What it is to be human

Historian Bettany Hughes tells Kevin Gopal about her new series about the Buddha, Socrates and Confucius

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It was the time when people first started moving to cities in large numbers and when the first coined money was made. Trade links flourished but empires clashed in large-scale conflicts such as the Graeco-Persian Wars. No wonder humankind sought some answers.

The period in question is the sixth and fifth centuries BCE and three of its key thinkers, the Buddha, Socrates and Confucius, are the focus of historian Bettany Hughes’s new three-part TV series. With such huge technological, political and social change going on they led the way in a key period of humanity’s intellectual development.

“It was a world in flux,” says Hughes. “In this big, bold, brave new world people were negotiating what it was to be human.”

Mystery surrounds much of the life of the Buddha – even to the extent that some historians doubt he existed. But many believe he was born in 563BCE and left his privileged Himalayan homeland in his twenties to embark on nothing less than a quest to find a solution to human suffering.

Witnessing the pain of the world, his initial solution was a form of extreme asceticism, denying himself all worldly pleasures while constantly meditating. But it was not enough – he still felt the world’s suffering. The solution – and his next step on the path to enlightenment – was what scholars have called the Middle Way. That’s not, as it sounds, a strategy for jaded politicians in modern low turn-out democracies but a way of life that was neither poverty nor luxury.

“They all wanted us to fulfil our potential as human beings.”

Buddha’s teachings went on to be the basis of a religion that today has an estimated 376 million followers, and are the basis of the first programme in Hughes’s series. What the Buddha has in common with Confucius and Socrates, she says, is a desire to explain the world and humanity’s role in it not by reference to the supernatural but by reasoning.

“They all wanted us to fulfil our potential as human beings. They were all atheists in the true sense of the word. They weren’t radical revolutionaries or anarchists but they said you don’t need God to be good. You can do it through rational thought.

“They were very charismatic but they were also oddities to some extent. They were very brave because they stuck their neck above the parapet.”

Confucius died a disappointed man, says Hughes
Confucius died a disappointed man, says Hughes

That, she continues, brought disappointment and danger. In Greece, she points out, there was no separate word for religion, so taken for granted was it that everything happened because of the gods. “So Socrates’s ideas were even more dangerous. He said there ought to be a better way to understand the world we have.”

Socrates – whose philosophy is primarily known through the accounts of his student Plato – was so threatening to the Athenians’ supernatural world order that he was charged with “impious acts” and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock.

Confucius – who was born nearly 100 years before Socrates and placed an emphasis on personal and social morality, loyalty and obligation – managed to see out his natural days but not, points out Hughes, before his own persecution. He had been a government official and minister in one of the competing Chinese states of the time but felt forced to exile himself.

“Confucius definitely unsettled people but he had not taught them how to be an enlightened ruler. He’d been hounded and persecuted and died a disappointed man.”

Hughes – who describes her excitement at being able to hold the earliest examples of Confucius’s writings in the making of the programme, “like inscribed lollipop sticks” – says the other thing the three ancient thinkers have in common is a practical and humane dimension to their philosophy, rather than it being abstract.

“They weren’t just thinkers but real people. Socrates, for example, was a soldier for much of his life. Their humanity shines through as well as the philosophy. They thought there’s no point to any of this unless it has a use in people’s lives. And although it sounds soppy, all emphasised the role of love in developing our humanity – what Confucius called human-heartedness.”

“Everything they say is not looking at the meaning of life but at the meaning of our lives.”

There’s no evidence the three would have ever heard of each other but Hughes says that via the newly flourishing trade routes of the time that it’s “not impossible”. So what relevance does their work have now?

“Everything. Everything they say is not looking at the meaning of life but at the meaning of our lives. For instance, chasing money at the expense of wisdom is bad, we should treat people as we’d like to be treated. These are our problems.”

It’s not all soppy though. Chinese governments used Confucianism to enforce servility to the state and suppress dissent for a long time. Buddhism’s PR profile as the most peaceful of religions slipped during the Sri Lankan civil war and currently in Burma, where monks have incited violence against Rohingya Muslims.

Is it inevitable that the teachings could have been distorted like that?

“It is. It’s not written down, there’s no dogma, so people less benign can use it. Confucianism was convenient for centuries’ worth of Chinese imperial rule.”

But it would have been to the horror of the originators.

“They were not paragons and wanted people to go on questioning what they said. They wouldn’t have had it any different.”

Buddha: Genius Of The Ancient World is on BBC Four on 5 August, 9-10pm. It is the first in a three-part series

Biographies and timeline, by Anna Freeman

The Buddha, circa 600BCE-300BCE
The Buddha (“Enlightened One”) was born Siddhartha Guatama in Nepal, to the king of a large clan called the Shakyas. He was hidden away from the world in a palace to protect him from the misery and hardship of the human condition. Upon fleeing the kingdom after years of seclusion, he went on to lead an ascetic life of harsh discipline, before realising a path of balance rather than extremism was the route to spiritual enlightenment. He meditated for many days and achieved self-fulfillment, and proceeded to teach the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path which came to form the Buddhist tradition.

Confucius, 551BCE–479BCE
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and political thinker who held “love” at the core of his teachings. Born Kong Qui in the Lu state of China, near present-day Qufu, Confucius argued for ethical models of family and public interaction, self-discipline, and education. Although his work later came to be the official imperial philosophy in China, Confucius died unfulfilled by his success. He based his philosophy on “ren,” or “loving others,” and believed kindness and compassion were the saving graces for humanity. Confucius also listed six arts that were essential for personal development – archery, calligraphy, computation, music, chariot-driving and ritual. He died in 479BCE, a year after losing his son in battle, never knowing his work would change the shape of Chinese political thought forever.

Socrates: 470BC-399BCE
Socrates laid the foundation for Western systems of logic and philosophy. He believed human choice was motivated by the desire for happiness, and championed human reason over theological doctrine. During his lifetime, and following a defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Athens went through a period of uncertainty and began looking to past ideals of happiness acquired by wealth and beauty. Socrates rejected these values and argued that the mind was of greater importance. Although some Greeks revered his work, others disputed it, and the philosopher was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399BC. Socrates’ teachings are chronicled through only a small number of sources, for example Plato’s Dialogues, but his teachings have come to influence how we see ourselves today. His crusade for knowledge and virtue characterises a landmark shift in philosophical thought from the supernatural to the rational.

Ancient silver punchmark coin, Indian Subcontinent_rgb
Ancient Indian punchmark coin

Timeline for transformation, 600BCE-300BCE

600BCE: Creation of Armenia; Pompeii founded by the Oscans; evidence of the first aqueducts, used to convey water; effects of electricity observed
568BCE: Destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem
551BCE: Confucius (Kong Qui) is born in the Lu state of China
550BCE: Foundation of Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great; Greek city-states pioneer citizen armies, made up of free men; discovery of magnetism
539BCE: Fall of Babylonian Empire and liberation of the Jews by Cyrus the Great
529BCE: Death of Cyrus the Great
508BCE: Democracy instituted in Athens
501BCE: Confucius appointed governor of Chung-tu
500BCE: Coined money arrives in Greece and the south of Italy; crossbow bolts dating from the middle of the century have been found in China
490BCE: Greek city-states defeat Persian invasion at the Battle of Marathon
483BCE: Death of The Buddha (Siddhartha Guatama)
479BCE: Death of Confucius (Kong Qui)
470BCE: Birth of Socrates in Greece
449BCE: Greco-Persian Wars end
431BCE: Beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Greek city-states
427BCE: Plato is born
404BCE: End of the Peloponnesian War
399BCE: Death of Socrates by hemlock poisoning
384BCE: Birth of Aristotle
323BCE: Death of Alexander the Great at Babylon
300BCE: Construction of the largest pyramid in the world, the Great Pyramid of Cholula

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