Demanding Much of Yourself

Thinking generally about Confucius’ resonant way with words and more particularly about his use of 遠 (“far, distant”), I remembered this piece of valuable advice:


The Master said, “Demand much of yourself but ask little of others, and you will keep resentment at a distance.” (Analects, 15.15, tr.Slingerland)

The translator here is trying to keep the ambiguity of the last sentence: stay far from being resented by others as well as keep feelings of resentment far from your own heart. If you ask too much of others and too little of yourself, everyone will hate you — and because such unrealistic expectations of others are doomed to disappointment, you will begin to hate them too. The superior person stays far, aloof, from this two-directional blame-game not by adopting a posture of no resentment, but by cutting off the problem at the roots — that is, by adjusting demands and expectations. It is good medicine for restoring ourselves to sanity.

   The Annals of Lü Buwei (c.239 BC), the great Qin Dynasty encyclopedia of all things Chinese, has a passage amplifying on this:

Therefore, the [superior person’s] demands upon others are determined by the other’s abilities, whereas his demands upon himself are determined by the standard of rightness. If your demands upon others are determined by their abilities, they will be easy to satisfy, and if your demands are easy to satisfy, you will win over people. If your demands upon yourself are determned by rightness then it will be difficult for you to do wrong, and if it is difficult for you to do wrong then your conduct will be refined. In this way you can easily take responsibility for the whole world and still have energy to spare. Unworthy people are not this way: they demand rightness from others, and demand from themselves what anyone can attain. When you demand rightness from others, your demands are difficult to meet, and when your demands are difficult to meet you alienate others. When you demand from yourself what anyone can attain, it is easy to do as you wish, and when it is easy to do as you wish, conduct becomes careless. (Annals of Lü Buwei, ch.19.8, tr. Knoblock and Riegel)
   Savored cold, this advice seems like good common sense — but on the hotplate of daily living, it is easy to lose track of this and lapse into our usual cycles of grumbling, blame, and disappointment. It is always everyone else who is at fault, indeed the whole world: only our own farts never smell bad.

   The Qing Dynasty Confucian scholar Wu Tingdong pointedly asks: Learning [self-cultivation] is carried on with regard to yourelf only — if you are sincere and strict in regulating yourself, when would you have the time to make demands upon others?

[I am grateful to Edward Slingerland for pointing out both of these quotations in his note to this Analect.]


8 thoughts on “Demanding Much of Yourself”

  1. Krishnan,

    This is a good one about ‘Worry about your own social standing (character) first’.

    Of all the Analects this 15:15 is reminiscent of the Golden Rule that you find in the Buddhist as well as the Christian scriptures. So the Western audience would find it easy to pick this one up.

    Goes to show that the foundation of the major spiritual philosophies all share common roots of righteous behaviour.

    Just as in the Bible story of the Adulteress that was about to be stoned and where Jesus said to the would be stoners – “He who is without sin, let him throw the first stone.” (John 8:7). And when the would be moral judges left, this was what followed in John 8:10-11 – 10 Jesus again straightened up and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? 11 ‘No one, sir,’ she replied. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go away, and from this moment sin no more.”

    Similarly in John 8:15 – Jesus said to the Pharisees – 15 “You judge by human standards; I judge no one,”

    And again in Matthew 7:1-2 – 1 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; 2 because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you.”

    So, in Analects 15.15 – Confucius is saying that one has to be more demanding of oneself or conversely one should focus on enhancing or self value-adding one’s own qualities rather than to judge others, i.e. in practical terms – curtail finding fault in others, be less critical of others, demanding less of others, for they would naturally suffer their own shortcomings. You should instead concentrate on worrying about how you stand in society and let others take their stand on their own accord and making. For necessity begins at home!

    We previously dealt with ‘character’ or ‘social standing’ in Analects 8.8. Here in Analects 15.15 we are dealing with ‘character’ or ‘social standing’ from the application of the ‘Li’ point of view.

    Vince Cheok

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! And in John 8, when the crowd melts away, it is the eldest who go first — because they know best what they are. And of course there is the beam in one’s own eye. The Chinese are so practical about these things: if you do this, everyone will hate you and you will hate everyone!


  2. I don’t find this advice as helpful as you do. The most difficult and demanding people I’ve known, worked for, or worked with, demanded as much from themselves as they did from their employees, colleagues, or family members. It might seem easy enough to say that, as an employee or colleague (or friend or relative) that these people’s expectations or standards were unrealistic, but many (certainly not all) of them held themselves to the same or more stringent standards than they asked for from other people. It did not seem to give them an aloof posture, free from resentment. I realize that this self-demand is its own form of egotistical grandiosity, in that it may have stemmed from an unrealistic view of their own powers or responsibilities. However, I think that this self-demand often led them to honest confusion about why other people might be unwilling to demand the same standards for their own or others’ work or behavior.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this is why Confucius emphasizes NOT demanding from others what you demand of yourself, but instead “what they are able” — which is a judgment call obviously, but I think he means what they are emotionally as well as mentally and physically able to do. This is the harder thing to practice because it requires sympathy. Otherwise for sure there will be “resentment” from all sides. I know well the kind of person you describe: driven, haughty, and hated.


    2. Clearly I need to address this more fully on the next go through, and perhaps Mencius is the one who gives a more nuanced approach. I believe Confucius here is mainly speaking to the habit of complaining about other people’s failures, and reminding us of the priority of the work we have to do with ourselves over our expectations of other people. Raising teenagers, I find this aphorism especially helpful in regard to 1) the amount of complaining they do, and 2) our need to be aware of what they can do or can’t — which involves knowing them! I like it that C says “what they are able to do” — nothing more, nothing less. But only with ourselves can we strive for quixotic standards.


  3. Krishnan,

    In my opinion, with Confucius in respect to Analects 15:15, we should contain his ‘saying’ as appertaining to the inculcation or application of ‘Li’ as to building up ‘character’ or ‘social standing’, as to exemplary personal attributes.

    It has nothing to do with a boss expecting and demanding his employees to be assiduous or be more effective or efficient or creative in the workplace, for Confucius would, on the basis of what we know about his life, fail at business or commerce or anything mercantile. In any case the traditional Chinese boss would only expect their employees to be honest and hardworking, and not that they should also be able to reinvent the wheel as in the West.

    It is all about focusing personally on whether one is the exemplary gentleman rather than judge others whether they are an exemplary gentleman. It is more like in a golf game, whilst it is demanding to all the players, I should worry about my own form and game more than being a critique of another’s form and game.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. That certainly makes sense, Vince. Most of the early Chinese commentators take it as advice for a ruler or administrator, which is why I took it as inclusive of a boss’ relation to employees. To me — bringig up recalcitrant teenagers — it is also highly appropriate to parent-child relationships and teacher-student relationships. When I see my friends enraged at their parents for their sins or failures, I also want to quote this to them! The game is a good analogy for most things of this kind: it is bad
      sportsmanship to blame the equipment or the fellow players.


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