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.
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.
- With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
- The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
- If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Built for mayhem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzk4NTQ2OX0.my6nML12F3fEQu3H4G0BScdqgaMZkRQHxgyj-Cmjmzk/img.jpg?width=980" id="906fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd77af7a881631355ed8972437846394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers are, of course, talking averages here, not stating a rule: There are plenty of accomplished female pugilists, as well as lots of males who have no idea how to throw a punch.</p><p>Even so, says co-author <a href="https://www.wofford.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/biology/faculty-and-staff" target="_blank">Jeremy Morris</a> says, "The general approach to understanding why sexual dimorphism evolves is to measure the actual differences in the muscles or the skeletons of males and females of a given species, and then look at the behaviors that might be driving those differences."</p><p>Carrier has been interested in the idea that millennia of male fighting has shaped certain structures in male bodies. Previous research has reinforced his hunch:</p> <ul> <li><a href="https://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/2/236" target="_blank">When a hand is formed into a fist, its structure is self-protective</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://unews.utah.edu/flat-footed-fighters/" target="_blank">Heels planted firmly on the ground augment upper-body power</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909544" target="_blank">A study examined facial bone structure as being especially well-suited for taking a punch</a>.</li> </ul> <p>(That last one is our favorite. Do you know the German word "<a href="https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Backpfeifengesicht" target="_blank">backpfeifengesicht</a>?" It's an adjective describing "a face that badly needs a punching.")</p><p>"One of the predictions that comes out of those," asserts Carrier, "is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch."</p>
Testing the theory<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzMxMTE2MH0.UXJICMy57UPYUWskhK98alctOrPidJL9yxMkz3HDQrM/img.jpg?width=980" id="98718" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b12287684ac3e740b70392e6433a6b8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers measured the punching — and spear-throwing — force of 20 men and 19 women. The assumption was that early humans were punchers <em>and</em> spear-throwers.</p><p>Prior to testing, each participant had filled out an activity questionnaire so that "we weren't getting couch potatoes, we were getting people that were very fit and active," says Morris.</p><p>For punching, participants operated a hand crank that required movement similar to throwing a haymaker. The purpose of the hand crank was to spare participants any damage that might be inflicted on their fists by throwing actual punches. Subjects were also measured pulling a line forward over their heads to assess their strength at throwing a spear.</p><p>Even though all of the participants, male and female, were routinely fit, the average power of males was assessed as being 162% greater than females. There were no gender differences in throwing strength recorded. Other untested, though presumably likely, hand-to-hand combat activities come to mind including tackling, clubbing, running, kicking, scratching, and biting.</p><p>Carrier's takeaway: "This is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting, and males fighting in a particular way, which is throwing punches."</p>
Boys will be boys<p>It, er, strikes us as odd that, even in science fiction — hi-tech weaponry notwithstanding — the hero <em>is</em> going to wind up duking it out with some bad guy, or alien, in the climactic battle. What is it about men punching, anyway? Are they more sexually attractive? The study suggests so:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The results of this study add to a set of recently identified characters indicating that sexual selection on male aggressive performance has played a role in the evolution of the human musculoskeletal system and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in hominins.</em></p><p>It's tough to contribute to the gene pool after being killed in battle.</p><p>Also, while the authors aren't <em>quite</em> saying that males' historical fighting role is mandated by biology and not by social expectations, neither are they quite <em>not</em> saying it.</p><p>As Carrier explain to <a href="https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/carrier-punch/" target="_blank">theU</a>: "Human nature is also characterized by avoiding violence and finding ways to be cooperative and work together, to have empathy, to care for each other, right? There are two sides to who we are as a species. If our goal is to minimize all forms of violence in the future, then understanding our tendencies and what our nature really is, is going to help."</p>
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97ac37e6c7f6f22ec130ea2d56871701"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dB78NV2WpWc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.</p><p>In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank">One study</a> compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00006.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">another Florida study</a> found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Oklahoma</a> and another out of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734016813478823" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Minnesota</a>, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.</p><p>The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. <a href="https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/economics_of_private_prisons.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Hamilton Project analysis</a> noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.</p><p>"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."</p>
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."