10 quotes from Confucius that explain his philosophy

We all know who Confucius was, but what did he teach?

It is impossible to discuss either Eastern philosophy or the history of China without discussing Confucius

Raised in poverty by a single mother, he would go on to become one of the most influential philosophers of all time. He looked at the chaotic age he lived in and longed for a return to the golden age of the Zhou dynasty of several centuries past.   

He decided that the cause of China’s strife was a moral decline and that a return to virtue in both individuals and governance could restore the glory, harmony, and progress of ages past. To that end, he developed a philosophy of self-cultivation and ritual. He then toured the various states of northern China in an attempt to find a court that would enact his ideas.

While he failed in this venture, he did teach many students who went on to promote his work after his death. After the adoption of Confucian ideals by the Han dynasty, Confucianism went on to have a 2000-year run of being the dominant ideology of China, with only a few interludes on the sidelines.

One such deviation was the latter half of the 20th century and the Cultural Revolution in particular. At the height of the chaos, Red Guards, fanatic young students as seen above, attacked temples, statues, worshipers, and even Confucius' cemetery. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

What does Confucius teach?

To help you get an introduction to one of the greatest thinkers of all time, we have ten quotes from Confucius that explain the major points of his philosophy.

The goal of Confucianism: How to become a 'junzi'

"From the Son of Heaven on down to commoners, all without exception should regard self-cultivation as the root."

Confucius’ teachings encourage everybody to pursue self-cultivation as a means to moral perfection. The goal of this cultivation is to become a junzi (君子 literally: ruler's son), translated as “gentleman” or “superior person”. 

Such a person will be sincere, trustworthy, compassionate, humble, and righteous. A junzi can also inspire others to improve themselves, starting a chain of moral development that, eventually, leads to social harmony.

This idea was radical when he proposed it; he was suggesting in a feudal society that anybody with the right education could become a great person, not just the nobility. 

How do you build virtue? Rituals, lots of rituals

"A man who is not good, what can he have to do with ritual?"

Confucius was big on ritual, ceremony, and etiquette, discussing at length the proper ways to eat, revere ancestors, and address others. He saw these seemingly superfluous actions as a vital part of our moral education. By engaging in these actions day in and day out, we are driven towards the good and away from vice.  

The idea here is that when you practice a ritual, like bowing to an elder, you must also feel the proper emotions, respect in the case of bowing, to do it correctly. By practicing like this, you eventually come to master the virtues. 

This means that even when the ritual seems dumb, you ought to do it. As he once explained to a disciple who objected to the needless sacrifice of an animal, “You love the sheep; I love the ceremony.” Showing us that the action is needed to help us grow, not merely an understanding of why we are doing it.

Learning is good in and of itself

"To learn something and rehearse it constantly, is this indeed not a pleasure?"

Confucius maintained that his only advantage was his love of learning and that education was the first step on the road to moral improvement. To that end, he supported removing social and economic barriers to education and took on many students without regard to their backgrounds.

However, he also warns against mere memorization of facts and data, and speaks many times against the idea that the mere hoarder of information is wise. He reminds us that acting on this knowledge is also required when he says, "To be fond of learning is to be near to knowledge. To practice with vigor is to be near to magnanimity."

Virtue starts at home

"Surely proper behavior towards parents and elder brothers is the trunk of goodness?"

Confucius saw the family as the fundamental moral unit. In the family, we get our first taste of the relationships that constitute society and a chance to practice the rituals and virtues that later make us good people. 

The virtue of being a good family member, filial piety, is also a cardinal virtue in Chinese culture.

Students stand before a statue of Confucius at a temple in Changchun. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

It’s a long way to the top if you want to be a moral exemplar

"At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. 
At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. 
At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. 
At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. 
At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. 
At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right."

Mastering your desires, thoughts, and actions is a lifelong process. You can’t become the ideal "superior person" over a weekend. When you feel like you’ll never succeed, remember that it took Confucius himself a lifetime to master his own teachings.

A government must be virtuous

"You are governing; what need is there for killing? If you desire the good, the people will be good. The virtue of the superior man is wind; the virtue of the small person is grass. When wind passes over it, the grass is sure to bend." — Confucius' response to the ruler of the Chinese state Lu, when asked if it was wise to exterminate those without virtue.

Just as a single upstanding person can cause those around them to become virtuous, Confucius held that a righteous ruler could help an entire people become better citizens. It is therefore vital to the ideal state that the rulers, ministers, and officials be virtuous and well educated.

He also held the opposite to be true and warned that a vicious ruler would cultivate a cruel people. It was vital, then, that the best leaders possible be found to govern. 

This dedication to meritocracy is seen elsewhere in his teachings and lead to the creation of comprehensive civil service exams by Confucian ministers to help find the junzi who could best run things. The west would later steal this very good idea. 

Know the ways of heaven, but don’t be concerned with your afterlife

"If we don’t know life, how can we know death?"

Confucianism is a philosophy for living. As such, it is unconcerned with the exact details of what happens after death and Confucius himself refused to speculate on it. 

He did believe in a cosmic order, referred to as 天 (tian) and often translated as “heaven,” which intervened in human affairs. He argued that we should respect and seek to emulate this order, but spoke of it only occasionally in his teachings.

Confucianism also maintains the existence of spirits, ghosts, and Gods which should be worshiped and adequately respected though ritual.

The simple form of morality

"What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

Yep, China did it first. The silver rule, as this negative phrasing of the golden rule is often called, is dated to more than 400 years before Christ’s birth.

While following this rule is not a replacement for the personal development explained above, Confucius did see this as an excellent rule to follow, and the virtuous person would act this way in any case.

If you would like to learn more about Confucius, there is an excellent documentary on his life and ideas here. You can also find books on his life and his philosophy at your local library.

Be careful though, Harvard historian Michael Puett explains in this interview how easy it is for Westerners to misinterpret Eastern philosophy. 

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

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  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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