Classical Chinese Philosophy: Lunyu

Classical Chinese Philosophy: Lunyu


The Lunyu or the Analects is a text in Chinese classical philosophy containing select sayings of Confucius (孔子) — a classical sage who had described himself as a transmitter of human and civilizational values in Ancient China, and still to this day a living intellectual tradition in the core of Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures. The text was compiled during the Warring states period (660 BC – 220 BC) and completed during the mid-Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) by Confucius’ followers. It was widely known for instance in the 18th century West for its ideas on humanity — ideas that formed the basis and sources for philosopher G.W. Leibniz. The challenge in reading the Lunyu today however is in understanding the text not through our inherited 19th century bias in treating the modern West as the key model for civilizational development but the Lunyu itself as a viable intellectual resource for thinking about major global health and ecological problems. In this entry, I will summarize a few key concepts in Confucian philosophy that I hope will help me further this broader task, beginning first with its two basic philosophical assumptions about the human person, and then its concepts of Dao, Li and Ren.

Click here to access Lunyu.

Click here for the Harvard University Professor Tu Wei Ming on Confucianism; the Harvard lecture videos.

I want to begin by defining at least two philosophical predispositions that outline the basis of Confucian thought. First, as Professor Tu Wei Ming says, Confucian thought is fundamentally about the concrete human person in the world now, in the sense that the human person is not an isolated individual but a “center of relationships” occupying and not necessarily defined by the situatedness in which he or she inhabits in the world. The humane person is not only open to the world, to ecological problems, spiritual forces and to the human arts. but seeks to transmit the past authoritative models that illuminate the deeper ethical commitments that underlie our present characteristic and inherited human and civilizational existence.

Second, as Professor Tu Wei Ming says, Confucian thought is an “inclusive humanism” in both the sense that all human persons are equipped with the resources for improving the state of the world and that our ethical responsibilities do not reject but extend concentrically outward from our relations in the family, to nature, the spiritual and cosmos realm. While Confucian thought seeks to improve the concrete world, we should seek knowledge for the self — that is, self-knowledge shapes and transforms our own personal daily rituals by seeking the deeper ethical meaning in light of their concrete existence now. The purpose of knowledge is for the self. The human person does not renegotiate or leaves his or her place in the world but explores its ethical depth through dialogue with others and by following the authoritative models inherited from the past that have preserved and that ought to inform its ongoing human and civilizational condition.

At the core of both of these two Confucian predispositions is the concept of the Dao or the way. The Dao is the historical record of authoritative examples that show us the right life-orientation, the right core values, the right practices that express the ethical responsibilities in our inherited existential and ontological realities of our civilization now. The Dao are the human and civilizational values at the root of our daily practices. In Confucian thought, we only continue, change and transform the world by embodying the Dao in our daily practices. As I mentioned, the Confucians do not leave the world but work within it, so too with their conception of the Dao; it consists in itself of the practical archive of authoritative models of our human and civilizational condition. Unlike the Greeks, the Confucians discover the timeliness of the Dao by exploring its deeper meaning in the world rather than how it transcends it. In fact, the Lunyu is a dialogue between Confucius and his students in public and ordinary life which in turn discover and themselves transmit good authoritative models that moves the student from surface or superficial to the depth of self-understanding.

The Dao, as the collection of authoritative concrete models to emulate, to transmit and to improve, is the root of what makes our daily rituals or Li not merely formal but timely and appropriate practices. Li is a daily ritual or practice that can either internalize the Dao and embody it organically in the daily practice or lifestyle of the human person (henceforth Li1) or ignore the Dao and internalize and embody current superficial cultural values (henceforth Li2). Li1 is not merely an action but an attainment; one that changes our existential being and gives it ethical meaning. For Confucians, human beings do not simply play roles but become them. Each act of knowing leads to an act of becoming by transforming the “know” (Dao) into the “how” (external expression of the Dao). Every performative act of Li1 is an attainment of the human person, of civilization. The Dao as a collection of past concrete authoritative attainments of human and civilizational values express the ethical structures of what already existed and exists physically and biologically. Li1 is its outward expression.

The third and final concept for this entry is Ren  ) or “humanity” —  an innate altruistic quality that exists within and between every humane person. In Confucian thought, one discovers Ren the instant he or she has adopted the right practices or Li1 combined with De or those moral habits that have already been internalized. Ren is the humanity, the vitality, the civilizational, the humane relationships that is created between ourselves and our world when we are properly self-oriented. In Confucian thought, we can always find or create vitality, humanity, indeed our home in the world, the instant we seek and practice right self-orientation with others, that is when we act humanely to another person, when we care for the other as it is exemplarily shown in the filial piety between a parent-child relationship. Ren is the quality of a caring relationship. In Confucian thought, humanity requires earnest reflection upon the world and its particularities; it is itself the product of “reflections of things at hand”. Ren is the sacredness of life in the now, respect for the self and others. To find it one needs discipline, practices that are rooted in the way, and the transformation of the world.


One Comment on “Classical Chinese Philosophy: Lunyu

  1. Pingback: Classical Chinese Philosophy: Lunyu | Integrating Horizons©

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