Confucius: Biography & Teachings

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  • 0:01 Confucius's World
  • 0:57 Early Life
  • 2:46 Teachings
  • 4:56 Matching the Mandate of Heaven
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The teachings of Confucius have been among the most enduring in history, acting as a guide for literally billions of people. This lesson explains his early life and the inspiration that started it all.

Confucius's World

The environment that Confucius was born into seems to have indicated that his guidance could not have been better suited for a moment in history. Since the breakup of the Zhou Dynasty some 200 years before his birth, China had been torn apart by constant infighting. Both the ruling class and the general public were acting poorly. Intrigue, with servants often just as likely to kill their masters than serve them, ruled the palaces of the many small states that now made up China.

Within such an environment of infighting and strife, no one ruler could claim the Mandate of Heaven, the idea in ancient China that an individual was granted the right, by heaven itself, to become emperor based on his ability to govern justly and well. It was into this environment that Confucius was born, and his teachings eventually helped the country to get back on track.

Early Life of Confucius

Confucius was born in 551 BC, son of a minor official to a minor king. All around him, he saw the problems of his and prior generations, and he often reflected upon them. Due to his father's position, he was able to gain an education, despite the fact that it did come at considerable cost to the family. However, due to constant infighting, there was no single emperor to serve, nor was there one way to get ahead, despite coming from relatively humble roots, so instead Confucius taught and advised local leaders. In other words, Confucius worked hard for what he was able to achieve, but in his own lifetime was limited by his relatively humble roots.

Much like the Buddha or the Greek philosophers who lived at about the same time, Confucius had a small group of followers with whom he shared his philosophy. In fact, none of it was written down in his lifetime, and while some of his pupils went on to become very renowned administrators, Confucius himself remained mainly a teacher.

Confucius felt that his genius greatly exceeded the role of a mere teacher. He felt that he should be advising important rulers, not just local ones. This may have hurt his image at the time, despite the fact that his teachings lived on not only in his students, but soon, throughout the country. He felt that being a teacher, rather than an advisor of an important ruler, limited the ability for his teachings to make an impact in China. In fact, he even considered working for the enemy, thinking that he could reform them from within. By doing so, he thought, he could have enhanced his image by being the scholar who had civilized a group of barbarians to the point that they were worthy of ruling China. However, he never followed through on the thought.

Teachings

Confucius's teachings were concerned with ethics and the way one should live. He placed an overwhelming emphasis on the importance of education, rituals and proper behavior. After all, education was a humbling experience because it reminded individuals that they themselves could not hope to have all the answers. He argued that it was through these things that humanity could expect to be good, and without them to temper the wild savages of the human experience, humanity would generally act in a way that was anything but civilized. Because of the chaos in China at that time, his argument was timely.

With the exception of his students, Confucius was unable to attract many converts to his philosophy during his own lifetime. It is for this reason primarily that he remained a teacher for so long.

Confucius's ideas really took hold after his death, after his students collected his teachings into a book called Analects. Because the book had multiple authors interpreting his work, all of whom were trying to re-create the messages of their dead teacher, there's some question as to whether it's entirely accurate in some places.

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