The lives of very few, if any, people in human history can match that of Confucius for the legacy they left behind in Asia. The accepted timeframe of Confucius’ life (though not necessarily accurate) is that he was born in 551 BCE, and died in 479 BCE. Known by many of his disciples as merely ‘The Master,’ Confucius’ philosophy and wisdom has spread to almost every culture that has encountered China.
Confucius’ main audience was gentlemen, to which his philosophy was geared. The main tenets of his ‘Way’ were hierarchy, loyalty and education. Education was especially important, for schooling and knowledge was the best route to self-improvement.
Though Confucius’ legacy looms large, the man, himself, was a remarkably normal person. If only the Analects of Confucius is consulted, a very humanized image of Confucius emerges.
Confucius did not come from a high and mighty family. Quite the contrary, he came from simple and humble origins in the ancient Chinese state of Lu. Just as Confucius had a humble upbringing, he also had a humble view of himself. Even though he was likely viewed as a wise sage during his lifetime, Confucius apparently never accepted that he was any wiser than his peers. He only admitted that he might have had an advantage in the ever-important act of self-improvement. Concerning the Master’s family life, Confucius married and had two children, but he, unfortunately, outlived them both.
Politically, Confucius held the rank of Shih-Shih, meaning he was a leader of knights. Though the title sounds lofty, it did not hold much political weight. Even though Confucius was likely accepted as a wise sage during his own lifetime, he was never able to ascend to any political office of true power.
Despite cultivating a philosophy that is taught in most of the world’s colleges, Confucius was somewhat of a private person. He preferred to tutor Chinese gentlemen in small sessions. As he was not a noble with duties to the state of Lu, Confucius traveled through various kingdoms in the modern Chinese provinces of Shan-tung and Honan. The Analects mention Confucius journeying to the ancient states of Ch’I, Wei, Ch’en, Ts’ai and K’uang. As he traveled he would mentor the young gentlemen, and attempt to explain to them the wisdom of his Way. Legend and Tradition claim that Confucius accumulated over seventy disciples during his life of teaching, but the Analects of Confucius only mention around twenty.
Confucius’ ideas could not be contained, even by his own private life-style. Though Confucius may have only spread his philosophy to, at the least, twenty select disciples, the people he taught were much more prolific with his ideas. Of the few disciples Confucius tutored, some went on to interpret whole new schools of Confucian thought, which would rule in China and other parts of Asia, alongside Daoism and Buddhism. Like many other founding figures of religion, it is likely that Confucius did not even write down any of the sayings in the Analects of Confucius—the Analects were likely compiled by the third generation of Confucian scholars, sometime between the 5th and 4th century BCE. Though Confucius’ life was not much more different than that of an average person, his ideas so inspired his disciples that his philosophy has survived intact for millennia.
- The Analects of Confucius,translated by Arthur Waley. New York: Vintage Books (Random House), 1989.