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Confucianism, named after the originator of the philosopher who lived over two thousand years ago, has been synonymous with China ever since. This is because the lessons contained in his analects among other teachings have defied the passage of time. Confucius taught what might be termed as ‘soft skills' or virtues or moral conduct. Among these is the importance to have a harmonious working relation between a master and his servants, the need for children to respect their parents, the power of humility, talking less and doing more among others. All these might be considered as common sense today, but not many have mastered them yet. China's exponentially growing international prominence has again thrust Confucianism into the public domain. Many want to know whether Chinas alleged embrace of Confucianism is the spur behind her exponential growth. Even so, in a far modern world compared to that in which Confucius lived, there are also those starting to question the practicality of his virtues in a fast moving modern world. This leads us to ask whether Confucius' teachings are liberal enough to be applied today. This argument can be sustained by some sources. While there are persuasive reasons to belong in either side in this debate, there is an emerging consensus that resolutely shows that Confucianism is indisputably a blend between the two.
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The best way to explore any detailed subject is to look at it in terms of its parts. This makes particular sense in a topic of this nature because, as has been suggested above, Confucianism is multi-faceted and in some cases open to interpretation. Looking at it as a product of its parts will allow the reader to appreciate which aspects of this philosophy make it a conservative philosophy and which ones make it liberal. Secondly this approach will bypass the trap many writers fall into when they decide to cover this topic wholesomely and are in the process forced to ignore or are even unable to disentangle its closely knit parts. They end up ‘pigeonholing' this philosophy into one of the two categories even when the facts seem to suggest otherwise just to have a neatly tied together narrative that reflects their decisiveness.
One thing to note about Confucianism is that it is person-centered. The person to start with is a very important concept under Confucianism because to a large extent this philosophy places the burden of changing the world on an individual. It has to do with all those elements of character that you have to cultivate and nurture to be a truly complete person in a Confucian sense. These elements of character range from hard work, benevolence, propriety, wisdom, fidelity and righteousness among others.
Despite the fact that all Confucian virtues seem to be of equal value, the one that consistently ranks at the top of this ‘food chain' is benevolence. It’s also the most conservative in as far as the world is organized today. Benevolence under Confucianism is interpreted as kindness. It involves having a natural love for humanity. It also involves being friendly and not being quick to stir disagreement. Most importantly is the fact that someone who is considered as being benevolent should be one who does to others as one would expect others to do to them. Also not to forget the fact that a person who is benevolent should take it upon himself or herself to do things that will make another party happy as one would have been made happy by such action. This virtue borrows very heavily from the Bible which implores people to ‘do unto others what they would like other people to do unto them' and this proves to a considerable extent that this virtue is spiritual.
In practice, this is a virtue that demands a lot as the virtue expects that one has to go out of his or her way to make the life of others bearable. It is a very lofty expectation. On top of that, the benevolent person is not supposed to expect payback. During Confucius day, many people led a peasant, communist kind of existence. In the modern world, it's difficult for humanity to dedicate itself fully for the good of the other person. Capitalism in the present day has made life become a competition over resources, affection among other things. The simple reason is that there are so many demands that are expected to be met today. It is almost impossible nowadays for people to set aside enough time to spend with their families. How then will they have enough time to dedicate to the good of others who are not closely related to them to start with? In this sense, Confucianism comes out as conservative.
Another pillar of Confucianism is righteousness. This involves taking action only after rationally thinking over the consequences, acting with self-restraint and resisting temptation. In general, it is about protecting ones integrity jealously. This under Confucianism is held in high esteem especially in carrying out ones duties with justice in mind. Confucianism holds this virtue dear because it has in mind the fact that society has classes, but these should not interfere with the dispensation of justice.
Justice is indeed key in the modern world. Justice is necessary when poor people are at odds with rich people, rich countries with rich countries. In many jurisdictions in the modern world, justice seems to have been sold to the highest bidder. There seems to be no justice delivered especially on the really important issues. Recent examples support this view. In the United States of America for example, racial bias when it comes to policing is always in the news. However, almost all the time, white police officers accused of shooting innocent, unarmed black people are almost always set free. If there was true justice, then it would be easy to determine the true aggressors and, therefore, people who are culpable would be held to account regardless of race, gender or religion.
Today, corruption is eating away at the very fabric of most countries, especially the poorest. Those in leadership have turned to be the biggest enemies of their own people. The incorruptible leaders envisioned by Confucius are almost impossible to find. Because of corruption, services are not delivered to the people and lives are even lost. It is clear that this is because the leaders aren’t acting righteously as Confucianism would have expected of them. Confucianism suggests that the best way to get rid of such leaders is to hand them very stiff penalties and in some cases even putting them to death. This is, however, a conservative approach in an age when the world which is actively advocating for more human rights and the end of capital punishment.
Also important in as far as Confucianism is concerned is propriety. This is a word with a very loaded meaning under this philosophy. It encompasses such virtues as devotion to God, being sexually reserved, being loyal, being respectful among others. The most important thing about propriety is that it advocates equal relations among people. In other words regardless of age, sex, among other considerations, even those who might be superior to others have a duty to those who are under their control.
Contrary to the prescription of devotion by Confucius, the modern world is increasingly becoming atheist or at least less devout in as far as matters of religion are concerned. This is especially the case in Europe. Science has also made its contribution which has further fuelled the growing doubts of many over the possibility of there being a God. This is another area that portrays Confucianism as being a bit conservative. One is bound to ask whether it realistic to encourage greater devotion to God in an age when people are increasingly doubtful over the existence of that God to start with.
Sexuality also falls under propriety in as far as Confucianism is concerned. The modern world has become greatly sexualized thanks to television and the internet. Sexual propriety has therefore taken a beating. Instead in its place has come the glorification of sexual impropriety. Even very young children are now involved in this impropriety. Its effects on interpersonal relationships and family are clear to see. Divorces are on the rise among several other sexual ills. This shows that the conservative nature of Confucianism with regards to sexual relations is greatly out of odds with modern sexual trends. It is unrealistic to advocate for chastity when the general trend in society is moving towards more sexual impropriety. Maybe Confucianism should provide a more flexible interpretation of sexual propriety for the modern world rather than pegging it solely on chastity. Respect within the family is also important in the Confucian concept of propriety. Children have a duty of respect to their parents and also a duty of care to the aged members of the society. In turn, parents, grandparents and older members of the family are expected to be tender and loving towards the younger members of the society. To sum it all up, Confucianism envisages a huge family.
In several other respects too, Confucianism is liberal. To start off, family size is growing increasingly smaller not bigger. Even in China where Confucius originates from, the government has only recently relaxed its ‘one child policy’. In this sense, Confucianism is conservative. However in a deeper sense, in as far as relations between family members are concerned, Confucianism is very liberal. The same duties are expected of any family member today as they were thousands of years ago.
Fidelity is also a key tenet of Confucianism that is applicable in many arenas in our modern society. This means that one must always not ‘let their words outrun their deeds' and must always act out of genuine care and not pretence. This ethics of truthfulness must always be ready to be reflected in every part of a person’s life. This extends from his dealings with other people in business to work among other places and situations. This is especially important in the modern age where competition has made lying or ‘being economical with the truth’ a way of life. It is used even by governments on its people and by corporations on its clients.
Wisdom is the final key part of Confucianism. It is defined as the ability to separate right from wrong. This is illustrated in The Battle of the Red Cliffs. The example of Zhuge Liang using wisdom to overcome almost impossible odds is apt. It shows that wisdom can achieve what physical ability and determination alone cannot achieve. Wisdom is in short supply but greatly needed in an age when people act out of their whims without putting in much thought. This further pays tribute to the old age that Confucianism also ably represents. At the end of the day, it is mostly by age that significant experience is gained.
Also important to be learnt from Confucianism are the elements. They are not necessarily the superficial elements as they may appear to us. They include wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Wood stands for birth, fire for blossoming, metal for firmness, water for wisdom and so on. All these elements are vital for everyday life. In fact to a large extent they define the environment in which we exist. It is important to take into consideration that even today the natural world in which we live in is key to our comfort. This is the main reason why we are so concerned when there are harmful consequences that happen to the world around us. Confucianism reminds us that the environment has been cherished over time and we must do our best to protect it.
Confucianism also lays a lot of emphasis on the importance of education. This is as relevant today as it has ever been. The teacher not only laid emphasis on education but did so specifically with respect to certain disciplines. He even advocates for the liberal arts. These are poetry, history and ancient tradition. He firmly believed that one cannot determine where they are going without first appreciating where they are coming from. The same case applies today. In the age of the internet, a lot is happening around us. The importance of tradition has been overshadowed by the promise of the future. Anybody therefore who pays attention to this quickly vanishing tradition will, therefore, be a foot ahead of the others.
Not to be ignored is hard work or individual effort. This is a view shared by many today. He talked of the hard working men as ‘superior men' and the lazy ones as ‘inferior men'. Confucius believed that it was up to every person to make what they wanted out of life. In other words, he never believed that one's place or circumstances of birth should prevent one from rising up the ladder in life. This is very relevant today with the slow erosion of classism in society. Initially, there were such concepts as the caste system which tied down an individual for life. Now any man or woman can almost rise to any level in life if they are so disposed. Most importantly Confucianism encourages hard work which is a virtue that will never grow old.
In a religious sense, Confucianism is also a very liberal philosophy. In fact in many quarters, Confucianism is considered a religion in its own right. Far from that, however, the teachings that Confucianism espouses are the same ones shared by all the major religions. All major religions frown on laziness, for instance, a position that Confucianism also firmly embraces. They also advocate for spiritual growth and this is one of the things that make Confucianism very relevant. In many ways, Confucianism borrows a lot from religion and that makes it a ‘slap-one-cheek-and-I-will-give-you-the-other-cheek’ kind of philosophy. It detests violence and expects someone to always strive to make peace and happiness to those around them. To reaffirm this stance, Confucianism openly states that it is in support of religion. It does not go as far as prescribing the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ God. This further greatly adds to its liberal credentials.
Generally it is important to note that Confucianism is a timeless philosophy. This is especially so because the lessons that it offered several years ago are still relevant today. In fact, the biggest evidence that this is a very liberal approach to life is the fact that we are even discussing it actively today. It might have some elements that might appear traditional to us, but the truth is that our departure from tradition in the first place is the cause of most of the challenges facing the earth as we know it today. There has been an effort by the modern world to move towards approaches to life that are incompatible with Confucianism, but it is good to note that the world has come back to its senses and is actively making efforts to find its way back.
In the final analysis, it’s easy to see that Confucianism occupies a middle ground in as far as the liberal versus conservative debate is concerned. This is due to its apt teachings on values which are still relevant today. They are the most important lessons in the world yet they are among the most devalued. They include propriety, righteousness, wisdom, fidelity, benevolence, hard work, education among others. However, on the conservative note, it’s clear that some of the values it stands for are at odds with modern trends. It is clear that the world has since moved away from these teachings as much as it still nostalgically longs for them. This is because the world has strayed so far away from such values that it has suddenly awoken to find itself on the precipice. The adaptable nature of Confucianism still hands it a lifeline. This is after all an increasingly liberal world and it needs a moral code which as much as it advocates for the original values still appreciates the need to keep up with the changing times.