Why is There A Statue of Confucius on the Pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Why is There A Statue of Confucius on the Pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court?

2022-10-27 BY Kathy Yin


The U.S. Supreme Court Building was completed in 1935 and designed by American architect Cass Gilbert. The building, located on First street, facing west and the United States Capitol. Too often, visitors do not see the corresponding pediment and columns on the east side. 

According to the website of the U.S. Supreme Court, the sculpture group of east side is by Hermon A. MacNeil, and the marble figures represent great lawgivers, Moses, Confucius, and Solon, flanked by symbolic groups representing Means of Enforcing the Law, Tempering Justice with Mercy, Settlement of Disputes Between States, and Maritime and other functions of the Supreme Court. “

Why is there a statue of Confucius on the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court?

CNS “WE Talk” interviewed Bryan W. Van Norden, American sinologist and James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy at Vassar College (USA). He described that there is a group of statues on each of the east and west pediment of the Supreme Court building.

The central statue above the main entrance on the west side is the Lady Justice, and she is surrounded by a number of symbolic statues. The eastern pediment is not often seen, as it is not the main entrance. If you are just visiting the Supreme Court building, on business or pleasure, you will usually only see the western pediment.

“But the east pediment is very interesting, with the central group of statues being, from left to right, Confucius, Moses and the ancient Greek lawgiver Solon, in that order.” Bryan said McNeil, the designer of the group of statues, had said he was using the three figures to represent the Eastern origins of American civilization. And it’s actually very meaningful that the symbol of Eastern origins appears on the pediment on the east side of the U.S. Supreme Court.

istorical records provided by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a letter to the then Supreme Court Building Committee, McNeil explained his original intent: ‘Law is an element of civilization, and American law is naturally inherited or derived from previous civilizations. Thus, the group of statues in the east pediment of the building signifies a reference to fundamental laws and precepts of Eastern origin. Moses, Confucius, and Solon were chosen to represent the three great civilizations that form the central group of statues in this triangle.'” Bryan illustrated.

Indeed, there was a degree of influence of Confucius and his philosophical ideas on early America.

Bryan pointed out that in the beginning of the American nation, when the foundations of modern democracy and modern science were being laid, people held Confucius as the secular sage of the Western Enlightenment. And the founding fathers of the United States were all deeply influenced by European Enlightenment thought. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and John Adams, among others, all had a keen interest in and positive regard for Confucius and his ideas.

It’s worth to notice that in the Supreme Court’s architectural brief, Confucius appears as a lawgiver, not as a sage or educator in the Chinese context.

In response, Bryan argues that from a Chinese perspective, it is a bit strange to list Confucius as a lawgiver. But for Americans, even those who worship Confucius, they don’t know the difference between Legalism and Confucianism. So when they want to pay tribute to Chinese civilization, the only one they are familiar with is Confucius. They don’t know the difference between “ritual” and “law,” but they see Confucius as a model of morality, so they choose him to represent a part of the world’s tradition.

In contemporary American society, the attitude of Americans toward China and Chinese culture is very complex. Bryan bluntly stated that there are many intellectuals who have great respect for the Chinese tradition and love the Chinese people. But there are also many who look down on Chinese traditions and do not respect the Chinese people.

He added, “The majority of the American public, or the mainstream view of American society, has a misunderstanding of Chinese philosophical thought. Americans are more likely to borrow a particular quote from Confucius or other Chinese philosophers to serve their own views. But in real life, Chinese philosophy is persuasively argued and meticulously analyzed.”

Bryan emphasized that learning more about Chinese culture and Confucianism is crucial for the U.S., and that the two superpowers need to understand each other in order to achieve long-term and productive development in the future. “‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ this wisdom of Confucius can give inspiration to the U.S.-China relationship.”