Two Confucian princes

March 16 2014

The Indic philosopher Siddhārtha Gautama exerted his influence upon the Mauryan Emperor Açoka after a Time-interval of more than two centuries, if the Buddha died in 487 B.C. and Açoka came to the throne in 273 B.C. But perhaps the most extraordinary example of this exertion of influence at long range is Confucius’s effect upon the minds and lives of the two [long-reigning] Manchu emperors K’ang Hsi [the Kangxi Emperor, regnabat 1661-1722] and [his successor but one] Ch’ien Lung [the Qianlong Emperor, regnabat 1735-96].

The first of these two Confucian princes did not begin to reign until more than two thousand years had passed since his mentor’s death; the Far Eastern Society into which K’ang Hsi was born was sundered from the Sinic Society, in whose bosom Confucius himself had lived and taught, by a social interregnum which deepened the gulf dug by Time; and K’ang Hsi himself was not even a native-born son of the Far Eastern Civilization, but was a cultural convert from a horde of recently installed barbarian conquerors. The influence of Confucius upon K’ang Hsi was a brilliant posthumous consolation prize for the disappointment, in Confucius’s own lifetime, of the hopes of a Sinic sage whose offers of service had been rejected by the Sinic princes of the day; and this posthumous reversal of fortune was as ironic as it was extreme, for, in offering himself in the role of mentor, the Sinic sage had not just been making a half-hearted compromise with an importunate conscience in the manner of his Hellenic and Indic counterparts. In Confucius’s eyes the role which Confucius never succeeded in playing effectively until long after his death was no grudgingly paid debt to the ineradicable human nature of the social animal under the sage’s cloak: it was for him the only role in which a philosopher could properly follow his spiritual calling. [Footnote: In Confucius’s view the ultimate purpose of self-cultivation, which was the Superior Person’s first duty, was the purification of his neighbour and of the entire community. Confucius thought of himself, not as a happily detached sage, but as an unfortunately unemployed man of action (see Maspero, H.: La Chine Antique (Paris 1927, Boccard), pp. 466-7 and 543).]

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

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