The response to the question "Is Confucianism a humanism?" is yes and no.
The points made below are backed by quotation from diverse documentation. Quotations concerning Confucianism as tagged by the label “C.”, quotations concerning Western Humanism as tagged by the label “W.H.”.
Confucianism is a humanism in the sense that:
- it is secular, centered around human beings only and not supernatural powers,
- it tackles the relationship of human beings with regard to society in a quite concrete way,
Humanists asserted the dignity of normal earthly activities and even endorsed the pursuit of fame and the acquisition of wealth. The emphasis on a mature and healthy balance between mind and body, first implicit in Boccaccio, is evident in the work of Giannozzo Manetti, Francesco Filelfo, and Paracelsus; it is embodied eloquently in Montaigne’s final essay, “Of Experience.”
- it stresses the importance of reason (implying a certain amount of self control and deliberation in one’s actions) and knowledge:
Confucius, like humanists today, did not see “the true way” as following religious codes, but as based on reason and humanity, stressing the importance of benevolence, respect for others, and looking pragmatically at individual situations rather than blindly following traditional rules.
Taking up the traditional Aristotelian and scholastic division of functions of the soul into nutrition, sensation and cognition, Pico [della Mirandola] asserts that each person’s development will depend on the aspect they cultivate: those who cultivate the nutritive and reproductive part will become plants, those who cultivate the senses will be brutes, but if reason and understanding are pursued, they will be angels, sons of God
- both humanism and Confucianism tend to be naturalists:
Humanists are often assumed invariably to be, and certainly often self-identify as, naturalists. Indeed, humanism is regularly defined in such a way that signing up to naturalism is a requirement.
C. and W.H.
Metaphysical Naturalism is most notably a Western phenomenon, although one tradition within Confucian philosophy (dating back at least to Wang Chong in the 1st Century, if not earlier) embraced a view that could be called Naturalism.
Confucianism differs significantly from humanism in the sense that:
- it is a collectivist philosophy while humanism is an individualist philosophy (e.g. "Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure!" Petrarch; "You, with not limit or no bound, may choose for yourself!" Mirandola; "To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills." Mirandola):
Confucianism is basically a humanistic and collectivistic moral enterprise. Since the family sits as its core, it may aptly be deemed familial collectivism.
Ip, 2004, Confucian personhood and bioethics
As a secular lifestance, secular humanism incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life.
The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value. Individuals should be encouraged to realize their own creative talents and desires. We reject all religious, ideological, or moral codes that denigrate the individual, suppress freedom, dull intellect, dehumanize personality. We believe in maximum individual autonomy consonant with social responsibility.*
- one of Confucianism’s main tenet is obedience to authority while humanism is significantly marked by a distrust toward authority:
“Li”, the “proper way” or “propriety”, includes a set of rules for interaction with others and the role system. Control of emotions, restraint, obedience to authority, conforming and “face” are highly valued and important.
- the relationship with other cultures is not, to my knowledge, an issue in Confucianism, while it is a main one in humanism (see the Essays (1580) of Montaigne, where toleration for other cultures is an important theme**, and which contains the famous quote: "Everyone calls barbarism that which is not of his use." Chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage., or Erasmus quote "That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all."):
For all Renaissance thinkers, human excellence, superiority and dignity are a gift from God, a result of the plan of his creation. They conceived of dignity as a feature shared by all human beings, but for them this did not imply that all were entitled to inalienable human rights – rights that can be claimed merely by dint of being human. In fact, they saw dignity as an assignment; those who failed to realize it thereby proved that they were unworthy of the honorary name of man
The Humanist movement reconnected with the values, the philosophy, literature and art of classical Greco-Roman Antiquity, considered as the foundation of knowledge. But it also proposed new values, rooted in reason, free will, independence, tolerance and an openness of mind.
The fundamental aspects of Erasmus's ethic humanism consisted of ideals of universal peace and tolerance.
(de Micheli, 2002)
- as of ethics, humanism tends to be Epicurean, while Confucianism follows virtue ethics. Secular humanism is consequentialist .
Virtue ethics, like Confucian ethics another form of virtue ethics, has as a fundamental assumption that humans are not born moral, but instead are socialized into morality.
Mendieta, E. (2008). Ethical Studies, Overview (Western). Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, 739-746.
A common way to understand Confucian ethics is that it is a virtue ethic. For some scholars this will be an obvious, uncontroversial truth. For others, it is a misconstrual that imposes contentious Western assumptions on Confucianism about what it is to be a person and what an ethics should be about. In light of this controversy, it is important to specify the sense in which it is relatively uncontroversial to claim that virtues constitute a major focus of attention in these texts.
SEP - Chinese Ethics
Humanists of today typically echo Epicurus, if not knowingly.
- The concept of (human) dignity is, to my knowledge, absent from Confucianism, while it is quite central in humanism
*The individualist tone in this quote from the Manifesto II is very much low-keyed in the Manifesto III:
Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
**Humanism has not always been tolerant:
Greek humanism persisted among the successors of Plato and Aristotle, but, although it included lasting values, it was not an offering to all mankind. It was a cultural program designed predominantly for an elite of free men of aristocratic background and independent means who had the leisure for the pursuit of excellence. It was predicated on the idea of an inherent superiority of the Greek over the barbarian.