Ancient History & Civilisation

5. Confucian Politics

Popular sovereignty—Government by example—The decentralization of wealth—Music and manners—Socialism and revolution

None but such men, in the judgment of Confucius, could restore the family and redeem the state. Society rests upon the obedience of the children to their parents, and of the wife to her husband; when these go, chaos comes.130 Only one thing is higher than this law of obedience, and that is the moral law. “In serving his parents (a son) may remonstrate with them, but gently; when he sees that they do not incline to follow (his advice), he shows an increased degree of reverence, but does not abandon (his purpose). . . . When the command is wrong, a son should resist his father, and a minister should resist his August Master.”131 Here was one root of Mencius’ doctrine of the divine right of revolution.

There was not much of the revolutionist in Confucius; perhaps he suspected that the inheritors of a revolution are made of the same flesh as the men whom it deposed. But he wrote bravely enough in the Book of Odes: “Before the sovereigns of the Shang (Dynasty) had lost (the hearts of) the people, they were the mates of God. Take warning from the house of Shang. The great decree is not easily preserved.”132 The people are the actual and proper source of political sovereignty, for any government that does not retain their confidence sooner or later falls.

Tsze-kung asked about government. The Master said, “(The requisites of government) are three: that there should be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler.” Tsze-kung said, “If it cannot be helped, and one of these must be dispensed with, which of the three should be foregone first?” “The military equipment,” said the Master. Tsze-kung asked again, “If it cannot be helped, and one of the remaining two must be dispensed with, which of them should be foregone?” The Master answered, “Part with the food. From of old, death has been the lot of all men; but if the people have no faith (in their rulers) there is no standing (for the state).”133

The first principle of government, in the view of Confucius, is as the first principle of character—sincerity. Therefore the prime instrument of government is good example: the ruler must be an eminence of model behavior, from which, by prestige imitation, right conduct will pour down upon his people.

Ke K’ang asked Confucius about government, saying, “What do you say to killing the unprincipled for the good of the principled?” Confucius replied, “Sir, in carrying on your government, why should you use killing at all? Let your (evinced) desires be for what is good, and the people will be good. The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass. The grass must bend when the wind blows across it. . . . He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place, and all the stars turn toward it. . . . Ke K’ang asked how to cause the people to reverence (their ruler), to be faithful to him, and to urge themselves to virtue. The Master said, “Let him preside over them with gravity—then they will reverence him. Let him be filial and kind to all—then they will be faithful to him. Let him advance the good and teach the incompetent—then they will eagerly seek to be virtuous.”134

As good example is the first instrument of government, good appointments are the second. “Employ the upright and put aside the crooked: in this way the crooked can be made to be upright.”135 “The administration of government,” says the Doctrine of the Mean, “lies in (getting proper) men. Such men are to be got by means of (the ruler’s) own character.”136 What would not a ministry of Higher Men do, even in one generation, to cleanse the state and guide the people to a loftier level of civilization?137 First of all, they would avoid foreign relations as much as possible, and seek to make their state so independent of outside supplies that it would never be tempted to war for them. They would reduce the luxury of courts, and seek a wide distribution of wealth, for “the centralization of wealth is the way to scatter the people, and letting it be scattered among them is the way to collect the people.”138 They would decrease punishments, and increase public instruction; for “there being instruction, there will be no distinction of classes.”139 The higher subjects would be forbidden to the mediocre, but music would be taught to all. “When one has mastered music completely, and regulates his heart and mind accordingly, the natural, correct, gentle and sincere heart is easily developed, and joy attends its development. . . . The best way to improve manners and customs is to . . . pay attention to the composition of the music played in the country.* . . . Manners and music should not for a moment be neglected by any one. . . . Benevolence is akin to music, and righteousness to good manners.”140

Good manners, too, must be a care of the government, for when manners decay the nation decays with them. Imperceptibly the rules of propriety form at least the outward character,141 and add to the sage the graciousness of the gentleman; we become what we do. Politically “the usages of propriety serve as dykes for the people against evil excesses”; and “he who thinks the old embankments useless, and destroys them, is sure to suffer from the desolation caused by overflowing water”:142 one almost hears the stern voice of the angry Master echoing those words today from that Hall of the Classics where once all his words were engraved in stone, and which revolution has left desecrated and forlorn.

And yet Confucius too had his Utopias and dreams, and might have sympathized at times with men who, convinced that the dynasty had lost “the great decree” or “mandate of Heaven,” dragged down one system of order in the hope of rearing a better one on the ruins. In the end he became a socialist, and gave his fancy rein:

When the Great Principle (of the Great Similarity) prevails, the whole world becomes a republic; they elect men of talents, virtue and ability; they talk about sincere agreement, and cultivate universal peace. Thus men do not regard as their parents only their own parents, nor treat as their children only their own children. A competent provision is secured for the aged till their death, employment for the middle-aged, and the means of growing up for the young. The widowers, widows, orphans, childless men, and those who are disabled by disease, are all sufficiently maintained. Each man has his rights, and each woman her individuality safeguarded. They produce wealth, disliking that it should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep it for their own gratification. Disliking idleness they labor, but not alone with a view to their own advantage. In this way selfish schemings are repressed and find no way to arise. Robbers, filchers and rebellious traitors do not exist. Hence the outer doors remain open, and are not shut. This is the state of what I call the Great Similarity.143

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