Book Review: “Confucious in 90 Minutes” by Paul Strathern

Confucius is one of the most influential philosophers in the world. As a kid growing up in Taiwan, I learned about Confucius’ ideas and sayings. It was almost second nature for common Chinese to quote Confucius as the ultimate truth. But I know very little about his life and his views from Westerner’s perspective. This short book summarized it for me.

According to the author, Confucius is almost like Socrates, who was born about a century later, with respect to his conversational/dialog/Q&A approach to revealing his thoughts about certain subjects. His advocacy for broad love toward neighbors and country men in general was religious like, though he was born more than five hundred years before Christ.

Confucius first advised the rulers (war lords) how to govern people. But he didn’t get much traction so he decided to teach. He first came up with the “Golden Rules” – “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” (己所不欲,勿施於人。) – treat others how you want to be treated long before the Christ. The other thoughts include Ren (Jen, 仁), Li (禮), Yi (義). The author didn’t go into details of each thought but I’m quite familiar with them.

The author cited several contradictions in Confucius’ teachings in how to farm and how to be a governor. To me, this is nitpicking. From what I can tell, the author did not think very highly of Confucius, especially about his inability to convince any rulers to adopt his methods of governing. And when he held a small official position, he did it poorly. The author is probably evaluating Confucius from the modern westerners’ angle. I’m not saying his thoughts were all that impressive but again I didn’t live in the era to know how out-of-box thinking he held. Amazingly, he was able to laugh at himself of his lack of accomplishment. But for all I know, he and his philosophy stood the test of time over over 2700 years. It’s hard to argue against such a track record.

As far as this book, I seem to learn a lot more from the Confucius Wikipedia than from the book.