The exact details of the lives, teachings and histories of two of the great philosophers of the East – Confucius and Laozi – have been lost in the intervening millennia, but both of these influential figures are revered in China even today. Scholars of comparative religion have long struggled with a central question concerning both men – were they philosophers or prophets?
As far as we know, Confucius and Laozi both lived approximately five hundred years before the advent of Christ. The philosophy of Confucius centered around the ideas of justice, morality and sincerity, and emphasized the correctness of social relationships among people, which included ancestor worship and respect for elders. Confucius became known as a great moral reformer, and his teachings helped to build Chinese civilization and social order. But he made no claim to divine knowledge, and his learning, while vast, was acquired.
Confucius reportedly wrote a large number of the classic Chinese texts, including all of the Five Classics, but his most popular and well-known book is still The Analects, a compilation of his sayings and aphorisms assembled long after his death. When you hear the phrase “Confucius says” followed by an aphorism, it probably comes from the Analects.
Laozi (also known as Lao-tzu or Lao-tse) lived at about the same time as Confucius, and his philosophy, expressed in the Tao Te Ching, founded Taoism and found its way into many traditional Chinese religions, as well. Although some ancient Chinese belief systems like Taoism venerate Laozi as a deity, most scholars and religious historians consider him a prominent philosopher who had a great influence on ancient Chinese thought.
Laozi’s chief concern involved describing a way (Tao) of life that could be true to the natural order of God’s laws. A tremendous inspirational force, Laozi’s philosophical brilliance made him one amongst many of the great Chinese poet/philosophers who helped guide the Middle Kingdom along the ancient Middle Way.
Determining whether these two great leaders of thought were prophets or philosophers doesn’t promote or demote them, according to the Baha’i teachings. Baha’u’llah himself has praised the work of the great philosophers of the past: Empedocles, Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Pliny. He even calls Plato, the “divine Plato”, but does not consider him a Manifestation of God. In a similar way, Abdu’l-Baha cites the name of Confucius as a great leader and teacher:
Confucius became the cause of civilization, advancement and prosperity for the people of China. – Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 469.
Blessed souls — whether Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius or Muhammad — were the cause of the illumination of the world of humanity. How can we deny such irrefutable proof? How can we be blind to such light? – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 346.
Through the efforts of great thinkers and philosophers like Confucius and Laozi, millions of people have come to know of the one truth that envelops all. When religions decline or deteriorate, it falls to philosophers and poets to discern the one reality that animates all and to sing its melody.
For Baha’is, truth is truth and light is light wherever it appears. The light of a philosopher, if it is true, does not conflict with that of a Prophet of God it validates and augments it. The lasting works of Confucius and Laozi and other great philosophers reflect divinity, even though they may not fit into the category of a founder of a great world Faith. This is not a condemnation of the philosopher – instead, it is a testimony to the loftiness of their efforts and the greatness of their achievements.