Confucius, the light of the enlightenment


Not many people know that there is a carving of Confucius at the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

To some, it is perhaps surprising that there is a depiction of the Chinese philosopher in the place that is the symbol of the last bastion of US democracy!

Many people are skeptical about the link between Confucius and US democracy and because of this you might be unaware of the extent to which the two are connected.

A quick Google search of “Confucius US Supreme Court” will reveal the placement of the carving to be on the east side of the building in the triangle pediment. Because it isn’t located at the front of the building, it can be easily missed. In the carving, Confucius is depicted next to Moses and Solon, two other law givers from human history.

Of course, as well as this carving, there is plenty more evidence about Confucius’s influence on the US.

According to Dr. Dave Wang, Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US and the face of the 100 dollar bill, wrote an essay eulogizing the moral philosophy of Confucius in the paper that he owned, The Pennsylvania Gazette.

As well as this, in a letter he wrote to George Whitefield, in 1747, he made the shocking confession that “Confucius was my example. I followed Confucius.”

H. G. Creel, a late professor of Sinology at the University of Chicago, explained that Thomas Jefferson was also greatly influenced by Confucius and China.

He said that the implementation of the public education system that the theorist of US democracy and drafter of the Declaration of Independence devoted his whole life to was inspired by Confucius and China.

When Jefferson was a congressman representing Virginia in 1779, he proposed a bill related to public education.

Creel asserted that, by this time, Jefferson already knew about the greatness of the Chinese education system and had been impressed by the public examination system for government officials that took place.

More specifically, Creel added that what Jefferson took from the Chinese education system was the idea that the whole nation should have the opportunity to receive an education and that the country should select outstanding individuals to organize the government, regardless of property or social status.

Creel thought that these ideas are key to the maintenance of democracy and implied that Jefferson’s philosophy itself was nurtured by Confucius and China.

However, more surprisingly, the French Enlightenment and Confucius were also deeply connected.

This further deepens the connection between American independence and Confucianism as it is well known to many that the French Enlightenment had an effect on American independence and the establishment of the country.

Isn’t it also surprising that the French philosophers of Enlightenment admired Confucius and the wisdom stemming from ancient China?

Voltaire, the champion of the French Enlightenment, is a great example of this. Voltaire is a popular philosopher who emphasized religious tolerance and coexistence in a French society that had been stained with persecution, suppression, and war between Catholics and Protestants for over two centuries.

Nonetheless, according to Professor Tai-youn Hwang, the light that Voltaire used to enlighten the religious dogmatism of France and Europe originated from Confucianism and Chinese influence. In fact, Voltaire was said to be such an admirer of Confucius as a great teacher for mankind that he even hung a portrait of him in his home.

Voltaire insisted that for moral issues, “Europeans should be students of the Chinese.” It is with this thought in mind that Voltaire adapted the 13th-century Chinese tragedy, The Orphan of Zhao, for his own 1753 play, L’Orphelin de la Chine (The Orphan of China).

As well as this, he thought well of Confucius’s idea of political philosophy that a sovereign’s arbitrary rule should be limited and that a government that rules for the people should be established.

He expressed his highest respect in this regard saying that “the era that follows the law that Confucius suggested” is the era that deserves to be admired and happy in human history.

There is one more person that shows Confucius’s great influence. This is Francois Quesnay, the founder of physiocracy, the economic theory that started the science of modern political economy.

In fact, Quesnay’s writing was so influential that it is known for influencing Adam Smith, who built up the theory of the free market economy and Marx, one of the most influential socialist thinkers of the 19th century.

According to Professor Walter W. Davis, “China was a role model for Quesnay”.

In his later writing, Quesnay revealed that his thoughts on topics such as allowing economic freedom to enable a healthy market distribution, that governments should not intervene to maintain mercantilist monopolies, and the revolution of a harsh tax system were all influenced by Confucius and China. This is why his students called him the ‘Confucius of Europe’.

It is now clear that the work of these two philosophers of the French Enlightenment were influenced by Confucius and China and that they portrayed this in their work and ideas. But, how were Franklin and Jefferson able to be influenced by these French philosophers?

Well, according to Professor Creel, Franklin interacted with popular scholarly figures in Paris during his stays at Quesnay’s house, while Jefferson read Voltaire’s writings enthusiastically and added footnotes meticulously.

So, maybe now you can understand some of the ways in which Confucius is related to American Independence, the country’s establishment, and even US democracy. It was an important relationship and, thus, you can perhaps see why a carving at the US Supreme Court symbolizes that relationship.

Here is one more thing. The enthusiasm towards Confucius felt by Voltaire and Quesnay was not limited only to these two groups in France or even just in France.

In fact, Adolf Reichwein, a German economist in the early 20th century, described Confucius as “a patron saint of the 18th century enlightenment” which is enough to conclude that the Western Enlightenment “doesn’t care about anything else other than Confucius’s China.”

The era of Enlightenment started ideas that are considered common knowledge in today’s era including the values of freedom, equality, and democracy. The fact that these ideas are so deeply influenced by Confucius prompts the need for further questions and deeper investigation.

We now stand at the point where we have to re-search through human history in order to establish a more complete history and philosophy that checks the knowledge that we have so far taken for granted. This is the first report of a new intellectual journey.