With civilization collapsing around him as multiple states and factions within them fought for control of China, Confucius looked back to the “golden age” at the beginning of the Zhou dynasty in the 11th century BC as the model for restoring stability and culture to the country.
This was no accident because even though his home state of Lu was relatively small and weak compared to its larger and stronger neighbors, it enjoyed a certain degree of “soft power” because of its status as the last bastion of Zhou culture. Indeed, Confucius himself was one of the leading experts in Zhou dynasty rituals of his age, and was highly regarded for his mastery of the subject.
In Chapter 14 of Book 3 of the Analects, Confucius firmly plants his standard in the ground when he proudly declares “I follow the Zhou!” after describing it as a “great civilization.” He regarded its greatness as the culmination of the cultural development of the Xia and Shang dynasties that preceded it, and in his own teaching and studies drew heavily from the intellectual and artistic treasures inherited from them.
In the case of music, his greatest love, Confucius’s favorite piece was a hymn celebrating the coronation of Shun, the legendary sage king of ancient China in the 23rd or 22nd century BC. In Chapter 25 he describes this as “perfectly beautiful and perfectly good”, while only granting a “perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good” grade to the hymn celebrating the victory of King Wu, the founder of the Zhou dynasty, over Di Xin, the last emperor of the Yin dynasty.
For him, music had a strong moral as well as artistic dimension. The primary reason he judged the music of Shun to be superior to that of Wu was that the former celebrated the peaceful transfer of the throne from one king to another while the latter marked a bloody revolution. Even though Confucius understood that Wu was perfectly justified in overthrowing the dissolute Di Xin, he couldn’t fully condone his actions in moral terms.
Confucius draws an even more explicit connection between morality and music in Chapter 3 of the book when he asks, “If someone has no goodness, what can they have to do with music?” In other words, he was concerned that a person who didn’t possess goodness would debase the meaning of music by writing or performing inconsequential and crude ditties that would corrupt the morality of common people.
Confucius makes a similar point in Chapter 20 when he describes the first poem in the Book of Songs, a quite delightful evocation of the joys and sorrows of young love, as “joyful without being wanton and sad without being distressing.” In his eyes, therefore, the aim of culture wasn’t so much to entertain people but to instruct and inspire them. By celebrating the purest forms of human emotions and behavior, it should give them new moral goals to aspire to.
No prizes for guessing what Confucius would think of modern culture!