Confucius in the West

Confucius in the West
Oct 17, 2016 By Charles Cooper ,

When thinking about how the West has been influenced by Chinese thought, one name inevitably towers above all others, Confucius. Dying in obscurity only to become a legendary figure within his own land, Confucius stands out as the great bridge between Chinese and Western philosophy. A figure that shaped Chinese culture more than any other, Confucius has fascinated Western thinkers for centuries, and his influence is far from gone today.

Photo: Gansu

Confucius first began to receive attention in Europe through the reports of Jesuit missionaries working to spread the Christian faith in China. While viewing Daoism and Buddhism as potential rivals, they were enraptured by Confucius, whose focus on the need of the individual to behave virtuously and lack of focus on any particular god led them to view his teachings not only wise, but perfectly compatible Christianity. This view would prove rather controversial in Europe, with much of the Church being left aghast at the Jesuits argument that Chinese Catholics be allowed to continue practicing Confucian rites, ceremonies honoring their ancestors being a particularly hard sell.

Their efforts would fail within the Church and Pope Clement XI would go on to order that Chinese Christians abandon their ancestral rites, fearing that the popularity of Confucianism posed a threat to Christianity. The translations of Confucian texts provided by the Jesuits in their attempt to vindicate him would go on to yield unexpected fruit however, receiving a much warmer reception in the hands of some of the great figures of the Enlightenment.

The Great Rationalist  
Confucius held several attractive qualities for the great thinkers of the enlightenment. While he was (and often still is) viewed by many as the embodiment of reactionary thinking in China, and his teachings often blamed for inspiring a state of servility in the Chinese people, others admired his belief that the Mandate of Heaven required just rule, and in times of unjust rule would be rescinded. This belief fit nicely with the ideas popular at the time, such as the Social Contract of Rousseau and Locke’s Natural Law. This idea that government derives its legitimacy from just rule and loses the affection of heaven when it acts unjustly would be echoed by countless figures of the age and go on to inspire the births of the French and American republics. Indeed Confucius’ assertion that ‘oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger’ carries notes of the sorts of phrases one would expect to hear from figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

While the extent to which Confucius would have approved of governments that claimed not to represent a divine mandate but ‘We the People’ is debatable, his presence is felt throughout these systems nonetheless. His image is even carved into a marble frieze on the Supreme Court of the United States, alongside Moses and the Athenian statesman Solon, honoring his reputation as one of history’s great legal thinkers.

Confucius’ moralistic political ideas were not the only things that endeared him to Western audiences. Whilst Confucius was devoutly religious, indeed as the Analects note ‘He sacrificed to the dead, as if they were present. He sacrificed to the spirits, as if the spirits were present’, there does seem to be an underlying skepticism to this religiosity. When asked by his disciple Zilu about death and how best to please the gods and spirits, Confucius’ responded with ‘You are not able to serve men, how could you serve the spirits? … You do not yet know life, how could you know death?’
Confucius’ attention to religious rites combined with his own uncertainty is reminiscent of the religious skepticism of much of the Enlightenment and many of his contemporaries, not least Be  Franklin, who while personally skeptical towards religion, nevertheless believed that for a society to be just, its people must be godly. It is little wonder then that Voltaire would hail Confucius as a great rationalist, who ‘appeals only to virtue, he preaches no miracles; there is nothing in [his books] of religious allegory’.

Confucius today
In later times Confucius seemed to lose some of his status in the West. With his somewhat conformist ideas (not to mention his rather unflattering view of women), causing him to become viewed as reactionary and patriarchal. It can sometimes seem as though Confucius has been relegated to being the face of fortune cookie philosophy and silly jokes, ‘Confucius say, man who run in front of car get tired’, but his influence can still be felt however in the most surprising of places. In 2015 when the Supreme Court of the United States was debating gay marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Confucius’ instruction that ‘marriage lies at the foundation of government’ in support of his argument for legalization. Whilst one can only speculate on how Confucius would feel about this, it shows that his presence is far from gone in Western political thought in the 21st Century.

Confucius’ appeal for western audiences does not seem to be going away anytime soon and the Chinese know it. It is no mystery why the government named their organization for promoting Chinese language and culture the ‘Confucius Institute’. While it might seem slightly odd at first glance to see his name being used by a government that once ran a campaign literally instructing their people to attack him (the ‘Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius’ campaign), but the CCP is well aware that in the eyes of the West, Confucius is, as Gottfried Leibniz said, ‘the king of Chinese philosophers’.

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Keywords: Confucius in the West Confucius and Western thought


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but the CCP is well aware that in the eyes of the West, Confucius is, as Gottfried Leibniz said, ‘the king of Chinese philosophers’.

Apr 13, 2020 02:05 Report Abuse




Oct 20, 2016 16:36 Report Abuse



What, no clever 'Confucius say...' comments?

Oct 19, 2016 15:00 Report Abuse



Other than cloistered locals who are you trying to fool? LOL Why is there no mentioning of Confucius Institute's being kicked out of developed countries like Canada and USA? °°°°° °°°°°°

Oct 17, 2016 11:25 Report Abuse



I thought they burned those books...

Oct 17, 2016 08:39 Report Abuse