The Master said, “I have yet to meet a person who loves virtue as much as he loves sex.” (Analects, 9.18)
The character 色, translated “sex” here, is literally “color” and therefore can also be extended to mean “good looks” and “appearance.” Thus, the sentence has been translated: “I have yet to meet a man who loves virtue as much as feminine beauty” — hence “sexual attractiveness,” and then “sex.” It can also be translated: “I have yet to meet a person who loves virtue as much as the appearance of virtue” — which sounds like La Rochefoucauld. The alternative translations strike me as less punchy and incisive than simply “sex,” which holds a straightforward, down-to-earth insight into the relation of our ideals to our all-too-human desires. While I am fairly certain that Confucius is exaggerating a little, is his observation not generally true? It reveals a grimly realistic side to a sage who has often been faulted for his idealism. He is well aware of the power of the erotic to destabilize even a good person.
That irrational, quasi-physical responses of attraction and aversion can usually override rational valuations and idealistic attachments is a fact we are all well acquainted with. Nietzsche’s version of this has to do with smell: What separates two people most profoundly is a different sense and degree of cleanliness. What avails all decency and mutual usefulness and good will toward each other — in the end the fact remains: “They can’t stand each other’s smell!” (Beyond Good and Evil, 271)
However, Confucius is not only commenting on the relative powers of these two tendencies in ourselves; he is also wondering why it is that in most people the commitment to virtue is not as natural or spontaneous as sexual attraction. The 11th century Confucian thinker Xie Liangzuo suggests that this Analect is in fact an exhortation to cultivate sincerity: Loving a beautiful woman or hating a foul smell — these are examples of sincerity. If one could only love Virtue the way one loves female beauty, this would mean sincerely loving Virtue. Unfortunately, few among the people are able to do this. (Slingerland, p.93)