This paper appeared in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 22, March 2001, 45-52. ©2001



The Ethics of East and West: Confucius and Hillel


Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
Professor of Business and Marketing
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

Anindya Bhattacharya, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Business and International Marketing
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York



This paper demonstrates that Confucius and Hillel had similar ideals and shaped the lives of billions of people. The two had much in common: They were both humble, loved mankind, were not dogmatic, and believed in universal education. Both felt that the negative version of the Golden Rule, i.e., "What is hateful to you do not do to others," should be the philosophy that guides one’s life.


The Ethics of East and West: Confucius and Hillel



Two individuals who profoundly influenced humankind are Confucius and Hillel. The power of their ideals still inspire people today and it is no exaggeration to state that the lives and beliefs of billions of people have been shaped by these two great sages. This paper will draw upon these ancient philosophers’ own words in order to demonstrate the many similarities between the ideas of Confucius and those of Hillel.

Confucius not only influenced the general culture of several major Asian countries (e.g., China, Japan, and Korea), but also affected the business culture of these countries (Bhattacharya 2000). Modern writers are encouraging business leaders of today to study Confucius and other Chinese philosophers in order to improve their management and leadership skills (e.g., Rudnicki 1998). Duiker (2000) claims that Ho Chi Minh was a Confucian humanist and was more interested in achieving his objectives through negotiation than by military force. Had the United States realized the implications of this, the Vietnamese war might have ended much sooner.

Confucius is believed to have been born in 551 or 550 BCE and to have died around 479 BCE. Confucius was from a relatively poor family, lost his father at a young age, and was forced to labor at numerous jobs to help support his family. Confucius is idealized as China’s supreme teacher --his date of birth, September 28th, is celebrated in China as Teachers Day --but his real interest was politics. For much of his life he was a itinerant teacher wandering from place to place trying (unsuccessfully) to find a Chinese ruler who would accept his philosophies about leadership. One historian called him "the sage in search of a state." Confucius believed that the only way to restore order to China was through a strong and just central government. He wanted to eliminate the power of the warlords whose internecine wars brought devastation to the people of China. Confucius did hold a low-level governmental position for a brief period of time (he was a minister of police in the state of Lu) but was overthrown and had to go back to wandering and teaching. Confucius was usually received with a great deal of respect wherever he went but because of various intrigues often found himself forced to leave, sometimes running for his life (Leys 1997, p. xxiv). Leys concludes that Confucius’ career was "a total and colossal failure." He did succeed however in inculcating his values and beliefs into his disciples who spread his philosophy.

Confucius did not write anything down; his disciples recorded his sayings and conversations in the Analects which were written posthumously. There is probably no single person whose ideas have had a greater impact on Chinese society and government than Confucius and he is indubitably the most esteemed and influential of all Chinese philosophers. In the Analects, it appears that Confucius had about 20 disciples; later tradition, however, claimed that he had 72 disciples. This paper will mainly use the translation of Leys (1997), which is clearer and more succinct than many of the other translations of the Analects, and the classic translation of Waley (1989).

Hillel the Elder, who was possibly the most influential Jewish figure in Talmudic times, was born in Babylonia and moved to Israel. He was appointed as a Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin) in about 31 BCE and his descendants served as heads of the Sanhedrin for the next fifteen generations. Hilled headed the Sanhedrin during very turbulent times. Herod I ruled Israel from 37 to 4 BCE and killed many members of the Sanhedrin because he believed that they opposed him. Hillel’s school, known as Beit Hillel (literally the house of Hillel), was opposed to the views of the School of Shammai whose opinions were usually much more rigid and severe than the view of the Hillelites. The Talmud records more than 300 hundred disputes regarding Jewish law between the two schools. Hillel had 80 important disciples including Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.

The Sanhedrin, headed by Hillel and his descendants, was crucial for the survival of the Jewish people. The Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and many Jews were driven into exile. The religion had to be transformed from one that was Temple-based to one that became portable and revolved around the synagogue and the Torah. This was accomplished by the Sanhedrin. In fact, the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56b) notes that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a leader of the Sanhedrin, asked Vespasian, who was besieging Jerusalem, to spare the town of Yavneh, a town filled with scholars, and to allow the Gamliel family (Rabbi Gamliel was a grandson of Hillel) to live. Rabbi Yochanan understood that Judaism needed the leadership of the Hillel family to survive once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.

Hillel and his followers did not only influence Judaism. Johnson (1987) speculates that Jesus may have been one of Hillel’s students. In fact, Paul of Tarsus clearly stated (Acts 22:3) that he was a disciple of Rabbi Gamliel, a leader of the Sanhedrin and descendant of Hillel. Thus, Hillel was responsible for spreading Jewish values throughout the Western world. Falk (1985, pp. 93-95) claims that the anti-Pharisee statements in the Christian Scriptures were directed against the Pharisees of the Shammai School which had taken control of the religion for a relatively short period, mainly from 30 BCE to 70 CE. The Shammaites had very stringent and inflexible opinions and the Talmud (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbos 1: 4) notes that when they took over it was as difficult a time for the Jewish people as when the Israelites made the golden calf in the wilderness. In order to ensure that they would be in the majority, some of the more extreme Shammaites took out swords and did not allow the Hillelites to take part in the vote which was held in the upper chamber of the home belonging to Chananiah b. Chizkiyah. They enacted eighteen laws on the day when they "won" the election. Eventually, the School of Hillel prevailed and Jewish law till this very day is in accordance with their views (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b).


Confucius believed that ideal of jen was the solution of the iniquities of his day. Waley (1989, pp. 27-29) finds the English language inadequate for an exact translation of jen. He settles for Good or Goodness with a capital G. De Bary et al. (1960, pp. 16-17) translate jen as humanity, benevolence, and perfect virtue. It seems that jen is similar to the Hebrew word chesed which is usually translated as acts of lovingkindness. Both Confucius and Hillel believed in a version of the Golden Rule as the key to a proper life. The root of the Golden Rule is in the Torah (Leviticus 19:18): "You shall love your fellow as yourself." Interestingly, both Confucius and Hillel espoused the "negative" version of the Golden Rule. It is more pragmatic to demand that individuals avoid doing to others what they do not want done to themselves than to ask that they treat others exactly the way they treat themselves.

Zigong asked: "Is there any single word that could guide one’s entire life? The Master [Confucius] said: Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others." --- Analects XV:24

Hillel’s response to a convert who wanted to be taught the whole Torah "while standing on one foot" was: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow-man,' that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a).


Confucius was known for his humanism and believed that the only way that society would be spared from wars, evil, and cruelty was if people learned to care for each other, i.e., with jen (de Bary et al. 1960, p. 17).

Hillel was known for his exceptional patience, great modesty, and love of people. The Talmud tells a story of a man who made a 400 zuz bet that he could make Hillel lose his temper. One Friday afternoon, when Hillel was busy preparing for the Sabbath, the man kept pestering Hillel with inane questions. He asked him, e.g., "Why are the heads of the Babylonians round?" (Hillel was originally from Babylonia.) Hillel answered his question. The man kept returning to ask additional irrelevant questions and Hillel continued to answer him with great respect. Finally, when the man realized that there was no way Hillel would ever lose his temper, the man cursed him and said: "may there not be more like you amongst Israel." After telling Hillel about the bet, Hillel said: "It is far better that you should lose 400 zuz, and 400 zuz more, than Hillel should lose his temper" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 30b-31a).

The Talmud relates three different stories of how Shammai refused to teach potential converts who made absurd requests ("Make me a convert on condition that you only teach me the written Torah," "Make me a convert on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot," "Make me a convert on condition that you will appoint me High Priest") and threw them out. They subsequently went to Hillel who accepted them and they converted to Judaism. One day the three met and said: "The sternness of Shammai sought to drive us from this world [and the world to come], Hillel's humility and gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a).

Tikkun olam is the philosophy that people are obligated to repair and perfect the world (in Hebrew, tikkun means repair and olam means world). Hillel was one of the earliest leaders to use this legal device when he instituted the prosbul, a legal device to ensure that poor people would have access to credit even during the Sabbatical year. Hillel saw that people were reluctant to lend money to each other when the Sabbatical year approached as there is a remission of debts during the sabbatical year (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 34b, 36a). More importantly, tikkun olam became a legal device used by other sages to help society, and women in particular (e.g., Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 32a, 34b, 40b, 41b, 45a,b).

The Talmud relates several other stories describing the great humanism and humility of Hillel. For example, Hillel purchased for a certain individual from a prominent family who had become impoverished a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him. One day, he could not find a servant to run before him, so Hillel himself ran before him for three miles (Babylonian Talmud, Kethuboth 67b).

Hillel’s disciples and descendants were known for their great love of humanity. For instance, the Talmud (Babylonia Talmud, Berachos 17a) notes that no one ever greeted Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai --- Hillel’s disciple --- first, not even a heathen in the street. Rabbi Gamliel the elder, Hillel’s grandson, observed that the expense of burying the dead became prohibitive because people believed that the proper way of clothing the dead was to dress them in expensive garments. To change this custom, which was causing huge problems for the poor, Rabbi Gamliel ordered that he be buried in an inexpensive flaxen garment (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 27b). This is the custom among Jews till this very day. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, his son, was extremely upset when he heard that the price of doves, which were necessary for certain sacrifices, had reached a golden dinar. He revised the laws concerning sacrifices so that demand for doves would decrease, and the price sank almost immediately to one-quarter of a silver dinar (Babylonian Talmud, Krithoth 8a).

The following statements indicate how strongly Confucius and Hillel felt about loving humankind.

"Love all people, but associate with the virtuous." --- Analects I:6

Fan Chi asked about humanity. "The Master said ‘love all men.’" --- Analects XII:22

Zizhang asked Confucius about humanity. The Master said: "Whoever could spread the five practices everywhere in the world would implement humanity. And what are these? Courtesy, tolerance, good faith, diligence, generosity. Courtesy wards off insults; tolerance wins all hearts; good faith inspires the trust of others; diligence ensures success; generosity confers authority upon others." --- Analects XVII:6

"Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people" --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 1:12). Aaron, brother of Moses, was known as a peacemaker in the Talmud and Midrash.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I care only for myself, what am I?" --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 1:14)

"Do not separate yourself from the community" --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:4)

"Whoever has mercy on other people, Heaven will have mercy upon him; whoever does not have mercy on other people, Heaven will not have mercy upon him." --- Gamliel II (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 151b). Gamliel II was a descendant of Hillel and headed the Sanhedrin in the year 80 CE.



Confucius and Hillel loved knowledge and believed very strongly in educating the masses. Education, contrary to what many believed in their times, was not only for the elite. In fact, the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Avot D'Rabbi Noson 2: 9) notes that the School of Shammai stated that one should only teach those who are wise, humble, of a good family, and wealthy. The School of Hillel, on the other hand, believed that everyone should be taught Torah since many wicked people become virtuous and upright through studying, and from them descended righteous, pious people.

The Talmud relates the following story of Hillel’s early days to demonstrate that poverty is no excuse for not studying Torah. Hillel was extremely poor and earned one tropaik (a small amount) a day, a part of which he used to pay the guard in charge of admitting people to the academy, the rest of his earnings was used to support his family. One day he did not earn enough to pay the admission fee into the academy so Hillel climbed up on the roof to listen to the lectures. He was so engrossed in the lecture that he did not realize that it started to snow and was eventually covered in several feet of snow. Luckily, people noticed during the morning that the light from the skylight on the roof was blocked by a human form and they found Hillel nearly frozen to death (Babylonian Talmud, Yuma 35b).

Both Confucius and Hillel felt that the primary purpose of education was moral. Confucius said: "A gentleman is not a pot" (Analects II:12), which means that the purpose of education is not to increase one’s technical expertise or to develop specialized skills (Leys 1997, p. xxix). The "gentleman" referred to in Confucius’ Analects is an individual who has raised himself to a high level and possesses qualities that make him suitable for leadership. The Talmud also states (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 4:4): "Do not make of the Torah a crown for self-aggrandizement nor a spade with which to dig. So too Hillel used to say: He who exploits the crown [of the Torah] shall perish."

The following statements by Confucius and Hillel indicate how they felt about learning. In particular, Confucius’ assertion that "My teaching is addressed to all indifferently" has been used to demonstrate that Confucius was extremely progressive in his belief that education should be made available to all. Indeed, Confucius’ disciples, not unlike Hillel’s disciples, were from many different backgrounds and had very different abilities (Leys 1997, p. 196).

"At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning. At thirty, I took my stand. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven" --- Analects II:4

"In a hamlet of ten houses, you will certainly find people as loyal and faithful as I, but you will not find one man who loves learning as much as I do." --- Analects V:28

"A gentleman enlarges his learning through literature and restrains himself with ritual; therefore he is not likely to go wrong--- Analects XII:15

"In an attempt to meditate, I once spent a whole day without food and a whole night without sleep: it was no use. It is better to study." --- Analects XV:31

"My teaching is addressed to all indifferently." --- Analects XV:39

"The love of humanity without the love of learning degenerates into silliness. The love of intelligence without the love of learning degenerates into frivolity. The love of chivalry without the love learning degenerates into banditry. The love of frankness without the love of learning degenerates into brutality, The love of valor without the love of learning degenerates into violence. The love of force without the love of learning degenerates into anarchy." --- Analects XVII:8

"A gentleman keeps learning in order to reach the truth." --- Analects XIX:7

"He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it; he who does not study deserves death." --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 1:13).

"Do not say: ‘When I shall have leisure I shall study,’ for perhaps you will not have leisure." --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:4).

 "The more schooling, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding." --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:7).



Both Confucius and Hillel were known for their great modesty. Doeblin (1959, p. 24) notes that "In his [Confucius] own daily contacts he was definitely modest and very reserved. Nevertheless he was filled with self confidence and, even in the greatest misery, a belief in his mission." Hillel was a leader who did not seek fame, and when he died, they eulogized him thus (Sotah 48b): "Alas, the pious man! Alas, the modest man!" Some interesting quotations:

"Don’t worry if people don’t recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs." ---Analects I:16

"A gentleman shows authority, but no arrogance. A vulgar man shows arrogance, but no authority." --- Analects XIII: 26

"A gentleman abides by three principles which I am unable to follow: his humanity knows no anxiety; his wisdom knows no hesitation; his courage knows no fear." Zigong said: "Master you have just drawn your own portrait." --- Analects XIV: 30

"A gentleman resents his incompetence; he does not resent his obscurity." ---Analects XV:19

"He who seeks renown destroys his reputation." --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 1:13)



The Talmud states: "A bath kol [divine voice] issued and proclaimed that the opinions of the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai are the words of the living God, but the halacha [Jewish law] is according to the School of Hillel." The Talmud asks why did the Hillelites merit that the law is according to their view if both opinions are "the words of the living God." The Talmud answers that the Hillelites were kindly, pleasing, had great humility, and studied the opposing opinions and took them seriously. They were so humble that they would mention the views of the School of Shammai before mentioning their own opinion (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b).

Confucius was not authoritarian and bemoaned the fact that his disciple Yan Hui was of no help to him because "whatever I say pleases him" (Analects XI:4).

"Do not judge your fellow human being until you have been in his place" --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:4).

"A gentleman can see a question from all sides without bias; The small man is biased and can see a question only from one side." --- Analects II:14

"The Master absolutely eschewed four things: capriciousness, dogmatism, willfulness, self-importance" --- Analects IX:4



Confucius recognized that a "gentleman," an individual worthy of leadership, "does not preach what he practices till he has practiced what he preaches" (Analects II: 13) and "a gentleman should be slow to speak and prompt to act" (Analects IV:24). He believed in moral leadership, not ruling through force and manipulation and felt that it was the responsibility of a leader to provide a good example for his followers; if you lead the people with morality and uprightness, everyone will follow. Hillel and his descendants who headed the Sanhedrin also believed that the Nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin, had to be a role model for the people. Both Confucius and Hillel disdained the boorish individual who despised knowledge and cared only for self-aggrandizement.

"He who rules by virtue is like the polestar, which remains unmoving in its mansion while all the other stars revolve respectfully around it." --- Analects II:1

"Duke Ai asked: What should I do to win the hearts of the people?" Confucius replied: "Raise the straight and set them above the crooked, and you will win the hearts of the people. If you raise the crooked and set them above the straight, the people will deny you their support." --- Analects II: 19

"A gentleman takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover what will pay." --- Analects IV: 16

"A gentleman brings out the good that is in people, he does not bring out the bad. A vulgar man does the opposite." --- Analects XII:16

"To govern is to be straight. If you steer straight, who would dare not to go straight?" --- Analects XII:17

"A gentleman reaches up; a vulgar [i.e., inferior man] reaches down." --- Analects XIV:23

"A gentleman makes demands on himself; a vulgar man makes demands on others." --- Analects XV:21

"A boor cannot be sin-fearing, nor can an ignorant man be pious." --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:5).

"In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man." --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:5)

"The more righteousness, the more peace --- Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:7).

"The world endures on three principles: truth, justice, and peace." --- Shimon ben Gamliel II, descendent of Hillel and head of the Sanhedrin circa 118 CE (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 1:18).



Confucius and Hillel, though from different parts of the world, held similar views. Confucius influenced countless people and leaders, especially in Asia, with his philosophy. Hillel directly and indirectly influenced the culture of those countries that have come into contact with Judeo-Christian values, i.e., most of the Western world. What is interesting to note is that the two great philosophers coming from different backgrounds and religions had so much in common. Their beliefs dramatically changed the world’s views as to what constitutes proper behavior on the part of leaders and individuals. People are still hoping for the day when the world will be at peace. Perhaps when the world upholds the values espoused by Confucius and Hillel this dream will be realized.




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