Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Is there such a thing as a Confucian saint?

Confucius revered the ancient kings as sages (sheng), figures of towering intellect and virtue who represented an ideal never again to be attained by mere mortals. Their inimitability prevented the ancients from functioning as exemplars and restricted them to the role of venerable ancestors to whom all owed a debt of gratitude. Meng Zi began to modify the role of the sage. He suggested that the sage appears in every age, not only in the distant past. And he emphasized the sage’s humanity and imitability. Individuals could aspire to and cultivate the qualities of the sage through education. With the Song dynasty came Neo-Confucianism and a further expansion of the sage’s role. Building on the classic text called The Great Learning (Da Xue), medieval scholars spoke of a series of stages through which an aspirant could advance toward the lofty goal of sagehood. Neo-Confucians identified the sage as the individual who had fully actualized all moral and intellectual potential and arrived at a state of oneness with the universe.

Like the Daoist sage, as described in the Dao De Jing, the Confucian sage embodies perfect harmony with the cosmos. Unlike the Daoist sage, the Confucian puts wisdom’s insights to work by active involvement in the ordinary affairs of society. A Confucian sage is like the Buddhist Bodhisattva in that both are committed to the betterment of the human condition. The ten-stage “Bodhisattva career” offers a general parallel to the Neo-Confucian system of steps toward sagehood. But whereas the Bodhisattva has the power to reach down and change the plight of those who ask for help, the sage offers the hope of transformation through determination and effort. Sages model the best in Confucianism’s spirituality of public service.


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