“No civilization- the man-made artifact to house successive generations- would ever have been possible without a framework of stability, to provide the wherein for the flux of change.” – Hannah Arendt

Last time we examined the purpose of civilization as assessed by Western antiquity in the voice of Aristotle. Today we will look at a comparable position taken by Eastern antiquity in the thoughts of Confucius. In the Analects, Confucius seemed ambivalent about metaphysics and the divine, focusing all of his attention on the use of society and the cultivation of the superior person. Regarding society’s purpose, his overarching principle is that order and peace offer the harmonious development of the individual.

In turn an ordered and harmonious society depends on three reciprocal virtues of individuals: Jen, benevolence to others, Hsiao, filial piety which includes not respect for one’s parents and teachers and the law and order of society, and especially Li, rules of propriety. He also teaches that the superior man places virtue above venal self-interest. Success is contingent on regulation of family life and improvement of the self through education.  We looked at this in more detail in the section on virtue in the meaningful life.

His concept of the purpose of the state is to provide food (necessities), a sufficient army (safety/security) and a ruler in whom the people have confidence (the most important of the three). He also implies the state should offer the opportunity of education which for Confucius includes a balance of philosophy, history, poetry, music, and dance (the last two symbolic of harmony).1 It also includes recreational sports such as archery, carriage driving, and the hunt.2  He tells us “the cultural work of Li is imperceptible. It prevents the rise of indulgent conduct beforehand and leads people gradually towards virtue and away from vice without their knowing it.”3

Confucius, like Aristotle, understands the importance of governance, “The highest principle of human civilization is government…the art of government simply consists in making things right, putting things in their right places.”4 And again we hear “Li is the foundation of government.”6

In conclusion, for Confucius, society’s purposes include the maintenance of order, the provision of essentials,  the establishment of education, and the opportunity for leisure activities. This is in turn founded on good governance and societal and individual propriety. Purpose is in the end a reciprocal relation between the group and the individual.


1Yutang, Lin (editor), The Wisdom of Confucius. The Modern Library, New York, 1938. Page 200.

2Ibid., page 209.

3Ibid., page 215.

4Ibid., page 218.

5Ibid., page 220.

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