Saturday, October 10, 2015

Confucius In The Age of Oligarchy

"Better light a candle
than curse the dark."
One great tradition of anti-oligarchical thinking in world culture stems from the influence of Confucius (551-479 BC). Confucianism can perhaps best be understood as a movement to save Chinese civilization from oligarchical depredations. Confucius starts from a standpoint very much like that of Plato (428-348 BC): the need to secure good government capable of promoting the general welfare. Confucius recognized that most governments in the divided and balkanized China of his time were unacceptable. 

The main political issue was the incessant private warfare of the Zhou dynasty military nobility, which served no useful purpose, but kept the country weak and divided, with no effective central government. According to Confucius, bad government derived from the fact that rulers and high officials lacked the character and qualifications to serve the common good. 

Sun Yat-Sen, Provisional President,
Republic of China (1912), the first
Republic in Asia: "Of the people, by
the people, for the people."
Confucius thought the main reason for this incompetence was the status of the rulers and hereditary aristocrats around them. He regarded most of them as parasites, and wrote in his Analects

“It is difficult to expect anything from men who stuff themselves with food the whole day, while never using their minds in any way at all. Even gamblers do something, and to that degree are better than these idlers.”

Like Plato he argued that government needs to be in the hands of the most capable and competent. Ability has nothing to do with birth, nobility, or wealth, but depends on character and knowledge alone, which in turn are the results of education. Confucius called for careers open to talent, in which appointment and advancement would be based on ability, not on property, hereditary rank and title. Contrary to this, oligarchy represents an irrational principle based on domination and repression, justified neither by merit and ability, nor by the results achieved.