5 Sayings of Confucius That Still Resonate Today

By: Dave Roos  | 

Confucius
As a young man, Confucius gained a reputation for his mastery of the traditional rituals and ceremonies associated with the once-flourishing Zhou culture. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The man we call Confucius was actually named Kong fuzi or "Master Kong" and the impact of his teachings on ethical and moral philosophy — in short, the best way to live and treat others — have echoed across the millennia.

Confucius was born in 551 B.C.E. to the concubine of a man of moderate social status in the kingdom of Lu (now the Shandong Peninsula of China). Confucius' father, an important aide in a more powerful house, died when Confucius was just 3 years old, leaving his family in poverty. The turmoil of Confucius' personal life was mirrored in the political and cultural changes in Lu, where the age-old traditions and norms of the ruling class were being torn down by power-hungry warlords.

As a young man, Confucius gained a reputation for his mastery of the traditional rituals and ceremonies associated with the once-flourishing Zhou culture. He began tutoring aristocratic young men in the importance of li, the ritual institutions of the Zhou that included everything from religious rites and court ceremonies, to personal etiquette and ethical behavior. It was only through li that a man could become a junzi, a truly benevolent and capable person, or a "gentleman."

Confucius became an adviser to the Duke of Lu, but the leader failed to live up to Confucius' high ethical standards, so Confucius and his small clutch of disciples left Lu in search of an incorruptible ruler. For 15 years, Confucius traveled from state to state counseling different leaders, each of whom proved a disappointment, but provided ample opportunities for Confucius to further hone his ethical worldview.

Confucius eventually returned to Lu, where he gathered more disciples and edited the classics of Zhou culture, including texts on ritual, music, history and poetry that became the bedrock of later Confucianism. Soon after Confucius' death in 479 B.C.E, his followers committed his most cherished sayings to print in a series of dialogues called the Analects.

We spoke with Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Bryan Van Norden, two scholars of Chinese philosophy, to better understand the depth and resonance of Confucius' philosophy as recorded in the Analects. Here are five famous quotes to think about.

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1. "That which you do not desire, do not do to others."

Zigong [a disciple] asked, "Is there a single saying that one may put into practice all one's life?" The Master [Confucius] said, "That would be 'reciprocity': That which you do not desire, do not do to others."

Western readers will recognize Confucius' statement as a version of the "Golden Rule," which Confucius expresses elsewhere in the Analects as "Do not do to others what you would not wish done to you."

When asked to choose a single maxim by which to live one's life, Confucius answered with the Chinese word Shu, which can be translated as "reciprocity" but also as "understanding," "empathy," and "loving kindness." But Csikszentmihalyi warns against reducing Confucian philosophy to a single rule.

"Confucius wasn't a rule-based philosopher; he was a virtue and ethics philosopher like Aristotle," says Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of "Readings in Han Chinese Thought." "Aristotle talked about magnanimity and bravery, while Confucius talks about benevolence, righteousness, and ritual and filial piety. The idea is to develop these character traits and not consult a rule."

For Confucians, Shu is the basic requirement for developing Ren, which means "benevolence," "humaneness" or "goodness" — the hallmarks of a virtuous life. The Golden Rule, in this case, is a way of approaching the world that opens doors to the other virtues.

"To be compassionate to someone, you have to see them as similar to you," says Csikszentmihalyi. "When you want to be cruel to another person or group, you call them animals, you demean them and say, 'You're not the same as we are.' You have to understand, though, that benevolence only applies in certain situations, while in other situations ritual propriety is called for. Instead of obeying rules, Confucians must continually ask themselves, 'What would Confucius do?'"

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2. "You do not yet understand life — how could you possibly understand death?"

Zilu [another disciple] asked about serving ghosts and spirits. The Master said, "You are not yet able to serve people — how could you be able to serve ghosts and spirits?"

"May I inquire about death?"

"You do not yet understand life — how could you possibly understand death?"

Most Western and Eastern religions are deeply concerned with the fate of the soul after death, whether it's rewarded with eternal bliss, punished with eternal damnation or reborn in countless incarnations. But Confucianism, says Van Norden, is decidedly earthbound.

"Many philosophical and religious thinkers view the ideal life as transcending the physical body and its attachments, whereas Confucius advocates making the most of your life here on Earth with other people," says Van Norden, a professor at both Vassar College and Wuhan University (China), and the creator of a wildly popular TED-Ed video about Confucius. "I like the Confucian idea that we can aspire to be better people than we are now, and that the goal is to have a life rich in healthy relationships with other people."

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3. "Guide [people] with virtue...and [they] will have a sense of shame and fulfill their roles."

Full quote: "Guide them with policies and align them with punishments and the people will evade them and have no shame. Guide them with virtue and align them with li and the people will have a sense of shame and fulfill their roles."

This sage piece of advice relates to the best way to rule a people. In an early passage, Confucius says that a person who rules by virtue is "like the North Star" which stays in one place while all other stars "pay reverence to it." Here he re-emphasizes the value of leading by example through virtue and ritual propriety.

Csikszentmihalyi says that centuries after Confucius, a "legalist" mindset pervaded China where the people were kept in line with harsh punishments in order to create what Chinese leaders thought was a well-ordered society.

"Confucius rejects that approach," says Csikszentmihalyi. "If you lead the people with this charismatic ritual authority, then they'll develop their own sense of 'shame.' You don't want people obeying the rules because they're afraid of being punished. What you really want is for individuals to develop their own moral compasses."

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4. "Both keeping past teachings alive and understanding the present — someone able to do this is worthy of being a teacher."

When Confucius began teaching young noblemen in Lu, the classic texts of the former Zhou culture were collecting dust on the shelves. Confucius believed that these texts held the secrets to bringing order back to the world. Two of the most important classical Zhou subjects for Confucius were history and poetry.

"Confucius thought that history teaches us how we should and shouldn't behave by studying the great sages and villains of the past," says Van Norden. "And he thought that poetry could help to train our emotions by teaching us what healthy and decadent forms of love are, and what real courage is."

Confucius dedicated much of his later life to editing and organizing the Zhou classics, which together with his own writings became the foundations of Confucianism. A central tenet of Confucianism is the importance of traditional ritual and etiquette, both of which help to shape our attitudes about others.

"Confucius thought that we could have a more kind and human and respectful society if we revived social conventions about how we address one another and how we show respect or deference for others," says Van Norden. "Confucius would look at contemporary society, in which there's been a breakdown in mutual respect, and say that one way of reestablishing mutual respect is through reminding ourselves about proper etiquette for talking to other people and addressing our differences."

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5. "Wealth and high rank obtained by unrighteous means are like the floating clouds."

Full Quote: “To eat coarse greens, drink water, and crook one’s elbow for a pillow — joy also lies therein. Wealth and high rank obtained by unrighteous means are to me like the floating clouds.”

Csikszentmihalyi says that there's a real suspicion of wealth that runs through the Analects as well as a strong anti-corruption message in passages like this. Perhaps Confucius foresaw the rampant corruption that plagues modern China.

As China has shifted away from strict Communist ideology toward more liberal economic policies, it's left a "spiritual" gap, says Van Norden, that Chinese leaders like Xi Jinping are trying to fill with Confucianism, a religion once violently opposed by Communists during the Cultural Revolution.

"I think Xi recognizes that many people have lost faith in Communism and China now is Communist in name only," says Van Norden. "Xi hopes that people will fill the spiritual void with Confucianism and this will promote both good behavior on the part of citizens while being consistent with Chinese nationalism, because Confucianism is a native Chinese movement."

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