Confucius said: “I transmit but I don’t create. I am faithful to and love the past. In this respect, I dare to compare myself with Old Peng.” (1)
The past provides a roadmap for the future. It shows us the glories that we should aspire to achieve and the horrors that we should seek to avoid. Without knowing where we come from, we have no idea where we should go to.
Confucius looked to the past to identify the moral principles and values that he believed should be restored in order to bring peace and stability to the violent and turbulent world he lived in. He dedicated his life to transmitting these ancient principles and values through teaching his followers and students and engaging with the members of the nobility of the competing feudal states the comprised China during the Spring and Autumn period.
Despite his uncharacteristically modest claim to the contrary, Confucius was by no means simply “transmitting” his ideas. He was engaged in a highly creative process of reimagining a mythical golden age of the distant past in order to build a framework that people could use to create an amazing future. By drawing their attention to ancient glories, he was showing them what was possible if only they followed the examples of great men like the five legendary sage kings and his personal hero and role model, the Duke of Zhou.
Reimagining the past also gave Confucius the opportunity to refresh and, in some cases, reinvent ancient concepts to better serve the needs of his time. Most notably, he advocated education for all and promoted the idea that anyone, not just members of the nobility, had the potential to become a leader or pillar of the community (君子/jūnzǐ) through lifelong learning and personal cultivation.
By delving deep into the past for knowledge and inspiration, Confucius created a powerful intellectual and ethical framework that has shaped the development of Chinese civilization for thousands of years. No mean achievement for a man who said: “I transmit but I don’t create.”
This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.
(1) The identity of Old Peng (老彭), who Confucius “dares” to compare himself with in this chapter, is the source of a great deal of controversy. You can read more about him here.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.