(Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi (685-758), Tang Dynasty, [Public Domain – US] via Creative Commons)
In his writings, Confucius constantly wrote of respecting Heaven and the dead, but usually that was coupled with a suggestion that the respect should be done from a very far distance. Ritual and ceremony were acceptable and healthy to Confucius as long as the practitioner’s motive was to show respect and not to satisfy curiosity. A controlled respect for the dead was a sign a virtue to Confucius. He wrote, “When proper respect towards the dead is shown at the end and continued after they are far away the moral force (tê) of a people has reached its highest point” (1). Though Confucius prescribed that spirits be shown respect, his moral, social and governmental teaching did not have much reliance on Heaven. Confucius and the most important students of the Confucian school, Mencius and Xunzi, based their teachings on love, human nature, and virtue, which could operate without Heaven.
There is abundant evidence that Confucius was uneasy speaking of spirits. The Analects recorded, “The Master never talked of prodigies, feats of strength, disorders or spirits” (2). He seemed to believe that respect was a barrier against mischievous spirits, for “respect for the Spirits keeps them at a distance” (3). Confucius also wrote that the ideal gentleman “fears the will of Heaven” (4). Whether the fear Confucius describes is the fear of the unknowable, the unstoppable, or the supernatural is hard to determine. It is likely Confucius meant that man must recognize the power of heaven, for kings, emperors and deities are all feared for their power to punish. As heaven and the spirits are unknowable, obscure and uncontrollable, Confucius suggested that humans focus on what was sure and tangible. Confucius’ approach to heaven and ghosts can be summed up in his statements: “Till you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts” and “Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?” (5). Confucius used the word ‘Heaven’ to refer to many topics, such as the sky, nature, deities, fate and the standard of morality, but he did not prefer a definition. He was fine leaving Heaven obscure and viewed in religious skepticism.
Mencius—Confucius’ Optimistic Successor
Mencius was a prominent philosopher of the Confucian tradition who elaborated on Confucius’ teachings using a premise that human nature is good. When Mencius discussed Heaven in his works, it was usually synonymous with the standard of morality. Mencius wrote, “All that matters is that there should be benevolence and righteousness” (6). Mencius’s view of Heaven as being the standard to be used to judge morality can be witnessed in his phrase: “Hence being true is the Way of Heaven; to reflect upon this is the Way of Man” (7). Mencius believed that if men respected and admired Heaven, thereby respecting and admiring morality, then their lives would be prosperous. He wrote, “He who delights in Heaven will continue to enjoy the possession of the Empire while he who is in awe of Heaven will continue to enjoy the possession of his own state” (8). Mencius used Heaven to justify rebellion against immoral rulers through the use of the mandate of heaven. Rulers must have the approval of both Heaven and the people. Mencius wrote of how Emperor Shun gained his empire: “Heaven gave it to him, and the people gave it to him” (9). Furthermore, Mencius wrote, “Heaven sees with the eyes of its people. Heaven hears with the ears of its people” (10). To Mencius, if a man was tyrannical and immoral to his people, then he was an outcast, devoid of the divine mandate of Heaven and unfit to be a ruler of men. Even though Heaven had importance to Mencius, he still ranked its importance as less than that of the common people. He wrote, “The people are of supreme importance; the altars to the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler” (11). Mencius asked his readers to respect and admire Heaven, but his teachings did not call for any spirituality. His teaching explained what Heaven could do for mankind, not what Heaven was or what happened in the supernatural world.
Xunzi—Confucius’ Pessimistic Successor
Xunzi is another philosopher of the Confucian school who based his philosophy on human nature. While Mencius believed mankind, in general, was good, Xunzi believed humans to be born fairly neutral, but with a tendency toward evil and vice, if left uneducated. In his work he repeated the motifs of the other Confucian writers. He suggested that Heaven and spirits should be kept distant, but be respected. He stated, “Only the sage does not seek to understand Heaven” (12). He claimed that respect for the dead was a virtue, as long as it was not an obsession. He wrote, “Heaven and earth are the basis of life, the ancestors are the basis of family, and the rulers and teacher are the basis of order…To honor the beginning is the basis of virtue” (13). Xunzi, like Mencius, commented in his work on the relationship of divine mandate, but they used it for opposite motives. He wrote, “Heaven and earth produce the gentleman and the gentleman brings order to Heaven and earth. The gentleman forms a triad with Heaven and earth; he is the controller of all things, the father and mother of the people.” Xunzi, with his negative view of human nature, used Heaven to support an unquestionable authoritarian ruler, while Mencius, with his good-natured perspective, used Heaven to justify revolt against outcast rulers. Another difference between Xunzi and the other Confucians is his description of heaven, itself. The Heaven Xunzi wrote about had similarities to the Dao that Laozi and Zhuangzi described. Like the Daoist philosophers, Xunzi saw Heaven as what was natural. Xunzi’s statement, “Heaven’s ways are constant,” would apply perfectly to the Dao, as well (14). Even more eerily identical to the Dao is Xunzi’s statement: “To bring to completion without acting, to obtain without seeking—this is the work of Heaven” (15). While Xunzi commented on, and described, Heaven, his work provides little spiritual advice. His teachings are based on negative human nature and the need for education; his comments on Heaven only give support to his main agenda.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
(Part 3 HERE)
15. Hsün Tzu. Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. Pg. 80.