Confucius Says: On Being a “Superior Person”
By Rodney Eivers
What is the purpose of life?
This age-old question, occasionally greeted with derision these days, occurred to me during a stimulating SOFiA discussion.
“Superior person” might be the translation of the term used apparently by the Chinese sage, Confucius, to define an ideal human being.
I found myself pondering: “By what criteria is someone regarded as superior to (i.e. ‘better than’) another person?”
It came to me that, beyond the necessary reproduction of the species, it depends on the purposes for which we live.
I am sure there are many ways of classifying purpose. I would nominate two groupings. One point of view is that of society; the other is that of the individual.
Thus, if the key requirement of a human society is stability, the person who contributes to that, for example through willingly accepting and maintaining existing structures, power and wealth distribution will be the superior person. That person will tend to have a nurturing and submissive personality. By contrast, society may see growth as desirable and the superior person will then be one who is innovative and a bit of a stirrer. These are historically very real differences. We are now in a growth phase. Just try to persuade the bulk of the populace these days that we might be better off if the world stopped growing economically! The Greens are rubbished from time to time when they put such a suggestion.
The second class of purposes may be those of us as individuals. There are two ways of looking at these also. If one behaves in a way designed to meet a personal reward at the end of life, being superior means being pious; behaving in such a way as to follow the rules set down (or assumed to be set down) by the rewarding authority such as a supernatural God. Alternatively one may have been born with, or acquire, an inner goal of being seen to “do the right thing”. In this case the superior person will be the one who fits in with other human beings. Harmonious relationships rather than following rules will be the determinant, in her or his mind, of what makes the superior person.
While following this line of thinking I then recognised there is another way of looking at purpose. It is a gradation. There are stages through which we may best work our way in meeting our prime goal whether it be social stability, social growth, playing by the rules, or doing the right thing. It occurs in our response to personal needs. This may be relevant to society also in the sense that if these individual needs are met then the community may well function better in both stability and growth. Psychologist Abraham Maslow is well recognised for identifying these needs. If we use his hierarchy we might say that the purpose of life of the individual is to become self-actualised – to be all she or he is capable of being and enjoying it. Writers such as Spong and Cupitt say much the same sort of thing. On the way to that goal the superior person then becomes the one who copes best in the step-by-step progression through survival, security, socialising, and success to self-actualisation.
Thus arises the challenge for all of us who would be one of Confucius’s “superior people.”