SAN JOSE, January 29, 2017 — As people around the world began the Chinese New Year yesterday, few people would have the audacity to make a connection between the holiday and Benjamin Franklin. Yet, at the heart of the actual celebration of Chinese New Year is the application of some of the precepts that Confucius taught centuries ago, and some of what Ben Franklin wrote about is in alignment with Confucian teaching. Unfortunately, Americans have a strong tendency to forget their own history; so, it is not unusual for American citizens to have forgotten Ben Franklin, but it is much more of a stretch to remember much about Confucius.
It is even more likely that very few people throughout the world would make a connection between the asian festival at the start of the new lunar year and Ben Franklin, yet in the realm of ideas and ideals there is not that much distance except for the time period. Confucius lived and taught in China 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, at a time in which the Buddha was sharing his thought with the people of India. Franklin lived in the turbulent period of colonial America which experienced the creation of the United States of America. However, despite the difference in the time and geographic areas, it is likely that had Franklin met Confucius on a street in Philadelphia in the late 1700s, they may have had quite a discussion about Chinese New Year.
The Asian tradition of celebrating the New Year originated more than 4,000 years ago, especially being regularly celebrated in China throughout this period of history despite the political upheavals and revolutions within China. Chinese New Year today represents a combination of religious and secular rituals that have primarily stemmed from practices in Confucianism and Daoism, as well as Buddhism. It is also now referred to as the Spring Festival and celebrated by roughly one-sixth of the world’s population. Yet, at the heart of the joyful celebrations is the asian family unit – especially in China.
The Lunar New Year begins and progresses with a very fundamental link between religious beliefs of the people as performed through the traditional ceremonies or ritual activities. However, the family is at the very center of the various days of involvement in the festivities.
This family focus has been passed down through the ages from the heart of Confucian beliefs, which are still taught in the Communist Chinese school system, much for the purpose of the maintenance of social order and stability as opposed to permitting the free exercise of faith among the people. Confucius taught that a healthy and harmonious family at the heart of the society would produce a healthy and stable society.
Confucian thought focused upon the practice of behaviors that would promote a healthy and harmonious family because the family unit was at the core of the society. The ultimate goal of Confucius was the establishment of a peaceful world. He perceived the key to such a pursuit as the harmonious family. Yet, at the base of each family was the individual, and thus the core of such a key to world peace was the individual.
When the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world. From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, all must regard cultivation of the personal life as the root or foundation.
In essence, Confucius was trying to convey through his teachings that the cultivation of one’s personal life was linked to the foundation of world peace. For Confucius, each person should be guided in their life development to pursue what he referred to as ren (jen) in Chinese. Ren according to Confucius was “love of man,” or the love of humanity. This concept, to be clear according to Confucian philosophy, is a more natural love of one’s fellow human beings, which can be cultivated through proper education, and which is practiced differently with regard to different human relationships. For example Confucius referred to the cultivated feeling of filial piety towards one’s parents as Xiao (hsiao), and referred to the cultivated feeling of loyalty or the respect toward one’s superiors (lords, emperors, or employers) as Zhong (chung).
The cultivation of ren, according to Confucius, was obtained through disciplined practice, and the ideal of morality, as well as the highest goal of education. The ancient Chinese master was clear in his teachings that the realization of ren came through the transformational process of the continual practice of li, or ritual or proper ceremony. In Confucian philosophy, li is able to be cultivated through the use of deliberate devices of the sages in their educational guidance. In very simple understanding li is the practice of right behavior within society, or within the various relationships people have with one another. This concept shares a common premise as the pursuit of virtue that was a focus of Benjamin Franklin and many of the founders.
In Franklin’s day, and to many of the founders, the pursuit of happiness meant the pursuit of virtue – not the pursuit of pleasure as it is interpreted in many contemporary realms across America today. Many of the Founding Fathers, being well read in the Greek Classics, were aware of ancient Greek philosophers who proclaimed that the development of the individual through the pursuit of virtue was the most noblest of human pursuits, and the founders also held that the pursuit of happiness consisted in the pursuit of virtue. Plato, in The Republic, boldly stated that only those who were moral were the ones who could truly be happy. Additionally, Aristotle wrote that the goal of human thought and action was eudaimonia, which is translated as a type of human flourishing in activity that exhibited virtue.
At the core of the fundamental precepts of The Declaration of Independence are the radical words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Certainly, to the founders, the pursuit of virtue was at the heart of the phrase: “pursuit of happiness.” Yet, perhaps more than any of the founders, it was Benjamin Franklin who would attempt an overt effort at what Confucius would call li.
Amazingly, when Ben Franklin was only 20 years old, he determined to cultivate his own character by practicing thirteen key virtues, with a focus upon one each week. He sincerely believed that through the daily practice of the specific virtues, he would become a better man and obtain a measure of moral perfection. Franklin wrote more about this plan of personal character development in his autobiography than he wrote regarding any other point being referenced. His rationale: “I hope… that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.”
It does not appear that Ben Franklin ever read anything of Confucian thought, but there is a common thread of truth that runs through each of these great men’s teachings. Confucius perceived 500 years before the coming of Jesus Christ, the way of genuine peace could be obtained through proper education and the continual practice of right behavior towards one’s fellow human beings. Although Confucius did not teach about loving one’s enemies, Franklin had the benefit of Jesus’ teachings and did believe in the concept of forgiveness. Nonetheless, Franklin held this very Confucian-like perspective:
The best thing to give to your enemy is forgiveness; to an opponent, tolerance; to a friend, your heart; to your child, a good example; to a father, deference; to your mother, conduct that will make her proud of you; to yourself, respect; to all men, charity.
Despite the differences in time and place, both Confucius and Franklin may have been able to celebrate Chinese New Year together as each are reflective of the good, possibly even the best, of each of their respective cultures. They each shaped their nations in ways that the descendants should value.
Hopefully, within the fifteen days of formal Chinese New Year’s celebrations, their descendants should take some time with which to reflect upon the wisdom of the two great men, make new year’s resolutions to begin their personal pursuit of virtue, and the practice of ren. That would be much more substantial than worshipping a rooster!