Confucius’ Pillars of Society

Confucian classics, etched in stone
Confucian classics, etched in stone
“There is government when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.”Confucius

Some 2500 years ago, Chinese civilization was awash in conflict and bloodshed. Confucius looked around himself at a crumbling world and pondered the question: “How do we build a harmonious society?” His answer resulted in the most stable, longest-lived large-scale society the world has yet known, a way of life which endured for over 2 millenniums. While not without its drawbacks1, this is a vastly better accomplishment than most of the world can claim.

Central to Confucianism are the five relationships. In a well-ordered society, everybody knows their role(s) in the grand scheme of things, and plays their part well. These relationships are as follows:

  1. Ruler and Subject
  2. Father and Son
  3. Husband and Wife
  4. Elder and Younger brother (some sources leave off the “brother” part)
  5. Friend and Friend

Confucius was China’s greatest political philosopher. Only one of his societal pillars related to government. Fully 3 of them were oriented around the family. This is all the more interesting, given that this was the same society and time period which gave rise to Legalism, a philosophy focused entirely around the state, and subordinating all else to it. Confucius knew better.

It is something we modern Americans frequently fail to see. More and more, we categorize things only in terms of “government” and “not government.” This is as true for those who hate the government as those who idolize it. Generally, if somebody opposes a government restriction, it merely means that they don’t think the thing should be restricted at all. The standard credo is “I don’t care if you do X; I just don’t think the government should be involved one way or the other in it,” but there is a world of difference between that and “You should not do X; neither should the government prohibit you from doing it.” And there’s another world of difference between that and “You should not do X. If you do, your community should shun you.” How many people do you know who can hold the third view without replacing “community” with “government?” How many people can even articulate the difference between those two things?

You see the same thing from the other side as well. Many Americans simply cannot comprehend the statement “This is important. The government should not do it.” Government has entirely displaced in their own minds all of the other institutes of society, including their own selves. This is why conservatives consistently give more to charity than liberals, a trait especially manifest in their leaders. For example, I knew even before looking that noted class warrior Elizabeth Warren gives essentially none (<3% out of multiple millions) of her own money to the poor. And it is also why you will never see a progressive take her to task for it. The idea that somebody might be personally responsible to help others out simply doesn’t compute anymore.

Even the dichotomy I set up in the previous sentence is an example of this. There is much more than just personal responsibility and governmental responsibility. Some things are church responsibilities, or charity responsibilities, or school responsibilities, or business responsibilities, or the responsibility of any number of other intermediary institutions.

We need a deeper sense of what goes into society if we’re going to build a great one. Confucius made a pretty good pass at it with his relationships, but his list needs some expanding. With luck, I’ll flesh these out more in the future:

  1. God and Man
  2. Ruler and Subject
  3. Father and Son
  4. Husband and Wife
  5. Teacher and Student (in many ways, this was already contained in Confucius’ understanding of Elder and Youth)
  6. Friend and Friend
  7. Seller and Buyer

What did I miss?

1 “Stability” can be another word for “stagnancy.” Alexis De Tocqueville in 1835 described China thusly: “Travelers assure us that the Chinese have peace without happiness, industry without improvement, stability without strength, and public order without public morality. The condition of society is always tolerable, never excellent.” He attributed its deficiencies to China’s centralization.

JS Mill made a similar observation in On Liberty (1860): “We have warning example in China-a nation of much talent and, in some respects, even wisdom owing to the rare good fortune of having been provided at an early period with a particularly good set of customs, the work, in some measure, of men to whom even the most enlightened European must accord, under certain limitations, the title of sages and philosophers. They are remarkable, too, in the excellence of their apparatus for impressing, as far as possible, the best wisdom they possess upon every mind in the community, and securing that those who have appropriated most of it shall occupy the posts of honor and power.

Surely the people who did this have discovered the secret of human progressiveness and must have kept themselves steadily at the head of the movement of the world. On the contrary, they have become stationary-have remained so for thousands of years; and if they are ever to be further improved, it must be by foreigners.”

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