Confucius and the Meaning of Life

A week ago, I posted on Facebook a quote from African American philosopher, Professor Cornel West. He said that “to be an intellectual really means to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak.” Professor West is also a prominent Christian thinker. I love his distinction between Constantine Christianity and Prophetic Christianity.

The social concern of the prophets is consistent with traditional Chinese thinking. In Chinese culture, an intellectual is not just someone whose main occupation is the exercise of the intellect. Having a PhD degree in the natural sciences does not automatically make one an intellectual. Chinese intellectual is given a great deal of social responsibility. He has to engage his heart, soul and mind in socially meaningful activities. In this sense, the role of the Chinese intellectual is similar to the role of a prophet in Judaism — it is to be the eyes, ears and mouths of the people. It is no small responsibility.

Historically speaking, to be a scholar in China is to be a Confucian. Many people dislike Confucianism, holding Confucius responsible for many socially conservative thoughts. But the upside of Confucianism is its tremendous sense of social concern. This is crucial for counterbalancing the escapist aspects of religion. A Confucian scholar is characterized as someone who is worried about the country and care deeply about the common people. This has always been the ideal and duty of Chinese intellectuals.

When I was a teenager in Hong Kong, existentialism was very popular in philosophical thought. People were (and still are) wondering what the meaning of life is. This is understandable. After all, we live in an age where “God is dead.” Modernity is marked by a high level of individualism and self-centerness. This prompts Jean-Paul Sartre to say that it is up to the individual to give life its meaning. In other words, the individual is now playing the role of God. Yet, the individual is often confused about his or her freedom to choose how to life. Freedom means very little without wisdom.

One of my most favorite poets is Fan Zhongyan (989–1052 AD). When Fan was a high official in the imperial court, he wrote: “When favored by the emperor, I honestly do my duties of worrying about the country and caring about the common people. When I lose the emperor’s favor, I follow the will of Heaven and enjoy living according to the Tao.” (進則盡憂國憂民之誠,退則處樂天樂道之分).

The traditional Chinese intellectual never wonders about the meaning of life. He knows his social duties as an educated person.

What is a rich life? It is not about consumerism? It is not about the blind following of some religion either. Cornel West said: “The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

I find this very inspiring! Confucius knew about the difficulties of being a socially responsible person. He spent a big part of his life going from one state to another, trying to convince the rulers to apply the principles of good government. He did not have much success. Yet, Confucius did not despair. He struggled, but he kept trying. His contemporaries referred to him as the one who “knows that it is impossible, but still strives for it.” Perhaps the meaning of life is to be found in that conscientious struggle.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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