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History of Philosophy
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

When, about 2000 years B.C., the Chinese first appeared in the light of history, they already possessed social, political, and religious institutions and a material and intellectual civilization of a high order. It was not, however, until the sixth century B.C. that the sacred books were collected and arranged, although some of them, especially the Y-king, were assigned by tradition to the learned princes and kings who, long before the historical period, had invented the art of writing. The sacred or authoritative books were:

I. The Five Classics, namely, the Y-king, or Book of Changes (divination); the Shu-king, or Book of History; the Shi-king , or Book of Poetry; the Le-ke, or Record of Rites; and the Chun-tsew, Spring and Autumn, a Book of Annals, composed by Confucius.

II. The Four Books, namely, Lun-yu, or Conversations of the Master; Chun-yung, or Doctrine of the Mean; Ta-heo, or Great Learning; and Meng-tse, or Teachings of Mencius.

The Five Classics were collected, arranged, and edited by Confucius (with the exception of the last, which was written by him), and it is impossible to say to what extent the editor introduced into the text doctrines and opinions of his own. The Four Books were composed by disciples of Confucius.

Before the time of Confucius there existed a national or state religion in which the principal objects of worship were heaven, and spirits of various kinds, especially the spirits of dead ancestors. Heaven (Thian) is the supreme lord (Shang-ti), the highest object of worship. [10] The deity carries on its work silently and simply, yet inexorably, in the order and succession of natural phenomena, in the rain and the sunshine, the heat and the cold, etc. With this natural order are closely connected the social, political, and moral orders of the world; or rather, all order is essentially one, and perfection and prosperity in moral life and in the state depend on maintaining the order which is not only heaven's first law, but heaven itself. With the worship of heaven was connected the worship of spirits (Shan). These are omnipresent throughout nature; they are not, however, addressed as individuals, but as a body or aggregation of individuals, as, for example, celestial spirits, terrestrial spirits, and ancestral spirits. The last are the object of private as distinct from official worship. The Chinese, always inclined to look towards the past rather than towards the future, thought less of personal immortality in the life after death than of the continuation of the family life by which the actions of the individual were reflected back and made to ennoble a whole of line ancestors.
[10] According to Mgr. De Harlez, "there is every reason for affirming that Shang-ti is not identical with Heaven, is not Heaven animized, but a personal being, the supreme Spirit governing the world from the height of the empyrean," New World (December, 1893), Vol. II, p. 652.
The qualities which characterized the religious thought of from the beginning -- its eminently practical nature, the complete absence of speculation, and the almost complete exclusion of mythological elements -- reappear in the writings of the great religious teacher Confucius (Kong-tse, 551-478 B.C.). Confucius was no innovator; he appeared, rather, as the collector of the sacred literature of the past and the restorer of the old order. He inculcated the strict observance of the traditional forms of worship, discouraged speculation in matters theological, and while he taught the supreme importance of moral duties, he grounded all his moral precepts on the general order of the world and the long-established tradition of the Chinese people. He insisted on man's political and domestic duties and emphasized especially the importance of filial piety.

Lao-tse, a Contemporary of Confucius (born about 604 B.C.), and author of the Tao-te-king, introduced into China the first system of speculative thought, the philosophy of Tao (Reason, Way), which many scholars consider to be of Hindu origin.[11] Lao-tse did not, however, attempt to overthrow the traditional ideals of his countrymen, and, while the importance which he attaches to speculation places him in sharp contrast with Confucius, the doctrines of the two great teachers have many points in common. For Tao, the fundamental concept of the Tao-te-king, does not mean Reason in the abstract, but Nature, or rather, the Way, -- the order of the world, the impersonal method which all men must observe if they are to attain goodness and success. Ultimately, then, both Lao-tse and Confucius teach that conduct is to be guided by a knowledge of the unalterable, discriminating, intelligent order of heaven and earth; but while Confucius refers his disciples to the study of the writings and institutions of antiquity, Lao-tse refers them to the speculative contemplation of Tao: the former encourages study, the latter advocates contemplation, as a means of acquiring a knowledge of the eternal order on which morality depends. Hence, the tendency of Taoism towards quietism and self-abnegation. "Recompense injury with kindness," said Lao-tse; to which Confucius is said to have answered, "Recompense kindness with kindness, but recompense injury with justice."
[11] Cf. Douglas, op. cit., p. 219.
To the fifth century B.C. belong Yang-tse and Nih-tse (or Mak). The former preached a kind of Epicureanism: man should enjoy the present and cheerfully accept death when it comes; virtue is but a name; good reputation is a shadow; the sacrifice of self is a delusion. The latter maintained that one should love all men equally, that the practice of universal love is a greater benefit to the state than the study of antiquity and the preservation of ancient customs. [12]

[12] Cf. De La Saussaye, Manual, p. 367.
Lih-tse and Chwang-tse appeared during the fifth and the first half of the fourth centuries B.C. as representatives of Taoism. They were opposed by the distinguished exponent of Confucianism, Meng-tse or Mencius (371-288). In his dialogues, which were collected in seven books by his disciples, he gives a more compact exposition of Confucianism than that found in the isolated sayings of the master. He insists on filial piety, on political virtue, and on the proper observance of religious and other ceremonial rites. He reduces the cardinal virtues to four: Wisdom, Humanity, Justice, and Propriety.
Cf. translations of Chinese Classics by Dr. Legge, in Sacred Books of the East, Vols. III, XVI, XXVII, XXVIII. For bibliography, cf. De la Saussaye, Lehrbuch, I, 50. Consult also R. K. Douglas, Confucianism and Taouism (London, 1879).


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