An Overview of The Family

Providing the Foundations


If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be
   beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character, there will be
   harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home, there will be order
   in the nation.
If there is order in the nation, there will be peace
   in the world.

The Great Learning, a key Confucian text


The Family

The Family in Humanism

Families are where the individual first comes into existence; receives nurturance, guidance and support; is most fully valued; is sustained throughout life; and is ideally assisted to the greatest extent possible, even unto death.

Though often fragile, and always subject to all of the passions and turmoil to which human nature is heir, it has been, throughout history, and in all cultures, the most crucial and sacred of all institutions; and ideally its precepts can and should guide us in our conduct with respect to all other individuals and social institutions, at least to whatever extent that is practically possible.

The most sensible, most fully conceived, and most persuasive thought concerning the family, familial relationships, and the relationship of the family to society is probably that of Confucian Humanism. Confucian philosophers devoted consideration to these matters for centuries, over the course of a long-sustained dialogue. This resulted in the development of a valuable set of documents which was continually refined and transmitted; and which today, while remaining extraordinarily valuable, require further refinement in light of contemporary circumstances. After 1900, however, Confucianism in China was crushed out of existence over the course of a violent social upheaval; and it is no longer truly a living tradition there, though it has survived in attenuated form in other places, such as Singapore and Taiwan. Nevertheless, the sturdiness and intrinsic value of its precepts, together with the universality of its concerns and the practicality and importance of its recommendations means that it can readily become part of every cultural tradition everywhere. Today, with the family under sustained fascist attack everywhere, this has become more important and urgent than at any preceding time in human history.

The best compact account of Confucian thought to date is that of Huston Smith in his book The World's Religions (though we are by no means fully in agreement with it). However, even that account runs to some forty pages, and it is not our intention to reproduce the equivalent here. Instead we will here: provide some understanding of its overall structure; try to reproduce some of the flavor of the Confucian orientation; and point the way to resources for further study.

The Only Comprehensive Religion

Above all else, perhaps, Confucian social thought is thorough and comprehensive. It provides a morality, or theory of right conduct with respect to other persons (including, of course, family members); a theory of life purpose (which philosophers like to refer to as a teleology); an ideal of human character (in some, although limited, respects similar to the Western notion of the Renaissance Man); a theory of good governance; and a theory of just economics. It is thus the only complete religion, or way of life, that has ever been advanced.

Some Relevant Reflections

"There are four things in the Way of the profound person, none of which I have been able to do. To serve my father as I would expect my son to serve me. To serve my ruler as I would expect my ministers to serve me. To serve my elder brother as I would expect my younger brothers to serve me. To be the first to treat friends as I would expect them to treat me. These I have not been able to do."

Confucius, The Doctrine of the Mean


"Not only was he always willing to champion the cause of common people against the oppressive nobility of his day; in his personal relations he cut 'scandalously' across class lines and never slighted his poorer students even when they could pay him nothing."

Huston Smith, The World's Religions


"[The concept of] Jen . . . names the ideal relationship that should pertain between people. . . . Jen involves simultaneously a feeling of humanity toward others and respect for oneself, an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life wherever it appears. Subsidiary attitudes follow automatically: magnanimity, good faith, and charity. In the direction of jen lies the perfection of everything that would make one supremely human. In public life it prompts untiring diligence. In private life it is expressed in courtesy, unselfishness, and empathy, the capacity to 'measure the feelings of others by one's own.' Stated negatively, this empathy leads to what has been called the Silver Rule — 'Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you,' but there is no reason to stop with this negative wording for Confucius put the point positively as well. 'The person of jen, desiring self-affirmation, seeks to affirm as well.'"

Huston Smith, The World's Religions


"The chun tzu is the opposite of a petty person, a mean person, a small-spirited person. . . . The gentleman does not talk too much. He does not boast, push himself forward, or in any way display his superiority, 'except perhaps at sports.' Holding always to his own standards, however others may forget theirs, he is never at a loss as to how to behave and can keep a gracious initiative where others resort to conventions. Schooled to meet any contingency 'without fret or fear,' his head is not turned by success nor his temper soured by adversity. It is only the person who is entirely real, Confucius thought, who can establish the great foundations of civilized society. Only as those who make up society are transformed into chun tzus can the world move toward peace."

Huston Smith, The World's Religions


All of this being the case, it follows that the central task of the family is to rear such an individual. And it follows that the central task of society is to assist the family in the rearing of such individuals. This should be the touchstone of every piece of proposed legislation and of every budget: does it, or does it not, help the family rear such an individual?

Resources for Further Study of Confucian Humanism

The cornerstone of Confucianism is found in The Analects. Like any book of its age, some of it is now dated. Astonishingly, however, most is not. Its language will also strike modern readers as quaint. Not so its key ideas, which are every bit as important today as the day they were written. There's only one translation we can recommend: that of Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., who bring relevant philosophical understanding to their translation. Further worthwhile development of Confucian thought can be found in the Mencius.

Chu Hsi, probably the single most important figure in all of world religion (less for originality of thought than for the sort of immense common sense not often found in philosophers), also included two other works in the standard Confucian canon: The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean. These are both long overdue for a more gracious translation than any currently available, and also merit a more contemporary update, but nevertheless remain valuable.

(Per the Encyclopedia Brittanica: "On several occasions during his later career Chu was invited to the imperial court and seemed destined for more influential positions, but his invariably frank and forceful opinions and his uncompromising attacks on corruption and political expediency each time brought his dismissal or his transfer to a new post conveniently distant from the capital. On the last of these occasions, near the end of his life, his enemies retaliated with virulent accusations concerning his views and conduct, and he was barred from political activity."

It seems some things never change.


The Editor / Everything Progressive