The Journey to Interpreting Hebrew and Confucian Virtues “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” As Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously remarked in his poem Life Full of Riddles, the virtues in life are a certain, meaningful, and invaluable force that often shape the qualities and behaviors of people’s perspectives of the world. Even in the enduring works of Confucius’ Analects and the ancient Hebrew Bible, the respective authors examine the lessons of self-modesty, virtues and ethics, and the relationships of individuals, family, and state. Both Confucius and the author(s) of the Hebrew Bible parallel the relationship of their beliefs through the lessons found within their stories, ultimately emphasizing the lessons and importance of the different virtues that both works depict.
It is well acknowledged that the relationship between Hebrew and Confucius beliefs serve a unique lesson in setting an example to the standards of Western and Eastern cultures, guiding millions of people in spirit, behavior, and mind. Despite their similarity in message, however, the Analects and the Hebrew Bible still differ in their characterization of their various beliefs in self-modesty, ethics, and perspectives on relationships, which likely stems from a difference in Hebrew and Asian culture. Firstly, let us analyze the historical significance between the two texts.
Considering Confucius’ Analects and the Hebrew testament as similar documents can immediately be contradicted by the obvious dissimilarities occurring between a religion and a philosophy. In the Analects, Confucius ideals are presented in a very logical and methodical manner with no mention of a higher power, other than nature. In the Hebrew text, an omnipotent God is said to be orchestrating all of the teachings being discussed. However, despite their differences, both documents do portray a sense of an ethical code that exists in these disciplines.
Another main difference does present itself upon the examination of the differing audiences that these texts seem to address. The Analects are discussions of an educated group of philosophers who benefit from the lessons of their teacher Confucius in which everything written is in advanced language and uses a variety of complex phrasings and literary devices. The testament of the Hebrews is compiled by a faction of nomads who seem to be, as a whole, uneducated, and poorly advanced as a civilization. Despite the testaments sound teachings, the Hebrews seem to dwell in and address a lower level of human society. In Confucius words, references of two recurring ideals can be found between the social classes; in the gentlemen and the commoners: “The gentleman applies himself to the roots. ‘Once the roots are firmly established, the Way will grow'” (1.2) whereas being “frugal in your expenditures and cherish others; and employ the common people only at the proper times” (1.
5). As one line contrasts a gentleman to a jar, designed for one purpose, it is evident that this elevated person is a hypothetical man of many virtues. The other central idea, of the common man, is presented in the conversation of these philosophers.
One statement of Confucius “A clever tongue and fine appearance are rarely signs of Goodness” refers to the common people with a very generalizing pronoun of them, and goes on to suggest a seemingly simple method of controlling this group, inferring that they possess very little intelligence or willpower in any matters. All of these statements are confirmed when Confucius student Duke Ai inquiries as to what he must do for the lower groups. When examining the relationship between Confucius’ modesty and Job’s feeling of self-righteousness, we see how both teachings sought to exemplify the unique relationship of maintaining faith to a being or relationship to others. In the Analects, Confucius summarizes these principles by emphasizing three key principles in his teachings: the principle of Li, often translated as proprietary, reverence, courtesy, ritual, or the ideal standard of conduct and what Confucius believed to be the ideal standard of religious, moral, and social conduct; the principle of Jen, the fundamental virtue of Confucian teaching and the virtue of goodness and benevolence; and Chun Tzu which the idea of the true gentleman. It is the man who lives by the highest ethical standards. The gentleman displays five virtues: self-respect, generosity, sincerity, persistence, and benevolence. His relationships are described as follows: as a son he is always loyal, as a father he is just and kind, as an official he is loyal and faithful, as a husband he is righteous and just, and as a friend, he is faithful and tactful.
If all men lived by the principles of Li and Jen and strove to the character of the true gentlemen, justice, and harmony would rule the empire. In book seven, Confucius touches on these points by speaking out on being joyful and forgetting worries: “The Master said, ‘That I fail to cultivate Virtue, that I fail to inquire more deeply into that which I have learned, that upon hearing what is right I remain unable to move myself to do it , and that I prove unable to reform when I have done something–such potential failings are a source of constant worry to me.” (7.3). What Confucius examines in this particular line is how a true gentleman is constantly filled with worries in his life but is never concerned for even a single moment. The aspiring gentleman focuses upon what should be under his control (self-cultivation), and consigns the rest to fate. In the same way we see how Job’s feeling of self-confidence in maintaining faith in God serves as a representation that is similar to Confucius’ belief.
Summarized as a story regarding the values of human nature, the book of Job characterizes the values of Job’s self-righteousness in light to how he perceived himself in relation to God. Job is presented as a person who maintains his faith as as a man that “was blameless and upright, one who fear God and turned away from evil” (Job,1). Revealing a picture of how he thought he was projecting himself to others, Job speaks with confidence when he perceives his faith with God with a great deal of exaltation. “I chose their way, and sat as chief, and I lived like a king among his troops, like one who comforts mourners.” (Job, 25-27). Despite complaining that what he endures is unfair and that God is wrong in permitting the various consequences that occur in the book of Job, the Hebrew Texts clearly exposes how Job, despite admitting that God is far greater, feels a measure of equality with him that conveys arrogance. Despite being aware that a vast difference exists between God and man, Job is nonetheless unaware of how immeasurably different the reality is, shown in his willingness to stand with God. Needless to say, many followers of the Hebrew text would find him or herself in agreement with many of Confucius’ ethical principles and virtues.
The key difference can be identified by examining the silver rule of Confucius in contrast with the greatest commandment of the Hebrew text. Confucian law is summarized by the silver rule: express modesty to others. Confucius believed that in order to truly achieve the principles of Li, Jen, and the character of the true gentleman, one must look within oneself. The Hebrew Text argues that taking these teachings a step further is necessary. All of the Hebrew principles revolve first around a relationship with God. Through these beliefs it is seen that one can only truly love our fellow man and live the righteous life God calls after maintaining faith. Examining the relationship between laws and virtue-ethics, we see how Confucius principles and the Hebrew text relate to each other in many similar but also different aspects.
As viewed by the Ten Commandments, in order to be accepted by God, one must repent sins in order to keep life in constant balance. For example, admitting to the faults of performing a wrong action and expressing sincere sorrow is an act that can be forgiven by God. Once these stages in repentance have been completed, the wrongdoer must also forgive others.When all have been forgiven, God will finally accept the repentance and the process is finished. The Ten Commandments given to Moses are held with high respect within the Jewish law and similar to the Confucius lessons as they advocate correct behavior through an emphasis on social harmony as well as the concept of ren.
Placing a greater emphasis on the moral character of human relationships, Confucius argues every person’s relationship is seen as a natural adherence to filial piety. The goal of Confucius’ social harmony is attained when all obey the five relationships found between the individual, family, and the state. As noted by the Ten Commandments,the father is the key figure in the family unit and exemplifies one of the aspects to Hebrews follow in the old testament. As noted, “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus, 12). Similarly, The Confucian philosophy is built on the foundational belief in the goodness of human nature.
The Analects state, “The Master said, ‘If someone seems sincere and serious in their conversation, does this mean they are a gentleman? Or have they adopted the appearance of a gentleman?(11.21). He further taught that all individuals are capable of attaining the highest virtue. He stated, “If you can look inside yourself and find no faults, what cause is there for anxiety or fear” (12.4). In other words, all individuals are capable through self-effort to attain the ideal goodness.
Lastly, there are also points of agreement between Confucius and the Hebrew Text in discussing the purpose of individuals, families, and government. Confucius believed the virtues he espoused are lived out in relationships. The same is true for the old testament; our relationship with God is reflected in our relationships with one another.
The truth of the Hebrew life is lived out in a community, not in isolation. The family is the key social unit, and the father is the leader of the family. However, Hebrews takes relationships one step further than Confucius. Not only can we have the five relationships espoused by Confucius, we can also have a personal relationship with God. It is from this connection that our earthly relationships find their greatest meaning. In the Analects, Confucius argues that the government should be for the people. Feudal lords are to be responsive to the needs of the people they govern. If the rulers lived by the highest principles, the people would then follow, and there would be reform from the greatest to the least.
The duty of those in subordinate positions is to be unquestioningly loyal to their superior. Confucius stated, “When the ruler is correct, his will is put into effect without the need for official orders. When the ruler’s person is not correct, he will not be obeyed no matter how many orders he issues.” (13.6).
Nevertheless, Confucius believed that a good society would be achieved through education.Although we may to some extent see eye-to-eye with the relationship between Hebrew text and Confucius’ Analects, the two works hold many fundamental differences in beliefs, views of human nature, and self-modesty. The understanding of these ideological differences which mostly separate the Western and Chinese cultures certainly explains a lot about the unique relationships the world holds between each other. As Confucius focuses on the valuable ethical principles that are consistent with Hebrew teaching, I find that the relationship from the Hebrew texts can create a gateway with many in the East Asian Cultures. Unifying the components of the old testament, the true transformation of one’s nature will not occur through following just one of these beliefs, but rather understanding the context of both Confucian and the Old Testament’s standards. As long as we can understand the differences and respects of the beliefs, both the Hebrew Texts and the Analects of Confucius shows that the potential in believing in the importance of showing love and respect can prove to be the most fundamental way of relating the differences in terms of ethics and morality between the texts. In times nowadays, what we need is not a war of conflict, but a unique understanding of the reality of these ancient values.
What Confucius teachings and Hebrew standards really should be doing is emphasizing the importance of respect and camaraderie between the society among us.