To Love One Thing Only

Here is a beautiful sentence by Xunzi — beautiful even in translation — on the three keys to self-cultivation:

Of all the ways to order the temperament and train the mind [xin: heart-mind], none is more direct than to follow ritual [Li, propriety], none more vital than to find a teacher, none more godlike than to learn to love one thing alone.” (Hsün Tzu, “Improving Yourself,” p.26-27, tr. Watson)

In any field of action, we follow the proprieties and conventions. In the professions that would involve studying the work of colleagues and masters in their fields, watching how they do things, speaking with appropriate formality, and developing the mental habits that lead to approval and honor in the field. Proprieties and conventions, the complex codes of what’s done and not done, said and not said, are invaluable guides in all human activities, and we grow through observing them and letting them work on us. But they are not enough: we need a teacher, someone more experienced, to illuminate our way through the labyrinth of Li by virtue of their years of experience and developed skill. But even that is not enough: what sustains us through all the pitfalls and disappointments of our difficult endeavor has to be love, whether of an idea, a person, or activity. 

   So far this seems obvious. What is striking is Xunzi’s insistence on loving one thing alone — a single-minded devotion that orders our temperament by giving it direction. A human life has so many things pulling on it: the claims of livelihood and survival, of pleasure, and of a mob of people. It is easy to drown ourselves in confusion. Instead, what if we were to focus our energies on one thing only, on something that is big enough to order the many dizzying tugs on our attentions? Xunzi means something like “virtue,” or “human excellence” — in much the same way as Socrates might want us to concentrate on “justice.” Indeed, almost anything might bring order to the temperament and train the heart-mind: an athlete might dedicate himself wholly to his sport, an artist to her painting, a mother to her children. In the film “Citizen Kane,” the interviewer/reporter expresses surprise to find that Kane’s friend Bernstein is now rich. Bernstein shrugs it off: “Rich? It’s easy to get rich, if that’s ALL you want to do.” But even dedication is not enough: it needs the other two keys to temper it — Li to bring moderation and attentiveness, a teacher to give perspective and common-sense — otherwise we will have a fanatic. We may need both Li and a teacher to learn to love one thing alone, for most people are mired in distractions and do not find it natural to do that. Xunzi is always realistic about our need for guidance.

    In Halldor Laxness’ masterpiece of sardonic lyricism, Independent People, there is a small boy who is destined to be a great poet and who, at an early stage in the book, only wants to see other countries. The narrator interjects with one of his quietly oracular comments:

In the blood of some people there is bred only one wish, and they are the children of happiness, for life is exactly big enough for one wish, not for two. (Halldor Laxness, Independent People, p.333)
Some people are lucky to be born with a vocation, and they are godlike because they have it fully-fledged without having to struggle to find it; Xunzi thinks that even to learn to have it would be godlike, because it is so rare. Laxness hits upon the profound truth that indeed there is always room for one wish; the single-minded will probably be successful, and will realize who they are meant to be.  Both Laxness and Xunzi imply that the plight of most people is that we have more than one wish, which life cannot accommodate — and because of that we will not be children of happiness. We will always be wistful about what else we could have been, nagged by what else we should have chosen. This is especially poignant for modern people, who have too many things they should be — perfect parent, writer, artist, lawyer, friend, citizen — and are always rattling between all their different roles, without an overarching vision to harness them all together. It is comforting to think that life is big enough for one wish — exactly big enough, if we only knew what it was.

A Pan of Water

A clear-sighted psychologist, Xunzi may have been the first writer to pick out the tendency to mental fixation (蔽, ) a crucial factor in political life, and one that cannot be ignored if leadership is ever to become an art or science. Since most of us are confused and driven by obsessions we are barely conscious of, in the form of desires, aversions, fears, and anxieties, we accept as normal the consequent roiling agitation produced by our obsessions and are surprised when a calmer person points out our inner turbulence to us; and even if we were capable of noticing our own subliminal agitations, it would be difficult for many to see beyond the tumult to a state of obsessionless lucidity, which we can barely imagine. Like any good Confucian, Xunzi uses something familiar to describe something very unusual:

The mind may be compared to a pan of water. If you place the pan on a level and do not jar it, then the heavy sediment will settle to the bottom and the clear water will collect on top, so that you can see your beard and eyebrows in it and examine the lines of your face. But if a faint wind passes over the top of the water, the heavy sediment will be stirred up from the bottom and the clear water will become mingled with it, so that you can no longer get a clear reflection of even a large object. The mind is the same way. If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts. But if you allow petty external objects to pull it about, so that its proper form becomes altered and its inner balance is upset, then it will not be capable of making even gross distinctions.  (Tr. Hsün Tzu, Watson, 131-2)

Mind — if by “mind” we mean the conscious ratiocinative and deliberative faculty –is a mistranslation of 心 (xīn), which literally means heart. But heart is also a mistranslation, because for the last four hundred years in the West it has been taken to express the merely emotional faculties, which are often at war with the merely ratiocinative. Modern translators will sometimes fall back on the phrase heart-mind, because thoughts and feelings emerge from the same center. We might say that all emotions stem from thoughts on some level, but it is not true to say that first we have a thought that then produces the emotion. Instead, all thought has some affective coloring, and in our experience thoughts and emotions emerge simultaneously or intertwined — and it always feels as if they emerge from the center of our beings, deep inside our bosoms, and not from beneath our skullcaps. 

   Thus by heart-mind the Chinese thinker fuses together all of our mental and emotional faculties. If we are terrified of death, it affects our whole being — our thoughts, our desires, our actions. If we find someone beautiful and are moved by desire, our entire spirit and body are stirred towards one end. When we are moved by opposing things — for example, desire for sex and love of virtue — our entire life, psychological as well as physical, is tormented by the opposition. Some people might say that when we are possessed by a desire or an error, our whole self is distorted by the possession, and it is really impossible for us to recognize it, since the mind has also been corrupted. However, Xunzi is both a pessimist about human nature and an optimist about human possibilities: he insists that it is possible for us to see and correct ourselves. Through reason and cultivated skills in self-reflection, we can notice when we are confused, and can actually step outside our own fixations and watch them in action. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t even notice that there is such a thing as fixation.

   To Xunzi, a well educated person is able to discern and evaluate accurately the people and situations in front of him at any given moment. This is not possible for a human being whose heart-mind is confused. Xunzi does not mean just intellectually confused, for a person might have intellectual clarity but be deeply confused in his heart — for example, the man who has carefully studied Thucydides and all the great theorists of war but whose every impulse is dominated by insecurity about his own manhood as well as fear of death. Such a man has a turbid heart-mind and will not judge clearly in the moment. If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts. For most of us this will obviously need work, as well as good teachers and friends. 

   The use of the image of still water as opposed to muddied water to express states of soul has become something of a cliché in later Asian teachings, but Xunzi was the originator. I have heard other teachers talk about a “muddy pond,” but Xunzi in his literary brilliance settles upon a pan of water: so homely, so ordinary, that it passes beneath our notice — just like the agitation of our heart-mind.

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.

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.

Why English Needs the Word “Dao”

English badly needs a word like “Dao.” We already have many words for “path, trail, track,” and can extend the literal sense of these words to expressions like “life’s path” or “career track” or “course of study” — to convey something that we move along stepwise, whether a progression in learning or in character development. However, “Dao” — while literally also “path” or “way” — differs from “track” or “course” in the same way that a path in a city park differs from a deer path through a forest: the former has been laid out by man for clarity and convenience, and is impossible to get lost on — while the latter winds with the devious logic of nature over inconvenient terrain, and we need to give it our full attention at all times. Many of our nost serious preoccupations can be treated  either as “courses” or as “Daos.”

   For example, in the study of Greek geometry, we could be fixated on tracing the exact sequence of Euclid’s argumentation, so that at the end of all thirteen books we could reasonably be asked to reproduce Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem. This would be Euclid’s Elements as a course. To consider it a Dao, we have to penetrate the arguments given and “get” the spirit through which his insights are generated. To do this we have to master the steps he given us, but we also have to see past those steps to alternatives hidden in the depths. This is the beginning of learning how to think and imagine as geometers, not just imitate. The same distinction applies to the learning of languages. We could work through the textbook and master every rule and structure given. Since the textbook is a distillation of the conventionally correct use of the language, it is a “course” built upon the past — but can the teaching of structures and patterns lead to a “feel” for the language that is capable of generating new variations on the old? If we wanted to get the Dao of English, let’s say, we would have to immerse ourselves in the great creative masters — Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce — and absorb their ways, having understood what is inimitable about them. Our educational institutions usually limit themselves to what is teachable, but they can thereby close the doors to what is learnable.

   In the professions, we often see what has begun as a “course” of study turning into a Dao. For example, an educator is faced day after day with judgments and decisions in the classroom that his own academic preparation could not have foreseen; each week there will be new situations to expand and deepen his understanding of what it means to be an educator, and indeed of what education is. The Dao of teaching manifests only in experience and in unflagging passionate engagement with the work. The beginning teacher can have no conception what lies in store for him 30 years down the road. The same applies to all other professions — most notably those that have to navigate the full complexity of the human being, such as law and medicine. For the shallow practitioner, the careerist, there is only a collection of information and techniques for doing a job effectively and earning a decent living. But for the genuine practitioner, who enters the field with three eyes open and a raging hunger to go deeper, there is a Dao that cannot be explained to the novice. The hungry novice, however, picks it up from the master — as those of us know who have worked alongside one. 

   Looking for a word that might capture this richer, more interesting level of occupation, we might call it a “discipline” or an “art” — but those two words suggest too much agency in the practitioner. What really happens is that the Dao of learning, or law, or medicine, takes over — and we are drawn in and affected to the same degree as our engagement. The further we go, the more endless the field becomes — and this is both frightening and immensely satisfying. One of Confucius’ students, presumably contemplating the Dao of Confucius’ higher human being, expresses perfectly what it feels like to follow any true Dao:

顏淵喟然歎曰。仰之彌高、鑽之彌堅、瞻之在前、忽焉在後 夫子循循然善誘人:搏我以文、約我以禮。欲罷不能、旣竭吾才、如有所立、卓爾。雖欲從之、末由也已 。

Yan Yuan sighed in admiration saying: “Looking up to it, it gets higher. Boring into it, it gets harder. I see it in front, and suddenly it is behind me. My master skillfully guides his students a step at a time. He has broadened me with literature, disciplined me with propriety. I want to give up, but I can’t. I have exhausted my ability, yet it seems as if there is something rising up in front of me. I want to follow it, but there is no way.” [9.11]

A superficial student never gets this far: for such a student, pitifully, A grades are enough. 

   Besides the vocational Daos, there are primal human Daos: being a mother or father, a brother or sister, a child, a husband or wife. Each of these “paths” brings up new and unpredictable challenges every day, and we could not have predicted most of them. It takes a lifetime to learn how to be a child to one’s parents, and more than a lifetime to learn how to be a parent to one’s child. Who would have thought it would feel this way to lose a parent? Who would have thought that when our first child is born we would lose interest in most of our prior friendships and activities? Each role is a journey with distinct milestones that could not have been predicted. In giving ourselves over to these journeys, we extend ourselves by letting ourselves be shaped by the path. Of course, it is possible to be the kind of person who shuts down and does everything by dutiful rote; such a person traverses a course, but never understands anything of Dao.

   The Chinese philosophers all speak of a big, all-encompassing Dao, without necessarily agreeing on what it is. We may not have the wherewithal to assess their claims, but in each of our lives we can see that there are not only courses of study and action, but a handful of important Daos that lead us through the vast forest. We can know them only by following them, and by being fully awake and intelligent at every turn. 

Becoming an Adult

What is the relation between manners and morality? In a recent interview Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, modestly downplays the importance of manners: “Manners restrain impulses that annoy others; they seldom govern the great passions. It would take perfect morals, not just manners, to nullify the greater ills of the world. “(Washington Post, March 26, 2017) She seems on the one hand to be drawing a fine line between the two, but on the other to be claiming that the difference is simply one of magnitude. If “manners” refers only to an intricate code of conduct that can be followed by rote while disorderly emotions boil and bubble beneath the surface, like lava inside a volcano, then manners are merely forms of restraint, and do not express positive character traits except the power of self-restraint — which cannot be a meaningful end in itself.  

   If, for example, “manners” included only the knowledge of which pieces of silverware to use at any given phase of dinner, and the trained dexterity to eat without spilling a drop while conducting polite conversation with one’s neighbor, then the command of manners is perfectly compatible with wicked thoughts and high crimes. But if by “manners” we mean more than that, encompassing a refinement of sensibility that finds its focus in creating peace of mind and relaxed comfort in our neighbors, partly by rendering the physical and technical demands of the occasion smooth and unobtrusive, and partly through warm and memorable conversation — then “manners” can be understood to border on care for other people and for social groups. We may begin the acquisition of good table manners by imitation and rote, but the consummation of good table manners is in understanding how they serve people. The same applies to the learning of good hygiene habits, which may take years: clean body, fresh breath, nice smell, hair in order, clean clothes, frequent hand-washing. At first learning all this is a dreary imposition necessitating struggle, but after a while we learn to like being clean and fragrant, and after that, we realize that one big reason for all this is consideration for the health and comfort of other people. 

   In Confucius, the word li (translated ritual, ceremony, propriety) expresses the area of overlap between manners and morals. It is possible for manners to be a rote performance, and it is possible for a sense of justice and kindness to exist apart from manners, but all truly good manners are pervaded by intention and consideration. Often we learn the latter through many years of going through the motions, as with hygiene. Li covers the formalities, often unstated, of human interaction: how children relate to parents, parents to children, sibling to sibling, student to teacher, and so on, are all forms of  li, and we might spend many years figuring out how to do each one of these. A good analogy for the modern world is professional ethics. There is a stated as well as an unstated code of conduct between doctor and patient: both behave to each other in certain ways, not overstepping certain boundaries and maintaining an elegant economy in the relationship. For instance, the tv shows they each prefer to watch are not relevant to this interaction. Both of them enter the interaction with respect for the formal integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, in which each has a distinct role to play. This respect is li as a disposition, and when Confucians speak of “having li” what they mean is “having the feeling for li.” This feeling for li is rooted in an understanding of the human heart and in respect both for other people and for the social web in which we encounter them. The man who lacks li will think only about himself and make everything center on himself.

   Li takes us out of ourselves, and we start learning to do this from the time we start interacting with people. Through li, we learn how to submit to the needs of other people and of the community. If 90% of all ethical and spiritual training consists of whittling the ego down to more manageable size, then this is usually accomplished through li in all its complex forms. Without li, we would never grow up. Confucius puts it like this:


If you do not study li, you will lack the means to stand. (16.13)

By that curious verb stand what he means is “stand on your own two feet as an adult among adults.” I remember as a young man marveling at the confidence of older men, who knew how to carve the turkey and preside over a feast, who knew how to treat women well and to handle surly teenagers with gentle authority, and who could navigate finances and legalities with clarity. Such men could flag down taxis with ease and get instant attention from waiters. What I didn’t realize as a youngster is that these are trained men, hammered and forged in the smithy of li like a blade of 360 folds of steel. The best of them are not just passive products of the system, but know clearly why they do what they do and why they do it the way they do it. Their li is infused and animated with care for others, and thus inseparable from their moral goodness.

   Great passions and transgressions do not spring from nothing. Usually they are seeded in ordinary habits of speech or action, and nurtured there day by day. For a good person, manners and morality form a continuum, but perhaps for most of us there will always be some kind of tension between li and our “great passions.”


Home Truths

“How fortunate I am! If I should make a mistake, others are sure to inform me.” (Analects, 7.31, tr.Slingerland)

Whenever I am having one of those “bad days” when everyone around me seems determined to unload painful home-truths in my face, I deliberately bring to mind this sentence of Confucius as balm for my cuts. As deliciously ironic as it is, such that I have wanted it embossed on my office door as daily warning and therapy, it also reminds me that deep in my heart I actually want to be surrounded by eagle-eyed critics who will point out if I am performing beneath my own standards.

   The core of the Confucian way is daily self-reflection: clear resolutions, assiduously put into practice, and then reviewed. The extremely earnest student Zeng puts it like this:

“Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?” (1.4)

Carefully following each of these three criteria will result in the cultivation of an impressive human being — one that you would want as a colleague, boss, subordinate, governor, and even family member. While Zeng himself often seems to lack the warmth of heart necessary to balance and animate these principles of behavior, what he is giving us here are three standards according to which we can pragmatically evaluate our performance and articulate what we need to do next. Becoming a better human being involves practice, not just aspiration.

   But it is very hard to evaluate ourselves. Can we really see our own faults? It is remarkable how even good human beings can be unaware of serious problems in their behavior towards others — flaws of ego that can grate on their loved ones, and make their colleagues hate them. Even Confucius occasionally despairs of the possibility of self-reflection:

The Master said, “I should just give up! I have yet to meet someone who is able to perceive his own faults and then take himself to task inwardly.” (5.31)
   This is why it is a wonderful thing that we have an abundance of people who can see all our errors and faults, and who will inevitably point them out to us. It is just as wonderful as the fact that “nothing in the universe is hidden,” that our virtues and vices are all manifest, and that sooner or later people pick up everything about us. Confucius remarks elsewhere, Where can we hide, where can we hide? Life may leave us feeling raw and vulnerable, but in the end we should be grateful for all those critics and enemies — because they reveal to us what we cannot see for ourselves.