Ethics of Confucius by Robert Waxman
this paper, explanations are given for six important ethical components in Confucianism including the concepts of xi,
zhi, li, yi, wen and ren. There are also descriptions of the connections between these qualities. Modern examples
are given to clarify the meanings of these Chinese word-symbols.
The concept of xi (natural capacity for learning) is examined in detail. This mysterious attribute leads to
a discussion of the innate qualities in man. There is a discussion of whether man is born with a natural tendency toward goodness,
evil, or neither. Included are citations on this subject from other philosophers including Plato, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and
Confucian scholar Giles. The concept of xi is juxtaposed against these other philosophies to examine similarities
and differences concerning the nature of man. Additionally, commentary is offered on the assimilation of virtue in conjunction
with the individual’s innate capacity for learning.
There is a
discussion of mysticism and whether it exists in Confucianism. The spiritual goals of other mystical traditions are compared
to Confucian ideals. There are comparisons to Taoism, Buddhism, Vedanta and Christianity as they relate to the ‘enlightened’
state in Confucianism.
Finally, a conclusion section summarizes the topics
discussed. Commentary is offered on the benefits and limitations of Confucianism as a world religion.
Basis of Ethical Thought in Confucianism
discussion begins with explanations of the xi, zhi, li, yi, wen, and ren. Chong contends
that xi relates to one’s capacity to “instill in oneself certain virtuous habits” (Chong,
2007, p. 1). However, the most interesting definition of xi is, ‘the original good, evil or nothing’
that man is born with. In Confucianism, xi does not contain any original ‘goodness or badness’ (p.1).
Therefore, Confucius believes that people must learn to act ethically since it is not an original part of their nature. Although
each person has the same capacity for learning to act virtuously, each person proceeds at their own pace through practice.
Consequently, the concept of xi provides a starting point for the learning of ethics, virtue, truth, and morality.
Zhi is the natural substance of which a person is made, but it is not an innate human attribute.
The individual acquires zhi through education (Chong, 2007, p. 1). The meaning of zhi, as “native
substance” or “basic stuff”, relates to the ‘building of substantial character traits’ the individual
is cultivating through learning and practice (p. 18). Similarly, as with xi, human beings are not born with moral
goodness or badness. The desire for building moral character depends on the individual’s self-motivation and whether
his behavior is in accordance with the qualities of li (propriety or etiquette) (2007, p. 2). In
the West, the concept of li is taught at ‘finishing schools’ that train young people how to act ‘properly’
and understand the moral and ethical rules of the culture. These schools promise to complete a young adult’s education
by teaching them the necessary social skills (li) for personal advancement in societal life. There is a question,
however, about the effectiveness of this type of education as it relates to Confucian ethics and the acquiring of zhi.
Although the individual is learning propriety and etiquette at a ‘finishing school’, these ‘proper’
behaviors can be easily mimicked by the individual. Consequently, this type of learning affects the individual’s outer
behavior, but does not develop his inner value system or moral nature. In Western schools, many students will ‘sponge-up’
the prescribed information for purpose of appearances, but the student’s inner world remains untouched. Therefore, the
effectiveness of this teaching method for learning zhi characteristics is highly questionable. Additionally, if the
assimilation of zhi is not genuine within the individual, the expression of li is hollow and without meaning.
Unfortunately, most Western schools use teaching techniques that present new knowledge to the student, and have an expectation
that the student will repeat the same information back to the teacher for approval. This short-sighted teaching system does
not affect the core beliefs of the student, and does not improve his moral conduct. Therefore, attaining the attribute of
zhi is imperative for the individual wanting to develop a meaningful form of li within his belief system.
Li also refers to certain rituals within a hierarchical social order, and everyone understands their responsibility
to the community. Practicing li not only shapes character, but motivates the individual to “behave, desire,
feel, and act in required ways” (p. 2). There is an inference that an individual acquiring li has a sense of
fairness or equity. An example of an individual who does not have li is a Courtroom Judge who follows the
letter of the law, and does not allow for special circumstances when rendering an opinion. These Judges do not have a sense
of equity, and therefore, they render their decisions based on the literal interpretation of the law. Other Judges, however,
do take into consideration the various circumstances connected to a dispute, and render an opinion based on the ‘spirit’
of the law. These Judges have a sense of ethical fairness, and have the ability to express their qualities of li.
There are also institutions and organizations where individuals have an opportunity to express their qualities of li
in accordance with their positions and responsibilities.
translates as “morality” (Chong, 2007, p. 3). However, from this simple definition, there are other meanings such
as right action, duty, and righteousness. According to Lau, yi is an essential concept in Confucianism, “Yi
is the standard by which all acts must be judged while there is no further standard by which yi, itself can be judged”
(p. 3). Lau explains that the object of all learning is yi, and all rites, and rules of conduct are based on yi
(p. 3). Therefore, yi is the ethical set of moral principles that underlies Confucianism. Yi represents
the perfection of morality, and li is the expression of yi. The yi principles of right action,
duty, and righteousness are constantly being practiced through li. By harmoniously performing li, an individual
is creating beauty and balance in his life.
Wen is described by Chong
as “the icing on the cake or something that one does at leisure” (2007, p. 2). These activities include music,
poetry, and art that express virtue within the community. However, Confucius is critical of Chinese culture and believes that
the arts are lacking virtue:
Surely when one says, 'The rites, the rites,' it is not enough merely to mean presents of jade and silk. Surely when
one says 'music, music,' it is not enough merely to mean bells and drums...." The master said, "What can a man do
with the rites who is not benevolent? What can a man do with music who is not benevolent? (The Analects, XVII: 11, III: 3)
believes that one should not participate in a ‘creative pursuit’ unless virtue is being expressed (p. 29). He
wants moral themes embedded in the manifestation of creative forms. As a modern example of this phenomenon, during in the
1960’s a form of music called ‘bubble-gum’ referred to songs that were meaningless and written for the sole
purpose of making money. These ‘hit’ songs were profitable for the music industry, but did not advance the state-of-the-art
continuum in the musical genre of Rock N’ Roll. Consequently, the cultural effects of such music were temporary
and offered nothing of any societal value. Since Confucius believes that promoting virtue is the purpose for musical expression,
he would not approve of ‘bubble-gum’ music. He would approve of music that has an authentic message and
raises the consciousness of the community. Staying with our example of 1960’s music, there are musical albums such as
Sgt. Pepper (Beatles), Tommy (The Who), Highway 61 (Bob Dylan), and Bookends (Simon &
Garfunkel) that are recognized as musical milestones, and include songs that contain meaningful wen (expression of
values) for this generation. These albums continue to have lasting effects on American culture, and are influencing the writing
of today’s modern music. There are countless other types of music reflecting the human condition at various times in
history. Since music is a universal language, it is an effective vehicle for expressing emotion, virtue, and morality. Confucius
understands that artistic expression is an opportunity to teach (and remind) people of the perennial virtues which are sometimes
forgotten. Consequently, through the expression of the arts, the community maintains its ethics, compassion, benevolence and
Ren is considered the highest
virtue in Confucianism (Chong, 2007, p. 27). Ren is referred to as “the loftiest ideal of moral excellence,
the most difficult of attainment, and the highest development of the individual’s distinctive nature” (p. 24).
Ren is also associated with benevolence, love, humaneness, and the summation of all the other virtues. As examples,
a few individuals possessing ren include Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, and Confucius. An individual
acquiring ren is mastering the way of virtue, morality, compassion and love. This individual is reaching the highest
levels of moral perfection in a specific aspect of life. Accordingly, in every discipline there are a few people who are role-models
and inspire others to achieve greatness. It can be said that Michael Phelps is achieving ren in swimming; Albert
Einstein in physics; or Tiger Woods in golf. There is an element of genius in each of these individuals that helps them attain
this super-human level of ren. Additionally, practice, patience and perseverance are needed for anyone who is striving
to reach the highest levels of ren.
The Confucian Concept of xi
– A Comparative Overview
we return to the concept of xi which is not an innate quality of ‘good or evil’ in each person. However,
xi symbolizes a mysterious power that manifests as the human capacity (or potentiality) for learning. Confucianism
teaches that when a person is born, he is not predisposed toward being a hero or a villain. However, this question of whether
man is born good, neutral, or evil is an enigma that philosophers have been grappling with for thousands of years. Trying
to understand whether man is born good, evil, or neither, calls for an assumptive theory that can become the foundation for
an entire philosophy. Since Confucius says that the essence of xi has no attributes, it is important to discuss this
topic in more detail. Confucian philosophy rests on the idea that man is not born inherently good, and must learn
how to behave ethically. Therefore, it is necessary to compare the thinking of Confucius with other great philosophers who
have pondered over this question of whether man has any innate qualities. First we turn to Plato who agrees with Confucius.
Plato contends that man must learn ‘how to be good’ according to societal and cultural norms.
a man were born so divinely gifted that he could naturally apprehend the truth, he would have no need of laws to rule over
him; for there is no law or order which is above knowledge, nor can mind, without impiety, be deemed the subject or slave
of any man, but rather the lord of all. I speak of mind, true and free, and in harmony with nature. But then there is no such
mind anywhere, or at least not much; and therefore we must choose law and order, which are second best. (360 BCE, Laws)
Confucian scholar Giles, who is reading the same material as Chong, disagrees with his interpretation, and says Confucius
believes that man is born inherently good.
The Confucian Criterion.--The keystone of the Confucian philosophy, that man is
born good will be found in the following lines:
How mighty is God!
How clothed in majesty is God,
And how unsearchable are
God gives birth to the people,
But their natures are not constant;
All have the same beginning,
have the same end. (Giles, 1906, p. 28)
Unfortunately, this citation from Religions of Ancient China does not
offer enough evidence to conclude that ‘man is born with innate goodness’. Although, Confucius is saying that
people are brought into this world by God, he does not say that the goodness of God is born within them. Additionally, Confucius
says that each person has a different ‘nature’ which could include (less-than good) attributes such as selfishness,
greed, laziness, envy, pride etc. If Confucius wanted to say that man is born with ‘goodness’, he would have placed
the word ‘good’ before the word ‘nature’. Instead, he says each person’s nature is not constant,
and does not say that people are born with inherent goodness. Although there is an inference that each person is born with
‘a clean slate’ (eliminating the idea of past-life karma), there is no reason to conclude that life begins with
the goodness of God in every person.
From another perspective, Rousseau
contradicts the Confucian notion that man is born without goodness. In Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and the
Foundations of Inequality among Men, he says,
Man is naturally good and that it is through institutions alone that men become
bad. Man’s nature does not preclude the existence of a social world that would not be plagued by the ills that we see
all around us. (1766)
Rousseau posits that man is born with natural goodness, but is unhappy because of his experiences in society. The
reason for man’s misery is societal distortion, corruption, and acceptance of false values (2008, Nosotro). Therefore
Rousseau would interpret the concept of xi as being the innate goodness in man that is potentially corruptible.
Moving to the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum, Machiavelli believes that people are essentially evil and
self-serving. He believes that people should take advantage of others when they are weak and manipulate people with the intention
of controlling them. (1967, Brians, p. 22) Additionally, Machiavelli is an advocate of dictatorship and
does not value the family unit or the community. Therefore, Confucius would consider Machiavelli’s philosophy as unethical,
immoral and inhumane. Consequently, the concept of xi in Machiavellian philosophy indicates that man is born with
the potential of being evil. To support this claim, in The Prince by Machiavelli, he writes,
leader will not and should not observe his promises, when such observance will work against him and when the reasons for making
the promise are no longer valid. If all men were good, this precept would not be good; but since men are evil and will not
keep their word with you, you shouldn't keep yours to them. (Brians, 1967, p. 46)
This pessimistic vision of man’s nature
begins with the premise that man is predisposed toward evil and must learn to be good (if he can ever be good). Machiavelli
has little faith in mankind and believes that achieving evil is actually good. His other philosophical beliefs include the
1) A nice person will always fail;
2) It is better to be feared than loved;
3) Bundle evil into short period
of time so people forget sooner;
4) Better to appear to be faithful, merciful, humane and honest than actually be those things and;
Best friends quickly disappear in times of adversity. (Klaus, Qing, 2008)
It is interesting to compare the philosophical differences between Confucius, Plato, Rousseau and Machiavelli as they
relate to the natural qualities of man. However, there is no way to prove whether human beings are born with a form of xi
that is innately good, evil or neutral. Therefore, this subject becomes an issue of faith and religion. Consequently, in Christianity,
xi corresponds to man’s birth with ‘original sin’ and his limited capacity for learning until he
finds salvation. In Hinduism, xi is tied to the cycle of re-birth and man’s capacity for learning as determined
by karma. In Buddhism, xi is connected to constantly changing attributes (skandhas) that are affecting the person’s
capacity for future learning. In Judaism, the concept of xi relates to the individual’s capacity for learning
during the ‘here and now’. Additionally, atheists, agnostics, existentialists, and nihilists, would view xi
as either non-existent, unimportant, illogical or having limited applications in daily life. Conversely, if we turn to ancient
Egypt and the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, we find the ‘Hermetic’ axiom, ‘as above, so below’.
Based on this concept, everything that exists in the lower (physical) world is a reflection of the higher world. Therefore,
if love, compassion, benevolence, generosity, truth, selflessness, and beauty exist in the lower world, it stands to reason
that these qualities must exist in the higher world(s). Additionally, if one accepts the premise of an Ultimate Source or
Tao, a correspondence exists between the innate goodness of the Tao and the innate goodness of xi within each human
being. Finally, if this Ultimate Source has unlimited potentiality, there is an argument to be made that each person’s
xi has an unlimited capacity to learn and grow. Therefore, the nature of xi can be defined as an innate
‘unlimited potentiality for goodness’ that allows the individual to expand his capacity for learning to the highest
levels of knowledge.
the theory of ‘as above, so below’, it is logical to presume that there is a relationship between the xi
of the human-self and the Xi of an Eternal Universal-Self. This analogy is reminiscent of the relationship existing
between the macrocosmic I AM of ‘God’ and the microcosmic I am of the mortal. If we continue
to explore this line of mystical thinking, we find a relationship in Vedanta (Hinduism) between Atman (a spark of spirit in
each person) and its source - Brahman (the One Eternal Reality). Although Confucius does not offer a mystical or metaphysical
doctrine, there is an implied mystical feeling in the Confucian Doctrine of Man. This text speaks of the ‘superior
man’ who stays calm, in contrast the ‘inferior man’ who depends on material goods and cannot stay calm (Kupperman,
1971, p. 193).
The superior man is quiet and calm, waiting for the appointments of Heaven, while the mean man walks in dangerous
paths looking for lucky occurrences. (Legge, 1870, p. 129)
To support this point further, in Analectics IX, Confucius says,
“the enlightened are free from doubt; the virtuous free from anxiety; and the brave free from fear” (Kupperman,
1971, p. 193). This reference to a ‘superior man’ living in a natural state of bliss is similar to the Buddhist
(Theravada) notion of living in a constant state of nirvana. To reach this transcendent state of calmness, the Buddhist must
follow the path of the Bodhisattva. According to Tachibana, “The career of the Bodhisattva is conspicuous by his noble
spirit and self-sacrificing deeds.” (1992, p. 97) Therefore, the Bodhisattva is more concerned about the well-being
of each member of the community than he is about himself. This type of progressive thinking is also found in Taoism. According
to Kohn, there are Masters of Wondrous Practice, Virtue, and Tao, who receive an ordination certificate for achieving the
highest levels of understanding, selflessness, and compassion (2004, p. 86). The Taoist understands that he cannot become
‘one with the Tao’ until the entire community is ready for this transition. To reach this level of enlightenment
the Taoist practices Nei-Yeh or ‘inward training’ that centers the vital energies and empties the mind
(Creighton, 2001, p. 590). Additionally, he builds a seamless connection between the “psychological, physiological,
and spiritual aspects, while recognizing the interconnectedness of the heavens, the earth and human beings” (p. 590).
The same theme is found in Christianity for those seeking to attain ‘Christ Consciousness’. Every religion
speaks of the highest levels of spiritual awareness, and Confucianism is no exception. In the Analectics, Confucius
speaks of the superiority and calmness that is associated with attaining an ‘enlightened’ state of being. Consequently,
once enlightenment is referred to as a sought-after goal, a viable connection is established between the physical world and
the heavens. The next step for the serious student of Eastern religion is to experience this mystical connection.
It can be argued that Confucius was a philosopher and not a religious leader. His writings apply to humanistic, rational,
ethical and moralistic issues. Virtue and morality are his primary focus, and there are very few similarities to the exoteric
religious teachings of East and West. Confucius is concerned with teaching people about benevolence, generosity, love, compassion,
and sincerity in a straightforward manner (without worship, metaphysics or dogma). He concentrates on developing morality
- and a sense of shame - so people will behave in harmonious ways. He also stresses that in order to govern, one must govern
themselves. Additionally, loyalty to family and family lineage are important to maintain honor.
Confucius teaches his students how to live a contented, moral and happy life. He wants people to associate with others
who can act as their teachers. He encourages people to live by their principles and continue to build upon them. He tells
others to love their work, because they will realize that they are not really working at all. In this natural state of mind,
all six of the essential ethical principles are automatically being assimilated into the person’s being.
The six Confucian principles of xi, zhi, li, yi, wen, and ren - form a framework of ideals that allows the
individual to become a ‘being’ of pure, unlimited virtue. These six qualities are interconnected and dependent
on each other for the assimilation of moral principles. The student must be sincere in his efforts while learning these principles,
and has a genuine desire to live the virtuous life. Consequently, he expresses authenticity in words and deeds, and has an
unselfish desire to expand his capacity for learning. Additionally, he builds upon his xi, and therefore,
increases his inner potential for goodness.
The Confucian mystery of xi
is a key component that bridges the gap between exoteric and esoteric philosophy. Although Confucianism is primarily viewed
as a philosophical discipline for cultivating morality, there is a metaphysical question concerning the nature of xi.
This concept cannot be explained rationally, but it inspires discussion about the innate goodness, evil, or nothingness within
man. Confucius claims that man is born without good or bad qualities, but the unlimited potential goodness of xi
casts doubt on this assumption. This one mysterious aspect of ‘being’ invites the mystic to investigate whether
a Confucian-mystical connection exists. Subsequently, the mystic will want to know if Confucianism offers a mystical doctrine
that is similar to traditions of Taoism, Buddhism and other traditions. Although it is clear that Confucius was not a mystic,
there are mystical references to an ‘enlightened state of being’. Consequently, the mystical teachings Confucianism,
Taoism, and Buddhism are connected by a common goal of attaining enlightenment. Additionally, all three traditions are teaching
similar ethical standards that must be assimilated before the individual attains enlightenment. Therefore, the individual
must live the moral life and expand his consciousness in preparation for entering the enlightened state. Upon mastering the
Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist ways of ethical living, the student is ready to enter the path of the mystic.