Confucius’ Lessons for Surviving a Chaotic World
Ancient wisdom to stabilize your life and your society
George Dillard Confucius, China’s most influential philosopher, lived in a chaotic time. The philosopher, who lived from 551–479 BCE, witnessed an ugly period in China’s history. The ruling Zhou Dynasty, though it still officially held the throne, had lost effective control over most of China. Noble families essentially began ruling their own territories; the dozen or so small kingdoms that emerged fought wars against each other. These wars became more savage over time as the old arrangements that had stabilized society fell apart.
In short, Confucius felt the way a lot of us feel these days — he was a witness to an increasingly chaotic and confusing world. Confucius’ main goals were to help leaders rebuild society and to help individuals find stability. Not all of Confucius’ ideas are relevant to life in the twenty-first century, but some of his philosophy is still worth heeding. Confucius realized that we should minimize decision-making, focus on practicality, respect knowledge as much as innovation, and that we should respect our leaders — as long as they deserve it. Cut down on decisions A 1687 translation of Confucius’ works (PD)Confucius was a big fan of ceremony and ritual, even when the ceremonies were overly complex and appeared pointless. In one of the most famous passages of the Analects, one of his followers asked him about a ceremony that seemed silly:
Tsze-kung wished to do away with the offering of a sheep connected with the inauguration of the first day of each month. The Master said, “Tsze, you love the sheep; I love the ceremony.”
How can this ancient sheep slaughter apply to modern life? Confucius was obsessed with figuring out why people do what they’re supposed to do. Why do people obey rules, even if they might get away with breaking them? Why do people get up and go to work every day, when they’d prefer to stay in bed? His answer was that society trains us not to think about our choices very much. From childhood, we build predictable routines that guide our actions. If we do this right, we don’t spend time worrying about what to do in most situations.
Personal and social rituals reduce the friction we experience in our lives. He wrote that “the way of the gentleman may be compared to an embankment dam” — that is, our habits keep our course straight just like a levee keeps the river’s water flowing in the right direction. Strong habits can help us to focus on what we really need care about. Barack Obama famously wore pretty much the same thing every day as president so that he didn’t have to waste energy on sartorial decisions. He felt this saved up his capacity for the real challenges in his life. Confucius would have heartily approved; he believed that living a predictable, structured life gives us the energy to deal with a chaotic world. Be practical A 2,000 year old fresco of Confucius in Shandong Province (PD)Confucius was relentlessly practical. Though he was a philosopher, he didn’t spend much time worrying about questions he couldn’t answer. You can see this in another exchange with a follower:
Chi Lu asked about serving the spirits of the dead. The Master said, “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?” Chi Lu added, “I venture to ask about death?” He was answered, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” Confucius understood that there was no point in worrying about the unsolvable mysteries of the universe. Better to focus on what we can understand, and leave questions like “what happens after we die?” alone. After all, we’ll find out soon enough anyway.
We can expand this lesson to help us make our way through this age of anxiety. Anxiety is, at its root, is a desire to control what we can’t control. The brain works on problems that aren’t really happening in the present. Because they aren’t really happening, our brains can’t solve them, and we simply obsess about possible problems. Confucius reminds us to focus on what we can control and let the rest be. Innovation isn’t everything Statue of Confucius in Beijing (PD)We live in a culture that worships innovation. Innovators like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg attract an immense amount of attention and even hero-worship, even if they are not particularly good people and their inventions’ impact on our lives is mixed at best. The “move fast and break things” philosophy has taken its toll on our society. It turns out that implementing new technologies that have the potential to upend society without thinking very hard about how that will go is a bad idea. Pursuing new things heedlessly has left us with broken politics, dysfunctional social relations, and an epidemic of mental health problems.
Confucius would have seen this coming. He was wary of change for the sake of change, and his idea of an educated person was someone who was acquainted with history and traditions. When asked what made a person a good citizen, he said:
It is by the Odes [traditional poetry] that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established…. It is not easy to find a man who has learned for three years without coming to be good… Such a one will not enter a tottering state, nor dwell in a disorganized one.
Essentially, Confucius argues that we must understand the past before we can shape the future. The most respectable person in Confucius’ worldview is one who has devoted himself to knowledge of the past. Only if we understand the reasons why things are the way they are can we begin to contemplate changing them. Innovation for its own sake, Confucius understood, is often dangerous.
Respect authority — as long as it is deserving Illustration from a biography of Confucius, late Qing Dynasty (PD)Confucius focused quite a bit on the importance of hierarchy, for understandable reasons. First, he lived in a society preoccupied with rank. Second, he believed that a society without hierarchy would lapse into chaos. We don’t live in a society nearly as focused on class, and that’s for the best. But we still have sources of social and political authority.
Confucius argued that we should be respectful toward these people in authority, but that this puts a great burden on them. One of his students asked how to best run a government. Confucius replied:
Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs. [the student] requested further instruction, and was answered, “Be not weary in these things.”
To another disciple, he said that a ruler should:
“treat [the people] with seriousness, and they will respect you. Be filial and kind to all and they be loyal to you. Advance the good and instruct the ignorant, and the people will be nerved to righteous conduct.”
In Confucius’ ideal world, rulers establish benevolence and righteousness in their kingdoms by demonstrating these virtues for their people. Those in power have a weighty responsibility to devote their full energies to improving the lives of ordinary people. So what becomes of a ruler who does not rule virtuously? Confucius said:
“if a man is correct in his personal conduct, there is no need to issue orders in order to secure allegiance to government. If he is not correct in his personal conduct, he may issue orders, but they will not be obeyed.”
Confucius understood that leadership is a two-way street. Leaders needed to earn the respect of their subordinates. If they do, then organizations would work smoothly, and leaders can use a light touch. If leaders are unworthy of respect, nothing they could do would ensure that people would follow their lead.
Obviously, Confucius’ world 2,500 years ago was different from ours in a million ways. But his teachings still contain wisdom for living through messy times, and ours is definitely a messy time. Confucius believed that by building good habits, focusing on what is practical, making sure we understand our history, and respecting deserving leaders, we can help to re-establish stability in our lives and our society.