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Confucianism. Conscious Tradition. Sources. Asian Philosophies , 6 th Edition, John M. Koller (hereafter “Koller”) … Read all of Chapter 16 The World’s Religions , 50 th Anniversary Edition, Huston Smith (hereafter “Smith”) … Read the full chapter on Confucius

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Conscious Tradition


Asian Philosophies, 6th Edition, John M. Koller (hereafter “Koller”) … Read all of Chapter 16

The World’s Religions, 50th Anniversary Edition, Huston Smith (hereafter “Smith”) … Read the full chapter on Confucius

Remember, you must be in ‘slide show’ mode for links to work


Confucius (551 – 479 BC)… born in Lu (now Shantung province), China.

  • “When I was young, I was without rank, and in humble circumstances.” –Smith, p154
  • We know nothing of his ancestors. His father died when Confucius was 2; his mother was poor.
  • His youth was not bookish; hunting, fishing, archery. He “bent [his] mind to learning” at 15.
  • In his 20s he married (not quite happily) and became a tutor after a series of government jobs.
  • As a teacher, he quickly won the devotion of his pupils.
  • He set himself for a life in government due to his belief that his social reform ideas would not catch on unless he himself instituted them … showed they could work. His career in government was a failure.
  • His teachings, however, shaped China for 2,500 years.
confucius world
Confucius’ World

Smith remarks that understanding Confucius and his influence, his fame, requires understanding the world he was born into.

In 551 BC, China was at the tail end of the Zhou Dynasty (8th to 3rd centuries). Smith provides an awesome paragraph of the degeneration from a chivalric period to the “Period of the Warring States”:

Contests between charioteers gave way to cavalry, with its surprise attacks and sudden raids. Instead of nobly holding prisoners for ransom, conquerors put them to death in mass executions. Whole populations unlucky enough to be captured were beheaded, including women, children, and the aged…. slaughters of 60,000, 80,000, and even 400,000. There are accounts of the conquered being thrown into boiling cauldrons and their relatives forced to drink the human soup.

*This period was the century after Confucius’ death.

pre human society coming unglued
Pre-Human Society - Coming Unglued

Recall from the Hinduism PowerPoint:

Once clothed in a human body, the soul attains self-consciousness, and with it, “freedom, responsibility, and effort.” (Smith, p64)

Smith’s claim is that prior to this attainment, or the emergence of self-consciousness, humans as animals operated on instinct. It is instinct that holds together “the pack, the herd, the hive.”

While there is plenty of violence in the world of packs, herds, and hives, the violence is for the most part between species, not within them.

What happens when the glue of instinct goes missing and violence breaks out within the herd?


As instinct is replaced by reason, the first replacement epoxy is tradition.

Smith: It is hard to overstate how powerful tradition has been:

  • Tribes of Eskimos and Australian aborigines who have no word for disobedience.

Tradition takes root without education programs or conscious effort:

  • Greenlanders have no education system but anthropologists report their children are “impressively obedient, good-natured, and ready to help.”
  • Some American Indians are still alive who remember a time when “[t]here were no laws … Everybody did what was right.”
  • Early China was so steeped in tradition there is the story (by a historian of Confucius’ time) of a noble woman who burned to death because she would not leave her palace without a chaperone. The historian isn’t sure if it would have been okay for her to escape. Yoik!

Looking back at Confucius’ World (slide 4), large groups of people had abandoned social convention.

Self-consciousness replaced group-consciousness.

Reason was replacing tradition. It was no longer possible for the earlier generation to expect blind obedience of the next to their way of life. Once it becomes popular to ask the question ‘Why do I have to do it your way?’, tradition is fighting a losing battle.

deliberate or conscious tradition
Deliberate or Conscious Tradition

Confucius was all but obsessed with tradition, for he saw it as the chief shaper of inclinations and attitudes. He loved tradition because he saw it as a potential conduit—one that could funnel into the present behavior patterns that had been perfected during a golden age in China’s past, The Age of Grand Harmony. –Smith, p168

The problem, however, is, How do you move from spontaneous tradition to deliberate or conscious tradition, as there is no going back to spontaneous tradition?

competing answers
Competing Answers

Under ‘Rival Answers’, Smith presents 3 ways China tried to answer the question, How do we establish conscious tradition? Why do I have to do it your way?

  • Realism (Han Fei Tzu’s [Feizi’s] view): people are selfish; the answer must appeal to self-interest.
  • Mohism (Mo Tzu’s [Mozi’s] view; called Mo philosophy): people are loving; the answer must appeal to human goodness.
  • Confucianism (Kong Fuzi’s view; called Ru philosophy): people are good and bad; the answer must inspire people to good behavior.
realism legalism
Realism (Legalism)

A leading proponent of Realism is Han Fei Tzu (Han Feizi). His Western analog is Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes is world famous for his defense of Realism (as that term is defined by Smith) in this work from 1651, The Leviathan.

The effects of his ideas are seen in literature and cinema…


Hobbes’s major work is titled:



The Matter, Forme, and Power of A Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil

Right is the frontispiece of the book, as it was published in 1651

human nature
Human Nature

Galileo Galilei 1564-1642

Hobbes views human beings as complex machines, material objects, and, in the beginning of Leviathan, gives mechanistic descriptions of the operations of our minds—emotions and reasoning.

Met Galileo in 1636; was impressed by physics and the new role science was playing in intellectual life.

‘Liberty’ is defined as freedom to do as one wishes, but one’s wishes are determined by mechanistic laws governing matter in motion. How Hobbes retains his belief in God became a problem for him politically; he was exiled from England for his views occasionally and feared for his life regularly for heresy.

hobbes tries to modernize ethics
Hobbes Tries to Modernize Ethics

Thomas Hobbes 1588-1679

Hobbes wants us to consider the relations that emerge among human beings in light of our common human nature, prior to there being any society or government imposing rules upon us. In doing this, he hopes to show

  • why we need government
  • the character that government must have
  • what our duties are to our government

In doing this, Hobbes is rejecting the Great Chain of Being, and with it, the Divine Right of Kings, as the rational basis for governmental authority.


What book is this from?

Apart from any government, nature has made us equal, according to Hobbes, in the sense that even the weakest among us can, by forming associations or devious planning, kill the strongest.

Anyone, or any group, can move into another’s place and take their property, products, life, or liberty. And those who might do this can expect the same might be done to them.


What Iraq War arguments correspond to these causes?

Hobbes notes that this equality fosters quarrels due to:

  • Competition for goods (each having hope of overpowering the other), making people enemies.
  • Diffidence or lack-of-confidence leading to defensiveness, and
  • Glory as everyone likes to think highly of themselves, and being equal, each thinks their own honor worth fighting for
  • Competition makes an individual or group invade another’s domain for gain
  • Diffidence encourages invasion for safety
  • Glory encourages invasion for reputation
the condition of war state of nature
The Condition of War (State of Nature)

The equality among us, combined with scarce goods, yields conflict. Hobbes calls that condition ‘war’, and tells us:

“war consists not in battle only or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to battle is sufficiently known”

As by analogy,

“foul weather lies not in a shower or two of rain but in an inclination thereto of many days together”

the condition of war state of nature1
The Condition of War (State of Nature)

Why “every man against every man,” rather than, say, group vs. group?


“ … so the nature of war consists not in actual fighting but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is ‘peace’.”


“ … such a war is of every man against every man.”

the condition of war state of nature2
The Condition of War (State of Nature)

Hobbes most famous paragraph regarding the State of Nature:

In such condition [the Condition of War, or State of Nature] there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of commodities that may be imported by sea, … no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

(We can think of the State of Nature as a time when both instinct and tradition have lost their influence on human social behavior.)

right of nature laws of nature
Right of Nature, Laws of Nature

In the State of Nature, life is governed by what Hobbes calls ‘The Right of Nature’.

The Right of Nature: the freedom of everyone to do anything and everything that will, in their own judgment, preserve their own life.

In the State of Nature, the Right of Nature provides everyone the right to everything

“even to one another’s body.”

“… as long as this natural right of man to everything endures, there can be no security to any man …”

right of nature laws of nature1
Right of Nature, Laws of Nature

Hobbes says what he means by ‘Laws of Nature’ in the context of human nature:

“a precept or general rule … by which man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving same, and to omit that by which he thinks it may best be preserved.”

NOTE: This, combined with the Right of Nature from the previous slide, suggests we not only are free to do anything necessary to preserve our own life, but that we have a duty to do so.

laws of nature
Laws of Nature

1st Law of Nature:

Branch one: Seek peace

Branch two: defend yourself, by all means

2nd Law of Nature:

Be willing to trade freedom for security

In following these laws, especially the second, we must form contracts.

He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither. –Ben Franklin


Contracts are formed by renouncing or transferring a right (in this case, freedom to do whatever you want) in trade for some good (in this case, security, or escape from the State of Nature).

In Chapter XIV, paragraph 8, Hobbes tells us forming contracts like this is a voluntary act,

“and of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good ‘to himself’.”

What descriptive theory of Human Nature does this sound like?


One right that cannot be laid down in forming a contract is the Right of Nature. Hobbes tells us that no matter what you say, you cannot give up your right of self-defense:

“… a man cannot lay down the right of resisting them that assault him by force to take away his life, because he cannot be understood to aim thereby at any good to himself.”

What part of being a good citizen might this interfere with?

laws of nature1
Laws of Nature

3rd Law of Nature:

Keep promises

From this final law, which says to stick to your agreements when you follow laws 1 and 2, arise justice and injustice. It is only once a covenant or promise is in place that we can act justly or unjustly.

But how do we trust each other to follow the 3rd Natural Law?

the sovereign
The Sovereign

We can’t.

“…covenants of mutual trust, where there is fear of not performance on either part, … are invalid.”

“… before the names just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishments greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant … such power there is none before the erection of a commonwealth.”

come back king
Come back, King!

Though Hobbes rejects the Divine Right of Kings as the rational basis for government, he still prefers the Monarchy to parliament (democracy) because of monarchy’s swift and unambiguous enforcement of law.

Long live the king!

confucius rejects realism
Confucius Rejects Realism

Smith, p167:

He [Confucius] rejected the Realist’s answer of force because it was clumsy and external. Force regulated by law can set limits to people’s dealings, but it is too crude to inspire their day-to-day, face-to-face exchanges. With regard to the family, for example, it can stipulate conditions of marriage and divorce, but it cannot generate love and companionship. This holds generally. Governments need what they themselves cannot provide: meaning and motivation.

Think of John Adam’s quote:

Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.


Mo Tzu argues, Smith, p166, that not force but love, universal love, is the solution to society gone bananas.

His central claim:

One should feel toward all people under heaven exactly as one feels toward one’s own people, and regard other states exactly as one regards one’s own state.

His explanation of why society has lost its way:

Mutual attacks among states, mutual usurpation among houses, mutual injuries among individuals, these are [among] the major calamities in the world.

But whence do these calamities arise?

They arise out of a want of mutual love. …

mohism cont
Mohism (cont.)

Mo Tzu’s argument that his solution can work:

If it [the proposal to support teaching universal love to society as a cure for what ails it] were not useful, even I would disapprove of it. But how can there be anything that is good but not useful?

Smith suggests this argument is supported psychologically for Mo Tzu by his belief in

Shang Ti, the Sovereign on High, who “loves people dearly; ordered the sun, the moon, and the stars; sent down snow … appointed dukes and lords to reward the good and punish the wicked. Heaven loves the whole world universally. Everything is prepared for the good of human beings.”

mohism cont1
Mohism (cont.)

Smith, p167, supplements or summarizes the argument like this:

As love is obviously good, and the God who orders the world is good as well, it is inconceivable that we have a world where love does not pay.

Confucius’ response:

Agrees with Realists that Mohism is “utopian” … meaning, a great idea but impossible to do.

Smith quotes A.C. Graham, p167:

Mohism has the appearance of being foreign, not merely to Confucian thinking, but to the whole of Chinese civilization. No one else finds it tolerable to insist that you should be as concerned for the other man’s family as for your own.

(In Philosophy, this topic is called “Special Concern,” that is, what is the basis, and is it a good basis, of our special concern for those close to us?)


To harp exclusively on love is to preach ends without means.

confucius answer conscious tradition
Confucius’ Answer: Conscious Tradition

Smith suggests that while Confucius may have idealized the Chou (Zhou) Dynasty at its high point (1000 BCE), he was not “antiquarian.” He saw a way to reestablish the role of tradition, in two steps.

  • There must be a bridge from the old, eroded tradition … starting brand new will not allow citizens anything to base their citizenship in. We must learn from what we already know, as it were.
confucius answer conscious tradition1
Confucius’ Answer: Conscious Tradition
  • At the same time the answer must take clear-eyed account of the developments that render the old answer unworkable. –Smith, p169

Those “developments” amount to the evolution of self-consciousness.

Now, society’s members must find conscious reasons to follow the old ways.

Watch self-consciousness emerge for the first time among “the Borg.”

confucius answer conscious tradition2
Confucius’ Answer: Conscious Tradition

Smith, p170:

As one Chinese has described the process [of moving from spontaneous to deliberate tradition]: “Moral ideas were driven into the people by every possible means—temples, theatres, homes, toys, proverbs, schools, history, and stories—until they became habits of daily life … Even festivals and parades were [in a sense] religious in character.” Buy such means even a society of individuals can (if it puts itself to the task) spin an enveloping tradition, a power of suggestion, that can prompt its members to behave socially even when the law is not looking.

Watch the pupil learn to admire the master; follow the “pattern of prestige.”

confucius answer conscious tradition3
Confucius’ Answer: Conscious Tradition

Patterns of Prestige:

Whatever its content a pattern-of-prestige embodies the values the leaders of the group admire. Followers, taking their cues from the leaders whom they admire, come to respect their values and are disposed to enact them—partly because they, too, have come to admire them, and partly to win peer approval.

How does Confucius provide content to an influential pattern of prestige? To read Smith, he was himself an embodiment of such a pattern:

… [H]is disciple’s conviction [was]: “Since the beginning of the human race there has never been a man like our Master.”

Also, in his writings, especially his Analects, he uses anecdotes and maxims to define the pattern:

The Master said: “The true gentleman is friendly but not familiar; the inferior man is familiar but not friendly.

Tsu King asked: “What would you say of the person who is liked by all his fellow townsmen?” “That is not sufficient,” was the reply. “What is better is that the good among his fellow townsmen like him, and the bad hate him.”

Click here for hundreds of The Master’s aphorisms.

confucius answer conscious tradition4
Confucius’ Answer: Conscious Tradition

5 Virtues:

  • Jen (Ren in Koller): Human-Heartedness (humanity / The Silver Rule)
  • Chun Tzu: Mature Person (competence)
  • Li: Social Grace (manners / propriety)
    • The Rectification of Names
    • The Doctrine of the Mean
    • The Five Constant Relationships
    • The Family
    • Age
  • Te: Ruling power (moral authority / Philosopher Kings)
  • Wen: The Arts of Peace (the Coke song!, Anthems, etc.)

Koller emphasizes that Confucius views all the other virtues as a means to develop Ren, the most important virtue.

confucius answer conscious tradition5
Confucius’ Answer: Conscious Tradition
  • Li: Social Grace (manners / propriety)
    • The Rectification of Names
      • A father should be a father, a ruler a ruler
      • Names must have clear and correct meaning, and people must adapt themselves to the names
    • The Doctrine of the Mean
      • Nothing to excess; avoid deficiency
    • The Five Constant Relationships
      • Parents loving; children reverential
      • Elder siblings gentle; younger siblings respectful
      • Husbands good; wives ‘listening’
      • Elder friends considerate; younger friends deferential
      • Rulers benevolent; subjects loyal
    • The Family
      • Chinese legend mentions a hero who invented the family and elevated the Chinese from mere animals to humans.
    • Age
      • Since age accumulates knowledge and wisdom (or can), veneration of the old will aid society
confucius answer conscious tradition6
Confucius’ Answer: Conscious Tradition

The Self:

… a Confucian who is bent on self-cultivation positions himself squarely in the center of ever shifting, never-ending cross currents of human relationships and would not wish things otherwise; saintliness in isolation had no meaning for Confucius. … [A]part from human relationships there is no self. The self is a center of relationships. … The human self is a node, not an entity. It is a meeting place where lives converge. –Smith, p180

See an example of ‘never-ending cross currents of human relationships’ here, and in the trailer that follows this introduction to Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

successful at civilizing
Successful at Civilizing?

Koller, p214:

During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), Confucianism was ridiculed and scorned (recall Han Fei Tzu), most Confucian books were burned, and many Confucian scholars killed. Yet during the next dynasty, the Han (206 BCE -220 CE), Confucianism came to be adopted as the state orthodoxy and the Confucian classics enshrined as the basis of the imperial university where they were to remain as the basis of all education for more than two thousand years.

Smith, p158:

Until this century, every Chinese school child for the last two thousand years raised his clasped hands every morning toward a table in the schoolroom that bore a plaque bearing Confucius’ name. Virtually every Chinese student as pored over his sayings for hours …

successful at civilizing1
Successful at Civilizing?

Smith, p191:

Regarding Education and Art:

There have been golden ages in China when the arts have flourished as nowhere else in their time, and deep learning was achieved: calligraphy, Sung landscape painting, and the life-giving dance of Tai Chi Chuan come quickly to mind. Paper was invented. Four centuries before Gutenberg, movable type was discovered. A fifteenth century encyclopedia … 11,095 volumes, … poetry, scroll painting, ceramics which “because of the fineness of their materials and decoration … elegance of their shapes, may be considered the best pottery of all countries and of all times.

successful at civilizing2
Successful at Civilizing?

Smith, p191-192:

Regarding Assimilation:

China was subject to wave after wave of invasions by cavalried barbarians … Each wave of invaders tended to lose its identity through voluntary assimilation; they admired what they saw. Time after time an illiterate invader, entering solely for plunder, succumbs. Within a few years his foremost hope is to write a copy of Chinese verse that his teacher, who is likewise his conquered slave, might acknowledge as not altogether unworthy of a gentleman, and his highest hope is to be mistaken for Chinese. Kublai Khan is the most striking example. He conquered China but was himself conquered by Chinese civilization, for his victory enabled him to realize his lasting ambition, which was to become an authentic Son of Heaven.

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Image Sources

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