On Loving Virtue More Than Sex


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)



1 thought on “On Loving Virtue More Than Sex”

  1. Krishnan,

    Confucius must be understood as a man of his times. From what I have read of his writings about (not family or related) women he viewed them as ‘safe’ to come into contact with only when they are at least of middle age or if they have the sense and fortitude, maybe ‘mindset’ or ‘intelligence’ might be a better word, like a man.

    It is very hard to translate. Perhaps in a Western sense, Confucius is saying, unless a woman is matronly, she is not to be trusted.

    Yet again ‘not to be trusted’ is phrased in an inscrutable Chinese way as having a double meaning, like a two-edged sword – that the man who who deals with a young luscious or sexually attractive lady cannot trust himself not to be tempted, not to be lascivious, not to lust; and conversely by implication such a woman would potentially also succumb to the consequent or corresponding seduction or wooing by the man who would be ‘on the hunt’. Confucius is not sexist in the Western sense. He is simply saying the obvious – that virtue at large is totally vulnerable when the sex drive hormones are pumped up. Men start thinking with a different ‘head’!

    So, “I have yet to meet a person who loves virtue as much as he loves sex.” might have been addressed by Confucius to a man, as his students were men, and the nobility he advised were all men. But conversely it would equally apply to women. Otherwise it would not make sense in the manner that his Doctrine of the Mean, of Zhong, was based on the Way of Nature.

    This statement by Confucius cited in Analect 9:18 might possibly relate to his view of the Duke of Wei, whose wife was supposedly a nymphomaniac, or relate to the Duke of Lu, who discharged him from office after the neighbouring Duke of Qi brainwashed the Duke of Lu with delegation of beautiful dancing girls (read ‘trollops’).

    In both instances Confucius left in disgust after the respective sex romping behaviour of the Dukes involved.



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