by Dave Kopel
Liberty magazine, November 1999, pp. 39-40
In the eastern hemisphere, perhaps no person has had more enduring influence than the Chinese philosopher Confucius (born 551 B.C.E.). He is usually thought of as a strong supporter of the authoritarian state, and few people would imagine that he understood the importance of an armed, responsible population in a well-ordered society. "Confucius," by the way, is an 18th century Western mistranslation of his name. So let's call him what his students called him, "Master K'ung."
Master K'ung spent much of his energy advising governments about right conduct. "To govern a state of middle size" (ideal in Master K'ung's view, which extolled moderation in all things), the ruler should, among other things, "mobilize the people only at the right times." (1:5). [Most of Master K'ung's teachings which have been preserved for us come through his Analects, a book-length series of anecdotes and teachings collected by his disciples. All citations to the Analects provide the chapter and the verse to Simon Leys' 1997 translation.]
This advice about mobilization suggests that the state is not to be protected by a standing army, but instead by a force of "the people" which is only mobilized under certain conditions. This force of "the people" seems to resemble what 17th century Englishmen would have called "the militia."
This proto-militia required training and cultivation, as did everything else: "The Master said: 'The people need to be taught by good men for seven years before they can take arms.' The Master said: 'To send a people to war that has not been properly taught is wasting them.'" (13:29-30).
Skill at shooting was important for much more than war, however. As a young man, Master K'ung made sure to master the "Six Arts" of a Chinese gentleman. These arts were ritual, music, charioteering, calligraphy, arithmetic, and archery.
Would Master K'ung agree with persons who find the shooting sports barbaric? "The Master said: 'A gentleman avoids competition. Still, if he must compete let it be at archery. There, as he bows and exchanges civilities both before the contest and over drinks afterward, he remains a gentleman, even in competition.'" (3:7). In modern America, which form of competition builds character better: high school football, in which boys taunt other players after slamming them to the ground, or target shooting, for which self-control is required at all times?
Master K'ung might have agreed with Thomas Jefferson, who advised his nephew: "Games played with a bat and ball are too violent, and stamp no character on the mind . . . [A]s to the species of exercise, I advise the gun."
The shooting sports emphasized focus and control over strength: "In archery, it does not matter whether one pierces the target, for archers may be of uneven strengths. Such was the view of the ancients." (3:16).
To Master K'ung, the point of archery, like any of the other Six Arts, was character development in a spirit of moderation. Thus, one passage records Master K'ung's ironic reply to criticism that he was not an expert in anything:
"A man from Daxiang said: 'Your Confucius is really great! With his vast learning, he has still not managed to excel in any particular field.' The Master heard of this and said to his disciples: 'Which skill should I cultivate? Shall I take up charioteering? Shall I take up archery? All right, I shall take up charioteering.'" (9:2).
Not just a target shooter, Master K'ung was a hunter. A responsible one, of course, who emphasized skill and fair play: "The Master fished with a line, not with a net. When hunting, he never shot a roosting bird." (7:27).
Some of Master K'ung's teachings speak directly to our current political situation: "Lead them by political maneuvers, restrain them with punishments: the people will become cunning and shameless. Lead them by virtue, restrain them with ritual: they will develop a sense of shame and a sense of participation." (2:3). Our current President presides over a mammoth state, and is correctly regarded as a slick hypocrite. Our first President presided over a government of few laws, and led America primarily through the good example of his own character, which he worked hard to cultivate. As Master K'ung would have predicted, President Washington ennobled the character of Americans, while President Clinton's example brings out the worst in Americans.
Asked what would be the first step if a government sought his advice, "The Master said: "It would certainly be to rectify the names . . . If the names are not correct, language is without an object.'" (13:3). In modern America, the failure to "rectify the names" is at the heart of the gun control problem. The gun prohibition lobbies succeed to the extent that they can label guns like the M-1 Garand an "assault weapon." Likewise, inexpensive handguns used for self-defense by poor people are "junk guns" or "Saturday Night Specials." And people who stand up for the Constitution are "extremists."
Today, East Asian tyrants portray Confucianism as a philosophy demanding that the masses submit to tyranny, but this is a falsehood. Master K'ung certainly placed tremendous emphasis on respect for parents as the foundation for society, on benign paternalist government, on temperate and polite behavior, and on religious ritual. But these conservative values hardly mean that Master K'ung believed that people should meekly bow to rapacious government:
"The Head of the Ji Family was richer than a king, and yet Ran Qiu kept pressuring the peasants to make him richer still. The Master said: "He is my disciple no more. Beat the drum, my little ones, and attack him: you have my permission.'" (11:17).
Mencius, the most influential developer of Master K'ung's thought, also advocated revolution. In contrast to the Legalist philosophers popular in the imperial palaces, Mencius considered the people more important than the state. Quoting from the Shu Ching ("Classic of History," one of the Five Classics of Confucianism), Mencius wrote, "Heaven sees as the people see; Heaven hears as the people hear." And thus, the dissatisfaction of the people could remove the mandate of Heaven from a ruler, and place it on another ruler. The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes Mencius considered that revolution "in severe cases is not only justifiable but is a moral imperative."
Compare Mencius's philosophy with the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which affirms that rights come to the people directly from Heaven, from the "Creator," and that government which does not conform to the will of the people may properly be changed by the people, with violence if necessary.
Great minds in different places and circumstances often come to the same conclusion. (Compare what Westerners call "the Golden Rule," with Mencius's "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to humanity.")
Pursuant to the teachings of Master K'ung and Mencius, Confucian scholars in 220 C.E. led a peasant rebellion which brought down the tyrannical Han Dynasty.
In contrast to the Taoists, many of whom chose to live as hermits to contemplate nature, the philosophy of Master K'ung emphasized the moral imperative of engagement in public affairs. In one passage, a man asks the Master, "Can a man be called virtuous if he keeps his talents to himself while his country is going astray? I do not think so. Can a man be called wise if he is eager to act, yet misses every opportunity to do so? I do not thing so. The days and months go by, time is not with us."
Master K'ung replies, "All right, I shall accept an office." (17:1).
If you believe in the Constitution, but never volunteer your time to defend it, can you be called virtuous?
In America, the philosophical heritage of the right to keep and bear arms can be traced directly to the English philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But as the teachings of Master K'ung illustrate, understanding the importance of an armed, responsible population in a well-ordered society was not a unique accomplishment of Englishmen. Throughout world history, our greatest philosophers, including Master K'ung, have taught us that an armed society is a polite society.