Confucius lived during the 5th century BCE, at a time when Chinese society was plagued by intermittent wars, mass executions, and moral indifference. Nostalgic for earlier periods, particularly that of the Western Zhou Dynasty, Confucius wanted to restore values that reinforced social harmony and stability. The vehicle for doing this was a form of Virtue Ethics, wherein ruling males, both in the family and in government, modeled desirable behaviors. These included wisdom, strength, and equanimity. Subordinates were expected to be respectful and obedient to persons with higher status. Filial piety was especially important. Yet it was the duty of those who held power to be sensitive to the needs of those under them: fathers to family members, monarchs to those whom they rule.
How one demonstrates virtue is often done through performative rituals. These can take various forms--how one dresses, plays musical instruments, prepares food, dances; each reflects two levels of spiritual harmony, the harmony of mind and body, and that of the individual and the greater cosmos. Confucius takes care, however, to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic performances: rituals done as a means to an end (e.g., to impress a prospective employer) rather than as an end in themselves, are discouraged. Moreover, there is no ritual to demonstrate Confucianism’s highest virtue, which is Goodness. This must be cultivated within the self and is manifested through empathy and acts of kindness. Six hundred years before Jesus, Confucius espoused a variation of The Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.
One of the most important skills a person could develop was Wu-wei (often translated as “effortless action”). It is the art of doing something well, each step so seamless that it is almost undetectable. Wu-wei is essential for a ritual to be successful. It is also expected of people holding political power: how they present themselves in public, the subtle nuances of their voice and their demeanor, is almost as important as what they say. He who has achieved a high level of moral virtue is called a Junzi, analogous to what the British called a “gentleman” in the 19th century. He is courageous, laconic, performs rituals correctly, and behaves appropriately for his social status.
Confucian ethics in many ways is antithetical to those in the West. In Europe, and especially in America., a premium is placed on individualism and people’s right to challenge authority. As we read the Analects it is important to keep in mind that what we are reading is Early Confucianism; in the middle ages it was rivaled by Neo-Confucianism and in the twentieth century by the New Confucianism. Of the latter, one of the leading exponents is Tu Wei-ming, a Chinese scholar who is attempting to modernize Confucianism and demonstrate its compatibility with democratic forms of governance (see links to his interviews in the video resources below). A question we might address during our meeting is whether that is conceptually possible.
Normally the edition someone chooses for a classical philosopher is not critical, but in the case of Confucius it is. This is because he communicates his ideas through aphorisms, and unless you are familiar with the Chinese language and history, they will seem cryptic. For that reason I am recommending an edition highly praised by amazon.com book reviewers and that frequently appears in the syllabi of Asian Philosophy courses: Confucius Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Edward Slingerland. Hackett Publishing Company, 2003. In addition to the valuable commentaries that follow each aphorism, the appendices include a Glossary of Terms and an annotated list of historical personages mentioned in the text. This edition is available from amazon for $12.95 new and from $7.08 used. For those preferring to read a free bare bones edition provided by Project Gutenberg, click here.
The following resources provide analyses, bibliographies, interviews, lecture notes, and videos.
Wikipedia: "Confucius", "Confucianism", "Analects", "Ren (Confucianism)", "Li (Confucian)", "Junzi", "Filial Piety", "Role Ethics", "Family as a Model for the State", "Rectification of Names", "Neo-Confucianism", "New Confucianism"
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Confucius", "Chinese Ethics", "Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western"
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Confucius", "Individualism in Classical Chinese Thought", "Neo-Confucian Philosophy"
Toe Nilar. “The Concept of ‘Li’ in Confucius’ Social Ethics." Universities Research Journal 4.7 (2011), pp. 51-62.
JeeLoo Liu. “Confucian Moral Realism.” Asian Philosophy 17.2 (July 2007), pp. 167-184.
Dong Rui. “A Comparison between the Christian and Confucian Major Doctrines: A Survey.” Canadian Social Science 3.6 (December 2007), pp. 112-115.
Justin Tiwald. “Confucianism and Virtue Ethics: Still a Fledgling in Chinese and Comparative Philosophy.” Comparative Philosophy 1.2 (2010), pp. 55-63.
W. M. Theodore de Bary. “The Trouble with Confucianism.” The Tanner Lecture on Human Values. Delivered at the University of California, Berkeley (4 and 5 May 1998).
Joseph A. Adler. “Confucianism as Religion/Religious Tradition/Neither: Still Hazy After All These Years.” Abridged version of a paper presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Washington, D.C.
Joseph A. Adler. “Confucianism in China Today.” Pearson Living Religions Forum. New York (14 April 2011).
Francis Fukuyama. “Confucianism and Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 6.2 (1995), pp. 20-33.
Randall Nadeau. “Confucianism and the Problem of Human Rights.” Intercultural Communication Studies 11.2 (2002), pp. 107-118.
Hagop Sarkissian. ”Confucius and the Effortless Life of Virtue.” (Author is Professor of Philosophy at Baruch College, CUNY).
Edward Slingerland. "Trying Not to Try: Modern Science and Chinese Philosophy Tell Us Similar Stories of How We Think." Nautilus 10 (6 February 2014).
Ping Yan and Lili Pan. “From ‘Goodness’ in Chinese Confucianism to ‘Truth’ in Japanese Confucianism.” Asian Social Science 6.3 (March 2010), pp. 108-112.
Herbet H. P. Ma. “The Legalization of Confucianism and Its Impact on Family Relationships.” Washington University Law Review 65.4 (1987), pp. 667-679.
Daniel A. Bell. “Reconciling Socialism and Confucianism?: Reviving Tradition in China.” Dissent 57.1 (Winter 2010), pp. 91-99.
“Confucius and the Origins of Confucianism”, "Confucianism", and The Confucian School by Professor R. Eno, Dept. of History, Indiana University at Bloomington.
“Confucianism 1" by Professor Claudia Close, Dept. Of Philosophy, Cabrillo College.
"Role Ethics and the Family: Confucianism" by Professor Claudia Close, Cabrillo College.
"The Ethics of Confucius" (Oregon State University publication; author unknown).
“Recent Approaches to Confucian Filial Morality” by Professor Hagop Sarkissian, Dept.of Philosophy, Baruch College, CUNY.
Bill Moyers, "A Confucian Life in America" [interview with Tu Wei-ming, an ethicist, New Confucian, and Professor of Philosophy and founding Dean of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University]. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Additional Tu Wei-ming video: “Listening to Confucius”; lecture delivered at the University of Toledo February 16, 2011.
“World Religions: Confucianism.” Interview with Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy.
“Confucian Role Ethics: A Challenge to the Ideology of Individualism” by Professor Roger Ames, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Hawaii.
“Understanding China: Confucianism” sponsored by Thunderbird School of Global Management.