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.

 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. 

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.

Dilemmas of Propriety (Li)

Yan Yuan asked about Humane Goodness (Ren). The Master said, “To subdue the ego and keep to propriety (Li)  is Humane Goodness. (Analects, 12.1)

As long as our lives are filled and surrounded by living, bristling, grudge-encrusted, confused, stinky, ordinary people — as opposed to angelic robots who unerringly do the right thing — each day will come with dilemmas of propriety, or Li. We just have to remind ourselves every now and then that we actually want people and not robots, even though the occasional smooth-functioning robot can be comforting. For a Confucian, dilemmas of li are essential to becoming more fully human, and practice involves understanding them and learning how to navigate them; indeed, the entire book of Mencius is built upon discussions of propriety, and can be read as a “course” in virtue through studying well chosen instances. But why go to Mencius? Just look at one thing that happened yesterday.

   We have a very good family friend who is a reliable confidant, always ready to help and loved by the kids — but…whenever he visits, he always overstays. Because of him the kids stay up too long and the house stays noisy till quite late, and then he will fall asleep on the couch. He doesn’t seem to grasp that we as hosts cannot go to bed if a guest is still in the living room. A situation like this may be a small thing, but Confucius would want us to consider it — because after all small things can geow into big things. Our friend somehow doesn’t notice the hosts getting restless and tidyng up in the kitchen, and also doesn’t recognize that these might be signals that it is time to leave. The failure in propriety here involves both ignorance of etiquette as well as obliviousness to what is going on. Propriety is both knowing the appropriate thing to do and doing it at the appropriate moment, which requires keeping your wits about you. Now, it could be that in the case of our friend, the confusion stems from an ambiguity in Li: is he a family friend, or close enough to be practically a family member? It would fall on us to enlighten him on the matter, but ingrained courtesy prevents us — because it would hurt his feelings and make him feel ashamed over what is in fact a little mistake. We are still wondering about the appropriate way to inform him, and whether it would be more appropriate to let it be and overlook it. However, overlooking it will have negative consequences, because his obliviousness makes us reluctant to have him around. 

   Part of the problem is cultural — that there is no explicit guidance in our social circles as to when to arrive and when to leave; and part of the problem is personal — that he doesn’t seem to ask himself if there is such a thing as a right time to leave. Since it is not an issue for him, he can’t imagine that it’s an issue for us. In itself our friend’s foible should not be a major problem, but if it is symptomatic of a more pervasive heedlessness it will unnecessarily taint all his future relationships; he will be a casualty of his own casualness. Obliviousness to these little proprieties will habituate him to a general insensitivity to other people, which is bound in turn to influence his moral choices. This is why a Confucian upbringing will insist on strict attention to proprieties from an early age; courtesy and morality are tightly wrapped around each other, because both are planted in knowledge of the human heart. Nineteenth century novelists like Austen, Balzac, and James are astoundingly perceptive about the intricate web of Li, which weaves every individual person and action into a whole: In these circles where trifles are of such importance, a gesture or a word at the outset is enough to ruin a newcomer. It is the principal merit of fine manners and the highest breeding that they produce the effect of a harmonious whole, in which every element is so blended that nothing is startling or obtrusive. Even those who break the laws of this science, either through ignorance or carried away by some impulse, must comprehend that it is with social intercourse as with music, a single discordant note is a complete negation of the art itself, for the harmony exists only when all its conditions are observed down to the least particular. (Balzac, A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, 1.2). 

   It would be exhausting to think through the proprieties of every single interaction in this way. One of the beauties of Li is that if we are fairly well trained, we will behave appropriately most of the time without thinking about it. Propriety should be mostly automatic, like the autonomous processes that regulate a healthy body. In carefully observing what is “done” or “not done” from childhood on, we learn first to submit our egos to an impersonal, impartial substratum in social interactions: it’s not about us, but about the neutral space in which we exist with other people. A person who is good at Li actually derives satisfaction from participating in this neutral space, which can elevate us above petty, personal concerns. The attunement to propriety may actually be a necessary foundation for any kind of spiritual practice, because it is the first step in the control of ego. Li also allows us to move on to the next interaction, and not get stuck in paroxysms of remorse for our mistakes, which would be just as much ego as never admitting a mistake. It is like playing any kind of game: we follow the rules without emotional investment, taking them as immutable in the world of the game — and when we make an error, we fail, learn, and continue. In video games, we calmly die, and then resume the next game a little wiser.    


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.”