Strength of Mind

Occasionally Confucius says things that might also be found in the pages of Epictetus:


Zi Zhang asked about intelligence. The Master said, “He whose actions are influenced neither by slander that gradually poisons the mind, nor by statements that shock like a flesh-wound, may be called intelligent. Indeed, he who bases actions neither on poisonous slander nor on shocking statements may even be called far-seeing/above it all.” (Analects, 12.6)

This simple, pithy assertion has at least two other “corners.”. 

   First, it is a general defense against circumambient attempts in social life to influence us against some people and for other people by spreading negative comments. Most of our social interactions is just “noise” to create allegiances by people who actually do not care to verify the truth of what is being claimed; instead, slanders are always based on what other people are expected to consider “probable.”  The wise person inoculates himself to this noise by observing the old adage, Believe 50% of what you see, and nothing of what you hear. Confucius reminds us several times in the Analects that wisdom is built on knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It is obvious why a clear grasp of what we really know might lead to more accurate decisions and more effective action, but practicing this requires disciplining our minds: we have to slow down, think carefully about what we know and don’t know, and review frequently. This is more easily said than done.

   The wise person becomes impervious to negative “noise” initially by being more cautious with regard to what is “in the air,” and later by actually being able to distinguish between knowledge and surmise. It is not by shutting down to everything dislikeable that we might hear but by staying open and cultivating shrewdness.

   Yet even this is easier to do than to maintain equanimity in the face of toxic utterances made about ourselves — utterances made by enemies, employers, colleagues, so-called friends, and even family members and loved ones. Which of us can avoid feeling hurt by such statements? Part of the pain comes from being misunderstood and misrepresented, but a large part of it is from knowledge that the people making the utterance are not primarily interested in truth but are either wishing to hurt or seeking some kind of emotional leverage. Unlike Epictetus, Confucius does not ask us to feel nothing about that — since it is natural to feel pain if one’s parents or children are actively trying to hurt us. Rather, it suffices not to act on it: we can slow down, reflect, and put a separating wall between the garbage we might hear and the good we should do. 

   This, according to Confucius, is the mark of someone who is not only intelligent but also detached, whose mind is  far above the toxic sludge. This is why the final key character 遠, yuan, has been interpreted as both far-seeing and distant, detached.



3 thoughts on “Strength of Mind”

  1. I try real hard to be aware of when someone is trying to be insulting, and when someone is accidentally insulting. I find most of the time the insult is accidental. That’s easy to deal with. Water off a duck’s back. When I sense that someone is trying to insult me, it doesn’t matter what they say, it hurts. We like to say that a failed gesture of goodwill is still valuable because a person meant well. The reverse is true, too. It doesn’t matter if the insult fails, the aim was to cause harm. Why would someone do that?

    (Okay, so there are plenty of reasons to want to cause harm, some of them have a bit of legitimacy. Here, I refer to situations where the insult is or feels unprovoked.)


  2. Krishnan,

    Zi Zhang asked about intelligence. The Master said, “He whose actions are influenced neither by slander that gradually poisons the mind, nor by statements that shock like a flesh-wound, may be called intelligent. Indeed, he who bases actions neither on poisonous slander nor on shocking statements may even be called far-seeing/above it all.” (Analects, 12.6).

    I think Zen has more affinity to this passage or instruction than Epictetus.

    It is essentially about objective discernment or enlightenment of mind; and wisdom rather than intellect or intelligence.

    Zizhang asked about discernment – clarity in mental thought and mental sight. He asked how to handle the noise of slander that is like incessant cacophonic noises to the ear that is giving you a mind blowing migraine. He asked how to handle matters or disputes or even problems, might even be financial or promotion appraisals that have a direct bearing on one’s body or future survival, thus the figurative ‘wounding of the flesh’.

    Chinese words are always ‘figurative’. The Chinese are maddening to behold and understand. Even a simple ‘yes’ by a variant in inflexion, intonation, or manner of expression, from the accompanying droop of an eyebrow or shoulders could mean a ‘no’! To many Westerners who cannot read the nuances or appreciate the innuendos, the Chinese are a bunch of obsequious sychophants.

    The ‘far-seeing’ ‘above it all’ must relate to what Zizhang asked. There is nothing ‘far-seeng’ about ‘intelligence’. The absolute mental clarity required is rather to see far above it all – far-sighted with equanimity and with wisdom – is not to be subjected or attached to sensual emotions, not to be ‘subjective’ but to be ‘objective’ and to be sensible and restraint and see life’s problems as a task stoically. That stoic-ness is the closest it gets to Epictetus.

    But it is more Zen as in far-sightedness – to be able to see the forest from the trees in front of you, to have an ‘helicopter’ view, to see beyond the illusion of the chaotic dukkha that is the phantasmagoria of this karmic samsaric world. You have to stand tall and aloof and above the chaos, above the clouds, then you have the far-sightedness to see things as they are. When you are lost and embroiled in the quagmire of the din and distress, you will self-destruct in anger, frustration, hopelessness, despondency, irrationality and despair.



    1. This comment was very helpful, Vince. I was influenced by “slander” to think too narrowly about what else might be a “shock like a flesh-wound.” You are right, and I will redo this essay in light of that. Where Confucius and Epictetus differ is in letting oneself feel: there is Shun weeping in the fields, like a junzi should for natural reasons. Also I think I should translate ming as “discernment” or something like that; I realize more and more that most people don’t regard “intelligence” as I do, as not the rational faculty but the capacity for clear perspective as well as instant penetration. You help me see more sides to “yuan”: not “far-seeing,” as the translators and tradition have it, but “having perspective as if from far” as well as “far-piercing.” These Analects are truly subtle brushstrokes, meant for someone trained in the Odes.


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