What makes Confucius such a great philosopher? I shall first note the importance to engage politically and benefit the common people. It seems to be his political philosopher that was supremely important. Of course, he made the distinction between the common man, the small man and the gentleman. (Due to my limited Hanzi-proficiency I will stick with the English translation, even though it can only approximately capture Confucius’ intent.) He argued that the small man and the common man are lower in rank than the gentleman, because they are not as eager to learn as the gentleman. (The common man are the lower ranks; the small men are part of the ruling class, but not distinguished; and gentlemen were expected to be part of the top of the ruling class, though some gentlemen were assigned non-political roles, being neutral observers or advisors, which is reminiscent of Socrates). But it was, of course, the gentleman, whose virtues were most essential to be cultivated within the framework of appointing government officials and bureaucrats. Confucius said that a good ruler would appoint the most talented people to positions of power. The gentleman is like wind, and the common people are like grass. If the wind blows, the grass will bend in the desired direction. How is authority maintained in a country? Via example. If the rulers do the right thing, then the common people will follow along. The common people can be made to follow the law, but not made to understand the law.
Learning and studying seems to be an integral part of Confucius’ teachings. He explained a hierarchy of wisdom: on top were the people, who were born with knowledge; then came those that acquired knowledge; then those that encountered a problem in life, and tried to learn to solve it; finally, are those that encounter problems in life, but do not seek to understand it and don’t learn. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the common people, most of whom can not be expected to learn. Only the gentleman with the time and willingness to study can attain higher intellectual capacities, and serve in positions of power. Not only that, the gentleman is also expected to reach the highest stage of virtue, morality and benevolence. Morality (the ‘Way’) was the key to Confucian philosophy. It had to be pursued for its own sake, and can have no regard for actual success or failure. In fact, all the desirable things in life are achieved by destiny, i.e. not human volition, but fortune. We should care about our internal morality rather than external goals (money and fame). Confucius had little regard for the afterlife, because “how can you know about death when you do not know about life?” One important moral principle was, “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” It is a maxim, which has been used in Western philosophy and shows the inherent human wisdom in such statement.
But being wise has to be distinguished from being a clever talker or a plausible man, what Socrates called the “Sophists”. Sophists were Greek rhetoricians rather than intellectuals, because they cared about making good arguments rather than making the right arguments, and profoundly display their persuasion rather than truth. This is how I would wage a comparison between Socrates and Confucius. So what is wisdom? Wisdom, following Confucius, consists of two attributes: good judgment about right and wrong, and knowledge of men.
The next question is what Confucius meant by caring for the welfare of the people: food, military protection and trust in the ruler. The most important thing is trust in the ruler without which a community can not stand, followed by food and lastly the military. Food can be dispensed with because “hunger has always been with us” (he wrote in the 5th and 6th century BC!), and the military is not crucial for a community.
Finally, one grapples with a practical political challenge: if Confucius emphasized the importance of moral and virtuous rulers, where the common people are delegated to secondary persons, what holds the rulers accountable to the society? i.e. how can one guarantee that the rulers are virtuous? Confucius insisted on the ‘Decree of Heaven’, i.e. a heavenly mandate in support of the current ruler so long as he cares about the general welfare. If he stops doing so, then other rulers are empowered to overthrow the current rulers and replace them. This sounds nice in principle, and it beats many other political theories (even the purely Western democratic theory, especially John Locke), but the difficulty lies naturally in the fact that the theory faces many shortcomings in practical applications, i.e. it is not easy to translate theory into reality. A defunct and immoral government can remain in power for quite a long time, until counter-forces sufficiently strong can overthrow and replace it.
Confucius. 1979. The Analects. Translated by D.C. Lau. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.