Ancient chinese philosophy

Part Three

“Having studied, to then repeatedly apply what you have learned – is this not a source of pleasure?” These are the first words of the Analects, and the theme carries through to the last entry: “Someone who does not understand the propensity of circumstances has no way of becoming an exemplary person; someone who does not understand the observance of ritual propriety has no way of knowing where to stand; a person who does not understand words has no way of knowing others.” (20-3)

Confucius was familiar with the art and literature of his time, but he was also a student of people. Zigong says about him, “The dao… lives in the people. Those of superior character have grasped the greater part, while those of lesser quality have grasped a bit of it… Who then does the Master not learn from?” (19-22) 

In a way, reading the Analects feels like moving along in a large crowd of people. Many of them say similar things, and a few of them are outliers speaking nonsense. Everyone is advancing from their own unique angle, but somehow the general direction of the crowd is toward a better understanding – of ourselves, each other, and the natural tendency of things to happen as they do. There are lots of cheerleaders in this crowd, constantly reminding us to pay attention, to choose wisely. There is an emphasis on exercising our free will at the level of where we place our attention, and an often-unspoken de-emphasizing of things we can’t know or control – in keeping with his teachings on modesty. “Zilu asked how to serve spirits and the gods. The Master replied, ‘Not yet being able to serve other people, how would you be able to serve the spirits?’ Zilu asked, ‘May I ask about death?’ The Master replied, ‘Not yet understanding life, how could you understand death?’” (11-12)

Confucius lived through widespread social chaos and upheaval. It makes sense that he focused on unambiguous hierarchies and traditions, such as filial piety. These come with the reassuring structure of authority and clearly delineated responsibilities, which can result in a sense of safety and comfort. He seems to have realized that was the highest aspiration for most people, and most of his teachings are aimed at helping others achieve that. “The common people can be induced to travel along the way, but they cannot be induced to realize it,” (8-9) he says, and also “if those in high station cherish the observance of ritual propriety, the common people will be easy to deal with.” (14-41) So much of the ritual propriety and governance advice are all about reminding people of their place and how to flourish in their prescribed bounds. At one point, one of his followers asks about learning to farm, and Confucius tells him to learn to be a good leader (be trustworthy and promote justice and reverence for life), and others will help with the farming. (13-4)

The centerpiece of Book XVI reads like a collection of listicles for how to stay safe and happy: there’s the three kinds of friends, the three kinds of activities to enjoy, three mistakes at court, three things to hold in awe, a taxonomy of knowledge acquisition, and three kinds of conduct to guard against. The list of lists culminates in a grand list of nine things that exemplary persons always keep in mind: “in looking they think about clarity, in hearing they think about acuity, in countenance they think about cordiality, in bearing and attitude they think about deference, in speaking they think about doing their utmost, in conducting affairs they think about due respect, in entertaining doubts they think about the proper questions to ask, in anger they think about regret, in sight of gain they think about appropriate conduct.” (16-10)

There are multiple attempts to essentialize his teachings into three or less pithy suggestions. Some of these lists tell us that “the way of the Master is doing one’s utmost and putting oneself in the other’s place,” (4-15), “to take doing one’s utmost, making good on one’s word, and seeking out what is appropriate as one’s main concerns, is to accumulate excellence,” (12-10) “do your utmost to make good on your word, be earnest and respectful in your conduct.” (15-6) Some passages are repeated verbatim, which seems to underline their importance: “I have yet to meet the person who is fonder of excellence than of physical beauty.” (9-18, 15-13) “A person who for three years refrains from reforming the ways of his late father can be called a filial son.” (1-11, 4-20) “Learn broadly of culture, discipline this learning through observing ritual propriety, and moreover, in so doing, remain on course without straying from it.” (6-27, 12-15) “It is a rare thing for glib speech and an insinuating appearance to accompany authoritative conduct.” (1-3, 17-17) And his version of the golden rule: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not want.” (12-2, 15-24)

I think applying these insights and recommendations would benefit most people. AND. There are small passages scattered throughout that reveal the possibility of moving beyond day to day safety into something more creative and possibly fully human. “Since none can go out except through a gateway, how is it that none go out from this dao?” he asks. (6-17) “Keep your mind on the way things work, grab at inner clarity as a tiger lays hold of a pig, that you’ll act with humanity.” (7-6 for one of my favorite jarring images of all time) “Tradesmen wanting to be good at their trade must first sharpen their tools. While dwelling in this state, then, we should serve those ministers who are of the highest character, and befriend those scholar-apprentices who are most authoritative in their conduct.” (15-10) “Human beings are similar in their natural tendencies, but vary greatly by virtue of their habits.” (17-2) These passages point toward an expansion into our full potential that’s anchored in reverence for our whole being – the facts and the possibilities. 

What I’m taking from the Analects is a deeper reassurance that the more attuned we are to our own and others’ humanity (translated in Ames as authoritative conduct), the more we can transcend our earth-bound circumstances to achieve a greatness beyond social recognition, that’s even more valuable than life itself. “For the resolute scholar-apprentice and the authoritative person, while they would not compromise their authoritative conduct to save their lives, they might well give up their lives in order to achieve it.” (15-9)

It is the person who is able to broaden the dao, not the dao that broadens the person. 15-29

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