Timothy J. Madigan on “Confucianism, Enlightenment, and the Comparative Study of Religion”

Timothy J. Madigan is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, New York and former President of the Bertrand Russell Society. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Tu Wei-ming is the foremost authority writing today on the relevance of Confucian ethics to the Western World. He has helped to revitalize an interest in this ancient worldview, and has offered it as an antidote to many of the excesses of the Enlightenment Project which has dominated Western thinking for centuries. Interestingly, the Enlightenment itself was greatly influenced in its early stages by the knowledge of Confucianism which early Western explorers in China sent back to a fascinated European audience.

Tu argues that the question of whether or not Confucianism is a religion remains a controversial topic among scholars. This problem of comparison was relevant to the earliest Western translators of Confucianist texts, the Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the 17th Century who first came into contact with this different approach. They were themselves uncertain as to how to categorize a belief system so different from their own. Yet they were also quick to make use of this newfound worldview in order to strengthen their own positions in the religious wars then raging throughout Europe.

These devout Christians sent reports back to the West about a non-Christian culture where people were civilized, lived in harmony, and were concerned with personal virtue and mutual support – all they lacked to be complete was the knowledge of the Christian God revealed in sacred scripture. The Chinese situation, they argued, was analogous to that of the virtuous pagans of Ancient Greece, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose writings helped to support Christianity even though they themselves were unfamiliar with revealed truth. Yet there was one important difference with the Ancient virtuous pagans – the Chinese could be saved. In fact, some Jesuits, such as Father Louis le Comte, were censured for arguing that Confucius himself must have gone to heaven even without the knowledge of God to save him.1

Early Catholic and Protestant missionaries to China felt that the inhabitants of this land were ripe for conversion, since their beliefs – particularly those of Confucianism – were so close to Christianity to begin with. This view led to the conclusion that the Chinese were actually closer to God’s original message than were the Jews, who had fallen into corruption.

However, Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and D’Alembert were quick to draw a different conclusion from that of the Catholic and Protestant propagandists. One did not need to be a Christian in order to be moral. There was no point in converting a people who were already leading exemplary lives. Chinese philosophy in general, and Confucianism in particular, was often mentioned in the philosophes’ battles against orthodoxy and Christian dogma.

There was both a negative and a positive aspect to this new knowledge of Confucianism. Negatively, such knowledge at first contributed to the growth of extreme skepticism, already rampant in Europe, which held that all beliefs are merely matters of custom. Religion, then, is an arbitrary pattern of opinions without any real support. This view was produced in part by the religious warfare between Catholics and Protestants, and partly by the modernistic philosophy of Descartes, which called into question all knowledge not grounded in certainty.

Yet a positive aspect came to supersede this. Knowledge of Confucian teachings and their similarities to Christian teachings supported a view that all humans had essentially the same ethical perspectives, based upon the Golden Rule. The following passage from The Analects was often given to support this claim: “Tzu-kung asked, ‘Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘It is perhaps the word shu. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (Book XV-24).2

Pierre Bayle, the 17th century philosopher and skeptic, was one of the first to propose that a society of ethical atheists was possible. This, he felt, was instantiated by the Chinese. The Chinese were the best example of a people living good lives without reliance upon Gods or priests. In fact, Bayle went so far as to warn the Chinese emperor not to let Christian missionaries into his country. If their teachings did not convince, they would resort to violent means to persuade the Chinese. The consequences of this would be butchery and desolation.3

Bayle’s arguments led the way for similar such arguments from Enlightenment thinkers, who contrasted Chinese wisdom with Christian doctrinal differences. Voltaire, in his A Treatise on Toleration, has a section entitled “Account of a Controversial Dispute in China” which illustrates this Enlightenment view. A Danish missionary, a chaplain from Batavia, and a Jesuit get into a heated dispute which is overheard by a mandarin, who invites them inside in order to reconcile their differences.

“I don’t understand,” said the mandarin. “Are you not all three Christians? Have you not all three come to teach Christianity in our empire? Ought you not, therefore, to hold the same dogmas?”

“It is this way, my lord,” said the Jesuit; “these two are mortal enemies, and are both against me. Hence it is clear that they are both wrong, and I am right.”

“That is not quite clear,” said the mandarin; “strictly speaking, all three of you may be wrong.”

In the end they all spoke together and abused each other roundly. The good mandarin secured silence with great difficulty, and said: “If you want us to tolerate your thinking here, begin by being yourselves neither intolerant nor intolerable.”4

This humorous story is typical of that used by rationalists to point out the divisive nature of ethical teachings based upon scriptural interpretations. But not only deists and atheists used such arguments. Gottfried Leibniz, no skeptic himself, nonetheless wrote that the Chinese should send missionaries to civilize the Europeans. His follower Christian Wolff, a pious Christian, was deprived of his chair in philosophy in 1721 for arguing that Confucian ethics and Christian ethics were compatible.5

It is ironic, in regards to the comparative study of religion, that traditionalists like Wolff and the Jesuit fathers, and radicals like Bayle and Voltaire, for their own differing polemical reasons, all agreed upon the virtuous character of Confucianism, and the excellent morality and nonsupernatural aspects of Chinese religion overall.

The contemporary work of Tu Wei-ming is important in helping us to understand, as much as possible, how such Westernized views of Confucianism were often untrue to its historical reality. He also demonstrates how modern versions of Confucianism can be used as a critique of modern Western society. Yet he himself is still motivated by the quest for an ethics that can be the basis of harmonious relations between all humans. Tu writes:

It is intriguing that the search for cultural roots is so pervasive worldwide despite universalizing tendencies occasioned by industrialization, urbanization, bureaucratization, the development of science and technology, and the spread of mass communication. The assumption that modernity entails the passing of traditional society is no longer tenable in light of this dialectical interaction between global consciousness and local awareness.6

Such emphasis on cultural identity as a universal category, and the way in which the contemporary Confucian revival attempts to combine a search for cultural roots with a commitment to science, democracy, and economic development, is not necessarily opposed to the Enlightenment Project’s liberationist attitude. The hope for a global ethic for humanity remains a strong motivating factor, and respect for traditions does not necessarily mitigate against this. One can learn from these traditions and try to find common elements that can be stressed in order to facilitate a more harmonious exchange between peoples. A good beginning would be to re-explore in greater detail how Chinese thought has been interpreted in the West, and how this corresponded with actual teachings and practices, both past and present. How fitting it would be if Confucianism could once again influence the Enlightenment.


1. Arnold H. Rowbotham, “Jesuit Figurists and 18th Century Religion,” in Discovering China: European Interpretations in the Enlightenment, edited by Julia Ching and Willard G. Oxtoby (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1992), p. 44.

2. Confucius, The Analects, translated with an introduction by D. C. Lau (New York: Penguin Books, 1979),
p. 135.

3. Timothy J. Madigan, “The Comet Cometh: Pierre Bayle and Religious Toleration,” Philosophy Now, Issue
103, pp. 48-49.

4. Voltaire, “Account of a Controversial Dispute in China” in Voltaire Selections, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 116-117.

5. Yuen-ting Lai, “Religious Scepticism and China” in The Sceptical Mode in Modern Philosophy, edited by Richard A. Watson and James E. Force (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988), p. 29.

6. Tu Wei-ming, The Search for Roots in Industrial East Asia: The Case of the Confucian Revival”, in Fundamentalisms Observed, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) p. 744.

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