Confucianism needs saving because it is a very old tradition of thought that can no longer speak effectively to the modern world without systematic reconstruction.
Confucianism also needs saving because of the chronic gap between its political ideals and the reality of societal circumstances. But to save Confucianism and to let it save the world, we must first learn from its profound insights - and its profound failures.
Confucius set about his (doomed) mission to save the world in response to the decay of feudalistic social and political order that started in the Spring and Autumn period (772BC-475BC).
At that time, the political elite were motivated more by self-interest than by virtue, and played by the rules of power rather than the rules of rituals designed to ensure good governance. Confucius' solution was to revitalise rituals, based not on earthly power or heavenly sanction but on the deepest and noblest parts of human beings - their humanity (ren) and inner moral selves.
The value of virtue
Every human being, Confucius believed, is capable of cultivating moral feelings and virtues. To the (morally cultivated) individual, virtue is what he or she desires for its own sake. It is also the foundation of a successful society.
Children respond with filial piety to the love of their parents; ministers return loyalty to the rulers who treat them with respect; truthfulness earns the trust of others, and benevolence wins the heart of the multitude.
But Confucius overestimated the power of virtue. Virtue cannot protect the weak against the strong, and it is powerless against wickedness and naked selfishness. In pressing situations, people often simply find it more convenient to resort or submit to the use of power in order to protect themselves or advance their interests.
Ironically, Confucius was keenly aware that his moral approach could not save the world from moral and political decay. In The Analects, his student Zi-lu comments that "as for putting the Way into practice, (The Master) knows all along that it is hopeless". Still, Confucius, and later Confucian thinkers, rejected the competing Legalist solution, which relies heavily on reward and especially punishment. They did this for two good reasons.
First, the excessive use of reward and punishment makes people shameless and turns them further away from independent moral cultivation. To accept Legalism is tantamount to abandoning the best aspects of humanity. Second, reward and punishment alone cannot ensure long-term stability and peace. If people have no virtue, sophisticated systems of sanction only breed ingenious crimes, and no government of any kind can save the day.
What are Confucians to do then? They cannot agree with the Legalist strategy, yet they admit that their rituals and virtues fail to control elite behaviour. The challenge then becomes this: Is there any alternative that effectively tackles problems in the non-ideal world and yet retains Confucian ideal aspirations?
This question has haunted Confucians for over 2,500 years, and continues to do so today.