it was and the conflicting interests should be reconciled. Thus, the Way of Harmony demands “reconciliation and optimization of potential opposites” such as generations, ethnicities, classes, religions, and creation of balance and equilibrium (Magagna 9).

Following the Dao results in two types of rewards, these are spiritual and human. Obviously, spiritual rewards are primary and, first of all, people should strive to get them. They include various virtues such as “humaneness, righteousness, sincerity” (Yao 148). Meanwhile, secondary rewards are given by people and they include respect in the society, titles and positions. If people neglect this prescription and strive to get people’s recognition, the reward of Heaven is withheld from them. Additionally, Dao is believed to be many things. In particular, it is the moral principle as well as innate human nature. In An Introduction to Confucianism, Xinzhong Yao gives a quote where the Way of Heaven is called “destiny,” “principle,” “nature,” and “mind” claiming that “they are all one” (149).

As it has already been said, the Way of Heaven leads to the Way of People, which means that an individual should strive to lead a righteous life. It can happen under the influence of other, more refined people, or it can be a result of self-cultivation (Yao 154). Thus, education and self-cultivation are major cornerstones of this aspect of Confucianism but self-cultivation is more important. An individual’s ability to transform and develop depends, first of all, not on what books they read or what teachers teach them but on their desire to cultivate themselves. Confucians place greater importance on an individual’s inner desire to change. It is more important than environment and outer causes. Thus, responsibility for one’s own future is cultivated (Yao 156).

Self-cultivation breeds power that can be proliferated to other people. Therefore, it is equally necessary for both, the ruler and the commoner. Referring to rulers, self-cultivation and moral virtue, as its result, created a kind of charisma, de, in a ruler. According to Confucius, if a ruler carries out rituals and his duties and seeks to exercise his virtues, he will be successful virtues and people, being charmed by the power of his virtuous personality, will obey him without additional pressure. Thus, by performing rituals people affect not only their spirituality and eternity but their everyday life as well. It makes the observances of rules and rites a moral quality and, thus, an inner necessity (Yao 156). As for common people, Confucius made virtue a quality necessary not only for the ruler, but for everyone. All people are born uneducated and uncivil. Therefore, growing up everyone needs to refine oneself. It is considered a responsibility of an individual. A person should strengthen oneself against seductions and pleasures of the physical world (Yao 156). On the whole, self-cultivation is crucial for self-realization and includes both, the developing of mind and body. Body is strengthened through kung fu, while mind requires practicing virtues, personal responsibility, and “proper ordering of the self for leadership and self-fulfillment” (Magagna).

In contrast to the Western ethical and spiritual practices, Confucianism does not place an emphasis on the afterlife. Rather, the teaching of Confucius deals with the issues of this world and attempts to fit an individual in it. Instead of thinking of salvation, the Confucian thought thinks of “how to become good” (Yao 157). Being confident that people are equipped with all the necessary to ‘become good,’ Confucius did not consider human nature essentially corrupt. It is weak but at the same time it has recourses to transform itself. By observing both the outer world, nature, and the inner world, self, an individual is able to mend one’s ways. However, meditation alone is not enough; it is only a part of the process. Besides meditation, people need good education, they are required to know classics, participate in social and political life, and live properly in one’s daily life. Another difference from the Western understanding of spiritual growth is that “there is no call for an escape from the world, nor to seek an extraordinary style of life” (Yao 158). Confucius believed that human nature is good and that attention should be paid to people’s daily life. On this basis, everyone could gradually reform themselves.

Despite personal responsibility for self-cultivation and personal growth, the government should do something in this direction as well. A good government is able to reduce the amount of evil in the country and help its subjects to practice virtue and cultivate good. Thus, government is one of the Ways of People, together with rituals, respect and love to others. According to Confucianism, the ruler and the government are able to rule due to the Mandate of Heaven which is revoked if they do not follow the virtuous path. The more a person taking an official office performs rituals and exercises virtues, the stronger his/her Mandate of Heaven will be. No succession or other human tricks can grant an individual the Mandate of Heaven; it is earned only by the righteous life (Yao 165).

The representatives of all successful dynasties were virtuous people. For example, Confucius highly estimated Yao, Shun, Yu and King Wen because they were righteous and virtuous rulers. Thanks to his virtues, King Wen assured the Mandate of Heaven not only for himself but for his successors as well. However, the next rulers have to sustain the Mandate of Heaven with their own virtues; otherwise, it is revoked. The King of Shang did not fulfill his obligations properly, inflicted hardships on his subjects, and did not help the poor as much as he should have. Thus, his Mandate of Heaven stopped working and the country got immersed into chaos (Yao 167).

In this way, the power of kings is not absolute because their role is to serve people. Heaven is an absolute and it empowers kings to rule people. Emulating the perfect love to people after Heaven, the ruler has to take care of his subjects. If a ruler uses not his virtues but threats and punishments, his rule is considered weak. Inflicting deaths on his subjects, like in totalitarian regimes, is believed to be “a failure of the ruler himself” (Yao 168). Confucius opposed to killing people even in case people did wrong. According to Confucius’ logic, people emulate the ruler, so if the ruler leads a righteous life, his subjects will do the same. As a result, a virtuous ruler will eliminate hunger and injustice, establish good administrative and educational systems, and rank according to merits.

When the state, or the ruler, face a problem, the principle of harmony should be applied. Confucius did not regard harmony as a rigid principle; rather a harmonious approach is a kind of compromise. In case of a conflict, “constant changes and reconciliation of conflict” should occur (Yao 178). At that, Confucius considered conflicts a common ingredient of harmony. Inasmuch as the world is composed of opposing categories such as light and darkness, male and female, left and right, etc., conflicts are inevitable, but tension can be overcome when the situation reaches a conflict stage. Thus, conflicts are necessary for harmony. It is an eternal cycle: opposition – tension – conflict – harmony (Yao 178). To this effect, conflicts and tensions are not avoided but confronted and overcome.

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Harmony should be present on all levels of human society. The first level is personal; an individual should live in peace with oneself, strive for self-cultivation and peacefully reside with others. The second level is familial; an individual should fulfill one’s filial obligations and take care of their family members. Finally, the third level is social and government is in charge of it; the government should prevent conflicts and provide good conditions for people. There are constantly conflicts between the self and the social however, as people are social beings, they have inner reserves to learn how to accommodate these two parts of people’s life. Through self-cultivation comes the understanding that egotism should be overcome. First, people try these concepts in their families and then they are ready to apply it in the society.

Teaching that people should stay close to Heaven and Dao, Confucius nevertheless did not reject human nature and did believe it is intricately corrupt. Unlike Western religions, Confucianism considered people to be good and able to achieve their self-actualization through proper education and self-cultivation. These concepts apply to all levels of the society such as individual, familial and social. A large responsibility is also on the ruler and the government. They should create positive environment for people to cultivate virtues and should take good care of people. Besides, they should set a positive example. The more righteous the ruler, the better are his people and his country.