Confucianism in general is borne out by the regression that took place over the centuries. It may be characterized as follows:
- The idea of the unknowable One is transformed into metaphysical indifference. When Confucius declines to think about the absolute or to pray for help, it is because a certainty rooted in the Encompassing enjoins him to turn to mankind in the actual world. By living in serene acceptance of death, not asking to know what we cannot know, he leaves everything open. But once Confucius’ certainty is lacking, skepticism runs rampant and with it an uncontrolled superstition. Agnosticism becomes a vacuum, which Confucianism seeks to fill with material magic and illusionary expectations.
- Confucius’ simple but passionate drive toward humanity is transformed into utilitarian thinking. The result is a pedantic pragmatism shorn of any feeling for man’s independent worth.
- The free ethos, implied by the polarity between the li and the power that guides them, is transformed into a dogmatization of the li. Without their ground in the jen and in the One, the li become mere rules of external behavior.
- Openness of thought degenerates into dogmatic theory. For example, a controversy arises as to whether man is good or evil by nature, whether training in the li makes man good or only restores him to his true nature.
- The knowledge that was inner action degenerates into rote learning. There arose the class of scribes who distinguished themselves not by personality but by formal learning and maintained their prestige by a system of examinations. For Confucius antiquity was a norm which each man must acquire for himself. As transformed in Confucianism, this came to mean the study of ancient works, the pre-eminence of the scholar; instead of making antiquity his own, the student learned to imitate it. School learning produced an orthodoxy which lost its bond with life as a whole.
Confucius was once asked, “What is the first thing to be done in order to promote a renewal in disastrous circumstances?”
Confucius gave a remarkable answer: Words must be set aright.
What inheres in words should be brought out. The prince should be a prince, the father a father, the man a man. But language is constantly misused, words are employed for meanings that do not befit them. A seperation arises between being and language. “He who has the inner being also has the words; he who has words does not always have the inner being.”
If the language is in disorder, everything goes wrong. “If words (designations, concepts) are not right, judgments are not clear; works do not prosper; punishments do not strike the right man, and the people do not know where to set hand and foot.
“Therefore the superior man chooses words that can be employed without doubt, and forms judgments that can be converted into actions without fear of doubt. The superior man tolerates no imprecision in his speech.”
Confucius distinguishes four types or levels of man:
- The highest embraces the saints, those who possess knowledge from birth. Confucius never saw a saint but he has no douht that they existed in antiquity.
- The second level comprises those who must acquire knowledge by learning; they can become “superior men.”
- The men of the third level find it hard to learn, but they do not let this discourage them.
- Those of the fourth level find it hard and make no effort.
The two middle types are on the way; they progress though they may fail. Confucius writes, “Only the highest wise men and the lowest fools are unchangeable.”
From age 56 to 68, the Chinese philosopher Confucius wandered from state to state hoping that somewhere he could put his political doctrine into practice. During these years he never lost confidence in his cailling as political mentor of the Empire.
At age 57, when he returned to his native state finally, he lamented in a poem that, “men are without insight, quickly the years pass.” He said, despite all his wanderings through nine provinces there was still no goal in sight for him.
Confucius spent his last years peacefully in Lu. He accepted no government position. He seems to have undergone a profound change. A hermit once said of Confucius: “Is that not the man who knows that striving is without hope and yet goes on?” He studied the I Ching, or Book of Changes, so rich in secrets and completed his systematic groundwork for a new mode of education by committing traditions to writing and by instructing a group of young men.
One morning Confucius felt the approach of death. He walked about the courtyard, humming the words: “The great mountain must collapse, the mighty beam must break, and the wise man wither like a plant.”
When an alarmed pupil spoke to him, he said: “No wise ruler arises, and no one in the Empire wishes to make me his teacher. The hour of my death has come.” He lay down and died eight days later at age 73.
Confucius is said to have an indifference toward women. Possibly because the atmosphere around him was distinctly masculine.
Confucius had nothing to say of conduct in matrimony, spoke disparagingly of women, had only contempt for a pair of lovers who committed suicide together, and frequently remarked that nothing is so hard to handle as a woman.
The philosophy of Confucius is not a knowledge that regards itself as complete and an underlying feeling that everything can and will be set aright.
Confucius never thought himself in possession of complete knowledge and never thought such knowledge possible. “To represent what you know as knowledge and what you Jo not know as ignorance: that is knowkdge.”
Confucius is aware of the evil in the world. It is rooted in the failure of man. He laments: “That good predispositions are not cultivated, that what men have learned is not effectual, that men know their duty and are not drawn to it, that men have faults and are unable to correct them: these are things that grieve me.”
Sometimes he says he can no longer find a single true man. “It is all over. I have met none able to see his own faults, to look strictly intact. For he does not take the community as an absolute. For him the Encompassing is a background, not a theme to work with; it is the limit and foundation to be co11sidered with awe, not the immediate task.
The essential difference is the difference between Lao-tzu’s direct way to the tao and Confucius’ detour by way of the human order, hence the divergent practical consequences of the same fundamental view.
The tao which Lao-tzu puts before and above everything else is for Confucius the One. But Lao-tzu immerses himself in it, while Confucius lets himself be guided by his awe of the One as he moves among the things of the world. At times Confucius also shows a tendency to shun the world; at the limits he too discloses the notion of acting by inaction and so keeping the world in order. Though the two philosophers look in opposite directions, they stand on the same ground. Their unity has been embodied by great historic figures, not in a philosophy that systematically embraced both sets of teachings, but in the Chinese wisdom of a life illumined by thought.