Monthly Archives: August 2006

Analects 1.7–Learning Is Well Established Virtue


Zixia said: “It is like this with the worthy person who changes (what they think of) appearances– In attending to their father and mother, they are able to exhaust their energy. In doing the business of their ruler, they are able to devote their person. In interactions with friends, they speak and are trustworthy. It is said such people are not learned, but I would definitely call them learned.

This is a difficult passage to translate. First of all, there is the xian xian yi se at the beginning of the passage, which could mean a number of different things. I think there is much agreement, though, that it generally refers to sageliness (whether one who is a sage or one who wants to become one) that turns away from se. The particulars of the translation are not so important as long as the translation accounts for this. Another difficulty of translation is the distinction between li and shen, as the passage says that one should exhaust li for parents and give shen for the ruler. Li is translated here as “energy”, and I think this is unproblematic. But the way to translate shen when li is already translated as “energy”? This is hard. Literally, it should probably be “body”, but doubtlessly an English translation would sound strange which read “they are able to devote their bodies”. The connections contemporary readers would make here are, I think, absent from the set of connections ancient Chinese readers would have made to this.

A couple of points on the philosophy here. Here is a very blunt statement that learning includes cultivation of virtue, rather than simply knowledge of facts. Both are necessary for Confucius–one must know what the right way to be is, but this knowledge is only useful in that one can then cultivate virtues in oneself, as the goal of Confucius’s teachings is to create people who are junzi rather than simply to inform us what the junzi is, similar to the goal of a tennis coach, to create great tennis players, rather than simply impart the information about what it is to be a good tennis player. A good coach should be able to do both, and a good student should be able to become a good player. For Confucius, one is not a good ethicist without being a good person. If we fail to live in the right kind of ways ourselves, we cannot be said to have learned much about the right ways to live, and we are certainly not qualified to teach others this. Of course, this has to be qualified–Confucius may have thought that no one could (or at least no one has) become a completely good person, a sheng ren (“sage”) along the lines of Yao and Shun. He even denied that he himself had been able to cultivate the virtues he prized as well as he would have liked. Still, at least some level of goodness must be necessary in order to be said to be learned and be qualified to teach. Perhaps we need to at least be junzi. Is it good enough to simply (seriously) aspire to be junzi? Of course, aspiration here must include some amount of effort–we would readily deny that one really aspires to be a junzi if that person puts forth little effort to become a junzi. Hmmm…

Analects 1.6–Culture As A Source Of Morality

(1.6) 子曰:「弟子入則孝,出則悌,謹而信,汎愛眾,而親仁。行有餘力,則以學文。」

The master said: “The brotherly son is filial when he enters, deferential when he leaves. Respectful and trustworthy, he widely cares for the multitude, and holds ren close. If after this he has remaining energy, he devotes it to studying wen.”

Nothing surprising in the first part of this passage. Confucius tells us that the good person (in this case, the di zi (“brotherly son”) acts in such a way that ren is cultivated in himself and the society. Note here that Confucius is not talking about the junzi. Is the di zi a junzi? The attributes Confucius here gives to the di zi are much like those he gives to the junzi in other passages. Maybe then we should see this as a claim that being a brotherly son is one way to be a junzi. Maybe it is a necessary condition. This passage would not have sounded odd if di zi were exchanged for junzi. This would be following what Confucius has already told us in 1.2, that filiality and brotherliness is the root of ren. One who is a di zi has established this root.

The second part of the passage is interesting–the di zi devotes any extra energy to studying wen (“culture”, “literature”). If we take wen to be “culture”, specifically, for Confucius, the Zhou culture which he looks to for instruction, then we can see that there is some link between the di zi and this culture. It looks like the di zi is enriched by study of culture, as this fortifies the virtues the di zi already possesses, and helps to refine these virtues further. The main goal is the cultivation of these virtues Confucius mentions, which seem to coincide with holding ren close by (does this mean ren is an emergent property arising when one has a certain collection of virtues? Or is it that the person with certain virtues will generally also hold ren close?). What contributes most to that project is a study of culture (with “culture” here thought of not in the broad sense of contemporary anthropology, but in the sense of ideal culture or high culture–that is, “culture” in the sense that we say one who has studied the Homeric epics is “cultured”. Culture in Confucius’s sense carries with it a moral value. Culture is a good–that which we might call “culture” but is either morally neutral or immoral, take brutal elements of our own or other cultures, for example, would not count as wen for Confucius. Wen is an ethical term for Confucius. This is one of the key social notions in Confucianism, one of the places it seems to differ from much western philosophy, in which the ethical focus is much more on the individual. Confucius says here, as in other places, that the source of morality is society, the ideal society, which grounds our ethical pursuits.