The aesthetic is very much an important element in the philosophy of Confucius. The aesthetic is beautiful and good and as poetry can yield such manner so should man’s comportment. What by some interpretations may seem as mere etiquette is much more deeply an issue of aesthetic gratitude and respect. It is one of the key elements to his idea of a harmonious order. Such an order included a special relationship to and serving of the spirits. He maintained that he had a special relationship to Tian, the Zhou deity referring to sky or heaven. He acknowledged its changing status and relationship over time, pre-dating the Zhou, and acknowledged the ‘existential’ dilemma in such change, yet maintained a balanced interpretation in which man is subject to the parameters set forth by the Tian though is a free agent within those parameters and responsible for his actions. Therefore, there is an aesthetic, moral and social co-mingling order that ensures the highest order of harmony, which can be effected through li (ritual propriety). One must learn and perform properly and at the proper time for the greater good.
Through li one can cultivate and master the idea of ren (compassion, or the loving of others), a core component of his thinking. Together this involves deprecating oneself as opposed to being artificial in making the appearance of a better impression: to be true and sincere to oneself is to take care of the other as well; to master self-discipline not as a form or self-repression but as a way to accommodate both the self and the other. Such is enacted in the performance of li, and not as mere obligation, but precisely as sincere devotion: “look at nothing in defiance of ritual, listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, speak of nothing in defiance or ritual, never stir hand or foot in defiance of ritual.”
The importance of such comportment is as well, and clearly as could be no other way, integral to the operations of political life. While he deemed that the elders and the learned are to be respected and honored, that in fact the best practice of ren is through the devotion and respect of one’s elders, he was keen to make aware that such filial propriety is not to be abused. There is no ruler who is essentially “better” than a peasant, and the former should never take for granted the latter. As is true for the social is true for governance—self-discipline through compassion and the love of others.
As well, the system of governance should follow a hierarchy, as does the notion of li in a familial setting such that a legitimate and honorable hierarchy is established and respected as it (when it) collectively adheres to the harmonic order of li and ren. This theory takes on the name of zhengming, in which the principle forms of government have their appropriate names and corresponding behaviors. “Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.” This notion of adjudication is considered essential, as the devolution of governance is believed by Confucius to take place in the devolution of one’s place and the attributes and performance of one’s position.
Proper, ideal governance is, above all else, dependent upon de, or virtue. It is a moral force that incorporates the performance of li and the presence of ren. The ceremonial, in this context, is far from pomp and circumstance, but rather a sincere activation of virtue, which has the effect of performing governance. Confucius spoke of such in defiance of acts of aggressive force or imposition of law and law enforcement, which would be antithetical to the force of morality. As he states: “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” Virtue, metaphorically, leads on its own accord.
Confucius, himself, did not become officially involved in politics until the age of fifty. Under Duke Ding of the state of Lu, Confucius was first appointed Minister of Public Works, which was then followed by the position as Minister of Crime. Apparently, he was forced to leave his position in the ministry of the Duke due to conflicting desires of the nobility of Lu or perhaps the Duke himself—the exact reasons are not clear. He did take leave, or some have said in exile, and traveled with some of his disciples through the other neighboring states of Cai, Chen, Chu, Song and Wei. He apparently sought positions in the ministries of these states yet was unsuccessful. In 484 BCE he returned to his home state of Lu and devoted the rest of his life to teaching.
The Analects give us most of what we know about Confucius and while Confucius claimed to be a mere transmitter, scholars agree that he in fact did much more than transmit and in fact it is his interpretations, expansions and departures that honored him with such a lasting reputation. His teachings were evolutionary, radical and enlightening. His legacy has had long lasting and far-reaching impact in both the eastern and western traditions. He is an amazing figure in history and in legend as the two can never be separated and it speaks to his almost magical presence in the history of Chinese thought. His age of death, seventy-two, was itself a magic number and again leaves open the uncertainty of what is true and what is retrospective mythologizing. It has been convened that the thinker was under recognized in his time yet his legend, and more importantly his teachings, lived on. At the end of the 4th century, Mencius was to say of Confucius, “ever since man came into this world, there has never been one greater than Confucius.”