Confucius: The Embodiment of Faith in Humanity

By Weiming, Tu | The World and I, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Confucius: The Embodiment of Faith in Humanity


Weiming, Tu, The World and I


Tu Weiming is professor of Chinese history and philosophy and director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute at Harvard University.

Writing in the 1950s, Karl Jaspers, the German philosopher noted for his idea of the "axial age" civilizations, chose Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus as the most significant shapers of the human form of life.1 In supporting his claim, he offered the following justification:

"These four paradigmatic individuals have exerted a historical influence of incomparable scope and depth. Other men of great stature may have been equally important for smaller groups, but when it comes to broad, enduring influence over many hundreds of years, they are so far above all others that they must be singled out if we are to form a clear view of the world's history.2"

To our pluralistic ear, Jaspers' assertion seems arbitrary. We may argue that the list should be expanded to include at least Moses, Muhammad, Lao-tzu, and a host of other spiritual leaders. With our learned sensitivity to the importance of gender and multiculturalism, we may also doubt the validity of drawing up such a short, exclusivist list in the first place. The unintended negative consequences for those who are marginalized and silenced may be too costly to make such an intellectual exercise worthwhile. The charge of elitism appears undeniable.

Without a touch of irony, however, what Jaspers intended to convey was far from being exclusive or elitist. Rather, it was an inclusive vision rooted in a pluralistic conception of the human condition:

"No single type can account for these four men. Their historicity and consequent uniqueness can be perceived only within the all-embracing historicity of humanity, which in each of them expressed itself in a wholly different way. To discover this common root has been possible only since mankind has achieved a unity of communication and the different cultures have learned of each other's crucial individuals.3"

It was truly exceptional that after World War II, while many European and American philosophers became narrowly focused on the "local knowledge" of the modern West, Jaspers broadened his horizon to encompass South and East Asia and recognized the centrality of Buddha and Confucius for human self-reflexivity. He exemplified an ecumenical and cosmopolitan spirit rare and refreshing in twentieth-century academic discourse.

By contrast, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers--notably Voltaire, Rousseau, and Leibniz--all took China as a major reference society and Confucianism as the single most important reference culture. In the eyes of the European philosophers, the presumed Confucian rationalism, civility, and humanism were surely reflections of their critique of the theocentric worldview, only tangentially related to their genuine interest in searching for alternative visions of society, but they were fascinated by the Chinese social ethic and style of governance--a moral order independent from religion and faith in God. In the nineteenth century, with the advent of Hegel's philosophy of the spirit, all non-Western "axial age" civilizations (Indian, Persian, Chinese, and so forth) were relegated to the dawn of history. The belief that the sun of the spirit will eventually set in the modern West was further enhanced by the Comtean idea of progress (which tracked human thought from religion to philosophy and then to science) and the Marxist notion of historical inevitability (from feudalism to capitalism and then to socialism). Many other currents of thought contributed to this secular, if not scientistic, interpretation of world history. The idea of material progress as the sole criterion for human flourishing is so ingrained in the modern mind-set, East and West, that for decades the mainstream of contemporary philosophy has deliberately ignored all the spiritual traditions as irrelevant to rigorous analytical thinking. The situation has only begun to change in the last years of the twentieth century. …

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