To many educated Westerners, Confucius is the very emblem of Chinese civilization and religious belief. If the dates that historians have assigned to him—551-479 B.C.—are correct, he was a contemporary of the Greek poet Pindar, the tragedian Aeschylus, and the philosopher Heraclitus. According to tradition, Confucius was easily their equal. In addition to having written or edited parts of a diverse body of literature that includes the I Ching (Book of Changes) and the Book of Poems, classics to this day, he was a scholar, a minister of state, and an accomplished horseman and archer. Confucius is said to have taught his disciples the cultivation of personal virtue (ren, usually translated as “goodness” or “humaneness”), veneration of one’s parents, love of learning, loyalty to one’s superiors, kindness to one’s subordinates, and a high regard for all of the customs, institutions, and rituals that make for civility.
So appealing is Confucius that his Lunyu, or Analects, a collection of 497 sayings and short dialogues written down by his disciples after his death, has been translated again and again, especially during this century. Ezra Pound tried his hand at the manuscript; Arthur Waley published a famous English translation in 1938; and two years ago Simon Leys (the pen name of the Australian Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans) translated it into strikingly spare and elegant English prose. One reason Confucius has resonated with twentieth-century intellectuals is that his religiosity—or lack thereof—is remarkably congruent with our time. He appeared to encourage obedience to the will of “heaven” and reverent observance of religious rites—the ancient Chinese practice of offering sacrifices to the spirits of one’s ancestors, for example—while remaining agnostic on the question of whether a supernatural world actually exists. One of the analects declares (in Leys’s translation), “The Master never talked of: miracles; violence; disorders; spirits.” The Analects contains a version of the Golden Rule (“I would not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me”), but Confucius’ real concern seems to have been the Golden Mean: all things in moderation, even moderation itself. According to another of the analects, “Lord Ji Wen thought thrice before acting. Hearing this, the Master said: ‘Twice is enough.’” Such anecdotes prompted the novelist Elias Canetti to observe, “The Analects of Confucius are the oldest complete intellectual and spiritual portrait of a man. It strikes one as a modern book.”