The Use of Force: A Confucian View

He who lives by force must use his might to conquer the cities that other men guard and to defeat the soldiers that other men send forth to battle, and in doing so he inevitably inflicts great injury upon the people of other states. If he inflicts great injury on the people of other states, they will inevitably hate him fiercely and will day by day grow more eager to fight against him. Moreover, he who uses his might to conquer the cities that other men guard and to defeat the soldiers that other men send forth to battle must inevitably inflict great injury on his own people as well. If he inflicts great injury upon his own people, they will inevitably hate him fiercely and will day by day grow less eager to fight his battles. With the people of other states growing daily more eager to fight against him, and his own people growing daily less eager to fight in his defense, the ruler who relies upon strength will on the contrary be reduced to weakness. He acquires territory but loses the support of his people; his worries increase while his accomplishments dwindle. He finds himself with more and more cities to guard and less and less of the means to guard them with; thus in time the great state will on the contrary be stripped down in this way to insignificance. The other feudal lords never cease to eye him with hatred and to dream of revenge; never do they forget their enmity. They spy out his weak points and take advantage of his defects, so that he lives in constant peril.  (Hsün Tzu, tr. Watson, pp.39-40)

Xunzi is no pacifist, but here he gives a beautiful and lucid analysis of the consequences of depending upon violence to gain one’s ends. In one paragraph he reveals the self-destruction intrinsic to the violent mindset. The power of this account lies in its long view of a causal chain, both for the aggressor and for the victim. Inevitably, situations never stay the same, and when they change it is according to a predictable pattern. In taking any significant action, an intelligent person will first think out the probable consequences, and these tend to follow typical patterns. Xunzi’s exposition is general enough to apply to military conquest in all times and places, but it extends to any kind of “use of force”: in politics, where the stronger of two parties simply imposes its will in the other; in economics, where one company eats up another or forces it out of business; in relationships, where one partner consistently forces the other to do her bidding. Any human action has its cost, but we see again and again how a habitual reliance on force will eventually backfire. The only exception to this is in the world of sports, where the stronger and more skilled players can simply win and leave the arena with a clear victory; in real life, on the other hand, there is no departure from the arena, and no definitive defeat or victory. Most people who live by the sword live by the delusion that there can be a definitive act of violence. One implication of Xunzi’s paragraph is that if we decide to use force, we should also have decided to accept the consequences. 

   Confucians are often criticized for their idealistic naïveté about people, and for being too soft and squeamish in the hard world of real politics; but Xunzi turns the criticism around by suggesting that the warmonger always bites off far more than he can chew, and will perish from his indigestion.

One who truly understands how to use force does not rely upon force. (40)

Blinding Obsession (蔽)

Only a rich thinker will inspire schools based on opposing interpretations of the same book. It is not surprising that the two greatest early Confucians should pick out and develop two different strands of the Master’s thought into markedly different political philosophies.  Mencius, who insisted on the fundamental goodness of human nature, made Ren or Humane Goodness the essential core of our work as human beings. Xunzi, on the other hand, was less optimistic, and viewed human nature as innately selfish and destructive; consequently, he amplified on Confucius’ notion of Li, Propriety, as the principle that trains an antisocial species to become capable of social life. Confucius himself notoriously avoided making any assertions about human nature. Both Mencius and Xunzi lived through violent times, so the difference between their views cannot be simply attributed to different life experience. In the following weeks I’ll be writing on Xunzi, the less well known of the two. 

   With Xunzi we find ourselves far from the cryptic aphoristic style of the old Masters; instead, we get extended passages in which an insight is unfolded or an argument sharpened. Observe the elegant lucidity of a refined pessimist as he describes 蔽 () , “blinding obsession,” which is the special blight of statesmanship :

The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed by a small corner of truth and fail to comprehend its overall principles. . . . Nowadays the feudal lords follow different theories of government and the philosophers of the hundred schools teach different doctrines. Inevitably some teach what is right and some, what is wrong; some rulers govern well and others bring about disorder. Even the ruler of a chaotic state or the follower of a pernicious doctrine will undoubtedly in all sincerity seek what is proper and try to better his condition. But he is jealous and mistaken in his understanding of the Way and hence allows other men to lead him astray. He clings to his familiar ways and is loath to hear them spoken ill of; he judges everything on the basis of his old prejudices; and when he encounters some different theory, he is loath to hear it praised. Thus he moves farther and farther away from a condition of order, and yet never ceases to believe that he is doing right. Is this not what it means to be obsessed by a small corner of truth and to fail in the search for proper ways? If one fails to use his mind, then black and white may be right before his eyes and he will not see them; thunder or drums may be sounding in his ear and he will not hear them. How much more so with a man whose mind is obsessed! (Hsün Tzu, tr. Burton Watson, p,121)

We easily find prominent examples of this kind of obsession in our own political life: not only fanatics and idealogues, but also people of more moderate ideals who nonetheless can become violently fixated. Xunzi is shrewd in pointing out that such a person might be perfectly “sincere,” and that there is usually a gradual progression towards disaster as the initial fixation is reinforced and augmented. For a statesman 蔽 may well be the most perilous flaw because, in a position that demands a grasp of complex wholes and the subtle tensions between parts pulling in different directions, obsessiveness narrows the view and in doing so loses the whole. Obviously this is also true for leadership on a smaller scale, such as managing a business or heading a family. 

   In one-on-one interactions too we have experienced 蔽: at the painful end of a doomed relationship or friendship, we often realize that the signs of future disintegration were available to us in the first five mnutes of the acquaintance. Through attraction or other kinds of enchantment, we overrode our better sense and invested our energies in a version of the encounter heavily edited to suit our desires. We could have noticed; indeed, our friends will gently observe that something is “off” but not press the point for fear of alienating us.  If we had been capable of intelligently assimilating all the details of the encounter instead of just the ones we want, we would not have gone hurtling down the dark alley of intensifying obsession. The same tendency towards 蔽 can be recognized when we fortify an aversion to people who have hurt or displeased us. Stepping back and attempting to see things whole can have a healthy dampening effect on an incipient fixation.

   Does Xunzi see 蔽 as inevitable to all but a born sage, and thus needing only the constant presence of correctives, such as prudent advisors and friends? Indeed, is it possible to educate us out of 蔽 completely? If not, then is it sufficient for us to become more aware and intelligent about 蔽? Perhaps we begin gaining such intelligence by sitting down and systematically studying the beginnings, middles, and ends of our own fixations — understanding the “near at hand” in order to understand the same phenomenon in other people.



 Wax On, Wax Off

What kinds of things do the close disciples of Confucius disagree about? Ziyou and Zixia, two men praised by the Master for their intelligence and refinement, do not see eye to eye about what should be given priority in teaching:

子游曰。子夏之門人小子、當洒掃、應對、進退、則可矣、抑末也。本之則無。如之何 子夏聞之曰。噫、言游過矣。君子之道、孰先傳焉、孰後倦焉。譬諸草木、區以別矣。君子之道、焉可誣也。有始有卒者、其惟聖人乎。
Ziyou said, “The disciples and followers of Zixia, in sprinkling and sweeping the ground, in answering and replying, in entering and departing formal company, are sufficiently competent. But these are only the lesser branches of learning, and they are left ignorant of what is essential. How can they be acknowledged as sufficiently taught?”

Zixia heard of the remark and said, “Alas! Ziyou has missed the point. Whose disciples will be first to be taught the Way of the superior person and then first to weary of it? As in the case of grass and trees, which are sorted according to their classes, so he deals with his disciples. How can the Way of a superior person be such as to stunt them? Is it not the sage alone, who can start at the beginning and work through to the consummation of learning?” (19.12)

Ziyou, speaking from the perspective of one who would place the “higher learning” foremost in education, expresses polite contempt for Zixia’s apparent fixation with trivial rudiments: surely we should go straight for the fundamental principles, and teach the young how to think about important matters first? Understanding Confucius, the Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, is more important than knowing how to clean our rooms and do our laundry!

   Since this Analect gives Zixia the last word, it is reasonable to assume that the editors sided with his criticism of Ziyou’s misapprehension of how education works. Anybody who has tried to raise functional teenagers knows that if the young person is clueless about how to go about cleaning up a kitchen or a desk, and cannot perform such basic tasks with vigor and attentiveness, he is unlikely to be blessed with a mind that is clear and orderly enough to study anything difficult. Little tasks and big projects exist in a continuum; besides, which of us occupies the viewpoint of one able to behold the entirety of things and judge what is small or large? The bacterium you fail to wash off your plate might kill you, and if studied, might lead to profound knowledge about organisms; the ability to think carefully about the descent of a pebble from hand to ground may yield insights into the laws of physics. Likewise, an ambitiously cogent theory about virtue might have zero affect on the behavior of someone too immature or impetuous to assimilate it deeply; reading Nietzsche or Heidegger might be confusing or even crippling to a student who has never attained any kind of excellence or experienced heroism.  In fact, studying the great writers on war, such as Xenophon or Thucydides, might turn a callow youth into a reckless warmonger if that youth has never experienced military training, physical hardship, and care for wounded comrades. Zixia’s educational ethos is fundamentally not about practical necessity but about Li, or propriety, which shades into Ren, or Humane Goodness. When a student is assigned to clean a bedroom for a guest, he will do a lovingly meticulous job if he imagines that he is cleaning it not for “just anyone” but for his mother: the feeling of affectionate respect will permeate every movement, and if it permeates every task that he does each day, the understanding of Li and Ren will be both deep and natural to him, not just shallowly conceptual. 

   In playing a musical instrument, even the Master will practice his scales daily; in practicing martial arts, a black belt will not cease to practice basic footwork and strikes. Indeed, the difference between a good practitioner and one who falls away from the practice early is that the good practititioner enjoys practicing the basics. Spending hours getting a beautiful sound from individual notes is not lesser musicianship than playing Brahms; working diligently on hitting a heavy bag hard with a perfect fist is not a lower level of karate than performing complex forms. It is common to see how the student fixated on the more glamorous tasks soon wearies of the basic ones and ceases to do anything. Zixia is reminding us that a good teacher always needs to know where each student is in terms of mental preparedness, and also takes care in guiding the student step by step. If we care enough, we will not rush it. Mencius gives us an image for this: a mountain brook, as it flows downwards, fills up a hollow fully before it spills over and continues on its course.

   The last sentence of this Analect can also be rendered: Both beginner’s mind and simultaneously consummate attainment — only a sage can have that. The rest of us need to observe well conceived progressions, and learn how to find satisfaction in ordinary practice. 

On Conversations, and Refusing to Teach

Why do so many of the ancient masters come down to us in the form of recorded or fictionalized conversations? I am thinking of Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, Mencius, Yajnavalkya, and Jesus. It is not only because in some cultures writing wasn’t a “thing ” yet; even in cultures with established literary traditions, it is possible to reject writing, as Socrates does in the Phaedrus. However, writing is only one mode of the larger activity that is refused: this is teaching or instructing. The surviving records of these masters are already formalized documents that enshrine official teachings, carrying the stamp of approval from institutions that have grown up and sometimes ossified in the footsteps of the master’s disciples. But even in these documents — even through stiff translations —  it is remarkable how distinct the voices of Socrates, the Buddha, and Jesus can sound across the millennia. In reading these texts, it is striking how many of them are conversations, not lectures or treatises; and in a conversation, the interlocutors also have voices and characters that have to be taken into account, because the masters say different things to different people. 

   Mencius explicitly broaches the choice of conversation over instruction on several occasions — for example,


Mencius said, ‘There are many ways to teach. I refuse to teach or instruct, but that’s just another kind of teaching.’ (Mencius, 6.2.16)

Poring through the Book of Mencius, we find that he almost never teaches; most of the passages are memorable snippets of conversation. The same is true of Confucius: the Analects (Lun Yu, literally “edited conversations”) feels like a collection of obiter dicta, things that Confucius said that at least one person did not forget. Although subsequent tradition likes to picture these sages as sitting on a raised platform lecturing, in fact they didn’t believe in teaching as a valuable mode of transmission. Instead, the proof is in the day-to-day living, how the master speaks and conducts himself, his sensibility and humane refinement as they are expressed in his actions and words from moment to moment. The “teaching” is only one surface of a rounded, fluid way of being, which is entered into by hanging out with the master, listening, watching, questioning, playing, and emulating:


Mencius said, ‘There are five ways in which the superior person teaches. There are some on whom his influence descends like seasonable rain. There are some whose virtue he perfects, and some whose talents he helps to develop. There are some whose questions he answers. There are some who, inspired by him,  privately cultivate and correct themselves. The superior man teaches in these five ways.’ (7.1.40)

   The books of Confucius and Mencius do not present theories or arguments; rather, they are fragments of conversations through which we can glimpse and imagine what a better human life might be like. They give no formulas for thought or action, and no transcendent vantage point from which we can criticize life. Instead of “theory,” which stands outside and “beholds” (theaw), we are inside the flow of life circumstances in which people think, speak, and interact continuously, figuring out new situations as they appear and struggling to understand what just happened. Recollected conversation is the only fitting literary medium to render the character of someone who knows how to live well.

   I have come realize that nearly all the great doorways and turning-points in life occur in conversations: the job interview, the new friendship, the destruction of friendship, the romance, the conversion, the profound reconciliations, the discovery of “calling.” Conversation is where learning really happens. I am a deadly-serious, slow, intense reader, and books have affected me a lot — but no book has taught me as much as some conversations I have had. I learned more about literature from weekly conversations over three years with Arthur Sale, my tutor in Cambridge: he never lectured, but drew me naturally into his living relationship with books, and our conversation blossomed over tea and on walks — indeed, thirty years after his death, in my head he is still the main person I talk with when I read poetry. From my brief career as a researcher into Shakespeare’s texts, I am certain that no graduate program would have given me as much as my three-year apprenticeship with Marvin Spevack, great philologist and Shakespeare scholar, in which I spent hours each day studying the specific textual decisions of three hundred years of Shakespeare editors, and discussing these details with a professor for whom these dead editors were living colleagues. I learned osmotically from his silences, grunts, chuckles — how his fingers found words on the page, the speed and accuracy with which he worked, the way his mind made connections. Through conversation, we study three-dimensionally, and it is what the human intelligence is meant to do. The ancients knew this. Confucius and Mencius, like Christ and the Buddha, didn’t attempt the more two-dimensional mode of argument or theory, because what they were after was so much greater. 



The Love of Study

On a first reading of the Analects readers are often surprised by the emphasis placed throughout on “study” or “learning,” and how intimately connected it is to moral excellence:


Zi Xia said, “Studying extensively, and with firm, sincere focus; asking incisive questions, and reflecting on what is near at hand — Humane Goodness (ren) is in these.” (Analects, 19.6)

This is spoken late in the book by the student of Confucius who happens to be known for his refinement and learning — and whom Confucius found to be occasionally too cautious, perhaps from excessive meticulousness. Zixia’s point — amplifying on many statements by his teacher — is that Humane Goodness (ren), the central Confucian virtue, is incomplete if it is blind and without understanding. Humane Goodness is not simply a feeling, a sentiment, an intention: the feeling, if it is not to be misguided sentimentality, has to encompass accurate perception, understanding of the situation at hand, and intelligent determination of what to do. The analogy from the classics of the West would be how three of the four cardinal virtues depend on the fourth: Justice, Courage, and Moderation would be stunted and inchoate without Wisdom — for how can we be just if we are not interested in thinking through the facts of a case, and how can we be truly courageous if we are too stupid to perceive danger or distinguish between good ends and bad ends? Understanding is thus essential for the fulfillment of the virtuous impulse.

   Obviously Zi Xia is not just talking about book-learning or academic study, although he might include it. By “study” what he means is the whole intelligence — mind, heart, and imagination — as it is sincerely brought to bear on a particular problem. Typically Confucian here is the emphasis on “reflecting on what is near at hand”: by fully exploring and comprehending ourselves, our immediate relationships, the world around us to which we have direct access in our experience, we have the wherewithal to grasp more “distant” things like history and politics. If we are not interested in studying in these ways, how can it be said that we care about anything? Our supposed acts of ren would then be only gestures and imitations, not based on any genuine concern with the truth of the situation. Humane Goodness, ren, is thus not possible without the desire to understand, which generates the activity of study.

   In another passage Confucius expatiates on the love of study as a corrective or moderating component in the six virtues. Without it, the virtue becomes unbalanced and distorted:


The Master said, “Zilu, have you heard of the six excellences and their corresponding six distortions?” Zilu replied, “I have not.” “Sit down, and I will tell them to you. The love of Humane Goodness without the love of study leads to a foolish simplicity. The love of knowledge without the love of study leads to dissipation of mind. The love of steadfast faithfulness without the love of study leads to harmful inflexibility. The love of uprightness without the love of study leads to haughty intolerance. The love of boldness without the love of study leads to unruliness. The love of resoluteness without the love of study leads to willfulness.” (17.8)

Here he is giving a valuable lesson to a disciple known for warrior-fortitude and courage, strong-willed impetuousness and stubborn zeal: the lesson itself represents an effort to temper a tendency to excess. In each case, the impulse to excess is slowed down by study, which brings more nuance, perspective, and dimensionality to the occasion. How often have we felt righteous indignation melt away when we stop to consider the reasons motivating our opponents, and how often have we mindlessly given in to generous impulses only to find that in letting ourselves be duped we have only made the situation worse? To a true Confucian it is not enough to follow propriety and the heart’s impulses; indeed, sincere respect for propriety and humaneness requires the full engagement of the understanding. Li and ren are not two blind guys stumbling around on the rocks; they require far-sighted acuity, which is developed in study. Confucian goodness is therefore never simple-minded, since in most judgments there are opposing considerations to juggle and knots that require subtle insight to unravel. To become good at such juggling and unraveling, the student of excellence has to love to study — because without such love, the work would only be exhausting.

Confucius’ Gutsy Harmony

Confucians are often stereotyped as docile peddlers of “social harmony,” a state of civil and familial peace that is achieved through smooth manners, strict obedience to hierarchy, and a smidgeon of sycophancy. Disparagers of Confucius frequently describe him as a propagandist of social control. The truth, however, is very different: even in the Analects he is always at odds with tyrants, and he is usually unemployed because politicians rarely like to be held to higher standards than profit and petty victories.

  When Duke Ding, nominal ruler of the state of Lu, asks Confucius if there can be “a single phrase which could ruin a country,”  

 孔子對曰。言不可以若是其幾也 人之言曰。予無樂乎爲君、唯其言而莫予違也。』 如其善而莫之違也、不亦善乎。如不善而莫之違也、不幾乎一言而喪邦乎。
Confucius answered, “… words in themselves cannot have such an effect, but the people also have a proverb which says: ‘I do not enjoy ruling; I only enjoy people not disagreeing with me.’ Now if you are a good man and no one disagrees with you, it is fine. But if you are evil, and no one disagrees with you, perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance.” (13.15)
He is describing the kind of tyrant, familiar in our days, who wants power not because they want to rule,  but because power for them is a corroboration of their egos that is necessarily pained by criticism and craves loud agreement. If such a tyrant gets the universal agreement he seeks, the countrymwould disappear overnight into this man’s big mouth. 

   But harmonizing (和) is far from agreement (同):


The Master said: “The noble man harmonizes but does not merely agree. The inferior man agrees, but does not harmonize.” (13.23, tr. Slingerland)

An anecdote from the Spring and Autumn Annals sheds light on Confucius’ meaning:

The Marquis of Qi had returned from a hunt, and was being attended by Master Yan at the Chuan Pavilion when Ran Qiu came galloping up to them at full speed. The Marquis remarked, “It is only Ran Qiu who harmonizes (和) with me!” Master Yan replied, “Certainly Ran Qiu agrees (同 ) with you, but how can you say that he harmonizes with you?” The Marquis asked, “Is there a difference getween agreeing and harmonizing?” Master Yan answered, “There is a difference. Harmonizing is like cooking soup. You have water, fire, vnegar, puckle, salt, and plums with which to cook fish and meat. You heat it by means of firewood, and then the cook harmonizes the ingredients, balancing the various flavors, strengthening the taste of whatever is lacking and moderating the taste of whatever is excessive. Then the gentleman eats it, and it serves to relax his heart. The relationship between lord and minister is just like this. If in what the lord declares to be acceptable there is something that is not right, the minister submits to him that it is not right, and in this way what the lord declares to be acceptable is made perfect. If in what the lord declares to be wrong there is something that is, in fact, acceptable, the minister submits to him that it is acceptable, and in this way the inappropriate aspects of what the lord declares wrong are discarded. In this way, government is perfected, with no infringement upon what is right…Now, Ran Qiu is not like this. What his lord declares acceptable, he also declares acceptable; what his lord declares wrong, he also declares wrong. This is like trying to season water with more water — who would be willing to eat it? It is like playing nothing but a single note on your zither — who would want to listen to it?” (“Duke Zhao”, year 20, Spring and Autumn Annals, tr. Legge)

Harmony is formed from differences of perspective. As long as there are individual human beings, such differences are unavoidable, and the wise person is not afraid of them. Indeed, the tension between different views gives a more complex flavor to the broth. While the smaller human being will tend to be “lost” in his own view and want to obliterate all other views, the greater-souled human being — knowing that difference in society cannot be obliterated — will derive satisfaction from working with the intractable people in front of him, and will seek to act as a corrective — a balancer, a harmonizer– of their excesses. This requires tact, courage, and stubbornness. 


Zilu asked about serving one’s lord. The Master replied, “Do not deceive him. Oppose him openly.” (14.22, tr.Slingerland)

To do otherwise — blowing him off, as it were —  is to give up and turn one’s back on him — in effect, negating the difference by avoiding it. Mencius will say that if you don’t speak truth to your sovereign, you are in fact stealing from him.

   Confucian harmony is thus not at all the polished, non-confrontational gliding of silken bodies past one another. It involves direct, sincere, eye-to-eye confrontation, with civility and firmness. It works in accordance with Li, the code of propriety and mutual respect, and also Ren, humane goodness, through which we care about other people and seek the best for them. If we were wrong, we would want someone to point it out; if we were not wholly wrong but partially right, we would want someone to state the other side. Because there is difference, there is always another side. The harmonic human being is attuned to this, delights in it, and never stops trying to find either a resolution or an illuminating tension.

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.]

“May I Ask About Death?”

Lu said, “May I ask about death?” Confucius said, “If you don’t understand what life is, how will you understand death?” (11.12)

Confucius’ answer is exquisitely wry. Just as Lu’s question probably made him smile, this answer probably made Lu smile with a glimmer of satori. Why is it that we like to ask this kind of speculative question? — after all, the living being we ask it of has had no direct experience of death, and even if he could give an answer how could we begin to understand it? It is like someone who has never experienced love asking a person in love to explain it to him: how could he know whether or not he has understood the explanation? With one brief sentence, Confucius sweeps away the speculative fascination with death. 

   It must have come as a flash to Lu that to understand life takes at least a lifetime. All of Confucius’ teachings push us to examine our own hearts and the web of relationships that we find ourselves in: parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends, servants, superiors, teachers, students. The way to become a full human being takes us through the arduous complexities of all these relationships, which consume our attentions every day, and which change constantly. It is a characteristic of our fundamental relationships that each time we think we have mastered something, it shifts onto new ground. With so much work to do — right here, right now, with our aging parents, our anxious spouses, our adolescent children with their hearts boiling in tumult — why should we distract ourselves with theoretical questions beyond the reach of experience?

   Montaigne, who meditated on death throughout his life, realized in one of his later essays that the people he knew who died with simple dignity tended to be ordinary people who also lived with simple dignity. Because they lived well, they died well:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly; don’t bother your head about it…We trouble our life by concern about death, and death by concern about life…Philosophy orders us to have death ever before our eyes, to foresee and consider it before the time comes, and afterward gives us the rules and precautions to provide against our being wounded by this foresight and this thought. That is what those doctors do who make us ill so that they may have sonething on which to employ their drugs and their art. If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way. (Montaigne, “On Physiognomy,” tr. Frame)

A Way with Words

Just as Socrates loved Homer enough to know the Iliad and Odyssey by heart, Confucius had the Book of Odes burned into his bones and memorized in his marrow; indeed, the Analects are permeated by the Odes. When one of the disciples asks Confucius’ son if there was anything his father taught him that he didn’t teach the disciples, the son replied, “No. He was standing alone once, when I passed below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the Odes?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, If you do not learn the Odes, you will not have the wherewithal to speak.’ I retired and studied the Odes.” (16.13) 

   The Odes are the foundation for humane education, not for the sake of a merely technical skill with words (as in “grammar” and “rhetoric”) but for acclimating the young to a noble elevation and dignity, and stirring them to higher planes of character and admirable utterance, which may be absent in their ordinary lives:

The Master said, “It is by the Odes that the mind is inspired.
   “It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established.
   “It is from Music that the consummation is received.”

The Master said, “In the Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence, ‘Having no base thoughts.’” (2.2)

   However, studying the Odes brings something more important than moral edification; it teaches us to read words of multiple significations and teases us into developing an ability to see beyond literal denotation. In the following exchange, we see the zealous Zi Gong making a connection and discovering hidden meaning in an old poem:

Zi Gong asked: “What do you think of a poor man who doesn’t grovel or a rich man who isn’t proud?” Confucius said, “They are good, but not as good as a poor man who is satisfied and a rich man who loves propriety.” Zi Gong said, “The Book of Odes says:

Like cutting and filing,
Grinding and polishing. 

“Is this what you are talking about?” Confucius said, “Ah, now I can begin to discuss the Book of Odes with Zi Gong. I speak of various things, and he knows what is coming.” (1.15)

In what Confucius says to him, Zi Gong hears the Ode and understands that he is being advised to keep working on himself. Confucius then humorously remarks that Zi Gong is now ready to grasp the deeper senses of the Odes. The Book of Odes has also become an occasion for two people to relate to one another in discussing goodness. 

   There is a similar conversation with the refined Zixia:

Zixia asked, saying, “What is the meaning of the verse: ’The pretty dimples of her artful smile! The well-defined black and white of her eye! The plain ground for the colors?’”
   The Master said, “The business of laying on the colors follows the preparation of the plain ground.”
   “Ritual then is a secondary thing?” 
   The Master said, “It is Shang who can bring out my meaning! Now I can begin to talk about the odes with him.”

Here, the student brings out a profound implication that pleasantly surprises the teacher, who is surely grateful to be shown a hitherto undiscovered meaning in a long-familiar poem. 

   One of the greatest pleasures in life is to have friends who “share” with us a common body of beloved poetry; it is like owning a landscape in common, in which we can roam together freely and find beautiful things to show one another. Confucius is so happy to “know” a man’s heart through the poems he loves that he even bestows his niece on a student for loving the right poem:

Nan Rong frequently recited the verse of the “White Jade Table.” Confucius gave him his elder brother’s daughter to wed. (11.6, tr.A.C.Muller)

The verse in question expresses commitment to carefulness with words: “A flaw in a white jade tablet may be polished away; but nothing can be done for a flaw in one’s words.” (Odes, 256) Confucius is moved to find Nan Rong reciting this verse so often, perhaps even when he thinks he is alone. Both of them know that the steadfast care for words reveals a far deeper commitment: to truth, to troth, and to character that is built through saying what we mean, no more and no less, and through saying it well. A man with such a character would make a trustworthy husband for a beloved niece.

   An education founded on studying the Odes develops a sensibility for terse, suggestive language, and the intuitive sympathy essential for “getting” such language. The intuitive sympathy extends to keeping pace with our friends who also “get” the poems and who might see different sides to them. Thus, the Odes provide a place of congregation for an entire community, and an occasion to learn to read another human being’s words with penetration. If all moral action depends on a capacity for accurate sympathy, what better way to cultivate that than through imbibing the Odes at at early age?

   Although in most translations Confucius comes across as a tedious Polonius obsessed with correct usages, in his own language he is obviously somebody with a gift for resonant, poetic language. Throughout the entire Analects he takes conventional terms — such as junzi, ren, li — and re-animates them with new meaning. Take, for instance, the passage I presented in my previous essay:

 “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)

In my first attempt at this, I read it too narrowly to refer only to slander and utterance intended to hurt. After a conversation with a friend who is more sensitive to Confucius’ language than I am, I realized that statements that shock like a flesh-wound encompasses a broad range of vicissitudes, including legal and financial catastrophes, betrayals and news of deaths, and medical upsets. The culminating adjective is literally “far” — a common word, but dense with possibilities. Disambiguating it, translators end up with something clear but flat, such as “perceptive” or “aloof.” But “far” says so much more: aloof, far away, transcendent, seeing far and wide, far-penetrating, far-reaching…Only a poet would have ended this Analect with a word so concrete and rich. 

   Unlike a language like Sanskrit, with its intricate grammatical structure that tends to over-specify the relations between the words of a sentence, Chinese tends to under-specify and leave abundant room for the intuitive intelligence that enjoys seeing all the possible connections. Confucius’ language draws on this tendency. With each sentence he gives us a corner and invites us to discover three more. But as we see, it is much more than a pedagogical ruse: Confucius’ way with words has its womb in the Odes. He keeps to this Way because all healthy social interaction depends on an ability to read freely and sympathetically between the lines, and on the cultivated tactful intelligence that can understand without needing to spell out. Without this, all social interactions descend into legalism, where every term has to be defined in order to be “used” more effectively in the justifications of argument. Lifelong immersion in the Odes may preserve us from this descent.

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.