100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 25



Confucius: The Secret of China

Image result for confucius


Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.)


This is China, the Leviathan of the nations, broad back of giant Asia, larger than all Europe, and as populous. Look at the map and see how puny Europe is, how precarious and unstable geographically; consider Russia as Asiatic (which it was till Peter the Great, and may be again), and Europe becomes but a jagged promontory, the tentative fingers or pseudopodia of the greatest continent.

    Those plains at Asia’s center may have been the birthplace of civilization. In 1903, Professor Raphael Pumpelly found at Anau, near Ashgabat, buried remains of a human culture dating from 9000 B.C.E.—twenty centuries earlier than the oldest relics of Egypt or the land of Ur. These ancient Asiatics raised barley and wheat, built houses of brick, and domesticated the ox, the pig, the camel, the sheep, and the dog. This center was a volcano of humans in periodical eruption; humanity poured from it like torrents of Inexhaustible lava. Before and after these lands were dried up by diminishing rain, they sent out vast migrations that populated Europe, Africa, Oceania, (and through the Indians) America; and when the great flood was over there remained about 330,000,000 in China alone in the early twentieth century—more than a fifth the population of the world.

    Do you know that China has had civilization—i.e., economic provision, political order and security, morals and manners, letters and arts—almost without interruption these last four thousand years? It began when the pyramids were being built, and continued undisturbed when the Pharaohs fell. It gave Laozi and Confucius to the world a century before Socrates and Plato appeared in Greece. It invented printing five hundred years before Gutenberg, and the compass five hundred years before Columbus. It discovered gunpowder long before the Muslims or Christians, and had the good sense to use it only for fireworks. It treasured 54,000 MSS in the Imperial Library when Rome was in ruins. When all Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, a thousand poets flourished, invented free verse, and wrote the most delicate lyrics in literature, under the dynasty of the cultured Tangs; and a thousand artists, under the Tangs and the Songs, made the most perfect drawings, and the loveliest pottery, in the world. What a civilization! The longest-lived, and perhaps the profoundest, of all. What is its secret?

    Let us personify the secret, and call it, Kong Fuzi—Kong the Master—Confucius. Never has one man so written his name upon the character and institutions of his people. For here was a philosopher accepted by the world; acknowledged, and studied as a great teacher by the most powerful emperors; molding the souls of millions in every generation as the students memorized his simple and intelligible books; persuading his countrymen to gentleness and moderation, to the love of learning and the cherishing of peace; and at last gratefully worshiped by them as a god. No other except Christ or Muhammad has wielded such influence.

    We cannot love everything in him. A Puritan strictness about him must have kept happiness at a timid distance; and he put such store by manners and ceremonies as would hardly suit our democratic tastes. “All virtues have their source in etiquette,” he wrote; “and even in killing men one should observe the rules of propriety.” “In driving with a woman one must drive with one hand,” he advises, in thoroughly modern style; but then he continues, with a strange error in the pronoun, “and keep the other behind his back.”

    But see him as his disciples saw him, as Zengzi describes him:

    Ability asking instruction of incompetence, abundance sitting at the feet of insufficiency, a man of every virtue who thought he had none, solid in character, yet making himself a cipher, trespassed against but never retaliating.


As he strode through street and field, teaching the pupils who were to be the statesmen of the generation after him, he must have made a queer picture to the mob—an almost hairless head gnarled and knotted with wisdom, and a face whose seriousness gave no inkling of his kindliness and humor. Out of the two thousand who sought instruction from him, he could afford to select his students, and to retain only the most assiduous and intelligent. The Master said:

I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.


To his favored ones he revealed the core of his philosophy in two paragraphs crowded with wisdom:

    The ancients who wished to illustrate the highest virtue throughout the empire first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own selves. Wishing to cultivate their own selves, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

    Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy.


    In the year 501 B.C.E., Confucius was made chief magistrate of Chengdu, and did so well that he was soon advanced to be Minister of Crime in the duchy of Lu. The historians who are prejudiced in his favor tell us that “a marvelous transformation ensued in the manners of the people. There was an end of crime. Loyalty and good faith became the characteristics of the men, chastity and obedience those of the women.” Happy days! They will never come again.

    But he had enemies, and by ancient strategy they contrived his fall. They sent to his master so choice an assortment of harem girls that the Duke forgot all the commandments, roistered with the ladies, and ignored the protests of the stern philosopher, whose whole theory of government rested on the example of the governors. Confucius sent in his resignation and went with his disciples into voluntary exile, saying, “I have never seen a man who loved virtue as much as he loved beauty.”

    Many years he wandered, but he found no second Dionysus. He lived till 479 B.C.E., dying at the age of seventy-two. His pupils buried him with pomp and ceremony proportioned to their love; and, building huts by his grave, they lived there for three years, sorrowing for him as for a father. When all the others had gone, Zigong, who loved him beyond the rest, remained three years more, mourning alone by his Master’s tomb.