The Confucians Who Saved Middle Earth

Steven Cromack

It is particularly hard to get students interested in United States history. But this can seem almost impossible when studying ancient civilizations. How could a teacher get her students interested in Confucianism? If 19th-century U.S. history seems distant, what about the Warring States period in 481 B.C.?

One of the ways might be to take the ideas Confucius posited and find them in today’s culture. According to Confucius, an individual must be great, humble, and exhibit tremendous self-discipline. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam are Confucian heroes. A teacher can use Tolkien’s Middle Earth to examine Confucianism and the Warring States Period of China.

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth stands upon the brink of destruction. All that the dark lord Sauron needs to destroy the world is his “ring of power.” Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, possessed the one ring and brought it to the Council of Elrond. There he sat quietly as the leaders of the free races debated what to do with the ring. Eventually, the group decided that someone must cast the ring back into Mount Doom, where it was forged. No one, however, could agree on who could or should take the ring. At long last Frodo volunteered to carry the burden, bear its suffering, and resist the temptation to use its power. Tolkien writes, “At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’”[1] In the wake of this declaration, the free peoples of Middle Earth rallied behind the hobbit, and so began the journey of the fellowship of the ring. Throughout the journey, Frodo was tempted to use the ring and to surrender to its temptation. But, he resisted, often with the help of friend Sam.

With the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty, China entered a civil war that would last for several centuries. At the center of the Warring States conflict was a debate over the role and purpose of the emperor. In his Analects, Confucius posited that the king needed to exhibit te, or the great magnetic, moral force produced by holding fast to the “way of the ancestors,” (the tao.) In order to do this, the king had to follow the li, or the traditional, ritually prescribed actions including etiquette. In The Analects, the Master [Confucius] said, “He who rules by moral force (te) is like the pole-star, which remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it” (Analects, Book 2, Ch. 1). Confucius continued that the king must, “govern them by moral force (te), keep order among them by ritual (li), and they will keep their self respect and come to you by their own accord” (2.3).

Confucius’s words about how the king should act were merely an idealistic vision of what a good emperor should look like. He saw the reality of the Chinese monarchy: every dynasty rose in the glory of victory and fell violently from power. For Confucius, there was no good king, no savior, no real exhibitor of te at the top. Confucius believed that no living man could separate himself from the corrupting power that comes with ruling. If the king at the top could not provide order to tame the chaos, or provide stability for the bottom, what hope was there for the world, or those living in it?

Confucius believed that humans could impose their will on the world. As there was no savior coming to rescue the world, every person must act as the good king. Each individual must be the savior of everyone else and have the wholeness of a king. Everyone must exhibit te. On the part of the person, this takes tremendous self-discipline (8.4). According to the Analects, self-discipline meant that individuals must overcome selfish desires, remove all traces of arrogance, and “be loyal and true to your every word, serious and careful in all you do.” As for the person who has “taken goodness for his load,” as Frodo did, Confucius wrote (8.3):

In fear and trembling,
With caution and care,
As though on the brink of chasm
As though treading on thin ice.

Frodo and Sam took “goodness” for their loads and acted because Middle Earth was “on the brink of chasm.” For Confucius, the tao was “the way” to take control of the chaos, to free oneself from the pain of living in the midst of civil war or strife. Every individual has the capability to do this.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam exhibited te (moral force). They held fast to the simple ways of their people and were not corrupted like the race of men. They were the saviors of Middle Earth, had the wholeness of kings, and exercised tremendous self-discipline to resist a multitude of temptations. In the wake of their willingness to make the impossible possible, Middle Earth fell in line behind them. Frodo and Sam stepped in and acted as great kings.

What other Confucian heroes can you think of?

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), 264.