What does Confucius say?


The Master said “The rule of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place.” (2:1)


The Master is none other than Confucius.  The passage is from The Analects, a collection of Confucius’ sayings.  Originally compiled by his students in 497 B.C., the philosophy of Confucius continues to inform contemporary East Asian society influencing both political culture and spiritual life.  Confucius’ sayings offer guidance for living a moral life that remains relevant for us today.


Book 2, Chapter 1 touches upon several essential ideas within Confucian thought.  This saying is attributed to Confucius himself which suggests its importance.  It is concerned with the moral nature of a ruler.  If a ruler has a virtuous character, then the subjects will naturally follow.  Proper government is by example or moral persuasion not through force or coercion.  The use of celestial imagery gives a sense of the cosmic order after which human beings should pattern themselves.  Confucius presents a model of Harmony in which Heaven, Earth, and Humanity work in an orderly fashion.  He asserts that by following moral principles and customs the ideal society is attainable.


Confucius was not satisfied with the moral character of government.  The missing element was “virtue”.  Much of The Analects is devoted to describing the nature of “virtue”.  The main principles include: benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, courage, trustworthiness, and filial piety.  If these qualities are present in rulers, the welfare of the people is guaranteed.


Unfortunately, the moral character of American government is questionable.  There is growing concern that the current Administration has deceived the American people.  The United States is viewed with suspicion and even hatred by much of the world.  Although American leaders often talk about the values of freedom, peace, and justice, some of our actions cast our integrity as a nation into doubt. 


The American people are looking for a leader who fits Confucius’ description like the Pole Star, a beacon of hope.  This is one of the most wide-open Presidential elections in recent history.  During the debates, candidates often become derailed from the issues by sniping at each other.  Our leaders need to move beyond divisiveness to realize our greater unity and to address substantive matters.      


The Master said, “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal.  When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self.”  (4:17)


The moral imperative is not to root out the short-comings of other people but to continually strive to better one’s self.   According to Confucius, individuals should strive to improve their characters by emulating those people who are “better” or “of superior quality”.  When encountering a person who is “not as good”, the instruction is to “look within and examine your own self”.  Our central concern should always be self-cultivation. 


Our actions are important.  Our words have weight.   Our thoughts also matter as they govern our behavior and attitudes.  As a spiritual practice, all people (even political candidates!) should strive to cultivate virtue by paying attention to our judgments about others and shifting focus back to oneself. 


Try this simple practice in the week ahead.  When you think someone is better than you, do not put yourself down instead think how you can emulate his or her positive qualities.  When you think other people are lesser than you, instead of dismissing them or dwelling on their faults, consider why that judgment or frustration arose within you and how you will move forward with virtue like benevolence, courage, and trustworthiness. 


In order to achieve greater harmony than we have known, each one of us needs to be engaged with the upcoming election, participate in public service, and foremost set our own hearts in order.              For as Confucius says,

If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.

If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.

If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.

If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.


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