August 27

Georg W. F. Hegel (1770)

It was on this date, August 27, 1770, that the great the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart. After studying theology at the University of Tübingen, he tutored at Bern and Frankfurt, then lectured at the University of Jena (1801-06), before becoming headmaster of a Nuremberg school (1808-16), and professor at Heidelberg (1816-18) and Berlin (1818-31).

Hegel's most important writings are Phenomenology of Mind (Phänomenologie des Geistes, 1807), The Science of Logic (Wissenschaft der Logik, 1816), an Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817), The Philosophy of Right (1821). The one thing that exists, Hegel said in his Science of Logic, is Spirit or the Absolute Mind, which is in a state of eternal development: an unfolding of reality in terms of thesis — antithesis — synthesis. While working out a rebuttal of epistemology, Hegel posited a development of consciousness from individual sensation through social concern with ethics and politics to the pure consciousness of the World-Spirit (Welt-Geist) in art, religion, and philosophy. This comprehensive world-view, with its stress on spirit, misdirected European thought for a century.

However, as to God, "The proofs," said Hegel, "are to such an extent fallen into discredit that they pass for something antiquated, belonging to days gone by." Hegel professed to be a Christian in his personal morality, but he despised theology and rejected the idea of a personal god. Second perhaps only to Immanuel Kant among German philosophers, Hegel doubted immortality, so that when he was reminded of Kant's moral argument for a future life he said, "So you expect a tip for nursing your sick mother and for not poisoning your brother?"

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Confucius (551 BCE)

(Kongfuzi or
K'ung fu-tzu)
written in
Chinese script.

It was also on this date, August 27, 551 BCE, by tradition, that the Chinese teacher and philosopher K'ung fu-tzu (Pinyin Kongfuzi), known popularly by his Latinized name, Confucius, was born in the state of Lu. Though fatherless from the age of three, Confucius nevertheless acquired a good education and married at the age of 19, producing one son and two daughters. His mother died when Confucius was 24, and soon thereafter he began traveling about and teaching, usually instructing a small number of disciples he eventually drew to him in the second half of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1027?-256 BC).

Reciprocity - Chinese script
"Reciprocity" or the
Golden Rule
written in
Chinese script.

Confucian philosophy is simple: to love others; to honor one's forbears; to do what is right instead of what is of advantage; to practice "reciprocity," i.e., "don't do to others what you would not want done to yourself" — what Christians would call the Golden Rule — and, if in power, to rule by moral suasion instead of by force and violence. Indeed, Confucius thought that a ruler who had to resort to force had already failed as a ruler. As he said in his Analects, "Your job is to govern, not to kill" (XII:19).

Even though he was called Master K'ung, Confucius never had any pretensions of founding a religion. Confucianism is unique in history as an ethic with no religious content, no mysticism. The term for "god" in his Analects is often translated "spirit" or even "spiritual beings." Therefore, his advice regarding religions was, "Respect spiritual beings if there are any, but keep away from them." In the Analects, Chi-lu asked how the spirits of the dead and gods should be served. Confucius said, "You are not able to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?" (XI:12)

The best portrayal of the idea Confucius had toward immortality is in the 1981 novel Creation by Gore Vidal. In it, the narrator, Cyrus Spitana, asks Confucius:

  "But what about all those people who say that they have seen the spirits of the dead?"
  "Well," he said, "I've talked to many people who think that they've seen the spirits of the dead, and I always ask them one question, which shocks them. Was the ghost naked? Invariably, they tell me, the spirit is wearing the clothes that he was buried in. Now, we know that silk and linen and lamb's wool are inanimate and soulless. We also know that when a man dies, his clothes rot just as he does. So how can his spirit put them on again?"
  "Perhaps the spirit only seems to be dressed," I said feebly.
  "Perhaps the spirit only seems. Perhaps the spirit does not exist at all except in the mind of a frightened man." (p. 436)
For more than 2,000 years, since the death of Confucius in 479 BCE, Confucianism has been the general creed of educated Chinese. But it was never a religion.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer (ConfuciusConfuciusConfucius) is a freelance writer.
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