Neo-Confucianism is a philosophy which was born from the need to explain the existence of man and the universe in a manner which was just as complex as the Buddhist one. The philosophers which belong to this school of thought took the core of the Confucian philosophy and enriched it with contributions from other philosophies. It can also be stated that neo-Confucianism is a reaction to various provocations of philosophical character coming from Buddhism, neo-Daoism and the yin-yang tradition.
Its purpose was to come up not just with a comprehensive abstract explanation of the world, but also with the rightful principles and laws that would guide everyday behaviour. Naturally, there had to be a synergetic relation between the two categories. The revival of the Confucian thought began in the ninth century and reached important levels of creativity in the eleventh century during the northern Song dynasty.
It must be underlined that the term was coined up in order to describe the development of the Confucian thought between the Song dynasty and the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The neo-Confucian movement was never actually united into a proper philosophy because of the differences between the schools of thought contributing to its existence and development. Some of these were the school of principle, lixue, the school of the mind, xinxue or the school of the way, daoxue. All these schools competed between them , but despite this aspect they all considered master Confucius as the common departure point.
The core of the Confucian school of thought naturally comes from Confucius, a master concerned with issues such as happiness and a harmonious society. There were the two major issues that Confucianism dealt with. On the one hand, the social order which was needed in order to achieve a society which functions properly and in which the individuals are well off. On the other hand, there was the concern about the behaviour patterns which, once respected would lead the individual to a proper achievement and development of himself. Naturally the two matters were closely connected. Under these circumstances the most important principle becomes morality.
The purposes of morality are multiple. First and foremost it is meant to guide the behaviour of the individual. From this point of view the moral dimension can be extended to the creation and development of social relationships and the construction of the social apparatus as well. In addition, it was meant to serve as guiding principle for the government of the country. This means that the leaders had to demonstrate an ethical behaviour but at the same time impose such a behaviour upon the citizens and make sure that it was respected. Under these circumstances, the position of leadership was to be acquired based on the merit of having achieved moral knowledge.
The fundamental elements were man, society and the government. According to the Confucian thought they were combined in perfect harmony and this harmony was reflected in the unity and power of the Chinese empire. The fact that the empire started to undergo a process of decay during the Han dynasty was considered to be a proof for the falseness of this theory. Otherwise, the decline could not have been explained. The immediate consequences were that the government and the ideology which had supported it were no longer valid, nor acceptable.
The Confucian way has also been defined as concern consciousness due to the attention which Confucian philosophers have always paid to the ethical and social dimensions of their works. The social relations and the proper harmony between them has been a theme of constant concern within the Confucian school of thought. In addition, the context for any type of ethical reflection or ritual of self cultivation has always been set in a social context. Under these circumstances, the most important principle becomes that of humanness or ren, which is created hen at least two people behave to each other in manners which allow the development of their individuality. This latter one becomes a manifestation and also a proof of the flourishing of humanity.
One of the most important philosophers in this area is considered to be Zhu Xi, who lived between 1130 and 1200, whose works are regarded as the basis for the further Confucian social theory. The main principles in his philosophy were two: on the one hand, daoxue, or the teaching of the way. On the other hand, lixue, the teaching of the principles. We can notice the clear distinction between the two categories of principles and actions, one deriving from the other and each supportive of the other. A philosopher who challenged Zhu's teachings was Wang Yangming who focused on the teaching of the mind-heart or xin, a principle which differs from the other two. Wang is considered to be the master of the school of intuition while the school of thought is believed to have reached its climax during the time of Chu Si.
The two schools divided existence into two levels, the one of the laws or principles, li, and the one of the material forces, chi. In the universe, it is the principles which govern the material force while material force is the means through which the principles become manifest. It was believed that the ultimate principles, which all the other principles derived from was to have its origins in heaven.
Another school, the school of mind, dating from the period of Ch'eng Hao (1032-1085) focused on the fundamental role of the human mind. According to this school of thought the mind is a fundamental example of perfect unity and therefore a manifestation of the universe. Under these circumstances, the human mind becomes synonymous with the ultimate principle or the ultimate mind. Therefore, since the role of the philosopher is to discover the truth and explain everything through it, his task becomes that of understanding, thus, investigating the human mind.
What Wang and Zhu have in common is the preference for metaphysics and the attempt to explain the world through a philosophical perspective. during the Han dynasty their works were challenged by a thought movement called hanxue which focused more on material evidence and research in the historic and philological areas.
Zhu belived that the universe is made of infinite potentialities. It was the principles which helped these potentialities become manifest. The principles had the characteristic of being predictable and open to observation. Under these circumsnces they became some sort of patterns through which the essential energy (qi) was transformed into all the living things. The principle however was sonly one and its purpose was to explain the reason for which things exist. In addition, from a oral point of view, the principle had a prescriptive role in the sense that it was supposed to decide how things are supposed to be done or what exactly the individual is supposed to do.
Another important belief that Zhu had was that human nature is originally and fundamentally good. The principle, li, is good as well. Whenever an evil action occurs this happens because of bad qi, bad energy. The only way to eliminate and defend this bad energy is through the means of self cultivation. One means to achieve this self cultivation is through investigation. This is the only manner through which the individual can understand the prescriptive and the descriptive dimension of li, the principle. F
urthermore, the investigation must be concentrated upon all the existing things and not just one. The final purpose was to achieve enough knowledge in order to be able to differentiate the particular nature of a thing from the universal essence which resides in it.
Therefore, an important principle that neo-Confucianism discussed over time is that of self cultivation. This process also had a very strong moral dimension. Regardless of the philosophers who analyzed it, it was a widespread idea that action must always follow abstract knowledge, otherwise the latter one remained futile.
The individual had to reflect upon himself and his actions up to the point of understanding himself and being able to become what he wants to become. Only in this manner was the rightful moral behaviour possible, whereas moral conduct was the key for further happiness.
Wang instead was the one who managed to synthesize the most important teachings of the school of mind, xinxue. According to him the truth was to be found in the human mind. It was here that the principle, li could be found in its entirety. In addition, not only was the principle to be found here but also the entire understanding of goodness. Therefore, the human mind was also a depository of moral knowledge.
In his opinion, investigating things, even all the things in the world was a futile task. The path to reaching the truth was through the investigation of the mind. Under these circumstances, the most proper attitude that an individual can have in life is one which is both contemplative and introspective.
Another important aspect of the teachings of Wang is…