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.

On Not Treating People Like Pigs or Pets


Everyone sooner or later winds up in the position of taking care of someone, and many of us will take care of our parents. This is one essential part of being human — especially since we too at some point will be taken care of by someone. Looking after parents is difficult enough: not only do we have their physical needs to attend to, but we also have to negotiate the irritability, inflexibility, and repetitiousness that comes with getting older. This can be taxing and exhausting, but to Confucius, filiality, or xiao, requires a deeper engagement than just this fusion of helpfulness and patience.

Zi You asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said, “Nowadays filial piety means being able to feed your parents. But everyone does this for even horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference?” (Analects 2.7, tr. A.C.Muller)
   A hundred years after Confucius, Mencius articulates the same thought with more power:

“To feed people without loving them — that is to treat them like pigs. To love people without respecting them — that is to keep them like pets.” ( Mencius, 7.A.37)

   Thus Confucius’ vision reaches far beyond xiao to all our interactions with people. I find myself reflecting on these rich aphorisms a lot in my daily interactions with the people who depend on me — my children and other family members, as well as people who need help in my work. Often their moods and mental states make them hard to love or respect, and at such times it is easier to grind dutifully through the actions of service. It helps then to pull back and reflect: If I were in their position, I would hate to be endured, put up with, while being served. The feeling of being served without love or respect makes the service all the more demeaning, such that I would prefer to be left alone to die in dignity. So, knowing well how I would feel, I quietly readjust my attitude and find in myself the capacity to love and respect — because Mencius is right, people are neither pigs nor pets. In my own experience sensitive people always know whenever they are being treated without love and respect; it is impossible to fake it.

   This principle surely extends to most forms of li (ritual, propriety, courtesy, all social formalities). With the handshake, for example, are we merely going through a rote gesture without thought or feeling — using it, as it were, to promote other ends? I think of the Donald Trump handshake, which hijacks a ritual by using it to demonstrate power. Or do we rather reflect on those two aspects of the handshake — the clasping of hands, indicating a willingness to get close enough for physical contact and a decision to trust the other; and the dance of hand-shaking, which expresses mutual concord and respect between equals? To be fully present in something like a handshake — as opposed to hiding behind it for some extraneous motive — we need to mean the handshake, not just do it. This is Confucius’ simple point about filial actions, li, and that great Confucian aspiration, sincerity: we must strive to mean what we do