Every person is capable of a sympathetic response to the world

In 1993, bamboo strips were found depicting the words of Confucious. They date to approximately 400BC (around 100 years after Confucious). A rough translation of one of the strips is: “Set your mind on the way and be virtuous. Do everything in accordance with humanity.”

The writings of Confucious are known as the Analects, and Confucious lived at a time when the dead were revered and rituals were carried out to honour and respect them. As a young man he carried out daily rituals for his mother for three years after her death, offering food and wine to her spirit as was the custom. He noticed that rituals brought out positive emotions in people, and believed that “virtuous feelings could make virtuous beings”. He believed in connecting with other people over connecting with nature to create better societies.

He also raised the question as to how one can know how to treat the dead if one does not know how to treat the living, and by raising this question created shift in thinking and a focus towards directing that love and respect to the people around you rather than focusing on the dead. For Confucious, ritual continued to be important, and the precise standards of his rituals were often criticised as being overly detailed and pedantic. But he believed that things should be done to a high standard for someone to be virtuous, including their dress, their work, their study etc.  Education and music were both very important to him and he believed that music had the power to transform, harmonise and perfect an individual – an ancient ‘art as therapy’ approach that is 2,500 years old. He studied history also, and learned of an earlier ‘golden age’ (earlier ‘Jo’ society was harmonious).

He proposed that revival of the past may bring solutions to the present. One idea was that present people are “transmitters” bringing old ideas into the present and ahead to the future.  It is questioned where, in the Confucian egalitarian view, women found themselves, as they are not mentioned, however his views were humanitarian in the broadest sense.

Confucious believed that people should live morally, but also think for themselves and act intuitively.

‘Ren’ is a Confucian term and is translated here as ‘Humanheartedness’ which in the modern day sense would be ‘humanity’. Confucious believed that every emotion should be carried out ‘with Ren’ e.g.

Courage -with Ren

Justice – with Ren

Wisdom – with Ren

Ren may also be roughly translated to ‘empathy’. He attempts to encourage a humanly empathetic approach to every action.  Ren is not something that can be learned outright but is the continuous process of struggle, even right up to death, the struggle to be fully human.

Confucious believed that every person is capable of a sympathetic response to the world but that this requires learning to build the character of the person, therefore giving them understanding in order to be sympathetic. He focused on the family to transmit his messages, believing that the structure of love and care that families provide could be adopted in society, e.g if leaders were loyal, honest, dutiful, respectful and loving, then this would cascade down through society.  (Leaders were placed by the Gods – rulers = “sons of Heaven”.)  Good people= good society.  He also believed that the people had a right to rebel or overthrow their leaders should they be corrupt.

Ancient philosophies provide interesting insight into the way we act as human beings and possess much relevance to the modern world.  Photography, art, writing and such individualised creative acts have wider rippling impacts and carry messages which may filter through different societies.   The philosophical underpinning has importance and can perhaps contribute to positive change as is often the drive for individuals making images for an audience.  “As a philosopher you don’t just indulge in abstract musings, you develop a robust delivery mechanism for your theories. Ideas have to have traction and they have to leave tangible impact.” Bettany Hughes (Presenter)

This post is based on notes I kept from an earlier viewing of this episode, which is not currently available online. Now (more than ever) I feel that concepts of harmonious societies, of sharing, of humanitarian ways of living, of family values, of integrity and transparency, are increasingly important to be expressed in these challenging times.  Such concepts further open my mind.  As I create images and text I think harder as to the purpose of the work, and develop ideas as to where I may take it in the next stage of practice. 


BBC4 Genius of the Ancient World
3. Confucious (30 July 2015)
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yctcj (Full episode currently unavailable)