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.

Four Faces of Confucian Goodness

Nowhere in Confucius is there an attempt to give a technical definition of anything; instead, when faced with a “What is…?” question, his reply usually amounts to “It is when…” He refuses to reify moral qualities, to treat them as objects with fixed attributes that we can have. They are manifested dynamically in actions and ways of acting, and are never found apart from them. Thus when the diligent Zhong Gong asks about ren, humane goodness, Confucius answers characteristically with examples of doing ren, but this time he is more copious than usual and gives four examples, knowing that Zhong Gong will mull over how they all relate:

仲弓問仁。子曰。出門如見大賓。使民如承大祭。己所不欲、勿施於人。在邦無怨、在家無怨。 仲弓曰。雍雖不敏、請事斯語矣。
Zhong Gong asked about the meaning of ren. The Master said: “When you are out in the world, act as if meeting an important guest. Employ the people as if you were assisting at a great ceremony. What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. Live in your town without stirring up resentments, and live in your household without stirring up resentments.” Zhong Gong said, “Although I am not so smart, I will apply myself to this teaching.” (Analects, 12.2, tr. A.C.Muller)

All of these examples could also serve as examples of li (ritual, propriety) because they are all about doing the right things in the right way, but Confucius yokes them to ren because he wants Zhong Gong to understand that goodness includes both an outer and an inner engagement. The four examples deepen progressively, but taken together they can be considered four faces of ren as a disposition.

    When you are out in the world, act as if meeting an important guest. This advice becomes more powerful when taken in the context of a culture in which the guest-host relationship is almost sacred and “the guest is god.” Confucius doesn’t even specify “act towards people as if meeting an important guest”; rather, the attitude of gracious hospitality extends to everything we might meet. Guests can be easy or difficult, delightful or unpleasant: in every case, the good host entertains them, serves them, makes each one feel important and respected, and then sends them off. The key is that guests enter our lives and then leave; for the short time they are with us, they get our full attention and we neglect nothing while they are with us. This applies to the cashier at the grocery store, the car mechanic, the neighbor, the teacher, even the homeless person who asks for a dollar. It is an attitude that requires unconditional openness and generosity, but we will find that most of the time it brings out the best in the people around us.

   The next sentence continues to draw out the theme of elevating and ennobling our daily interactions: Employ the people as if you were assisting at a great ceremony. This is not asking us to become ceremonious and pompously formal in the workplace or at the supermarket, but rather to conduct ourselves as we would at an important occasion such as an inauguration or a funeral, where every detail has to be right, where all those people who are mere participants have to be helped in the fulfilling of their roles, and where, above all, we have to be self-effacing in the service of something greater than ourselves. This involves an attitude of quiet leadership,  and meticulous care for the whole and for all its functioning parts, such as an undertaker would have in the conducting of a funeral. On these occasions, individual egos are restrained and then orchestrated into a harmonious performance fitting for the time and place. Does this not apply potentially to every social interaction?

   Confucius then gives us the negative Golden Rule, which grounds ren in a capacity for empathy: What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. This rule by itself would give sufficient guidance for most of our daily interactions. It is rooted in an elementary degree of self-knowledge, and for obvious transgressions like theft and murder it seems simple enough; but applying it in our ordinary activities requires a highly developed sensitivity to the effects of our actions on other people — for instance, would I have wanted someone to speak to me as brusquely as I just spoke, would I have wanted someone to serve me food with as little pleasure as I just felt in serving my parents? No aphorism is more practicable than this one, because we know immediately what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves — but it takes work to notice what we are doing to others. The willingness to do this work is ren.

   Finally, act in such a way as to create no hostility: Live in your town without stirring up resentments, and live in your household without stirring up resentments. This attitude values harmony more than any other consequence of self-assertion, since in terms of ren, the loss of harmony affects everyone adversely. The original Chinese is ambiguous; it could also mean “be without hatred.” Thus, don’t behave in such a way that everyone detests you — and also, don’t go through life grumbling about everyone else, either at work or in town or at home. If we reflect on just how much of our normal internal monologue consists of grumbling about other people, this aphorism cuts closer to the bone. We can’t control other people’s grumbling but we can control our own. How then do we become the kind of person who bears no resentment to anybody? The sincere effort to become this person is also ren




Studying Mistakes


The Master said, “People’s mistakes run true to type. By studying [their] mistakes, we can know [their] ren/Goodness.” (Analects, 4.17)

This Analect has a simple, compact power that tends to be softened and dulled in the conventional interpretations, which go something like: “People err according to their own level. It is by observing a person’s mistakes that you can know his/her goodness.” (A.C.Muller) Or:  “The faults of men are characteristic of the class to which they belong. By observing a man’s faults, it may be known that he is virtuous.” (Legge) This kind of interpretation rightly enphasizes the value of noticing and understanding a person’s mistakes — not the grand crimes and depravities, but their everyday slips and oversights. This is why books like Plutarch’s Lives are wondrous caves full of treasure for those of us who love to study people; in Plutarch we can gaze upon the achievements, disasters, and day-to-day foibles and errors of ancient statesmen, and we wonder at how little personal misdirections inform the twists and turns of history. Strangely, however, the conventional interpretation takes this Analect to be about assessing other people‘s level of ren, or humane goodness. This seems superficial to me, and a lessening of the aphorism.

   The original Chinese, in its terseness, has no pronouns or articles. It could just as well mean, “By studying our own mistakes, we can know our own level of ren.” This is more in alignment with the Confucian program of self-reflection and also cuts closer to the bone personally. In general, reviewing our words and actions at the end of the day, it is possible for us to notice where we goofed. The practice of self-reflection requires us to being our attention steadily and calmly to these mistakes, and to understand them. It does not necessarily involve lamentation and convulsions of remorse, although those might come naturally with understanding. In examining even our small mistakes, we can understand better who we are and, more particularly, where we are in our cultivation of ren. The original words of this Analect go even further: By studying mistakes, we can know Ren. This raw, succinct translation carries a profound truth: how often, in realizing that we have inadvertently hurt someone, do we not then find that we have understood a little better what it might mean to be a good person? The realization of error brings with it a reminder of the right thing that could have been said or done. Of course, the heedless, shameless person doesn’t care and will plough on — but such a person tends not to reflect anyway. For the person who cares enough to reflect and to right the wrongs they have done, the book of mistakes is wonderfully large and painfully fascinating to read — and it contains, to those who want to find it, the book of ren

Why Is Filiality “the Root of Goodness”?

君子務本、本立而道生。孝弟也者、其爲仁之本與 The superior person concerns himself with the roots. Once the roots are established, the Way appears. Are not xiao and obedience to elders the root of humane goodness?” (Analects, 1.2)
Words for “good” are always unsatisfactory and impossible to define. Even in Plato we do not find a completely acceptable definition of “virtue” or “justice.” In Confucius the word ren, 仁, a character made up of the glyphs for “person” and “two,” encapsulates the highest human goodness. We will be looking at this idea again in future posts, but here a crude summary will suffice: ren is what you see in a person who looks you in the eyes with clarity and sincerity, who is fully present in every situation and task, who stands by his word and is wholly trustworthy, who cares and empathizes, and who — knowing what he knows and doesn’t know — will strive unflaggingly to understand with imagination and intelligence. A human being with developed ren is a “superior person” or junzi, one whom you would like as colleague, friend, sibling, employee, boss, or comrade; a statesman with ren will base judgments and decisions on the right notivations, and will be loved and defended by the people. Why does Confucius (and also Mencius) keep saying that the root of this attribute of a wonderful human being has to be xiao, “filiality”?

    We do not choose our parents, and they have no idea what they are in for when we arrive. Yet we must live together for our most important years, and for a while they have authority over us. We watch them carefully and know all their weaknesses, hypocrisies, and errors, and they have to deal every day with our willfulness and irrationality. Over time, we learn how to push each other’s secret buttons and how to bite our tongues when we sense our parents trying to provoke us. By the time we are teenagers we become very sensitive to our parents’ manipulations. Ancient Chinese parents were not angels and were just as difficult to love and respect as our own parents, yet xiao commands us to love and respect them. The parent-child relationship is the first situation in which the child can learn how to love actual people. 

   Now, children have an advantage in this study, because they come with a tendency to trust and love — but over a few years they also learn that their parents have some unlovable traits. To love and respect in spite of such traits takes work, self-restraint, and self-reflection — as well as a growing capacity for understanding what is behind the disagreeableness of the parent. In the practice of xiao, we learn to love human beings as they are given to us in all their warty glory, and, since we usually don’t expect our parents to change, we learn in xiao to have relationships based on the acceptance of reality and not on hope of change. If we cannot love and respect our parents, how can we love and respect anyone else? With our non-familial relationships, we like to think that we choose people, but in fact what we choose is the tip of the iceberg; it is after the ship unites with the iceberg that the vast submerged bulk makes its terrible presence felt. Romance might look like two people choosing each other, but even here, after the sheen of initial attraction has been rubbed off, we are faced with the hard work of living with a real person and not just our projection. Every close relationship succeeds or fails according to our ability to do this work, and xiao is where we learn to do it. If we never practice it, and think instead that we are free to reject our parents and choose better parents, we will never learn to dwell with what people really are, and will only experience love and respect as fragile shells.

   Ren, humane goodness, is rooted in the xiao, which is a lifelong and difficult practice, because our relationship with our parents doesn’t stop changing, even after they die. Like the roots of flowers and trees, xiao is muddy and unglamorous; and just as the tree that we see towering above us is anchored by an equally huge tree of roots, so each one of us can have only as much ren as we have xiao.