Confucius: He’s East Asia’s foremost philosopher, the great sage of the family. He’s also, according to most accounts, the sire of Asian authoritarianism.
Chinese leaders like President Xi Jinping invoke Confucius to promote obedience to their authority. In Singapore, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was fond of citing Confucius along with his vaunted “Asian values” to justify the ruling party’s despotic rule and subordination of individual rights to the collective good. In 1991, a parliamentary White Paper juxtaposed Confucianism against Western liberalism, saying the former was more suitable for Singapore because it advocated “trust and respect” towards the government.
Western media outlets echo this notion, with The Economist reporting on Confucianism’s “stress on order, hierarchy, and duty to ruler.” Even illustrious Western scholars who ought to know better have not been above this. In his book On China, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summed up Confucius’ teachings with the hierarchical precept: “Know thy place.”
They’re all wrong.
Confucius was no liberal, but neither was he a fascist authoritarian. His philosophy, which actually struck a balance between individualism and collectivism, between defiance and obedience, has been willfully distorted by Asian dictators to keep their people in line, and the Western press has lazily accepted this narrative.
Who am I to say this? What makes me think I can gainsay these leaders and pundits on the true nature of Confucius?
Easy: I read his texts.
I first read Confucius on a high-speed train from Beijing to Nanjing. After hearing so many terrible things about him, it was with some wariness that I approached his texts The Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean. With the Chinese countryside rushing past outside my window, I prepared to face this philosopher of oppression.
He was nothing like I expected.
Sure, Confucius is skeptical of the intellect of the common people (but no more so than many famous Western thinkers). He also stresses the importance of each person in society playing his part well, saying:
“There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.”
- The Analects, Book XII, Yen Yuan, Chapt XI
However, this doesn’t mean blind obedience to authority. He later spells out what he means for “a minister to be minister:”
“What is called a great minister is one who serves his prince according to what is right, and when he finds he cannot do so, retires.”
- The Analects, Book XI, Hsien Tsin, Chapt XXIII
In The Doctrine of the Mean, Chapt XIV, he describes a good man as someone who “does not court the favor of his superiors,” who “rectifies himself, and seeks for nothing from others.”
Even in a hierarchy, then, Confucius does not counsel being a spineless lickspittle, but a person of moral agency with independence of thought and action, who puts his own conscience above any authority. “He…stated that worthy men should not serve unworthy rulers,” wrote the great Yale Sinologist Jonathan Spence, in The Search for Modern China, “and must be ready to sacrifice their lives, if necessary, in the defense of principle.”
When one of his disciples collects an unjust tax on behalf of the powerful Chi family, Confucius roundly condemns him.
"He is no disciple of mine,' Confucius said. "My little children, beat the drum and assail him."
- The Analects, Book XI, Hsien Tsin, Chapt XVI
"Confucius stern view," observed Michael Scott, Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, in Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West, "[was] that principles should come first."
Confucius later lays out his opposition to arbitrary authority in the strongest possible terms:
The duke then said, “Is there a single sentence which can ruin a country?”
Confucius replied, “Such an effect as that cannot be expected from one sentence. There is, however, the saying which people have – “I have no pleasure in being a prince, but only in that no one can offer any opposition to what I say!””
- The Analects, Book XIII, Tsze-lu, Chapt XV
For every bit I found which seems to support deference to authority, I found many others which counsel the restraint of authority and adhering to principle in the face of unjust power. And, far from placing the community over the individual, there’s a section that goes:
Tsze-kung asked, saying, “What do you say of a man who is loved by all the people of his neighborhood?”
Confucius replied, “We may not for that accord our approval of him.”
“And what do you say of him who is hated by all the people of his neighborhood?”
Confucius said, “We may not for that conclude that he is bad. It is better than either of these cases that the good in the neighborhood love him, and the bad hate him.”
- The Analects, Book XIII, Tsze-lu, Chapt XXIV
This exchange in fact supports a strong individualism, against the rest of a community if need be, similar to Henry David Thoreau’s idea of “a majority of one” – that lonely, noble figure who refuses to conform to what he knows to be wrong.
These sentiments are consistent with what is recorded about Confucius’ own life. China’s greatest sage he may be in death, but in life his teachings were spurned by the powerful and judged impractical. That he died disappointed and destitute, unable to find a lord he could serve, shut out from the courts of power where he believed his wisdom most badly needed, was due in no small part to the fact that he was a person who did not bend his teachings to the whims of rulers, and who largely held to his values despite humiliation and hardship.
It would be a mistake to go so far as to call Confucius an individualist; he is nothing of the sort. He preferred to be part of a government than in the opposition, and resistance to injustice for him would take the form of resignation rather than open challenge. But neither is he what he’s so often made out to be: an authoritarian, a communitarian, the patron saint of Asian autocrats.
Rather, his philosophy was one of moderation and balance, neither inclining very far to one side or the other. Neither a lord or a commoner was to conduct himself with impropriety; a ruler should be obeyed, but only if he did not abuse his power. People at different levels of society had reciprocal obligations to one another:
“A prince should employ his minister according to the rules of propriety; ministers should serve their prince with faithfulness.”
- The Analects, Book III, Pa Yih, Chapt XIX
This is encapsulated in his framing of The Golden Rule, centuries before the Judeo-Christian tradition:
Tsze-kung asked, saying “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?”
Confucius said, “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
- The Analects, Book XV, Wei Ling Kung, Chapt XXIII
Furthermore, the mode of regulating behavior Confucius urged for rulers was leading through moral example, not the use of coercion:
Chi K’ang asked how to cause the people to reverence their ruler, to be faithful to him, and to go on to nerve themselves to virtue.
Confucius said, “Let him preside over them with gravity – then they will reverence him. Let him be filial and be kind to all – then they will be faithful to him. Let him advance the good and teach the incompetent – then they will eagerly seek to be virtuous."
- The Analects, Book II, Wei Chang, Chapt XX
He would likely have been horrified at the draconian punishments being ordered by the leaders who have invoked his name. For him, resorting to harsh punishment represented a failure on the part of the leader to educate his people.
So whence came this fall, this distortion of Confucius to serve autocracy? It seems it was some of his own followers who betrayed him. In his book Confucius: And the World He Created, Michael Schuman explains how, as Confucius grew in popularity, followers of his teachings in later centuries sold-out and adapted his tenets to the will of absolutist rulers so they could get and keep positions at court. Emperors used his name to lend legitimacy to their rule, much as Asian dictators are still doing now.
“Confucianism by no means mandates an authoritarian political system,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote. “In Singapore, the current political authorities are appealing to Confucian traditions somewhat dishonestly to justify an intrusive and unnecessarily paternalistic political system.”
Asian leaders have an incentive to twist Confucius and, in all likelihood, many Western commentators don’t trouble to read his texts before taking conventional pronouncements at face value. But defining him by the hierarchical part of his teachings makes as much sense as defining Socrates by his totalitarian vision of a Republic. It is to ignore the balance that is the essence of his philosophy.