The issue of preserving the contemporary epoch has always attracted the attention of many philosophers. One of the possible ways of solving this problem is through the development and employment of some ideal pattern. In such a manner, Confucius belongs to those thinkers who tried to deduce this ideal model from the social and political order of the previously existing Chinese state described by historians. Confucius considered that the whole world existed as a complex of different interrelations that realized themselves in what Confucius called “the Way”. He thought that the previous states had followed this Way, but people had been changing and perverting reality as time passed; finally, the state lost its unity with the universal harmony. Thus, the main aim of Confucius was to make people better through education because, according to his belief, everyone had a potential of following the Way called a gentleman. Nevertheless, to realize this potential, one needs proper education. The realization of a gentleman’s nature allows one to act in accordance with the benevolence that is the highest degree of the Confucian virtues. In such a way, Confucius developed and reinterpreted the ancient Chinese ethical and political values according to the main challenges of his times.
The Historical Context of Confucian Teaching
To understand the origins and actuality of Confucius’ teaching concerning a gentleman and his features, it is necessary to understand the historical background. Confucianism with its political and moral orientation appeared as a reaction to the current reality that influenced Confucius’ worldview. According to Conrad Schirokauer, the main feature of his philosophy was the appellation to some ideal image of the past Chinese state that was to be achieved by following Confucius’ guidelines. The historical perspective clearly explains why Confucius’ philosophy took such a conservative form.
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Schirokauer, in his A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, compares a powerful ancient state of Zhou and a weak state of Lu, in which Confucius was born. The state of Zhou included many Chinese lands and existed under the rule of the emperor, who based his power on traditions, ceremonies, and bureaucracy. In fact, due to the proper government, Zhou preserved its borders and stayed unified just as the Heaven did that was above it. It is important to underline that the Heaven became an important symbol of unity and integrity in Confucius’ philosophy, as opposed to the disordered small Chinese states, one of which was Confucius’ native land. The connection between the Heaven and the state broke in 723 BC when the state of Zhou turned to the period called Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn). In those times, there was no political, economic, and social stability; traditions were violated, and the unity of the state ended.
Instead of one state of Zhou, there appeared many separate Chinese states. Consequently, this situation led to the violation of the main ceremonies and traditions (because they were based on the political and social reality of Zhou). As a result, according to Schirokauer, the whole Chinese political and social system came into the total disorder that demanded some new and adequate regulating approach. Schirokauer underlines two main features of the epoch of Spring and Autumn: 1) the appearance of many political centers instead of the previous one; 2) the rise of the modest aristocracy called Shi, the representatives of which took the place of the previous ruling class of the highest aristocrats. In this context, it is important that Confucius belonged to this social group; “he was of modest aristocratic heritage, but, having no wealth or good personal connections, he had to make a career for himself”. The same concerns the majority of officials of those times, who achieved high posts due to their personal initiatives rather than inherited a high social status. Another important detail is that the native state of Confucius, the state of Lu, was under the reign of the Zhou dynasty’s descendants. Along with other political, social, and personal details, these two features of Confucius’ destiny presupposed the way of his philosophy’s realization.
Confucius was born in 551 BC, in the social and political context described above; therefore, he understood that the only one way to escape the collapse was to restore the state of Zhou and return the times when the state existed in accordance with the Way (Dao). In such a manner, the integer state of Zhou became the symbol of prosperity, righteousness, and other characteristics that Confucius’ society extremely needed. It is the root of his teaching concerning a gentleman as a person who corresponds to the Way and lives accordingly to benevolence as the highest virtue.
Confucius’ Political Teaching
Accepting the political situation as the main source of Confucian ideas, it is important to consider the concept of Confucius’ gentleman within the context of its political implementation. In such a way, the description of the Way should precede the explanation of who walks along with it. Schirokauer claims that Confucius understood the Way in two senses: 1) “the way of nature, the way the world works,” and 2) “the Way of the Former Kings.” In fact, Schirokauer adds that for Confucius, there was no difference between those senses because the latter was just the first one considered through the political prism because Confucius believed that the state of Zhou existed in direct correspondence to the Way (and the Heaven that symbolized the unity of the state). Thus, there were different social devices to organize society in a proper way. Among them, he mentioned ceremonies and traditions. According to Schirokauer, for Confucius, each ceremony was the manifestation of the Way; therefore, they were always undoubtedly sacral and necessary. Another important feature of the Confucian ideal state is the so-called filial piety of the inferior people to the superior ones; it represents the Universal order. Schirokauer mentions an anecdote about Confucius who denied an offer to become an influential official because he considered, “Let everyone play his proper role in the traditional order inherited from early Zhou and in the natural order of the family, and all will be well.”
At the same time, despite Confucius’ appellation to the tradition, it is clear that his philosophy is an actual interpretation of Zhou’s essential principles implemented for his epoch. Confucius, as a representative of the class of Shi, elaborated the moral teaching that would help everyone become a gentleman – a person who could improve the Chinese world by his virtues. There was no social mobility in the hierarchical Zhou society; that is why Confucius’ political and ethical project was a response to the degradation of the previous ruling class.
Confucius’ Ethical Teaching
The ethical doctrine of Confucius is based on three main concepts: a gentleman, benevolence, and the Way. Through the political context described above, it is possible to explain them correctly. Thus, in the Confucian teaching, one of the main theoretical tenets is everyone’s potential to become junzi; the concept is traditionally translated as a gentleman. Etymologically it means a son of a prince and serves as a reference to the social order of Zhou, in which, according to Confucius’ ideal image of the state, the highest positions were possessed only by those who morally deserved them because of following the order of the world. In Confucianism, this universal order, as Schirokauer claims, had a metaphorical image of the Way that a gentleman walks along. In such a manner, as it was already mentioned, it represented the harmony of the universe and had different forms such as the Way of the Former Kings, in particular, and the Way the World Works, in general. The main device that helps one to find the Way and become a gentleman is education. Thus, Confucius was the first prominent Chinese philosopher who stated that education was more important than hereditary superiority. In such a way, the crisis situation of Confucius’ native society along with the fact of his belonging to the class of Shi, convinced him to revise the ancient Zhou traditional hierarchical understanding of society and bring an element of social mobility to it.
A gentleman possesses different virtues, but the highest one is called Ren; it is translated by Schirokauer as benevolence.” Benevolence includes all virtues needed for following the Way; it is “simply the sum and summit of all the particular virtues.” In fact, benevolence is the virtue that is the main goal of education. The translation that Schirokauer offers is a reference to a gentleman’s aspiration to the good, in accordance with Confucius’ statement, “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” Thus, as long as everyone is able to be benevolent, everyone is a potential gentleman. In such a way, Confucius provides the ethical teaching that helps to transform the understanding of the social and political elite by replacing the accent from hereditary rights to personal qualities achieved by education.
Confucius’ political and ethical teaching is an attempt to interpret the ideals of the state of Zhou through the actual challenges of the philosopher’s epoch, in which the social and political disorder caused the crisis called the period of Spring and Autumn. In fact, Confucius developed the only one way to restore the state elite through the appellation to the qualities needed by those people who could not hereditary join the state elite but possessed the required skills to acquire the main virtues through education. Thus, Confucius’ concept of a gentleman is a particular example of his doctrine’s social implementation: Confucius taught not to impose on others what one himself did not desire; in the same way, he assumed that all people were equal.