Solomon and Confucius, part 1

This is part one of a planned 3-part series comparing the books of Proverbs and the Analects.


C.S. Lewis wrote that:

Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that. As Dr. Johnson said, 'People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.' The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see; (Mere Christianity, chap. 3)

Solomon and Confucius both had much to say about moral principles. King Solomon's reign is dated from 970 – 931 BC. Confucius (Master Kong) lived from 551 – 479 BC on the other side of the Asian continent. In addition to the works discussed in this series on my blog, a Psalm or two are credited to Solomon, as are the books of Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon in the Bible; Confucius is credited with compiling and contributing to the Five Classics.

Both Proverbs and The Analects have a similar style: short pieces of advice or instructive observations. Proverbs is written as instructions to a son, whereas The Analects includes many exchanges between Confucius and various disciples. Solomon's son would be king one day, and Confucius was a government official, so both works contain not only advice on personal ethics, but also on governing a just society. Another common theme is what a good life looks like—being a wise man (not a fool) in Solomon's telling or a superior man in Confucius'.

The meaning of wisdom and what it means to be a wise (or superior) man will be the main topic of this first post in the series. Before I get into that, I have a couple of other background items to share:

This blog post outlines Confucius' take on social hierarchies: "make it really clear who the elites are and pay them respect, and tie them to one-on-one relationships with their inferiors that come with corresponding obligations."

Confucianism also had a brief mention in a book on Catholic monasticism I reviewed earlier this year:

His long immersion in Confucian learning had brought Ricci to believe profoundly that this was a base onto which, with sensitivity and patience, Christianity could be grafted, much as, centuries earlier, Christianity had been grafted onto Aristotelianism. In the meantime, he advised that missionaries should proceed painstakingly, and not give into the temptation of effecting mass, uninformed conversions. (p. 156)

The Wise Man / The Superior Man

Proverbs 9 contains competing appeals by wisdom and folly (personified as two women):

Wisdom has built her house;
she has carved its seven columns.
She has prepared a great banquet,
mixed the wines, and set the table.
She has sent her servants to invite everyone to come.
She calls out from the heights overlooking the city.
“Come in with me,” she urges the simple.
To those who lack good judgment, she says,
“Come, eat my food,
and drink the wine I have mixed.
Leave your simple ways behind, and begin to live;
learn to use good judgment.”


The woman named Folly is brash.
She is ignorant and doesn’t know it.
She sits in her doorway
on the heights overlooking the city.
She calls out to men going by
who are minding their own business.
“Come in with me,” she urges the simple.
To those who lack good judgment, she says,
“Stolen water is refreshing;
food eaten in secret tastes the best!”
But little do they know that the dead are there.
Her guests are in the depths of the grave.

While Folly involves unvirtuous conduct (e.g. stealing) and ends in disaster, Wisdom's path is blessed:

Joyful is the person who finds wisdom,
the one who gains understanding.
For wisdom is more profitable than silver,
and her wages are better than gold.
Wisdom is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
She offers you long life in her right hand,
and riches and honor in her left.
She will guide you down delightful paths;
all her ways are satisfying.
Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
happy are those who hold her tightly. (Proverbs 3:13-18)

Wisdom and folly affect more than the individual:

A wise child brings joy to a father;
a foolish child brings grief to a mother. (Proverbs 10:1)

A notable characteristic of a wise person is that they are teachable, unlike the fool:

A single rebuke does more for a person of understanding
than a hundred lashes on the back of a fool. (Proverbs 17:10)

Moving from Solomon on to Confucius, Book 16 of The Analects has quite a bit to say about the superior man:

Confucius said, "There are three things which the superior man guards against. In youth, when the physical powers are not yet settled, he guards against lust. When he is strong and the physical powers are full of vigor, he guards against quarrelsomeness. When he is old, and the animal powers are decayed, he guards against covetousness."
Confucius said, "There are three things of which the superior man stands in awe. He stands in awe of the ordinances of Heaven. He stands in awe of great men. He stands in awe of the words of sages.
"The mean man does not know the ordinances of Heaven, and consequently does not stand in awe of them. He is disrespectful to great men. He makes sport of the words of sages."

Confucius said, "The superior man has nine things which are subjects with him of thoughtful consideration. In regard to the use of his eyes, he is anxious to see clearly. In regard to the use of his ears, he is anxious to hear distinctly. In regard to his countenance, he is anxious that it should be benign. In regard to his demeanor, he is anxious that it should be respectful. In regard to his speech, he is anxious that it should be sincere. In regard to his doing of business, he is anxious that it should be reverently careful. In regard to what he doubts about, he is anxious to question others. When he is angry, he thinks of the difficulties (his anger may involve him in). When he sees gain to be got, he thinks of righteousness." (16:7-8,10)

Clearly, good character and conduct are integral to being a superior man. Proverbs mentions the Divine much more than The Analects, but Confucius also does not neglect that aspect of wisdom:

The Master said, "Without recognising the ordinances of Heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man.
"Without an acquaintance with the rules of Propriety, it is impossible for the character to be established.
"Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men." (20:3)

The following passages don't specifically use the term "superior man", but being a learned or virtuous man is a closely related concept.

Tsze-hsia said, "If a man withdraws his mind from the love of beauty, and applies it as sincerely to the love of the virtuous; if, in serving his parents, he can exert his utmost strength; if, in serving his prince, he can devote his life; if, in his intercourse with his friends, his words are sincere:—although men say that he has not learned, I will certainly say that he has." (1:7)

This teaching about virtue is interesting because it contains a form of the Golden Rule:

Chung-kung asked about perfect virtue. The Master said, "It is, when you go abroad, to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself; to have no murmuring against you in the country, and none in the family." Chung-kung said, "Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigour, I will make it my business to practise this lesson." (12:2, emphasis added)

Finally, Confucius instructs us to love truth and virtue, not just know them:

The Master said, "They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it." (6:18)


The Master said, "I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty." (9:27)

Here is some musical accompaniment for this post:

The next post in this series will go through a variety of the advice offered by Solomon and Confucius. I plan to finish it before Christmas with a look at what they said about governing a society.