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Books: Timely Figure

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When Confucius was sick and his disciples wanted to pray for him, the man by whose teachings 450 million Chinese live today said genially that it was unnecessary. “In this, the truest sense, he could say that his whole life had been a prayer,” says Dr. Lionel Giles, most eloquent of Chinese scholars. “Therein lay his greatness. . . .

“Measured by results—the almost incalculably great and far-reaching consequences which followed tardily but irresistibly after he was gone—his life was one of the most successful ever lived by man. Three others, and only three, are comparable to it in worldwide influence: Gautmma’s self-sacrificing sojourn among men, the stormy career of the Arab Prophet, and the ‘sinless years’ which found their close on Golgotha.”

The teacher who meant so much to the Orient has been misrepresented, parodied and neglected by the part of the West that most needed his teachings. Occidental understanding of Confucius, difficult to come by in any edition, gains in the Modern Library’s reprint, as a handsome gift book, of Dr. Lin Yutang’s selection of Confucian sayings (The Wisdom of Confucius; $1.50).

A Man for Dark Ages. What makes Confucius so timely a figure is that he lived in a time of civil war, when a 1500-year-old dynasty was disintegrating, and when the future was beyond man’s imagining. He was an adviser of governors, traveling from one small warring province to another, a human divining rod, whose teachings served to reveal the good and the bad in the sovereigns while he tried to find one who would make his principles the guiding policy of the state.

Tall, cheerful, benign, the son of a poor man who died soon after he was born, Confucius (551-478 B.C.) married at 19, fathered a son and two daughters, was put in charge of the granary of Baron Chi of Lu, became superintendent of herds and parks and at 22 began teaching philosophy and history. The sparse facts of his career form a clear pattern climaxing in his brief period of power as chief magistrate of Chung-tu when he was 52 and when, so potent was his example that “he was the idol of the people and flew in songs through their mouths.” When Confucius became Chief Minister to Duke Ting of Lu, his theory of government was applied on a large scale—perhaps to discredit it, for “Rotten wood cannot be carved.” The young Duke was led away from Confucian precepts by the insidious gift of 80 dancing girls from a neighboring ruler jealous of the prosperity and the magical reformation in manners that came with Confucius’ government.

Order and Disorder. What Western readers may get from The Wisdom of Confucius, and what Chinese do not emphasize, is the sense of constant hazard in Confucius’ search for a wise sovereign.

The principles of order which he maintained and whose ramifications reached into all aspects of life made him particularly vulnerable in a civilization plunging into disorder; their very existence made them counterrevolutionary. Confucius held that a Confucian should be:

> Orderly in appearance and careful in his actions: “His great refusals should not seem like lack of respect and his little refusals seem like false manners … his services are difficult to get and difficult to keep while he appears gentle and weak.”

> Strong in character: “He is affable but he cannot be made to do what he doesn’t want and he may be killed, but may not be humiliated. He is simple and frugal in his living, and his faults or mistakes may be gently explained but not abruptly pointed out to his face.”

> Responsible : “What he does today will become an example for those in the generations to follow. . . . When the petty politicians join hands to defame or injure him, his life may be threatened, but the course of his conduct may not be changed. Although he lives in danger, his soul remains his own, and even then he does not forget the sufferings of the people. . . .”

> Generous and mentally at ease: “He cultivates his conduct without cease and in his private life he does not abandon himself. When he is successful, he does not depart from the truth. In his personal manners he values living in peace and harmony with others. . . . He admires those cleverer than himself and is generous toward the masses and is flexible in principle.”

The Secret Everywhere. Readers who can see the Chinese truth beyond the English screen of translation may find in the 265 pages of The Wisdom of Confucius concentrated material for a lifetime of study. Composed at the time of Pythagoras (582-507 B.C.), Confucius’ doctrine of the moral law in The Order of Things (a Confucian expression) has the celestial grandeur and poetry of Lucretius’

On the Nature of Things, without the Roman philosopher’s materialistic melancholy. “The moral law is to be found everywhere, and yet it is a secret. The simple intelligence of ordinary men & women of the people may understand something of the moral law; but in its utmost reaches there is something which even the wisest and holiest of men can not understand. . . . The moral man finds the moral law beginning in the relation between man and woman, but ending in the vast reaches of the universe.” The practical wisdom of Confucius’ prescription for a good ruler, “Be a good son and brother,” was a part of his simple and infinitely varied ordering of society into five human relationships: sovereign and subject, parent and child, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, friend and friend.

Confucius’ discovery that music is an infallible indication of the state of a country’s moral and political health —”when the heart’s chord of sorrow is touched, the sounds produced are sombre and forlorn”—has carried its ever-new message across the centuries to the turbulent days of the Horst Wessel song.

Improper Propriety. When the writings of Confucius were first translated, the finespun fabric of his thought, delicate as Chinese silk and colored and varied as the hills of his native northeast, was ripped to shreds. The varied meanings summed up in the Chinese term li—a concept which in government meant order, in social life politeness and good manners, and, deeper than these, “the harmony in the soul which prompts action in accordance with true natural instincts”—were rendered by militant English missionaries as “propriety.”

Confucius had said that a single sentence could destroy a kingdom. For 80 years the word “propriety” well-nigh prevented the English-speaking world from gaining any comprehension of his teaching. It fastened on the West the picture of Confucius as “dry, formal, pedantic, almost inhuman in the unimpeachable correctness of his personal conduct, rigid and precise in his notions of ceremonial. . . .” It prevented recognition of his “highest and noblest moral courage in ignoring the narrow rules of conventional morality and etiquette when these conflicted with good feeling and common sense, and setting up in their stead the grand rule of conscience which, by asserting the right of each individual to judge such matters for himself, pushed liberty to a point which was quite “beyond the comprehension of his age. . . . But whilst declining to be bound by the ideas and the standards of others, he was not blind to the danger of liberty degenerating into license. The new fetters, therefore, that he forged for mankind were those of an iron self-discipline and self-control, unaccompanied, however, by anything in the shape of bodily mortification, a practice which he knew to be at once more showy and less troublesome than the discipline of the mind.”

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