Ancient Chinese Philosophy: How to Live Life

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How do I live my life? Since the early beginnings of society people have always been concerned with our behavior in public and conduct towards others: how should I behave towards my parents, how should I treat my friends, and in what way can I best show my respect for the gods? Religion was the first form of moral code; the writers would present their ideas about truth and morality, and reinforce their opinions with omnipotent deities who would, in a way, scare believers into acting accordingly. As society began to develop and powerful empires began to expand religion was no longer a priority. Many of the rituals necessary to appease the various gods were impractical. Furthermore, skeptics and other logical thinkers began to question their existence. However, moral code still needed to be maintained—especially in the growing empires—and people began searching for other forms of guidance. Moral philosophy most likely developed for this reason; to rationally investigate the truths and principles of knowledge, behavior and conduct. Around the fifth century B.C. in China (which today is known for strict guidelines regarding respect and obedience) two great philosophers, Confucius and Lao Tzu emerged who devoted their lives to explaining how to live life virtuously, and righteously. Though the two philosophers differ extremely in the presentations of their ideas, and the ideas themselves, together they create a full and detailed moral code.

Confucius, the earlier of the two philosophers, (died in 497 B.C.) analyzes various daily situations and suggests how one should behave in them in The Analects. The Master, as his pupils call him, repeatedly mentions the importance of behaving like a gentleman. But what exactly does this entail? What does one need to do to be considered a gentleman? There are many virtues that Confucius finds essential to being a gentleman, the most critical one being benevolence, which he discusses primarily in the first four books. Benevolence in the eyes of The Master, however, is very different from our current perception; we see it as kindness and sympathy while Confucius evidently sees it as something much greater. For us today benevolence can be seen in simple acts of compassion. For example, a common act of benevolence is putting your extra change into the plastic cup of a homeless person in Washington Square Park. I see a benevolent professor as one who is respectful of his students’ other responsibilities and gives them ample time to prepare their assignments. To Confucius, this would not be enough; he describes benevolence as a quality that is very difficult to achieve; apparently, it is something that does not even seem appealing to many. According to The Master, it encompasses our values, loyalty, pride, and honesty, and it manifests itself in our relationships with friends, parents, and superiors—only one who is perfect in all these categories can be considered benevolent, and therefore a gentlemen.

The idea that Confucius describes as most vital to achieving the status of gentlemen is filial piety, the reverence for ones parents. The virtuous child would give their parents no other cause for anxiety than illness, The Master says. He must never stray too far from their “fields,” and if he does, he must always make his whereabouts known. To serve one’s parents to the fullest, he must also follow their instructions (or advice) exactly, even if they might not be beneficial or even good for his well-being. This must be done without questioning them. He can try to “dissuade” his parents on to a more righteous path if it is done subtly and respectfully, but cannot blatantly point out mistakes in his parents’ suggestions. It does not stop there; the child must cover up any blunders the parents make from the eyes of the world. Whether Confucius puts filial piety on a higher level than law is unclear, and he may not have considered extreme examples. But I am. If your father, for example, would murder...
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