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Religious Studies Essay Semester 1 Confucianism

Nurulkamilah Matkamil
Micheal Agnew
Dec 2 2011
790 words
Question 2: In context to the Doctrine of the Mean, how would you explain the meaning of this phrase: “…the superior man can find himself in no situation in which he is not himself”? Do you see any similarities between The Doctrine of the Mean and Western ideology? If so, what are they? China is currently experiencing a new interest in the study of Chinese Classics. What aspects of the Doctrine of the Mean do you believe can be utilized in modern lifestyles? Why?

            Good moral conduct is given a great emphasis in Confucianism. This is because if every individual focuses on self-cultivation of righteousness, it will result in a virtuous cycle, starting with the ruler as the exemplar of good virtue for his subordinates. When a superior does not gain confidence from his subordinates, he is not fit to govern (Legge). The Doctrine of the Mean is a documentation of Confucius’ ethical philosophy of good government and moral self-cultivation. The Mean is basically an “instruction” of how to become a virtuous person.

            One of the virtues outlined in the Doctrine of the Mean is that a virtuous person or “the superior man” is a person who acts accordingly to the situation as suggested by the phrase “the superior man can find himself in no situation in which he is not himself.” He is able to adapt to the situations. The phrase also suggests that the superior man is not a hypocrite; he only acts according to what is due. The goal of the superior man is that he relies on his inner resources and is not dependent on material things, similar to the Buddhist goal of becoming detached from the material world as it is impermanent (Kupperman). It is also a Confucian understanding that everything and everyone are interconnected with the universe’s natural cycle of change (Marshak). To act accordingly to this natural cycle of change, which is to be a superior man, the society achieves harmony and is in with accordance with the harmony of the universe.

            The Doctrine of the Mean share some similarities with Western Ideology, one of it is the fact that Confucianism is more humanistic as most Western ideology are, for example, Aristotle’s “The Measure of a Man is Man”. Aristotle proposed that with social sympathy come mutual obligations and duties between each person in a community. This emphasis on social responsibility is an essential characteristic of a “good man” (Hamburger). Similarly, in Confucianism, the concept of ren is given emphasis. Ren conveys the idea of relationship, be it between family members, friends or even a ruler and his subjects (Fisher 157).Another interpretation of the word ren is also humaneness (Tsai). Confucius takes this further by also emphasising li or filial piety. Confucius opines that the foundation of good social service to the community comes from one’s filial piety to family members. Only in learning to pay service to or to maintain a good relationship with the ancestors will one develop better relationships among the community, especially the relationship between the ruler and his subjects. Aristotle also has his own Doctrine of the Mean, which explains the importance of self-cultivation of moral values or the importance of becoming a moral person because a person who has excellence of character he likes acting in a proper way, feeling emotions which he can manifest with pleasure, since there is no internal struggle (Urmson).           

            Most of the aspects of the Doctrine of the Mean can be used in modern lifestyles as the doctrine is in itself a guide to decent livelihood. Humans, being social creatures would interact with each other on a daily basis, and tend to depend on each other not only physical nourishments, but also for moral or emotional support. Therefore, it is important to maintain good relationships within a community. The Doctrine of the Mean can help in achieving this as it outlines the moral values that one must have to be a moral person. The study of the Doctrine of the Mean itself makes one question, what are the values that make one humane? What is considered moral or immoral? It challenges one to think about our worldviews and how we judge things around us. It also teaches one self respect and how to respect others. The Doctrine of the Mean can actually keep and individual in check of himself and his actions. It makes one think deeply how is one’s actions affecting the community, how does one’s actions measure up to the standards of a virtuous person? As a result, one becomes more mindful of his actions and altruistic. This will result in a harmonious society because every individual is mindful of his own actions so as to how it will affect the rest of the society.

            In conclusion, Confucius’ Doctrine of the Mean is one of the most prominent works in Chinese Philosophy that combines humanistic elements in adherence to Chinese beliefs of a universal order in promoting harmony in both heaven and earth. Confucianism promotes self-cultivation of moral values which will contribute to a virtuous cycle in a society. It shares a few similarities with Western ideology especially Aristotle’s own Doctrine of the Mean, and is still relevant to be practised in today’s society. 


Works Cited

Fisher, Mary Pat. “Living Religions.” 8th Edition.  United States: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. Print.

Hamburger, Max. “Aristotle and Confucius: A Comparison”. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 2. University of Pennsylvania Press, Apr. 1959: pp. 236-249. Print.

Kupperman, Joel J. “Confucius and the Nature of Religion”.  Philosophy East and West, Vol. 21, No. 2. University of Hawaii Press, Apr. 1971: pp. 189-194. Print.

Legge, James. “The Doctrine of the Mean”. MyReligionLab. Web. Nov 21st 2011.

Marshak, Robert J. “Lewin Meets Confucius: A Review of The OD Model of Change.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. SAGE Publications, 1993: pp 393. Print.

Urmson, J.O. “Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean”. American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3. University of Illinois Press, Jul., 1973:  pp. 223-230. Print.

Tsai, D F- C. “The Bioethical Principles and Confucius’ Moral Philosophy”. Journal of  Medical Ethics.  2005: pp.159–163. BMJ Group. Web. Nov 22nd 2011.


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