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.

One response to “Analects 1.6–Culture As A Source Of Morality

  1. Hi Alexus:

    Wanted to thank you for this blog. I was searching for comments on wen in the Analects and the Ames Rosemont translation does not include this one. Having no Chinese I am dependent on translations. Your comment was also helpful.

    Tom Leddy
    San Jose State

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