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Confucius and the Hundred Schools of Thought

We look at Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism, as well as other philosophies from Warring States-era China.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] Now I'm going to talk about one of the greatest philosophers and teachers in human history, and that is Confucius, known to the Chinese as Kongzi, which means Master Kong, or Kong Fuzi, which means Grand Master Kong. And once again, my apologies for my pronunciation. The word Confucius is a Latinization of Kong Fuzi. So you can imagine Kong Fuzicius, Confucius. Now what's interesting about Confucius is he grew up in a time when China was getting more and more divided. In other videos we talked about the Zhou dynasty, which begins at the very end of the second millennium. But in the time of Confucius we're in what's known as the end of the Spring and Autumn period. Confucius lived from 551 to 479 BCE. And we're ending the Spring and Autumn period and we're getting into the period of the Warring States. So even in the time of Confucius there was more and more tension between states. People felt less confident in the central government, and as we'll see, in this late Spring and Autumn period, and especially as we get into this really violent period known as the Warring States period, a lot of philosophers started to arise and philosophies began to arise because people were struggling with these questions of, what is the role of the state? What does it mean to be a good person? How does humanity fit in with the cosmic order? Now, what's interesting about Confucius is by his own account he says that he doesn't come up with anything new. It's more of him trying to resuscitate or rejuvenate some of the traditions of the past. Most historians would give him more credit. Even though Confucius does look to the early Zhou dynasty for a lot of his inspiration, and he looked to a lot of the traditions of the ancestors, he definitely puts a spin on it which makes it a very powerful philosophy and arguably religion as we get into this Warring States period, and especially as we get into a more unified China under the Qin and Han dynasties. And as we'll see under the Han dynasty in particular, Confucianism becomes essentially the state religion. Now to get a sense of what Confucius preached, and his life, he spent most of his life both teaching and preaching. A lot of people compare him to Socrates even though he predates Socrates. And simultaneously he was also building a career as a civil servant, but his legacy is definitely around his preachings, and most of his life was here in the state of Lu in eastern China. So there's three general themes that you could talk about Confucius's teachings. I encourage you to go look at his Analects, they're quite interesting, to get many many more of them. But a lot of it is around respecting traditions and respecting elders. Here's a quote from the Analects. "A young man should serve his parents at home "and be respectful to elders outside his home. "He should be earnest and truthful, loving all, "but becoming intimate with his innate good-heartedness. "After doing this, if he has energy to spare, "he can study literature and the arts." And there's a lot of talk of, if someone is to be a good citizen they need to be a good child first. They need to be a good son. Now he also talks about, what does it mean to be a just ruler? "If you control people by punishment, "they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. "If you govern them by means of virtue and control them "with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, "and thus correct themselves." And as we'll see, morality and ethics plays a huge role at a personal level and also at a state level to Confucius, and we'll talk about other philosophies where that might not be as strong of a sense. Now another very big theme to Confucius was looking to yourself. Through self-improvement you can be a better citizen, a better child, a better ruler. "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance. "Learning without thought is labor lost; "thought without learning is perilous. "When you see someone of worth, "think of how you may emulate. "When you see someone unworthy, examine your own character." I like that one in particular. "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire." So a very close statement to the Golden Rule. Now as I mentioned, Confucius and Confucianism was not alone in this period of the Spring and Autumn period and especially as you get into the Warring States period. During that time we have what's known as the Hundred Schools of Thought, which, this time period starts around the time of Confucius and goes until Qin dynasty ends the Warring States period, and in a very strong way unifies China. Now we already talked about Confucianism, which talks a lot about ethics, but its goal, remember Confucius himself was a civil servant. He was an administrator. He thought a lot about, what does it mean to be a just ruler? So it definitely touches on the practical to a good bit. Now, many people say it's an ethical system, but many would also consider it a religion because it does touch on the metaphysical, the notions of heaven, and it borrows a lot from China's past. Now, other samples of the Hundred Schools of Thought, especially ones that have had a significant role on China's history, and even modern China, include the Legalists. The Legalists have a strong pragmatism. They are dismissive of the Confucian notion of strong internal ethics and that will guide people and rulers. Legalists are much more about, look, we need a strong, orderly central state. We need to do whatever it takes, and it might be clamping down on people hard, in order to have stability, in order to have rule. And you can imagine the context in which this Legalism is coming about. This is during the Warring States period, this incredibly violent period where the states in China are fragmented, and so you can imagine these people who are very realistic. They're like, "Look, we've had this Confucianism. "We have these other philosophies. "But we need strong, super centralized rulers." And it ends up being that Legalist philosophy that wins the day as you have the emergence of the Qin dynasty in 221, and the Qin dynasty is what modern China is named after and it's considered the first dynasty to really unify China in a very strong way and create its administrative and bureaucratic systems, and it really is based on Legalism and it was able to put an end to this Warring States period by putting so much power, central power, in strong rulers who were willing to be quite violent in repressing other people in order to bring that stability. And it's notable that the emergence of the Qin is also considered the end of the Hundred Schools of Thought, 'cause the Qin as part of that order started persecuting many of the other forms of philosophy, including many of those that followed Confucius. Now other forms of philosophy, and this is just a sample, that have strongly influenced China. You have Taoism. Taoism is, according to Taoist belief, comes from Laozi, and the historical record of Laozi isn't as clear as we have for Confucius, but it's believed that he lived around the same time. Some people view him as more of a legendary figure. But Taoism is much more concerned with the spiritual than Confucianism. You see quotes, the Tao is really The Way. It's all about harmony with the universe. "Free from desire, you realize the mystery. "Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations." The Tao Te Ching. Now later on, Buddhism. It's interesting, Buddha lives at around the same time, once again, his birth and date are under a little bit more in contention, as Confucius, and he lives in northeast India, Nepal area, and Buddhism really comes about in Indian, but it eventually makes its way into China, especially as we get into the first millennium CE. And in modern day China a lot of the culture and the philosophy and the religion is a combination in particular of Confucianism most strongly, but also Taoism and Buddhism. But there were other philosophies. For example Mohism is a quite interesting one. I encourage you to look at it. But it's all about this notion of impartial love. It actually has a lot of similarities, parallels, with the teachings of Jesus as told by the gospels. But that notion was viewed somewhat impractical by many of the followers of Confucius and especially the Legalists, and Mohism really didn't last much beyond the Qin dynasty. But one way to think about it is, Legalism allowed the Qin dynasty to really end the Warring States period and centralize China. But then that short-lived dynasty as a transition to the Han, the Han took over the administrative structure and the stability of the Qin to a large degree, but then they made Confucianism really the state philosophy and you could even say the state religion. And to appreciate the importance of Confucianism to Chinese culture, I'll leave you with this last quote by the historian Huston Smith. "For though Confucius did not author Chinese culture," as we talked about, even Confucius says, "I didn't invent anything," "he was its supreme editor."