Famous people who may never have existed

Confucius

To quote Confucius: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” That’s deep … and deeply problematic. Research suggests that dishonest children become successful adults and that highly successful adults lie. That’s a whole lot of wrong there, Confucius.

Of course, if Confucius never existed, then the quote’s been misattributed, meaning the words can’t accord with the truth. Thus, in being wrong, the quote would be right, which sounds super wrong. And the Confucian confusion doesn’t end there. Experts believe he was born in Lu, China, and created the Ru School of Chinese thought. But depending on which document you read, Confucius comes off as an unflinching idealist, an ambitious politician, or a fifth-century B.C. superhero. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cautioned that even The Analects, academia’s go-to resource for info on Confucius, suffers from striking inconsistencies and improbabilities.

Confucius’s whole shtick was setting guidelines for righteous living, but historians debate his basic precepts. In The Human Record: To 1700, Alfred Andrea and James Hoverfield discussed filial piety (respect for elders and ancestors), a principle often regarded as Confucianism’s core. According to the authors, it wasn’t really a big deal to him. In fact, many claims attributed to Confucius are arguably apocryphal. Fittingly, the guy described as China’s Socrates raises more questions than he answers.