Confucius and the Foundation of Ethics


Текст выступления на Втором Нишаньском форуме в г. Цзинань (КНР), май 2013 г.


The basic fact about Confucius is that he did not write texts of his own nor engaged in theoretical disputes. His main source of inspiration were collection of Songs, records of deeds and sayings of ancient Sages and in no less degree objects related to their life. In fact, Confucius was the first connoisseur of antique objects in China and probably in the whole world. Moreover, in the final account the wisdom of Confucius cannot and should not be distinguished from the presence of the physical world as such. The greatest China’s sage declared that he was not willing to speak – or rather deemed unnecessary to speak – because Heaven itself did not utter words yet maintained the perfect order in the world. Antique objects are the best evidence to this order which can and should be articulated by humans.

So, the living truth that Confucius discovered and taught to his students merged with spontaneous, presumably primordial and uncreated order of the world embodied by the “eloquent muteness” of things conceived as traces of enlightened heart. (One should preserve the warmth of ancient times, Confucius used to say.) It is not accidental that the legacy of Confucius is represented by the material vestiges of his life: already Sima Qian discovered the most assuring evidence of Confucius’s greatness in the fact that most of the latter’s personal belongings, not to mention his house and grave, were well preserved in his time. The house and grave, as well as full genealogy of Confucius exist even today. What a great contrast with ancient Western philosophers who bestowed on posterity only their ideas.

Ever since Confucius cultural artifacts were valued and cherished in China as witnesses of the hearts of great people who possessed them. The truth of Confucius is the very materiality of life conceived and, moreover, actively lived through as the most definite crystallization of spirit[1]. The most telling consequence – as well as condition – of this outlook has been noticed by contemporary Western thought that affirms not identity but difference in things and experience, seeks not the common bright future but different, exotic even alien present. It grants autonomy to things as marks of singularities. Suffice to recall the concepts of “the parliament of things” (B. Latour) or even “the revolt of things” (J. Baudrillard). This kind of thinking reunites matter with spirit through “emptying” of things, treating them as symbols whose nature is a short circuit of actual/virtual aspects of existence. This circuit, as J.Deleuze claimed, provides conditions for symbol’s self-perpetuation. To make possible this continuity of (non)existence, we should renounce the principle of identity and mimesis – these cornerstones of classical Western thought – and rely instead on the idea of similarity, understood as essentially a qualitative one. Similarity belongs to events, not ideas or images. It dissects the homogeneity of the subject, shatters the unity of form and contents and replaces the mimetic image with the image of another kind whose nature depending on our point of view can be defined differently: as simulacra (J. Deleuze, J. Baudrillard), substitute (P. Virilio) or, following H. Bergson, just phantom. These terms do not imply that images in question are inherently false. In Eastern tradition it means that they exist beyond presence and absence and their raison d’etre is the pure apparition of Being, the ornamentation in its endless variety. This hyper-reality affirms the indestructibility of material-cum-virtual world. So, the world in contemporary non-classical philosophy is saved, so to say, in advance, absolutely spontaneously in the immanence of virtual experience.

Perhaps unexpectedly for many, the (post)modern Western thinking which has been reinforced recently by achievements of the information technologies merges with the traditional Chinese approach to the material world. Interestingly enough, we do not find in Chinese language a single word resembling the Western matter or materiality. There is no single entity confronting mind or spirit. The concept of matter is stretched across several different terms: “thing” (wu), “energy” (qi), “”substance” (zhi), “body” (ti) etc. Perhaps the closest analogy to the Western notion of matter is “thing”. Yet in China the idea of a thing is closely related to the concept of Change which naturally transcends itself and, moreover, dissolves in the infinite elusiveness, a self-absence. Originally the character “thing” designated the sacrificial animal and thus the transformative symbolism of ritual. In ancient texts a concept of thing is linked to the idea of chaotic wholeness of Being which in China comprises both primordial Chaos and cultural practice as esthetically liberated life. The classical aphorism says: “The intermingling of things emits the comprehensive power of perfection”, i.e. the spontaneous order of the world is endowed with the self-regulating and morally justified power of virtue, or De.

The spontaneous ordering of things does not stand for itself but makes itself apparent through the universal “ornamental pattern” (wen) which refers equally to natural forms and human artifacts such as writing but also architecture and even the order of everyday life. The continuity between nature and culture is confirmed by the principle of similarity. The very nature of script was defined in Chinese tradition as similarity (ru) unfolding in two directions: Chinese characters were similar, on the one hand, to natural images, and, on the other hand, to writer’s state of mind. So, the writing embodied the force of transformation along two complimentary lines: as a crystallization of the subtle essences of the universe (natural creation) and the sublimation of human psyche (cultural creation).

Here is the key point of the Confucian (as well as Chinese in broader sense) idea of thing: the latter contains in itself its own alterity, its own absence. It is the embodiment of transformation, an explosive power of life. We can now add that it is precisely the principle of similarity, or body-shadow relation with its symbolic space of infinite differentiation (culminating in the absolute non-differentiation) that makes possible this concept of space as disintegrating integration or, to continue with paradoxes, transcendent immanence. Materiality in Chinese tradition is never passive and dead matter. It implies an infinitely short circuit of actual/virtual dimensions of Being, it is always beyond itself only to return to one self. The driving force of this circuit, the very source of life was known in China as “heavenly impulse” (tian ji), “hidden impulse” (xuan ji) etc. Why hidden? Because the centrality of Being, the core of things is the impenetrable abyss of differentiation leading inwards. It is the moment of stillness, a pause, eternal entre-actes which is also a moment of extraordinary intensification of existence, condensation of time. This is why this essentially virtual abyss of Being issues forth the irresistible force of Virtue (de). The act of Virtue releases the richness of Being; materiality of the world flourishes in the Void. “Suchness” (ziran, rulai etc.) is the name for this universal yet always particular co-relation of beings that constantly give way to even smaller and more condensed moments of existence. Once again, this essence of transformations justifies both the ontology of multiplicity and the strife for perfection; it brings together nature and culture, existence and cultivation.

I would say that the activation of this actual/virtual circuit of Being is precisely what Confucius called “practicing” (xi) or “free roaming” (you) as practicing the arts. “Roaming” because personal growth always occurs in-between of all “data”, be it ideas, facts or just objects. Such is also the meaning of “following” the Great Dao or the Dao of Heaven. Of course, one can only follow Dao because the latter is a pre-condition of all experience and knowledge: it comes before everything else. Hence it is revealed in a “knowledge from birth” or life itself (sheng zhi). And following Dao means impeccable correlation with the flow of life’s creative transformations. From ancient times the very word thing (wu) often referred to this source of creativity[2]. Adjusting to it was an integral part of spiritual cultivation in Chinese tradition.

So, the Chinese world order is nothing but the spontaneous “mingling” of things, which are simultaneously facts and artifacts, these two aspects of human experiences being mediated by the suchness of being (Dun Scot’s haecceity or Heidegger’s Dasein seem plausible parallels to this basic concept of Chinese thought). This means that things in China are not subordinated to ideas and cannot be objects. Their very existence and fulfillment is not to be defined and delimited but to “open oneself” (kai wu) unto the world. Each and every thing has its destiny: to style itself into the persistent type (pin, ge) and thus become a basic unit of culture. Traditional Chinese knowledge and art are based on the repertoire of such types representing, as it were, a cloud of virtualities coalesced around the void which stands for “stubborn fact of being” in Chinese tradition. This treasury of tradition expands with every new effort of mind’s liberation, i.e. its spontaneous self-opening into the openness of Being. That’s why ever since the time of Confucius the set of types has been the main means of education in artistic or religious schools of China. It is in fact as natural, even super-natural (a brilliant ambiguity by Chinese standards) as any array of things around us.

Tradition says that Confucius was capable to define the character and even appearance of ancient people by the works of art they created. This means that for him there was no clear distinction between material culture and spiritual experience, subjective and objective existence. Ever since cultural objects have been considered in China a reliable “trace” of human personality. This was not so much contemplative as functional “communion of hearts”. According to Ming dynasty painter and art connoisseur Dung Qichang, the antique objects are precious because ancient sages used them and relied on them. Actually, their real use lies in their capacity to be “toys” (wan wu) that reveal the nature of the Way as continuity of change, a pure temporality allowing our spirit to roam freely in its self-transcending flight. Toys are for children. We can communicate with things only through the childish trust in life, childish openness to the world – a fundamental condition for self-transformation. This esthetic handling of things leads our mind inwards and backwards – to the “space of centrality” (zhong jian). Things rely on each other, says Dong Qichang, so that finally Heaven and Earth compose “one antiquarian object”. This is why discovering a communion with the things of ancient people, can, according to Dung Qichang, “strengthen the weakened heart and soften the rigid spirit”[3]. No wonder that for Dong Qichang engaging with ancient things guarantees good health and longevity.

Such is the usage of things according to Confucius’ legacy: restoration of the pristine fullness of spirit. The change which always occurs in time represents the very essence of temporality and thus exposes the nature of things, their “subtle reason” (miao li). Practical and esthetical qualities of things are reunited in this contemplative practice of restoring movement: the fragile surface of life is the best guarantee of life’s reliability. The real foundation of Confucianism is not ideas but pristine awareness whose non-objectified immanence is crystallized in cultural symbolism.


Why do cultural objects in Confucian tradition stand as embodiments of the Middle Way? Because they are the most reliable evidence of the nature of consciousness as primordial power of life, self-transcendence of spirit. Yet this transcendence is accomplished by self-yielding, letting the world be: awareness gives way to itself in order to strengthen itself beyond the opposition of subject and object. In other words, consciousness generates itself through self-abduction, i.e. love. In this sense, it is completely self-sufficient. In order to know one needs to act; and in order to act one must stop to act from his or her egoistic perspective. This is the way to pass from the “small body” of individual ego to the “great body” of human sociality nurtured by ritual (li). Less is more: such is the paradoxical law of natural awareness discovered by Confucius. It is a peculiar type of awareness that cannot be detached from one’s corporeal presence in the world and all spatial and temporal conditions related to it.

Self-clarification of consciousness by self-deferring is a real kernel of Confucian teaching. This means that the nature of consciousness is really a relation and correlation of singularities, incompatible things in fact. The original form of Confucian “humaneness” or the pinnacle of Confucian morality, as the texts from Guodian show, was just the combination of signs “body” and “consciousness” (“Heart-Mind”)[4]. This means that for Confucians consciousness is moral in its essence. Or, to put it differently, consciousness is sensitivity, the sense of communion which is moral in nature. As is well known, one disciple of Confucius defined the basic principle of his teacher’s doctrine as “reciprocity” (shu), the capacity to communicate with others on the basis of proper, commonly accepted and hence reasonable conduct. This moral sensitivity precedes self-reflection though does not contradict it. To a certain degree it resembles Kant’s moral imperative, primal awareness of universal “flesh” in Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception or Dasein qua Mitsein in Heidegger’s philosophy.

Confucianism advocates ontological ethics or ethical ontology. In Confucian perspective morality needs no metaphysical or religious justification. It is the very core of cosmic being and its order. All conscious life is by definition a form of morality and spiritual self-growth, an effort of learning. All other sorts of life are not worthy of its name. Confucian sage is the master of pure communicability operating in all acts of communication. This faculty, quite obviously, has no essence; it brings about not objective knowledge but insight and liberation. Since it is the very essence of correspondence, it cannot exist as a separate entity. Self-knowing through self-deferring means moving along the Middle Way, maintaining an inner balance – a condition of spiritual calm. Confucius was famous for his self-control and self-confidence which amounted to the confidence in “Heaven” – the focus of existential centrality. It was Confucius who discovered that one can fully rely on oneself while being fully committed to other people.

So, the fundamental move of spiritual “self-strengthening” is “self-emptying” of mind. This means that consciousness is, so to say, somatic in nature. The “opening of things” mentioned above presupposes the opening of consciousness to one’s corporeal presence – the Other of thought. Awareness in Confucian tradition and Chinese thought in general is fully conditioned by one’s somatic conditions and social status. Chinese sociality is in fact “big body” (dati) as well as “one Heart-Mind” (yi xin) composed by spontaneous, pre-reflexive yet acutely sensed emotional dispositions which precede subjective experience. It is in fact a pure event, an all-pervading dynamism of life whose moral significance is rooted in the pre-adaption of One’s existence (without fixed Self) to the (as yet) anonymous community.

On the way of self-cultivation Confucian sage ascends from universal responsiveness to morally charged co-responsibility. This way presupposes a sort of enlightenment, a breakthrough from external relations to inner, purely symbolic communion beyond everything yet within everything. Confucius himself named this primordial and elusive understanding the mystery of the “inner sanctum” (LY, 11:20). And he declared on his deathbed that “only Heaven knew him”.

The question remains: what makes it possible for consciousness to disavow itself? The answer is easy to find: theway being is, the being of being. J. Deleuze calls this condition of every existence a «crack» (fissure), the Taoists – the «minutest stillness». It is the fleeting pause, an infinitely small interval in the continuous succession of anterior and posterior moments, a non-localizable projection of Heavenly depth on the horizontal plane of Earth, an ever absent awakening amidst endless dreams. It is fully concrete but essentially timeless. The esthetic ideal or, one can even say, deeply-rooted esthetic habits of Chinese provide amazingly eloquent evidence of this symbolic pre-space pregnant with the infinite variety of forms — suffice is to recall the art of miniature gardens and the idea of structure-generating lacunae in Chinese literature, painting and landscape design, a motif of the «Heaven in the gourd» in Taoist folklore, wonders of Chinese craftsmanship like concentric balls carved in a single piece of ivory etc. The crack and the fold are the means to connect the inside and the outside, the virtual and the actual in a monad of being. This connection is fulfilled, as we already know, through a spiral movement that precedes but also delineates spatial/temporal distinctions. J. Deleuze proposes the notion of symbol quite in accord with the symbolism of Heavenly Way when he defines it as «the sign in as much as it interiorizes the conditions of its own repetition»[5]. The circuit of symbolism can perpetuate itself because it represents essentially a two-way movement with a complex spatial structure composed of three pairs of opposite movements: fusion and fission, going out and going in, evolution and involution. Psychologically it corresponds to the act of a-priori in-determination in freedom.

So, centrality as inner continuity of actual and virtual qualities of existence, absence and presence is both the nature of consciousness and precondition of ethical relations. It is both immanent and transcendent to human experience. Moreover, it is a compelling ideal just because it is always absent in actual experience. This is why Confucian sage does not have to choose and does not know the dilemmas of free choice. Centrality is precisely the correspondence of all polarities, the (non)relation between center and periphery, point and sphere, internal and external. It is uncreated and spontaneous yet appropriated through prolonged and persistent effort. It is the most mature product of culture.

Confucius never tried to define the essence of his teaching. This is actually hard to do, since centrality is that focal point of Being where everything is nothing and nothing is everything; where everything exists by virtue of its own alterity. Human communion is founded after all on the unavoidable impossibility. It is noteworthy that two main genres of Confucian literature are terse “sayings” and anecdotes. Both represent self-elimination of literature, a silence that delimits speech and makes it happen.


I would like to conclude this short text with three theoretical observations.

First, Confucian legacy and Chinese intellectual tradition in general treat reality as pure, spontaneous event, prior to self-reflection as well as all ideas, concepts and images. This reality is perceived in the flash of insight and is revealed to mind as an absence, “in-between” (jian) of memorable moments of existence, a dark abyss of experience that generates and punctuates the rhythm of life itself. This limit of all things, the eternal Stillness and Void represents not so much an actual humanity as the very source of being human. It can be called antropogenetic in contrast to the anthropomorphic image of man in Western humanism. Confucian humanity must be learned and fulfilled; it does not impose any essence on humans, let alone “natural rights” etc. It is a call and moral responsibility and those who turn away from it are not worthy to be called human beings. Such is, I presume, the meaning of Chinese – basically Confucian – dictum inscribed on the monument to the founder of Tamkang University in Taiwan: “The merit consists in being human” 功在作人 . No doubt, this idea of humaneness is alien to Western thinking. It seems strange even to those Western sinologists, who, like R.Ames, are aware of the “self-strengthening” nature of Confucian morality but still cannot avoid the pitfalls of residual subjectivity. “Humaneness, writes R.Ames, might suggest a shared, essential and precultural condition of being human owned by all members of the species – a given human nature”. Yet, he goes on, Confucian humaneness cannot be detached from “qualitative transformations of particular persons” and is achieved “through appeal to environing models and not through compliance with principles”[6]. Confucian humaneness is a sort of elusive and non-essentialist (i.e. without any privileged image or concept) humanity. The Confucian sage is a self-made man in the fullest sense of this word: he grows from the hidden foundation of being and reveals himself in the infinite richness of cultural sensitivity. He needs no images, no monuments for himself. His best monument and condition of his immortality is the thriving of human civilization.

Second, one must take into account the relation between human equality and hierarchy in human society. As Slovenian philosopher Andrej Ule points out, the global ethics should be the synthesis of Confucian morality of personal virtue and Western ethics of human rights and freedom[7]. We can say now that the amazing strength of hierarchical relations even in contemporary China, so mysterious to Western observers, is due to Confucian emphasis on moral sensitivity which denies equality in principle. That same emphasis makes learning and school of spiritual discipline the real basis of social order. Moreover, Confucian learning can be accomplished only within the framework of teacher-student relations. The school creates a sort of supra-temporal generic personality, a certain personal type, a cultural style, imperishable and immortal as they are. Such is Confucian response to Western individualism.

Finally, a note on the possible role of Confucian sociality in the global civilization. As was mentioned above, Confucianism is based on the principle of “following the primordial source of life”, as elusive and inchoate externally as it is clearly perceived by living experience. Chinese ideal of “All Under Heaven” quite literally refers to everything that is hidden beneath all that can be seen and known. Centrality is a kind of “transcendent immanence”, a mystery hidden in everyday life. Confucian politics is essentially a meta-politics based on the mutual non-transparency of power (reduced in this case to ritualistic symbolism) and pure actuality of everyday life. Perhaps its best evidence is modern Chinatown – politically indifferent, essentially internal, like family or school, social space as well as the hotbed of China’s global brands. In this perspective, there is not much difference between, say, contemporary Hong Kong and Chinatowns in American or European cities. Chinatown is, so to say, “the ultimate” or “extreme” China because it produces the virtual semblance, the shadow image of (as yet) real China. It is an élan vital of Chinese genius.

No doubt, Confucian ethics is due to become an integral part of emerging global civilization. To accomplish this task one should take seriously the motto of the most Western philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “Man is something to be overcome”. We should hasten to add: “To overcome through being fully human”.


[1] For the detailed discussion of the philosophical significance and cultural outcomes of this approach see my study on Confucius: V.V.Maliavin. Confucius. 3rd edition. Moscow: Molodaia Gvardia, 2003.

[2] Such is the understanding of “thing”, for instance, in the “Dachengquan” tradition of martial art. See: Yu Yongnian. Dachengquan. Zhanzhuang yu daodejing. Taiyuan: Shanxikeji, 2012, p.249.

[3] Dong Qichang, Gudong shisan shuo. Beijing: Zhonghua, 2012, p. 162.

[4] Liu Baojun, Guodian Chujian ren zi san xing di gouxing liju // Zhunan minzu daxue xuebao, 2005. № 9. С. 129–132.

[5] J. Deleuze, Difference et repetition. Paris: P. U.F. 1968, p. 198.

[6] R.T.Ames, Confucian Role Ethics. A Vocabulary. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2011, p.177, 178.

[7] Andrej Ule, The Virtues of Human-Heartedness and Personal Dignity in the Globalised World. – Modern China and Its Tradition. Collection of Papers from the International Sinological Conference. Belgrade, 2009, p.153. We must add here, of course, the “individual freedom”.