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.