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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Singer

The Real Confucius — Parts I and II

Photograph of Temple of Confucius, Beijing by Walter Grassroot

Part I — Who is the Sage of Qufu?

I thought I knew Confucius. His Chinese name was Kong Fuzi, called Kongzi. I visited his hometown of Qufu in Shandong Province and saw his grave. His sayings are the basis of Chinese society, of the child respecting the parent, the family respecting the clan, the people respecting the government. An ordered and civil and conformist existence based on ritual. Rigid, patriarchal, and perfectly suited for the top-down, Chinese Imperial System. This is what I knew.

Well, it turns out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did and that what I did know was not all that accurate, to a point. What I thought of as Confucianism was not attributable directly to the man who lived around 500 B.C., but rather it is the legacy of the Neo-Confucianists of the Song Dynasty 1,500 years later, give or take a hundred years here and there. They adapted the philosophy of the ancient Confucius for their vision of an ethical, ordered philosophical and political system that has endured for a long, long time. Why do I finally know this? Because a friend suggested I take an online college course while cocooning mostly at home during the ongoing pandemic.

I signed up to audit a HarvardX course entitled, “China Humanities: The Individual in Chinese Culture.” The first of the eight blocks was on Confucius. And did I learn something new.

Yes, Confucius promoted li, or ritual, and ren, or humanness, but true to the nature of the course, his focus was on the individual, not on a broader system or world order. He encouraged people to cultivate a sense of caring in the person, of developing a sense of those around them. He emphasized using ritual to overcome ourselves, to break free from set patterns, to train ourselves to be good human beings. If we can sense the needs of others and act in a way that helps them grow and flourish, then we will flourish too. This is the self, the focus on the individual that Confucius the man espoused.

Much of the above are not my words specifically (I take really good notes), but they are significant. I now have a better understanding of Confucius the man, not just Confucius the system.

Part II — Sage of Qufu v. Ol’ Blue Eyes

The final assessment in Block 1 of my audited HarvardX course, “China Humanities: The Individual in Chinese Culture,” asked us to compare and contrast Confucius’ Analects 2.4 with Frank Sinatra’s song, “My Way.” The open response encouraged us to examine the nature of self, what it means for that self to live a good life, what is freedom. The final suggestion was to respond to which conception of self appeals to us more.

“My Way” can easily be found online ( Here is Confucius: “The master said, ‘At age fifteen, I set my intent on studying; at thirty I established myself; at forty I was no longer deluded; at fifty I understood the mandates of Heaven; at sixty my ear accorded; at seventy I followed what my heart desired without transgression.’”

Here is my edited answer:

Confucius and Sinatra are each satisfied with their respective lives. Yet why they each view their life as well lived stem from decidedly different concepts of self. One encapsulates a broad, outward-looking vision, while the other is narrower and inward looking. One sees life as a journey flowing through time, while the other views it as a prize fight.

Confucius has an expansive, measured concept of leading a good life. This passage illuminates the ritual (li) toward which he believes a good life is to be directed. The ritual is that of methodically undergoing and completing the stages of his life (studying, establishing, maturing, awareness, peace, and freedom). It is not quick, and it is not for the moment. He does not seek personal gratification in the immediate present, but rather pursues a lifelong course to learn and develop deeper. While not expressly stated (what is in classical Chinese?), he is cultivating himself to try and relate to a broader community, to those around him, to the world. As we learned, he strives to be aware of others, to support and promote them, to build relationships, and in this way help all, himself included, to flourish.

The goal as outlined in other of his writings is to develop and promote humaneness (ren), to have a sense of caring for others, to see the world as they see it, to appreciate how their lives and experiences and responses are not only their own, but also as they are impacted by the circumstances of their respective lives. By being learned, clear-minded, mature, caring, aware, and in harmony with the world, this led Confucius to wisdom, to satisfaction with a life lived beyond himself, but true to himself. His notion of self is tied up in the progression of this process. For Confucius, this is freedom earned through extensive study and effort.

Sinatra’s concept of a good life is also about being true to oneself, but this self is a narrow construct. This self is not tied to learning and study of the world and others, but rather to that of the individual, established for the individual, lived for the individual, and analyzed and measured in light of the individual. For, “if not himself, then he has naught.” There is no discrete reference or necessarily awareness of other individuals or community; to the contrary, Sinatra revels in being direct, not shy. Inhibition is not a Sinatra calling card.

Sinatra has traveled far and wide and has charted his course with precision. He was dedicated and tenacious and single-minded. He developed and cultivated his course based on his emotions, his view of advancing himself as an individual. He was not afraid to state his opinion. What he values is this drive to be true to himself as an individual, to do what he wants, when and where he wants. There does not seem to be any consideration of or concern for anything of import greater than he as a person. This living of life his way, according to his own dictates, this is Sinatra’s freedom, this is his ideal of self.

Xunzi (another philosopher), building on Confucius, felt that we as people “should try to create a better world and not just play to our base desires.” The Confucius quote takes a measured, outward-looking approach to defining what that better world might be. Sinatra’s lyrics flourish in base desires, an inward-looking perspective. If, as Xunzi postulates, ethics is a lifelong training process to understand the world and humans around you in order to act well, then Sinatra’s life would presumably not have passed muster as ethical.

Is one view of self better, more fulfilling than the other? There is a great deal of allure in the view of self promulgated by Sinatra. It is straightforward and easy to quantify. Confucius’ concept of the self is beyond the individual and requires perseverance and patience to achieve. In a surely unsatisfying Solomon-esque answer, I will say that while I aspire to the latter, I have proclivities towards the former.


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