Master Kong (551-479 BC) is better known in the west as Confucius (a corruption of ‘Kong fuzi’ – Master Kong). Growing up in my part of the world I was frequently zapped by lunatic statements beginning with the words ‘Confucius say . . .’ – usually delivered in a strangulated accent calling to mind the likes of, ‘Ah so, Glasshopper, we meet again!’ At that time I had no idea who Confucius was, let alone what he might actually have said.
So why am I attracted to Master Kong? He gave a great deal of thought to how people should behave in a civilised society and encouraged others to consider this too. His usual approach seems to have been to have them arrive at their own conclusions through conversation, though if asked a question he would answer it as best he could. It is some of those answers I find most interesting.
Like Plato, he had very little opportunity to put his ideas into practice. Unlike Plato, he was devoid of totalitarian tendencies. Master Kong loved music, which was very important in his life. Plato recognised the affective power of music and so was hostile to it. If the dialogues are any guide, Plato employed Socratic questioning to pin down those he was conversing with. Without the benefit of knowing Socrates, Master Kong did the same.
Master Kong comes down to us through the Analects in which, to me at least, I meet a real person whom I find very engaging. And he is not the only person we meet. Take Yan Hui, for example. Few people got Master Kong thinking more than this modest and very poor man who, unfortunately, died young.
The influence on Master Kong of his student Yan Hui
The Master said: ‘I spend the whole day talking with Hui, and he does not put any counter-arguments but seems stupid; but when he is no longer with me and I study his private conduct, he is after all capable of setting an example. Hui is certainly not stupid.’ Book 2/9
The Master said to Zigong: ‘Of Yu and Hui which is the better?’ Zigong replied: ‘How dare I even have a look at Hui? Hui is the sort of person who, by hearing one thing, understands ten; but I am the sort of person who, by hearing one thing, understands two.’ The Master said: ‘You are not as good as he is. Both you and I are not as good as he is.’ Book 5/9
The Master said: ‘Hui is not a person who helps me. In my words there is nothing he does not admire.’ Book 11/4
When Yan Hui died, the Master became distressed as he bewailed him. His followers said; ‘Master, you have become distressed.’ ‘Have I?’ he said. ‘Well, if that man is not to be the object of my distress, then for whom am I to be distressed?’ Book 11/10
The Master said: ‘A man of quality indeed was Hui! He lived in a squalid alley with a tiny bowlful of rice to eat and a ladleful of water to drink. Other men would not endure such hardships, but Hui did not let his happiness be affected. A man of quality indeed was Hui!’ Book 6/11
And here is his advice to bloggers:
The Master said: You do not worry about the fact that other people do not appreciate you. You worry about not appreciating other people. Book 1/16