Confucianism - Freedom and Democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a religion?

Appendix 3.  Is there a Teleology?   Is there a heaven or heaven on earth to aim for?


Sort of. But not really.

Confucius tells of a time long ago in which there was a datong, a great unity. From the LiJi, the Book of Rites Li Yun 1

When the Grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky; they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. … In this way (selfish) schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, filchers, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was (the period of) what we call the Grand Union.

The Grand Union differs from the ideal of Aristotle or Marx in its assumptions about human nature. Confucian political philosopher Joseph Chan has a good description in his Confucian Perfectionism  - 

The Confucian ideal ... is not based ... on superior technology and available resources (as with Marx) or expert knowledge (as with Aristotle) but postulates an ethic of public-spiritedness and mutual care that reigns throughout society; people conduct affairs in sincerity and faithfulness with the aim of cultivating harmony; the virtuous and competent are chosen to work for the common good; people look after not only their family members but also others outside their family; different needs are satisfied at different stages of life; the least advantaged receive care and support from society; adults labor for others as well as for themselves; goods are not kept merely for personal use; and wastage is frowned upon. 

This ideal usually fails to obtain in the real world.

The grand union is a bit like promoting heaven on earth as the City of God. 

It can remain a goal, even though practically unreachable. In turbulent times - or the real world - a small tranquility society xiaokang shehui is feasible, a bit like Augustine’s Peace of Babylon.

Confucius did not see the Grand Union as attainable any longer, and he appeared to settle for xiao kang, the small tranquility or moderately prosperous society.

Everyone loves (above all others) his own parents and cherishes (as) children (only) his own sons. People accumulate articles and exert their strength for their own advantage. Great men imagine it is the rule that their states should descend in their own families. Their object is to make the walls of their cities and suburbs strong and their ditches and moats secure. The rules of propriety and of what is right are regarded as the threads by which they seek to maintain in its correctness the relation (s) … and regulate their achievements with a view to their own advantage. Thus it is that (selfish) schemes and enterprises are constantly taking their rise, and recourse is had to arms ….

Confucian sees this as attainable as a second best solution. In xiaokang, one needs the rites and propriety to remind people of their obligations. Benevolence does not come naturally. One cannot help but be reminded of the City of God and the City of Man. For Christians, it is blasphemous to attempt the City of God on earth. Augustine realized that political institutions are man-made and subject to human foible. Confucius said the same thing. The best that can be done is to exhibit the tolerance and benevolence necessary for the Peace of Babylon in a plural society. The real world alternative is called xiaokang, moderately prosperous society, which is the general economic development solution proposed by Xi Jinping in China now.


Everything old is new again

Modern secularists and modern Confucians don’t want a teleology. This is a problem for a virtue ethic. Per Aristotle and Michael Sandel, how are we to allocate goods in society if we don’t have agreement on the best use of that good?

And a virtue ethic focuses on modeling excellent behavior, as demonstrated by exemplars.  Exemplars may come from any part of society, but one first looks to parents, ancestors, extended family or rulers past and present. History provides valuable lessons for consideration, but modern secularists are sometimes afraid of invoking lessons from history. Too fraught with currently unpopular lessons. Confucians want to learn from history. Henry Ford’s admonition that “history is bunk” would have no purchase in a Confucian society. 

A virtue ethic does need exemplars and respect for history. It also needs a teleology. Alasdair MacIntyre comments that his attempt to provide an account of the human good in social terms was inadequate without a metaphysical grounding. “It is only because human beings have an end toward which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do.”

For MacIntyre, this end is defined as being with God in an everlasting reward in heaven.

No doubt this serves many people who are poor, without resources or prospects. One learns to accept human-caused suffering and deprivation without complaint.

This won’t do for many modern middle class developed world people, particularly those who are secularists. The goal of being with God is either non-existent or so ill-defined that people find other goals to work toward.  “Love your neighbor as yourself” is one such candidate, as tough as it is, and that is as Confucian as it is Jewish or Christian. 


So what can secularists and progressives do now?

The Church has given greater emphasis to the views of St. Thomas Aquinas over those of Augustine in the last hundred and fifty years. The argument is that the church sought to accommodate with modernity, and Aquinas showed that faith and reason were compatible. But our societal difficulties now are well past accommodation of faith with reason. We are in deeper, darker territory. Augustine’s Peace of Babylon seems a useful concept now in our divided society.

Augustine was in the Church theological doghouse. John P. East, political science professor and former senator from North Carolina, explained in The Political Relevance of St. Augustine

To put the matter bluntly, modern liberal Catholicism and its non-Catholic associates have preferred Aquinas over Augustine…. If to the liberal mind, Aquinas and Aristotle point to the modern liberal state and culture, Augustine and Plato lead to unpleasant visions of reaction. In their pursuit of the Perfect, the Good, the One, and the Truth, Plato and Augustine are otherworldly. Aquinas and Aristotle are of the “tough-minded” tradition; Plato and Augustine are of the “tender-minded.” Weighted down by the orthodoxy of The Fall and original sin, the Augustinian legacy is pessimistic, fundamentalist, even primitivist. Where Aquinas leads to facts, liberalism, change, and modernity, Augustine suggests obscurantism, conservatism, traditionalism, and medievalism.

Not a sterling recommendation for Augustinian model. But East, along with others, sees redeeming value in a thinker like Augustine who can deal with the vagaries of a highly contentious and plural world. The plural world in Augustine’s time included many religious beliefs, varieties of Christian belief, the fall of established empires (Rome) and invasions by barbarians. Now, some think, advice from Augustine might do us well in our divided and contentious era.  



Augustine describes the supreme good as living in the City of God, a place that humans can not reach while alive, but only after death. But for Christians, the unity with god in heaven is actually not such a clear or well-established concept. The Following Jesus web site remarks –

Strangely, it was Garner Ted Armstrong, a conservative TV evangelist, who challenged Christians to find biblical support for the idea of heaven. Before his death in 2003, he wrote:

“For over twenty-eight years, I have offered a certified cashier’s check for $10,000 to anyone who can come up with the words “immortal soul,” “When we get to heaven,” “I will see you in heaven,” and “we go to heaven when we die” [in the Bible]. Not in all those twenty-eight years, with millions hearing my words, has a single person been able to claim the check. Why not? Simply because such words are not in the Bible!”

John East suggests getting reacquainted with Augustine, whose views have been considered medieval and quaint in modern times, in favor of Thomist rationality. East’s view is meant to appeal to believing Christians, whom he feels have been ignored in the rush to modernize the Church.  I would agree with the need to revive some Augustinian thinking, but more by way of focusing on what I term “Augustinian uncertainty” – the understanding that dogma-become-ideology is too easy, most of the modern world is decidedly agnostic about the benefits of Christianity, and no one knows that path by which each of us moves toward – if not god, then the Dao or the way of humaneness. To attempt creation of the City of God on earth is arrogant, if not blasphemous.

Augustine’s advice is particularly salient for Christians of the right and progressives of the left.  Here is East –

Secondly, each “ism” tends in its way to view man primarily as a sentient, rationalist, and perfectible mechanism, whose inadequacies are attributable to environmental rather than personal moral deficiencies; consequently, there is no need for inner moral authority of a transcendent nature within the individual. Augustine is invaluable in critically assessing that premise…. Few things plague modern man more than the utopian quest, that compulsive, insatiable urge to reorder human nature and the human condition to conform to the utopian’s mind’s eye of what the perfected earthly good life should be.

Augustine reminds us that the world is not perfectible, we are foolish to try too hard to do that, and utopia is in a book, not the real world. He is not suggesting some conservative version of “the poor will always be with us” or even “it is the best of all possible worlds.” He is suggesting some tolerance and respect for others, some benefit of the doubt about good will. Augustine provides  the insight that “the path of virtue starts from humility,” while “pride is the beginning of all sin.” Our obligation is to move in the direction of the Dao – a way of benevolence for all -  not fix the world.

East again -

From the Augustinian view, the primary function of government is to maintain the internal good order of society, to protect against external enemies, and thereby enable men to order their own lives with tranquility and predictability. In maintaining this uneasy and earthly “peace of Babylon,” governments must resist the ever-present temptation to be the promoter and provider of the good life, for that inexorably means government will become the hard taskmaster of the utopians. On this crucial point, Augustine is at odds with the utopian builders of the classical and modern states.

Augustine knew that “freedom” alone was not enough. In Augustine’s words, there is the need for “right order within man himself” (City of God, Book XIX, Chapter 4) and that requires faith.

Without inner moral authority, and resulting self-mastery that comes from faith, a man could not be well-ordered and there could not be a well-ordered society, regardless of what form it might take. 

Augustine tells us that awareness of the fallen and pluralistic nature of the world “should usher into a rueful recognition of limits, not a will to dominion that requires others for one to conquer.” That is not a counsel for quietism, or even pacifism. It is simply a recognition that human action takes place on a field of moral danger and ambiguity.

In other words, it is foolish to attempt to reach the City of God. One can see that as a goal for oneself – a personal teleology – but human affairs are complex and there really is no arc of history.

How is one to function in such a world? Dare I eat a peach? One can turn to humanism. But American Christians don’t credit humanism because it ignores faith, a key element of Christian belief. 

Most of the world is not Christian. And American secularists would not be fond of citing Augustine on tolerance and benevolence. And they wouldn’t know what to do with a requirement for faith. But the Augustinian ideas on freedom and faith and well-ordering of society are quite Confucian. 


Maritain as a useful link

East cites Jacques Maritain as a useful link for Christians and liberals in American culture. Maritain advocated what he called Integral Humanism that recognized a spiritual element in human nature. Humanism that denied a spiritual aspect to humans were deficient in not recognizing the whole person. This could be a problem for some American liberals.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy -

In Integral Humanism Maritain explores the prospects for a new Christendom, rooted in his philosophical pluralism, to find ways Christianity could inform political discourse and policy in a pluralistic age. He develops a theory of cooperation, to show how people of different intellectual positions can nevertheless cooperate to achieve common practical aims. Maritain's political theory was influential in development of the Christian Democratic movement.

Maritain uses the term spiritual humanism for his proposed melding of religion and science and cultures and faiths in a plural world. I think coincidentally, Tu Weiming uses the same term – spiritual humanism – for his understanding of new Confucianism, particularly as it would apply in the democratic west.


A Confucian teleology on earth

For Plato and Aristotle, the goal would be eudaimonia – flourishing, sometimes rendered as happiness. One might better think of a life well-lived, and something determined at or near the end of life, not at some interim point. The goal is for both individuals and the society to flourish – sort of a datong.

For Christians, the goal is to achieve unity with god in heaven.

For Confucians, the goal would be somewhat similar to Aristotle’s, that of flourishing on earth – to become virtuous, the man of excellence, the junzi. The junzi can achieve cheng – the completion of the self, the highest manifestation of human excellence, the unity of human beings and heaven. (Yu Jiyuan, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue , 2007). This remains an ideal.

A Confucian earthly teleology suggests that government will define a path to flourishing, or a virtuous path for all. It is the role of government to point the way to harmony and a good life – just as it was for Aristotle.

Xiaokang (the small tranquility) acknowledges that people are not public spirited or impartial. The mandate to rule comes from heaven, but heaven hears as the people hear and sees as the people see (Mencius 5A.5 (Wan Zhang I.5) ). Since leaders should work for the benefit of the people, and the people are most important, modern Confucians see electoral democracy as an acceptable political institution. The people can then select leaders from those who have integrity, ability, commitment to public service, and who will cultivate trust and harmony (Chan, page 74).  Confucians would not interpret this mandate as permission to simply elect the most popular person or one without demonstrated skills.  As was the case for Aristotle, leadership of the people is a trust and a grave responsibility.  To do otherwise - well, there is no Confucian text counterpart to Plato’s ship of fools, but there we would be if we fail to elect the best among us.


The future is now

Augustine and Aquinas both held that there is a teleology for humans, to be with God.  There is a path, a Dao, if you will, that humans should follow. The path requires faith – no faith, no reasonably confident path.

Christianity assumes a human nature oriented to sin. We need constant personal effort - and maybe Jesus - to rise above a sinful nature. Christians debate justification (being saved) by faith in the bible alone, or whether good works are also necessary.

Aristotle and Confucius were not looking to a salvation after death. Both see flourishing on earth as the best that can be done.

Confucianism assumes a human nature that is caring and thoughtful, and therefore above that of animals, but still requires constant attention to self-cultivation to become more fully human. Self-cultivation does not require a single transformative experience, but neither does faith. Both result from thoughtful consideration.  But Christian faith comes from outside, as it were – it is acquired, I think. Confucian humaneness is developed internally. Bryan Van Norden tells us that for Aristotle, the highest good is participation in political activity; for Christians (from Aquinas) the highest good is contemplation of God; for Confucians, it is becoming a junzi by way of active participation in the world.

Bryan W. Van Norden, Toward a Synthesis of Confucianism and Aristotelianism, in Virtue Ethics and Confucianism, Stephen C. Angle and Michael Slote, eds. (Routledge, 2013).

The family is the starting point for self-cultivation for both Confucius and Aristotle, as May Sim notes in Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius (Cambridge University Press, 2007).  But family remains central for Confucius.

Another difference that should be noted is the Confucian focus on the here and now, the social and material conditions of current society. The Christian focus – or that of Jesus, I should say – was on the eternal and not the conditions of tomorrow. This does color all relationships in the two systems. Confucians and Daoists are unconcerned about an eternal reward, since they have no way of getting information about that state of affairs.  Christians can make the argument that the concerns of tomorrow don’t matter (Matthew 6:25-34) but that is too easy a copout when “love one another” is a great commandment.  Jesus tells us not to worry - Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Confucius tells us that being human is our great honor and responsibility - "It is impossible to associate with birds and beasts, as if they were the same with us. If I associate not with these people - with mankind - with whom shall I associate?  (Analects Wei Zi 6)

Another difference is the attention to ritual in human relations. Confucianism is known for its sometimes excruciating attention to detail in ritual, and honor of hierarchy. Jesus was a destroyer of ritual, of hierarchy. He traveled and worked on the Sabbath, cleared the temple of money-changers, and criticized the performances of the Pharisees. Love of one’s neighbor is more important than any kind of burnt offering or sacrifice (Mark 12:33) Since formality is not much a part of either Confucianism or Christianity now, this distinction seems moot.

It is worthwhile to note the distinction with western philosophy. Man is the master of nature per Aristotle. Chinese did not define man as master but as the heart of the sky and earth, or heaven and nature (Book of Changes (no citation) )  For a teleology, the Confucian project is most clearly one that supports an American conservative view of environmentalism – that man is steward of the earth, not master.

The man of benevolence, of sincerity and tolerance, fulfills his social obligations by following the Dao. From the Dao De Jing, Chapter 25 –

People model themselves on the earth.

The earth models itself on Heaven.

Heaven models itself on the Way.

The Way models itself on what is natural.


Confucians strive to follow the Dao, but they do not pray to the Dao or ask it for favors.  One does not ask the Buddha for anything, either.

Confucianism does not provide much assistance when people encounter misery. There is no promise that a supernatural accounting of good and evil will all balance out in the end. One will find reward and sustenance internally - knowing that one has done the good things, the most human things – and in relationships with others. Aristotle has a similar concept. Augustine provides several rationales for the earthly imbalance in rewards and punishments, but sees that reward and punishment are found in the next life – remember, “vengeance (and presumably reward) is mine.”  In any case, sin is pervasive and influences all human activity.  Notably different from Confucianism is that humans are born and remain sinful – temptation is always available - and that honor and glory are not to be sought, since they are redolent of pride and improperly respectful of god.   Every virtue ethic emphasizes the role of exemplars as models of moral behavior, and wants political leaders to be exemplars. Confucianism tends to put more faith in the good behavior of leaders.

The bible does not have much to say about leadership. Augustine makes the case for pragmatism in the earthly city of man. We need strong government to inhibit bad behavior and while we can make incremental improvements in the human condition in the City of man, there is no sense in trying to approach the City of God. That is a bridge too far. Governments can be akin to “great robberies” if they govern without virtue.    


The earthly paradise, postponed

A virtue ethic would see the task of government as helping citizens to move toward flourishing, or datong. Augustine did not think humans could reach the City of God, but he proposed the Peace of Babylon as the achievable human goal.

Leo Strauss reminded us that the city of man that is the western world is caught between two weltanschauung, two world views. He termed them Athens and Jerusalem. Athens is metonymy for the rational world, reason and science and evidence, and the only teleology is serving man. Jerusalem stands for faith and a teleology involving god. Strauss does claim this conflict as the secret of the vitality of the west.

In our modern age, liberal democracies are loathe to define a path toward flourishing. In a pluralist society, government does not choose the right path, but leaves that up to the individual. In the US, governments do apply some minimal standards toward becoming a good person – children have to go to school, there may be some minimal standards of health and nourishment and safety, but governments do not encourage one path over another just as it does not encourage one religion over another. There is no teleology, no end state toward which individuals or governments should strive.

But if liberal governments assist individuals in promoting education, health care, economic opportunities, and justice, why cannot government promote a notion of flourishing?

In his 2014 book Confucian Perfectionism Joseph Chan proposes a moderate Confucian perfectionism that “should offer a list of items that constitute the good life and good social order—such as valuable social relationships, practical wisdom and learning, sincerity, harmony, social and political trust and care, moral and personal autonomy, and economic sufficiency and self-responsibility.”

Chan writes:

While there is no term in the classical [Confucian] texts that is equivalent to the notion of the good life, it would not be too far off the mark to say that early Confucians subscribe to a broad conception that takes material well-being, moral self-cultivation and virtuous social relationships as constituents of 'the good life' for a normal human being, with the ideal of sagehood as the highest good. (Chan, p 44)

What Confucianism does is promote the civil society component that is deficient in America now. It exists between and informs government and religion, rights and responsibilities. It is, in fact, a form of civic republicanism

I described the difference for my Chinese government students when they were in Chicago. If you ask Chinese on the street in most any city in China - what is the goal of the government? -  they will be able to answer – to grow GDP. You may agree with such a goal or not, but the goal is understood. If you ask people on the street in the US, even government employees, what is the goal of the federal government, you are likely to get blank stares.

We are a long way from government actively promoting a notion of the good life in the US - perhaps too long.