Site Map





Philosophy 312: Oriental Philosophy
Main Concepts of Confucianism

Abstract:  The main concepts of Confucianism are discussed.

IV. Main Concepts of Confucianism: the twin concepts of jen
and li are often said to constitute the basis of Confucianism.
A. Jen (wren): human heartedness; goodness; benevolence, man-to-man-ness; what makes man distinctively human (that which gives human beings their humanity).
1. The virtue of virtues; Confucius said he never really saw it full expressed. The other virtues follow from it. He never gives and defends a definition of it although he does characterize it.
2. It is dearer than life itself--the man of jen will sacrifice his life to preserve jen, and conversely it is what makes life worth living.
3. Jen is a sense for the dignity of human life--a feeling of humanity towards others and self-esteem for yourself.
a. Such feeling applies to all men--not just one nation or race. It is the foundation of all human relationships.
b. There is the belief that jen can be obtained; indeed, there is the belief in the natural perfectibility of man. Hence, he rejects the way of human action where one satisfies likes and avoids dislikes.
c. The first principle of Confucianism is to act according to jen: it is the ultimate guide to human action.
4. We should seek to extend jen to others.
B. Li (lee): principle of gain, benefit, order, propriety; concrete guide to human action.
1. Two basic meanings to li: (1) concrete guide to human relationships or rules of proper action that genuinely embody jen and (2) general principle of social order or the general ordering of life.
2. Confucius recognized that you need a well ordered society for wren to be expressed.
3. First Sense: the concrete guide to human relationships.
a. The way things should be done or propriety: positive rather than negative ("Do's rather than Don't's).
b. The main components of propriety emphasizes the openness of people to each other.
(1) The reification of names: language used in accordance with the truth of things.
(2) The Doctrine of the Mean: so important that an entire book is dedicated to it in the Confucian canon: the proper action is the way between the extremes.
(3) The Five Relationships: the way things should be done in social life; none of the relationships are transitive. (Note that 3 of the 5 relations involve family; the family is the basic unit of society).
(a) father and son (loving / reverential)
(b) elder brother and younger brother (gentle / respectful)
(c) husband and wife (good / listening)
(d) older friend and younger friend (considerate / deferential)
(e) ruler and subject (benevolent / loyal)
(4) Respect for age: age gives all things their worth: objects, institutions, and individual lives.
4. Second Sense of li: principle of social order; ritual; ordering of life; conforming to the norms of jen (the limits and authenticity of li).
a. Every action affects someone else--there are limits to individuality.
b. Confucius sought to order an entire way of life.
c. You shouldn't be left to improvise your responses because you are at a loss as to how to behave.
d. A. N. Whitehead's quotation of a Cambridge vicar: "For well-conducted people, life presents no problems."
C. Yi (yee); righteousness; the moral disposition to do good (also a necessary condition for jen or for the superior man).
1. Yi connotes a moral sense: the ability to recognize what is right and good; the ability to feel, under the circumstances what is the right thing to do.
a. Not chih, moral wisdom per se, but intuition.
b. Most of us live under the sway of different kinds of "I's." In this case, the identification is with an impersonal ego. (In Freudian terms, almost like the super-ego.)
c. The impersonal ego is the assimilated or appropriated values of our culture--the Confucian true self.
2. Some actions ought to be performed for the sole reason that they are right--regardless of what they produce; not for the sake of something else.
a. The value in the act is the rightness of the action regardless of the intention or the consequences of the act.
b. Hence, yi is a different way than either stoicism (intention with soft determinism) or utilitarianism (consequences with free will).
c. Confucianism is similar to Kant's ethics of duty: the action is done as a good-in-itself, not as a means to an end.
3. Acting from yi is quite close to practicing jen. Compare the two situations:
a. A person does all actions for the sake of yi because they are the right thing to do (i.e., the behavior forms the disposition). This example is the way we learn; it is not an example of yi.
b. A person does all actions for the sake of jen because respect for humanity implies the right human way to act (i.e., be concerned about who you are, not the individual things you do). This example is practiced until it becomes second-nature, then it is right.
D. Hsiao (showe): filial piety; reverence
1. Parents are revered because they are the source of your life. They have sacrificed much for you.
2. One should do well and make the family name known and respected: bring honor to your family.
3. Consider someone you respect and admire who saves your life or someone who has sacrificed his life for you--as, indeed, your parents did. Hence, the reverence.
4. Hsiao implies that you give your parents not only physical care but also emotional and spiritual richness. When the parents die, their unfulfilled aims and purposes should be the purposes of the children.
5. What do you do if your values are different from your parents? I.e., in a changing society?
6. The beginnings of jen are found in hsiao (family life).
a. Once the reverence and respect is understood for parent, hsiao can be extended by generalization to family, friends, society, and mankind.
b. Respect for the sake of reverence affects who you are.
E. Chih (chee): moral wisdom; the source of this virtue is knowledge of right and wrong. Chih is added to Confucianism by Mencius (muhn shoos) who believed that people are basically born good.
1. Since we draw the difference between right and wrong from our own mind, these ideas are innate.
2. Man is a moral animal for Mencius. Man has the potential to be good for Confucius.
3. How, then, does Mencius account for the origin of evil?
a. From external circumstances: nature and the needs for survival.
b. From society and culture being is disarray: it would be to our disadvantage to be moral.
c. From lack of knowledge: we do not seek to find out the options we have. We fail to develop our feelings and senses.
F. Chun-tzu (choon dzuh): the ideal man; the superior man; gentle person in the most significant sense.
1. He is at home in the world; as he needs nothing himself. He is at the disposal of others and completely beyond personal ambition.
2. He is intelligent enough to meet anything without fear.
3. Few people can attain this ideal; the central virtue is, of course, jen.
a. Personal relationships come before anything else (i.e., before thinking, reasoning, studying).
b. The five virtues come from within the impersonal ego: (1) kindness, (2) rectitude, (3) decorum, (4) wisdom, and (5) sincerity.
G. Te (day): power by which men are ruled; the power of moral example (the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest).
1. The patterns of prestige are used in the service of governance of the country.
2. Government is good if it can maintain (1) economic sufficiency, (2) military sufficiency, and (3) confidence of the people.

Check your understanding with a Quiz on the Main Concepts of Confucianism.



CGI and Java scripts programmed by
Send corrections or suggestions to
Read the disclaimer concerning this page.

  Introduction |  Siddhartha  |  Hinduism  |  Confucianism  |  Buddhism  |  Zen  |  Taoism