Few of history’s great sages are less understood, and less studied, in the West than Confucius. Nearly every college-educated American has at least a passing acquaintance with Aristotle, Kant, Aquinas, Hume, et al; but Confucius rarely makes the curriculum.
And that is a pity.
Because the man the Chinese refer to as Kong Fu-zi, or Master Kong, has an extraordinary amount to teach about what it means to live a rewarding and purposeful life.
Confucian wisdom is decidedly non-Western, i.e., his teachings offer valuable lessons Americans are unlikely to find elsewhere. And many of those lessons revolve around issues of money and career.
Here are a few of the things that Confucius says.
1. Don’t waste your youth on yourself
Confucius (551 to 479 BCE) was born in the small town of Qufu in central China at a time of great upheaval. The so-called Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history was ending, and the time of the aptly and frighteningly named Period of the Warring States was beginning.
A number of great philosophers emerged during this time of instability and violence as the Chinese sought a path forward.
The approach Confucius advocated involved developing ren, a word for which there is no English translation. Suffice it to say, ren is a sort of benevolence that can be built through self-awareness and the practice of deliberate acts of goodness and propriety.
Confucius viewed the world as a series of opportunities to develop one’s ethics. Chief among those opportunities was interacting with the elderly.
“A young man should serve his parents at home, and be respectful to elders outside his home,” Confucius wrote.
The great philosopher was talking about more than simply helping out at home and being nice to strangers. Confucius was quite specific in his suggestions.
“What is important is the expression you show in your face. You should not understand ‘filial’ [duty of a son or daughter] to mean merely the young doing physical tasks for their parents, or giving them food and wine when it is available,” he wrote.
Thus, it’s a good bet the man who wrote “while your parents are alive, it is better not to travel far away,” would find many of the things American youth do to advance themselves (leaving home for college, summer camps, gap years, studying abroad, etc.) to be the height of bad taste.
2. Practice self-improvement, not self-promotion
Related to the Confucian ideal of a child dedicated to their parents is the notion success is always a function of helping others.
“If you want to establish yourself, establish others. If you want to promote yourself, promote others,” Confucius wrote.
While that might sound like the sort of teamwork culture popular in U.S. corporations, Confucius was advocating something significantly different.
Confucius said the pursuit of higher goals such as wisdom and truth must come before anything related to education or career.
More specifically, he urged his followers to put their efforts first and foremost into building a good relationship with one’s family and neighbors. “After doing this,” Confucius said, “if he has energy to spare, he can study literature and the arts.”
Or, as he put it another way, “the noble man knows what is moral, the small man knows what is profitable.”
Thus it’s not hard to imagine Confucius would view some modern American practices — studying finance in college, leaving home to start a business, etc. — as anathema.
3. Get a government job
Confucius was a teacher and a civil servant. His teachings became central to the Imperial examinations (a testing system for would-be government officials) that dominated China’s culture and intellectual life for more than a thousand years.
Those exams gave rise to a sort of ideal Confucian career — the scholar bureaucrat. These men were tasked with spreading Confucian morality, adjudicating disputes, teaching the young and helping to collect taxes.
There’s really no comparable role in American life. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that Confucius would look around the modern world and see value in almost any civil-service profession.
Such jobs are stable, aimed at promoting order within society, and usually limited to people who perform well in a general-knowledge test similar to the Imperial examinations.
4. Practice minimalism
Confucius wasn’t opposed to wealth. But nor was he enamored of it.
Rather, just as is true of many of the world’s other leading philosophies and religions, Confucianism teaches us to be wary of money. There’s a risk, he warns, in paying too much attention to possessions and cash.
“Extravagance means ostentation, frugality means shabbiness,” he wrote. “I would rather be shabby than ostentatious.”
And as it turns out, such disdain for ostentation seems to be having its moment in the modern world. The minimalism movement, like Confucianism, sees personal finance as a place to practice restraint, achieve stability and put family first.
Want more financial insights from off your beaten path? Check out these money lessons from the Quakers.
Image: Monica Ninker