Confucius – or K’ung Fut-zu, as he was called in Chinese – was a philosopher who proposed some ideas that seem very simple, which might be the reason why he is still so popular today. What he taught was this: outward appearances are more important than we think – bowing to our elders, letting others go through the door first, standing up to speak to a superior, and many other similar things for which they had more rules in China than we have. All such practices, so he believed, were not just a matter of chance. They meant something, or had done once. Usually something beautiful.
Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a book that tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb in forty concise chapters. Today, our focus is on Confucius, a famous teacher, philosopher and political theorist from China.
A long time ago in China, a philosopher started to develop ideas that would soon have a huge impact on the rest of the country. His name was Confucius – or K’ung Fut-zu, as he is known in Chinese. Born into a poor family, Confucius grew up with the goal of helping everyone live peacefully together. In A Little History of the World, E.H. Gombrich introduces some of Confucius’ teachings:
‘What Confucius proposed is quite simple. You may not like it, but there is more wisdom in it than first meets the eye. What he taught was this: outward appearances are more important than we think – bowing to our elders, letting others go through a door first, standing up to speak to a superior, and many other similar things for which they had more rules in China than we have. All such practices, he believed, were not just a matter of chance. They meant something, or had done once. Usually something beautiful. Which is why Confucius said: ‘I believe in Antiquity, and I love it.’ By this he meant that he believed in the sound good sense of all the many-thousand-year-old customs and habits, and he repeatedly urged his fellow countrymen to observe them. He thought that everything in life ran more smoothly if people did. Almost by itself, as it were, without the need to think too hard about it. Of course such behaviour does not make people good, but it helps them stay good.
For Confucius had a very good opinion of humanity. He said that all people were born honest and good, and that, deep down, they remained so. Anyone seeing a small child playing near the water’s edge will worry lest it fall in, he said. Concern for our fellow human beings and sympathy for the misfortunes of others are inborn sentiments. All we need do is to make sure we do not lose them. And that, said Confucius, is why we have families. Someone who is always good to his parents, who obeys them and cares for them – and this comes naturally to us – will treat others in the same way, and will obey the laws of the state in the same way that he obeys his father. Thus, for Confucius, the family, with its brotherly and sisterly love and respect for parents, was the most important thing of all. He called it ‘the root of humanity’.’
Eventually, these teachings became the foundation of many people’s moral beliefs and today, Confucius is known as China’s most famous philosopher.