Book Extract on Confucius and The Way

The Chinese concept of the Way, or Tao, was current before Confucius lived or taught; the Books of Odes and Rites tell of Heaven, and reveal beliefs in ancestor-spirits and a supreme being with a human face. However, Tzu-kung reports that “one cannot get to hear [Confucius’] views on human nature and the Way of Heaven. (V, 13, 78) Confucius does not conjecture about the nature of God or Heaven, but he felt the full force of Heaven’s Decree upon him, and suggested that shame is the feeling of falling afoul of the Way of Heaven: “When you have offended against Heaven, there is nowhere you can turn in your prayers.” (III, 13, 69) The subject of Confucius’ teaching is not the nature of man, but man’s conduct. It is not the Way of Heaven in the sense of ultimate truth about the universe, but rather in the most down-to-earth sense of each person and each state acting dutifully, benevolently, in compliance with the Rites, outward form conferring inward grace. Confucius’ Way is in no means mystical. It can be learned, and taught. “The Gentleman . . . goes to men possessed of the Way to be put right. Such a man can be described as eager to learn.” (I, 14, 61) The fact that Confucius’ conception of the Way relies on learned forms rather than mystical revelation does not make it any less a matter of life and death:

The Master said, “He has not lived in vain who dies the day he is told about the Way.” (IV, 8, 73)

When the ruler governs according to the Golden Mean, observes the Rites, and follows the Way, he brings his state to a condition of harmony, for “when the Way prevails in the Empire, the Commoners do not express critical views.” (XVI, 2, 139) In this dialogue with the senior minister of the State of Lu, Confucius asserts that the Way is all the ruler needs, rebuking the Legalist School of philosophy and every gang of thugs and killers to assume power from his own time down through the ages:

Chi K’ang Tzu asked Confucius about government, saying, “What would you think if, in order to move closer to those who possess the Way, I were to kill those who do not follow the Way?

Confucius answered, “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill? Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good. The virtue of the Gentleman is like the wind; the virtue of the small man is like the grass. Let the wind blow over the grass and it is sure to bend.” (XII, 19, 114-115)

With his reverence for precedent and antiquity, his abiding conservatism, and his conception of a hierarchical society led by benevolent example, Confucius could be either an instrument or an impediment to the rulers of China. To some, he was both at the same time.

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