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Response Paper 1: Confucius

Book Response Papers Assignment


This should be a one-half page (approximately 250 word) response. It should not be a summary, but an essay on your intellectual and emotional reactions to the book. This essay should be submitted before you continue on in the course in order to receive feedback that will help improve your future essays. For more detailed instructions on this assignment, see the Book Response Papers section in the Course Organizationsection of the syllabus.

Topic: Confucius



The Religious Thought of Confucius

By now I hope it’s clear that Confucius was above all a philosopher. He knew about but did not dwell on the paradoxical and perplexing questions of our existence. He thought and spoke little about death, the afterlife, or the gods and our relationships with them. For him, this life had enough problems of its own for us to worry about the afterlife or the gods. A famous line in the Analects sums this up: “Pay your respects to the spirits and gods, but keep them at a distance.” Depending on the translation, you can also have this: “By paying your respects to the spirits and gods, you can keep them at a distance.” Regardless of how you translate, one thing is clear: the gods and spirits were not supremely important to Confucius. He had more important and urgent matters to attend to in the here and now than to worry about the realm of the dead and the supernatural. Here is another famous line in the Analects: “Never having understood life, how is it possible to understand death?” (I had this line thrown at me in Taiwan as a missionary.) The question for Confucius is not whether the spirits and gods existed—he probably thought they did; the question for him was what to do with this belief. “Not much,” he seemingly answers.

Confucius was a very practical man with little patience for mysticism. He might have heard of the Upanishads in India and the emphasis there on meditation to fuse your individual self with the Great Self of the universe. He tried it, but he didn’t like it. He said, “I have at times spent a whole day without taking food and a whole night without sleep, occupied with thinking [meditation]. It was of no use. I have found it better to study.”

Confucius would have rather read a good book, especially if it were on the history of the early Western Chou, when all was well in society. Confucius did have a great reverence for Heaven. He saw Heaven more or less as nature, or the way the universe ran itself. For him, Heaven was trying to speak to us. It had something to teach us. Heaven, or the natural universe, was an inspiring model of well-ordered constancy. The seasons came and went according to their pattern, the birds came and went, and crops grew in accordance with their seasons. Human beings should be inspired by this, he believed, and order their society after the pattern indicated to them by nature. Heaven was to be analyzed and then duplicated in the world of man. On one occasion, Confucius seems to have been frustrated with his pupils, who were learning imperfectly. He announced to them he would rather not speak at all. He said:

“I would rather not speak at all.”

“But if you do not speak, sir,” asked Tzu-kung, “what shall we, your disciples, learn from you to be taught to others?”

“Look at the Heaven there,” answered Confucius. “Does it speak? And yet the seasons run their appointed courses and all things in nature grow up in their time. Look at the Heaven there: does it speak?”

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