The Lord and The Master: Jesus and Confucius

Thinking is important. It is also contagious. Ideas spread and acquire brains. Nothing is more powerful than an idea.

What is the oldest institution in the world today? What is the greatest economy in the world today?

Looking back, it is difficult to imagine both the Catholic Church and China without the role that thinkers, like Jesus and Confucius, have had in the success of their respective histories.

Both Jesus and Confucius, as two of history’s most famous thinkers, have some things in common.

Yeshua (Jesus), who eventually became known by his followers as The Lord, left no account of his life or his teachings in his own hand. His sayings, which he spoke in Aramaic, had to wait for many years after his death to be written down in Greek and Latin. Meanwhile, his sayings, spread contagiously by word of mouth.

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500 years ago they were again translated into German by Martin Luther. Then in 1611, they were translated again into the old Shakespearean English of the King James version and its descendents (Protestant). And again into the Douay-Rheims version and its variations (Catholic). More recently, in the 20th century, there have been a wave of contemporary English translations like the New International Version (Evangelical).

What we are left with today are those sayings of Jesus that have been edited and translated over the millennia by his disciples and his disciples’ disciples so we can only make educated guesses about the accuracy of his original sayings.

It is interesting to note that many English-speaking people are not even aware that the original languages of the Bible are Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament).

A similar situation applies to Confucius who became known to his followers as The Master. Confucius is the romanised version of K’ung Fu-tzu which means Master Kung. Like Jesus, Confucius left no writings of his own and so we also have to rely on the accounts handed down by later generations of his disciples.

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Books alleged to be written by him (Book of Odes, Book of Ritual, Spring and Autumn Annals) were actually only edited by him. Confucious wrote no works of his own. Even the Analects of Confucius was written by a disciple or disciples who wrote down a collection of The Master’s sayings which they began with the, now famous, phrase Confucius says ….

In addition to these similarities, there are also some interesting differences between these two great teachers. The Lord emphasised the Judaic tradition of ‘The Father in Heaven’ as quoted in Jesus’ dying words: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

By contrast, The Master focused on man in today’s world. In particular, ‘the relationship between man and other men’. He placed no importance at all on the spirit world. He was concerned about the real world and the obligations inherent in ‘the five relationships’ between:

1 • father and son,
2 • husband and wife,
3 • older brother and younger brother,
4 • friend and friend, and
5 • ruler and subject.

Although power was hereditary in China, Confucious stressed that the ruler should lead from the front by setting a good example to his people. This has become known as The Golden Rule or the “Do to others as you wish done to you” philosophy.

The Master’s ideal was the chun-tzu or what Westerners would call ‘the gentleman’. The chun-tzu practised daily to attain excellence in the following noble memes:

chih or integrity
i or fairness
chung or loyalty
shu or co-operation
ren or compassion.

If a ruler exemplified these virtues in all of his ‘five relationships’ then his rule would be a success and his people would be happy.

This is a very interesting political algorithm and quite modern because the relationships are personal ones not organisational ones. Behaviour is governed by a bottom-up approach rather than imposed by a top-down one.

The idea is that young people should become infected with these noble memes by imitation and the good example set by the ruler, the father, the older brother and the husband. These ideals become internalised, and if the individual practises these memes then this spreads out in a vast word-of-mouth network to infect the state as a whole.

It’s an organic model and seems to have been very successful. Throughout history foreign visitors to the vast Chinese state have noticed and commented on its familial organisation.

In China, before The Master, the state was ruled by force. Power was seized by warriors who struggled among themselves for supremacy. They ruled the other three classes – merchants, artisans and peasants – by force.

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Tomb of Confucius

After Confucius there was a paradigm shift to ethical rule. The same three classes were now ruled by scholars and the Confucian ethic showed that indeed the pen can be mightier than the sword.

Confucius is still one of the most influential thinkers the world has ever known. Even Mao put himself forward as the ultimate Confucius figure and his Little Red Book served as a 2.0 version of the Analects.

However, recent political scandals in China undermine the deep-seated Confucian sense that leaders should be models. Also, the very un-Confucian one-child policy has shifted attention from the past to the present; and the increasing commercialism of Chinese society is far less compatible with Confucian thinking.

But history is not over yet. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how both the Catholic Church and China continue to evolve and spread the ideas of the Lord and the Master.