Confucius and Materialism

By Rowan Sylva

Materialism: An ideology and philosophical disposition that afflicts both poor and rich. It pervades modern capitalist society. Screams from now moving billboards, depicting luscious airbrushed beauties wielding shopping bags filled with stuff, their larger than life eyes scream for you to buy more. The cult of the super rich, cars, rolexes, money, the dream, materialism saturates our society. Materialism makes us sad. Materialism atomises us, isolates us. It makes us envious. It makes us apathetic. In places where spiritual ideologies once supported zero growth economies, the glittering golden allure of materialism drives people to destroy environments that once supported them. Beijing was once a city known for having ten million bicycles; today it has ten million Mercedes and unbreathable air. There can be little doubt the materialism is the engine of climate change.

We all struggle to contain the dangerous pull that materialism exerts on our own hearts and minds. One way in which we can combat the ideology of materialism is to evoke the powerful moral ideologies of the ancients. In this article I look at the Analects of Confucius.

Why Confucius? China has become a global hub of conspicuous consumption, wedded to a philosophy of endless growth and driven by materialism. But for more than two millennia, from the founding of Qin dynasty to the fall of the Qing, China was governed by Confucianism; stability took precedence over growth and to a certain degree, moral development took precedence over wealth accumulation. An ideology that so clearly offered a persuasive alternative to capitalism deserves investigation. Confucianism provides a personal moral philosophy without positing the need for a higher spiritual power, making it palatable for those with atheistic dispositions. Confucianism strongly critiques materialist dispositions, and, ironically, it can be read as a radical alternative to the modern-day paradigm.

Confucius has never sold well in the West, associated with a rather dry adherence to perceived irrelevant rituals of ancient China; western consumers prefer to engage in Daoist texts finding mystery in their unintelligible sentences and profundity in their rejection of moral standards. But I love the Analects. Unlike the Daoist texts something of Confucius the person, flawed, stubborn yet unwavering in his conviction shines through the centuries of editing. The prose is crisp. The story of his wandering is captivating, and through the remnants of his words we glimpse the man who birthed an ideology.

Here I have collated some passages which deal most directly with issues of materialism, and invite the reader to muse over them.

3.4: Lin Fang asked about the root of ritual. The Master said, “An important question! In ritual it is better to be frugal than extravagant. In funeral ritual it is better to be guided by one’s grief than to simply follow what is done.”

4.8: The Master said, “If a gentleman sets his heart on the dao but is ashamed to wear poor clothes and eat poor food, he is not worth engaging in serious conversation.”

4.12: The Master said, “If one allows oneself to follow profit, many will have cause for complaint.”

4.16: The Master said, “The superior person comprehends according to right. The small man comprehends according to profit.”

6.11: The Master said, “How worthy is Hui! A simple bowl of food and a dipperful of drink, living on a shabby lane – others could not bare the cares, yet Hui is unchanging in his joy. How worthy is Hui!”

7.12: The Master said, “If wealth may be ethically sought, though it would be as lowly bearer of the whip I too would pursue it. If it cannot be ethically sought, I will follow what I love.”

7.16: The Master said, “To eat coarse greens, drink water, crook one’s elbow for a pillow – joy lies therein. Wealth and high rank obtained by unrighteous means are to me like the floating clouds.”

7.17: When the Master fished he did not use a net; when he hunted he did not shoot at nesting birds.

7.36: The Master said, “extravagance leads toward delinquency. Thrift leads toward uncouthness.It is better to be uncouth than delinquent.”

10.14: When the stables burnt, the Master returned from court asking, “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.