What This Country Needs is… Confucius!

How well does Donald Trump measure up to Confucius’s teachings?  And how well do we?  The answer to both questions is “none of the above.”

The Chinese empire lasted for more than two thousand years, in part because it was grounded in a sound moral foundation, much of it inspired by the great scholar, teacher, and politician Confucius (551-479? B.C.).   Confucius has been called the Socrates of China, but it should be the other way around, for Confucius was born some 75 years earlier and had a far more comprehensive ethical and political vision that was much better documented.  It also had a far greater and more enduring social impact.  (A better analogy might be to say that Confucius was sort of a combination of Socrates/Plato, Jesus, and Muhammed.)

As we learn from reading Confucius’s Analects(teachings that were compiled by his followers after his death), ethical behavior is the essential glue that holds a society together.  To Confucius, ethical action – “virtue” – starts with self-discipline and self-restraint, and it requires deep respect for others – family, community, and political leaders and institutions.  This does not mean that a person should suppress their own desires and self-interests but that these must be “reconciled” (compromised) with the interests of others.  Confucius also stressed the importance of sincerity (trustworthiness), diligence, kindness and generosity.

Education and knowledge were also vitally important to Confucius. “He who learns but does not think is lost.  He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.” Furthermore, Confucius believed, moral education is just as important as history, or science.  This is especially important for leaders.  He would have endorsed Plato’s famous idea of wise and virtuous “philosopher kings” who had been carefully trained for their role.

Another important ethical pillar for Confucius was his concern for justice, as reflected in his own version of the Golden Rule. “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”  When a disciple asked him “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” Confucius answered: “How about reciprocity?  Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”  

Significantly, the word “freedom” has no place in Confucius’s lexicon.  He emphasized that we all depend upon one another in a complex society.  However, he insisted that the political system must also be virtuous.  It must earn the respect and obedience of the citizenry.  Rulers must set an example of self-discipline, scholarship and treating others with respect, concern and love.  Only a ruler who is devoted to the public interest will command willing obedience from his subjects, and this is a much more powerful and effective approach than ruling by a rigid code of law backed by punishments.  (We might call it using carrots rather than sticks.)  There must also be a “balance” between adhering to the existing social and political order and a willingness to make beneficial changes.  

So, the final exam questions are these: How well does Donald Trump measure up to Confucius’s teachings?  And how well do we?  The answer to both questions is “none of the above.”  A nation that can freely elect such a deeply-flawed leader as Trump is morally adrift and in deep trouble.  And if the 21stcentury does after all turn out to be the Chinese Century, as some have predicted, it will be, in part, because China still benefits from its deep moral heritage.  We have much to learn.  





Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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