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Chinese Painting of Kongfu-zi, the Ming Dynasty

Kong Fu-zi [Confucius; Kong Fu zi] (c. 551 B. C. E. - 479 B.C.E.)

K’ung Fu-tzu was a true humanist, said Lin Yutang. (His name was Latinized by missionaries and has since been spelled Kongfu-zi, using the simpler Pinyin system of transliteration).

Lin had these observations:

  • For the Chinese the end of life lies not in life after death - for the idea that we live in order to die, as taught by Christianity, is incomprehensible; nor in Nirvana, for that is too metaphysical; nor yet in the satisfaction of accomplishment, for that is too vainglorious; nor yet in progress for progress’s sake, for that is meaningless. The true end, the Chinese have decided in a singularly clear manner, lies in the enjoyment of a simple life, especially the family life, and in harmonious social relationships. . . . There is no doubt that the Chinese are in love with life, in love with this earth, and will not forsake it for an invisible heaven. They are in love with life, which is so sad and yet so beautiful, and in which moments of happiness are so precious because they are so transient.

Kongfu-zi married at the age of nineteen, had one son, but after an unhappy marriage divorced his wife. A private school he commenced became so popular it is said to have had three thousand pupils. Teaching history, poetry, literature, the proprieties, music, natural science, and government, he avoided all references to the supernatural as well as deprecated feats of physical strength, according to Robert Ballou.

At the age of fifty-five, after having had a successful government position, he wandered from state to state with a group of pupils, spreading the principles which have given him worldwide immortality. Basically, he viewed the sociocultural context, rather than the supernatural, as the source and shaper of cultural change.

It is not clear whether or not he ever met Lao-zi, the older philosopher who also was not a religious supernaturalist.

He is remembered for having rescued ancient Chinese classics from threatened oblivion, collecting and editing works such as the following: the Wu Ching, or Canon of History; the Shu Ching, or Canon of Poetry; the I Ching, or Canon of Changes - a mystical system of divination; the Li Chi, or Book of Rites; the Ch’un Ch’iu, or Spring and Autumn Annals - a local history which he himself wrote; and the Shih Ching, a book of odes. These constitute the six canonical classics of Confucianism. The Shi Shu of four books embody his major teachings, and his analects are found in Lun Yü (Collected Sayings: Analects).

A 1997 translation, Analects of Confucius, is by Simon Leys. Unlike the Christ and the Buddha, Kongfu-zi did not attempt to originate nor reform a religion. Instead, he organized the one that had existed in the land of his birth from time immemorial, giving form to its books, dignity to its formalities, and emphasis to its moral precepts. His way of life was one of formalism, of the proprieties, of a lack of extremes in all things. Human behavior, not theology, was his chief interest.

Asked about God, he would reply, “I prefer not speaking.” (Shang-Ti, which means God, is a term Ballou documents that K’ung Fu-tzu used but once, preferring a more general and impersonal word Tien, meaning Heaven or the intangible order of goodness which rules the universe.) Many of the sayings of Kongfu-zi are humanistic; for example:

• It is not truth that makes man great, but man that makes truth great.
• While you cannot serve men, how can you serve spirits? While you do not know life, what can you know about death?
• To give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men, and while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, that may be called wisdom.
• If I do not associate with mankind, with whom shall I associate?
• By nature men are nearly alike.
• If we cannot serve man, how can we serve spirits?

Recently, American reference materials are becoming less Eurocentric and are incorporating international outlooks for balance; however, one goal of secular humanists has been to provide an objective humanities approach which includes all continents of mankind and which relegates national chauvinism to the past. Margaret Knight’s Humanist Anthology: From Confucius to Bertrand Russell is an initial example.

Russell, however, in The Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell (1927) wrote,

  • I must confess that I am unable to appreciate the merits of Confucius. His writings are largely occupied with trivial points of etiquette, and his main concern is to teach people how to behave correctly on various occasions. . . . 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 has not led to persecution.”

Confucianism, in short, is unique in the history of the survival of an ethic without religion.

{CE; CL; ER; Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada, Autumn 1997; JMR; JMRH; New Humanist, October 1998}