In the richest and most advanced nation on earth, the chief of state was an immoral reprobate. The people knew it, but they seemed to like him anyway -- or perhaps they were just accustomed to him. His political adversaries were noisy hypocrites, deploring the ruler's misdeeds often while doing the same things themselves. The people could see that, too. A country that cherished ethical leadership was mired in moral confusion and political decay.
In the kingdom of China during those bitter years of the Later Chou Dynasty (this is about five centuries before the birth of Christ and eons before the reign of Bill Clinton), there was a burning need for a leader, or, better yet, a teacher who could remind the people and their rulers about the importance of moral behavior. This need was met on September 28, 551 B.C. -- that's the traditional date, anyway, and the Chinese are such awesome record keepers that it is probably reasonably accurate -- when a boy named Kung Chiu was born. As an adult, Kung Chiu would come to be known throughout China as Kung Fu-tzu, or "the Master Kung." In the 16th century, when Jesuit missionaries in China recognized the power of his ethical teachings, the name Kung Fu-tzu was Latinized -- to "Confucius." Over the centuries, he would come to share global stature with the likes of Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad, Jefferson and Gandhi.
Today Confucius's influence is strongest among that half of the planet's population that lives in East and South Asia. Over the past year, though, as our country struggled through its wrenching encounter with matters of morality and hypocrisy, I began to think that Western society could benefit from more exposure to Confucius's clear, insistent voice.
He lived, after all, in a nation much like ours -- rich, powerful and deeply confused about the value of traditional moral and ethical rules. He took on the very questions that official Washington has been struggling with of late: the meaning of truth; the relationship between ethical behavior and good government; the interplay of friendship, loyalty and ambition -- even if he couldn't anticipate such things as grand juries, special prosecutors and telephone sex. His answers were so full of wisdom and just plain decency that hundreds of millions still study them 2,500 years after his death. And who knows, if more people in our own government read Confucius, and took him to heart, maybe we would have been spared the year of Monica and Bill.
"Confucianism" has sometimes been called a religion, but Kung was no saint and had little time for spiritual matters. We know that he was a man of many enthusiasms: an accomplished archer, charioteer, debater, hunter and musician. But what he really wanted to do was put his ethical principles to work in public service. He spent much of his life in a role familiar to Washingtonians -- that of a frustrated office seeker. He went from one agency to another, trying in vain to get some powerful official to give him an important job in government.
The Analects of Confucius -- a record of his back-and-forth with students over several decades -- tells us that Kung Chiu was the son of an army officer. His father died when he was a boy and he grew up in fairly Spartan circumstances. When he was around 20, he landed a job as a petty bureaucrat in a provincial department of agriculture -- first as a granary clerk and later in the slightly more exalted post of overseer of public grazing lands.
He left his government job in 527 B.C. because his mother died, and the appropriate filial response was to quit work. After the designated period of mourning, he became a teacher, passing along principles of history, literary classics and what we might call "political science" to a group of young men. In a society that revered a sage, he gradually became a famous and sought-after figure. But he was too honest and straight-speaking to win the trust of the rulers. He was given a couple of short-term bureaucratic posts, but he never really landed the significant government job he longed for.
Instead, as his country was succumbing to warfare and political intrigue on high, with social order beginning to break down, he taught that ethical conduct was contagious; that any society with a core group of good people -- he called them "gentlemen" -- who tried to do the right thing would find that everyone else followed their example.
It's a compelling message for our times. And so, as candidates jockey for the next presidential cycle, Bill Clinton works on repairing his marriage and the wreckage of war builds up in Europe, here are a few Confucian rules for American leaders -- and others -- to ponder:
Morality flows down from the top.
Citizens have a fundamental duty of loyalty to their rulers, according to Confucius -- a principle that has been twisted by Chinese despots down through the ages into an excuse for authoritarian rule -- but the loyalty a ruler is required to show toward his citizens is just as strong. And the ruler's chief duty toward his people must be to set a moral example.
In a famous metaphor, Confucius likened human decency to a cleansing wind blowing through a meadow. "The moral power of the gentlemen is the wind; the moral power of the populace is the grass. The grass will always bend in the direction of the wind."
Similarly, he taught, "If the ruler steers straight, how could anyone dare to be crooked?" And he did not he restrict this view to the classroom; throughout his career, Confucius was constantly getting into trouble with local rulers by telling them unfortunate truths.
Lord Ji Kang, the rich and corrupt leader of one of three strong factions fighting for ultimate power, asked Confucius once for advice about thieves who were constantly trying to steal from him. "If you yourself, Ji Kang, were not on the take, nobody would be trying to steal from you," Confucius said. Ji Kang was not amused.
Tell the truth.
Confucius, in fact, was always telling rulers what they didn't want to hear. "If the ruler is right, and nobody challenges him, that's fine. But if the ruler is wrong, and nobody dares say so -- that's the one thing that could ruin a country," Confucius said.
Two-and-a-half millennia -- and a few political scandals -- later, it's pretty easy for us to agree with the ancient sage on that. Our own cultural traditions are in complete accord -- "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" -- and our basic charter of government protects freedom of speech so that the truth cannot be suppressed.
Once, there was a rumor floating around China that a powerful warlord was going to ask Confucius to run his government. The master's students were thrilled at the prospect. If you governed, what's the first thing you would do? they asked. In response, we are told, "the master said, `It would certainly be to rectify the names.' "
The phrase has an odd, antique ring to it; just the kind of mystical pronouncement you'd expect some Oriental sage to be uttering around 500 B.C. In plain English, it means to tell the truth. To resist the temptation to paper over unpleasant truths with more palatable euphemisms. To say clearly what is, is. Because, as Confucius goes on to say, nobody can do a job correctly if he's lying about it: "If language be not in accordance with the truth, affairs cannot be carried on to success."
Now that's something Washingtonians certainly can understand.
Know-how matters more than know-who.
Confucius himself was successful in rectifying one crucial name -- a word that shows up constantly in The Analects. The Chinese word is chun-tzu. It has been translated as "the noble man," "the superior man" or simply "the gentleman." The traditional meaning of chun-tzu had been "prince" or "aristocrat," someone who obtained a position through birth or connections. Confucius accepted the basic principle that certain people have the right to hold elite positions, and he was willing to use the term "chun-tzu" to describe them. But he completely changed the rules for joining the ranks of this elite.
To Confucius, the chun-tzu was a person who earned elite status. To be a gentleman, a person had to spend a lifetime studying and following the rules of virtuous conduct. Being born right was not sufficient; having powerful friends was also not enough. Knowledge of ethical principles and a willingness to live by them were basic requirements of status. A gentleman should be judged -- as Martin Luther King Jr. would put it 25 centuries later -- on the content of his character.
In essence, Confucius stole the status of "nobleman" away from the few well-connected families and gave it to everybody. A true gentleman is made, not born, the master said. A true gentleman is a person who works hard at education. He makes the effort to study history, the ancient rites and the art of government, and then makes practical use of the things he has learned. And only these gentlemen, people with a finely honed sense of ethical conduct, are entitled to govern.
The heart knows more than the law book.
Confucius was a stickler for moral rules, but he had no truck with laws, judges, jails or prosecutors, special or otherwise. A dusty book of statutes was simply too inflexible to handle the infinite variety of human conduct, he said. By the time a society has to appoint special prosecutors, in other words, it is already too far gone.
A ruler once asked Confucius to serve as a judge in his district. It must have been a tempting proposal for a man who spent much of his life wandering about in a futile search for a serious job in government. But the master was true to his principles. "I think I could adjudicate lawsuits," he said, "but I would prefer to make lawsuits unnecessary."
Confucius believed that an individual's sense of shame was a much more powerful force for good than any legal system. "Guide them with criminal laws and keep them in line with punishment," he said, "and people may stay out of trouble, but will have no shame. But if you guide them by your virtue, and keep them in line with acts of decency, the people will develop a sense of shame. Then they'll keep themselves out of trouble."
There probably aren't many contemporary Americans who would describe themselves as "Confucianists," but in fact the master's ideas are central to our thinking. The argument that a ruler loses his mandate if the people don't approve is a theory of government that is enshrined in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-
evident . . . That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it." The notion that the ruler must set an example of virtuous conduct is the heart of Justice Louis Brandeis's famous free-speech opinion in the Olmstead vs. United States case (1928): "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by example."
The principle of ethical conduct that we call the "golden rule" is also a direct echo of Confucian teaching. At one point in The Analects, a student asks the master to digest his teachings, to get the whole corpus down to a simple rule that can provide a guide to everyday life. Confucius is too decent a person to rebuke a student for seeking the easy way out. Instead, he thinks about it for a moment, and then answers this way: "Do not impose on others what you do not want for yourself." Half a millennium later and half a world away, Rabbi Hillel and Jesus Christ would offer the same pearl of guidance.
Why, then, does Confucius seem so alien to us? Why doesn't this ancient sage share a place with Socrates, Christ, Jefferson, etc. in the Western canon of moral and political teachers? Part of the reason is that ancient China is an extremely distant place, and to many Confucius sounds exotic and different. Generations of Western students have struggled with the Confucian classics, and many have waved the white flag.
One of those who surrendered early -- it was a lucky break for Argentine literature -- was the novelist Jorge Luis Borges, who initially studied to be a Sinologist. It was a meeting with Confucius, in translation, that drove him to fiction instead.
"Around 1916, I decided to apply myself to the study of . . . the great Chinese philosopher," Borges recalled later. "I came upon this memorable passage: It matters little to a convict under a death sentence if he has to walk on the edge of a precipice; he has already given up living. To that phrase, the translator had appended a footnote, and indicated that his interpretation was to be preferred to that of a rival Sinologist who had translated the same line this way: The servants destroy the works of art so as not to have to adjudicate on their merits and defects."
"At that point, I did not read any further," Borges continued. "A mysterious skepticism had crept into my soul."
For the most part, though, Confucius seems to transcend the huge gaps of time and space that separate his world from ours. When he talks about virtue and morality and the core truths of human nature, he seems to be talking directly to us, here in America in the late 1990s. If you need proof of that, grab a copy of The Analects, and flip to the master's observation in Chapter 18 of Book 9: "I have never seen anyone," Confucius says, "who loved virtue as much as sex."
T.R. Reid is London bureau chief for The Post. This article is adapted from Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West, published this spring by Random House Inc.