Today we celebrate the birthday of the teacher, philosopher, and political theorist popularly known as Confucius, born near what is now Qufu, in Shandong Province, China, in 551 BCE.
Not a lot is known about Confucius’s childhood. He was probably a member of an aristocratic family that had lost its wealth, because he was born in poverty. His father died when Confucius was three years old, and his mother took charge of his education. The boy had a real thirst for knowledge, and asked many questions wherever he went. He took some minor government jobs when he was a teenager, but also made an effort to seek out knowledgeable masters to instruct him in the six arts: ritual, music, archery, chariot driving, calligraphy, and arithmetic. He began to turn his thoughts to practical questions of morality and ethics.
As a young man, he traveled widely throughout China, meeting with leaders of the various provinces and trying to impress upon them the importance of self-discipline and virtue. He didn’t approve of what he saw as the moral decline of China after years of political unrest. He also believed that there was a connection between the personal and the universal, and that poor political decisions could lead to natural disasters like floods. At one point in his travels, he was imprisoned for five days due to a case of mistaken identity. He didn’t let it ruffle his feathers, though, and reportedly sat calmly playing his lute while the muddle was sorted out.
In his 30s, he returned home and started a school that was open to rich and poor alike. Teaching was a way of life to him, not just a career. His teaching philosophy was revolutionary: rather than simply training apprentices in particular skills, education could and should be used for the welfare and improvement of society. He felt obligated to bring back an emphasis on humility, compassion, and tradition, to encourage people to exercise self-discipline, and to always act on the principle of “ren,” or “loving others.” “What you do not wish for yourself,” he wrote, “do not do to others.” He hoped that his students would carry these principles with them into positions with the government, and thereby form a generation of leaders who would set a virtuous example for the people of China. He also began to write, including two books of poetry — the Book of Odes and the Book of Documents. None of his books contained his philosophy, however; what we know about Confucianism today is what was passed down to his many students.
Confucius died in 479 BCE, but his stature continued to grow after his death. By the second century BCE, Confucianism formed the basis for China’s state ideology, and he is considered one of the most influential minds in Chinese history. His birthday is an official holiday in Taiwan, where it is celebrated as Teachers’ Day. His writings were first translated into English by James Legge in 1867, and a more readable translation was published by Oxford University in 1907.
Confucius wrote: “There are three things which the wise man holds in reverence: the Will of Heaven, those in authority, and the words of the sages. The fool knows not the Will of Heaven and holds it not in reverence: he is disrespectful to those in authority; he ridicules the words of the sages.”
And: “He who does not understand the Will of God can never be a man of the higher type. He who does not understand the inner law of self-control can never stand firm. He who does not understand the force of words can never know his fellow-men.”