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…

3 responses to “Analects 1.7–Learning Is Well Established Virtue

  1. Hi Alexus,

    Glad to have found your blog. I’ve recently been introduced to Confucius texts and have been attending classes every week. I’ll give my interpretation on verse 1:7.

    Look back at 1:6, Confucius has just finished enumerating the virtues a person should have, ending with a call to persue learning. Zi Xia wasnt too impressed, so he replied.

    1:7 “All that seems worthy are liable to change. As for me those who do their best for parents and lord, though they’re not learned, I consider them to be learned.”

    Confucius now try to correct him in 1:8 – that doing one’s “best” is not enough, a ‘jun1 zi3’ needs to adopt a certain “mood” (zhong4) while performing these actions. Confucius finished with a not so subtle hint that his disciple should change – “guo4, er2 wu4 dan2 gai3.”

    Hope this helps.

  2. This quote could apply directly to the theme of loyalty as well with the Confucianism thought. As there is an evident conflict between loyalty to parents and loyalty to the ruler or public justice.
    As with any being their parents are regarded fi

  3. Oops didnt mean to post my niece’s paragraph of her essay. Just looking at her sources used.

    Prof. Jay

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