Kung-fu-tsu, better known to the Western world as Confucius, was a philosopher, sage, and teacher whose wisdom has shaped Chinese thought for over 2,000 years. Born into a China that was a mosaic of small and often warring states, Confucius developed a philosophy that sought to bring peace and prosperity to all people.
Confucianism was deeply rooted in ethics, virtue, and correct behavior. It taught that each person could contribute to universal harmony if they practiced self-discipline, cultivated their characters, and performed the roles that had been allotted to them. Not everyone could be born a king or lord, but being a good parent or dutiful child could be just as nourishing to the soul and important to a peaceful existence.
To Confucius, happiness came not through gluttony and self-indulgence, but through frugality and duty to others. He believed fulfilling the needs of others could also fill oneself with serenity and gratitude. Forgoing one’s duty to serve, on the other hand, could have wider damaging effects: A ruler who ignored the needs of their subjects might unbalance the cosmos and suffer a reign beset with natural disasters.
Confucius set out four simple virtues that he believed were enough to keep the world in its proper order: benevolence, moral wisdom, righteousness, and observance of traditional rituals. According to Confucianism, ritual brings together a community in peace and helps to cultivate “ren,” a Chinese word meaning humanity, goodness, and love. Confucius taught that once we understand our shared humanity, we open ourselves up to feelings of altruism, respect for one another, and even friendship.
In Confucius’ idea of the ideal state, the rulers were kind, religion was properly celebrated, and the wise were treasured. Despite living in difficult times and often in exile, Confucius spent his life seeking to help others achieve this.
After Confucius’ death in 479 BCE, his disciples spread around the country to advise Chinese rulers in his worldview and political theories. In time, Confucianism became the dominant philosophy in China and other parts of eastern Asia, and remained so for centuries. Confucius’ sayings have endured to this day (and many others have been falsely attributed to the sage). Here are 10 quotes from the extraordinary life of Confucius that exemplify his teachings.
The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.
Confucius was born in 551 BCE in the state of Lu (modern Shandong province). His father, Kong He, was commander of the army garrison and died when Confucius was only three years old. Filial piety, the respect for your parents, would become a central tenet of Confucianism. “When your father is alive, observe his will. When your father is dead observe his former actions,” Confucius said. He believed a loving and respectful family unit was vital to a well-functioning society.
Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.
Confucius was sent to school to learn the ways of the gentleman. His studies included the Six Arts of classical China: music, archery, religious rites, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics. One who mastered these was thought to have everything an honorable person required. Confucius learned to love knowledge, and thought an education could improve a person’s character as well as their mind. He believed learning should be done “for the sake of the self,” and could be a process that lasted a lifetime. “To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous,” he said.
If you see what is right and fail to act on it, you lack courage.
Confucius lived in Lu, a state controlled by a family of dukes at a time when rival families were squabbling for power. Many common people suffered as the great lords fought. By 501 BCE, Confucius’ wisdom was recognized and he was given a small town to govern. He thought that just as a family should respect a patriarch, so should a state have one respected ruler. With no army of his own, he used words and persuasion to disarm the feuding powers of Lu.
The man of virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.
Confucius gathered many followers and disciples thanks to his profound wisdom. He sent those he taught to convince important people in the ways of peace and common humanity. His disciple Zhong You was appointed as chief magistrate in the city of Pu (near modern-day Changyuan), and another disciple, Ran Qiu, advised members of the Lu court.
When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself.
Confucius’ ideas of reform were not met with universal approval in China. His attempts to return rulers to their traditional piety and frugality would have hampered their lavish lifestyles. Other dukes worried that the Duke of Lu would become too powerful with the philosopher by his side, advising him as governor. When Confucius disapproved of the way his lord was behaving, he went into self-exile from Lu. He did not blame others for his distress but turned it into an opportunity for personal growth. He realized that by visiting other Chinese states he could refine his teachings.
Within the four seas, all men are brothers.
Examining how other lords ruled and other people lived only increased Confucius’ belief in the unity of humanity. “By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart,” he said. Confucius believed we could educate ourselves to come together.
When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self.
While in exile, Confucius was always on the move, yet he still found time to learn and to teach. He believed a person was only truly themselves when they were with others: A sage sitting alone in the mountains may be wise but can only be a teacher if they have students. Confucius believed that what is good for society is good for the individual, because each person we meet can have something to teach us.
What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.
One of Confucius’ most famous sayings has been echoed through the ages, often referred to as the “Golden Rule,” and phrased in English as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The basic principle of treating others the way we wish to be treated is found across the world’s religions, cultures, and ethical theories today, and the idea was central to Confucius’ teachings. When asked whether there was one word that could guide a person through life, Confucius replied, “reciprocity.”
At 15 I set my heart on learning, at 30 I knew where I stood, at 40 I had no more doubts, at 50 I knew the will of Heaven, at 60 my ears were attuned, and at 70 I followed my heart’s desire without crossing the line.
Confucius observed that new insights and understanding can be achieved at each stage of life. Looking back on his own experience, he reflected that every new chapter brings a new role to play, and a new chance to grow.
If I hear the Way of truth in the morning, I am content even to die in that evening.
Confucius finally returned to his home in Lu at age 68. He never had been able to put his plans for the perfect state into practice, but he spent his final years with his closest disciples, continuing to teach and advise. After his death at age 72, Confucius’ followers spread his philosophy across China. Confucius’ ideals — such as “Jen,” compassion, and “Yi,” justice — became the foundation of Chinese education. Today he is still offered reverence, as generations of people heed his words and wisdom in a world Confucius could not have imagined.