Content and Topics
Since Confucius was perhaps the first professional teacher
of adults, or what we call higher education, there must not
have been organized curriculum in his time. Although Confucius
did discourse on definite subjects repeatedly and also recommended
that his students study specific pursuits, it appears unlikely
that these subjects were categorized or isolated from each
other anywhere near like they are today. The continual purpose
of Confucius' teaching was practical and designed to help
each person improve his character and conduct, and perhaps
become prepared for an official position in the government.
Although Confucius encouraged his students to learn about
many things, he suggested that they be very selective and
careful in what they said and did. Since Tzu-chang was studying
to attain an official salary, the master recommended, "Hear
much and put aside what is doubtful while you speak cautiously
of the rest. Then few will blame you. See much and put aside
what seems perilous while you are cautious in carrying the
rest into practice. Then you will have few occasions for regret.
When one's words give few occasions for blame and his acts
give few occasions for repentance, he is on the way to receiving
a salary."1 Actually Confucius was not as concerned about
the quantity of one's knowledge, but emphasized what he considered
to be the essence of it all. Once when talking with Tzu-kung,
Confucius perceived that his student was getting the wrong
impression and said to him to clarify the situation, "I
believe you look upon me as one whose aim is simply to learn
and remember as many things as possible." Tzu-kung replied
that this is what he thought, and asked the master if it was
so. Confucius responded, "No; I have one thread which
runs through them all."2 We hope to discover this underlying
unity which pervades Confucius' teachings as we examine their
content. However, the golden rule does stand out as the most
important rule of conduct. When Tzu-kung asked if there was
a single saying which one could practice all the time, Confucius
said, "Perhaps the saying about consideration: 'Do not
do to others what you do not want them to do to you.'"3
Stated in the negative this way, the golden rule allows each
person more freedom. Instead of telling a person how to act
toward others, which could be an infliction of one's personal
values or tastes upon the other, it says only not to do those
things which one feels would be an infliction, leaving the
other choices of conduct free.
Before we catalog the various topics of Confucius' teaching,
there is one pre-requisite he emphasized for there to be any
clear communication, and that was the correct use of language.
When Tzu-lu asked Confucius what would be his first measure
in administering the government for the prince of Wei, he
answered with certainty that it would be to correct language.
Tzu-lu could not believe it and scoffed at such an idea. So
Confucius explained why: "Yu! How uncultivated you are!
A gentleman, in regard to things he does not know, maintains
a cautious reserve. If language is incorrect, then what is
said is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language
is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot
be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on
to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When
proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will go
astray. When punishments go astray, the people do not know
how to move hand or foot. Therefore the gentleman uses only
such language as is proper to speak, and only speaks of what
it would be proper to carry out. The gentleman, in what he
says, leaves nothing to mere chance."4 We see here the
importance of a close correlation between reality and knowledge,
between knowledge and words, and between words and deeds.
The correct understanding of language, then, plays a key intermediary
function. The final quote in The Analects emphasizes this
for human understanding. Confucius said, "He who does
not understand the will of Heaven cannot be regarded as a
gentleman. He who does not know the rules of propriety cannot
establish his character. He who does not understand words,
cannot understand people."5
Subjects of Study
According to one passage in The Analects, Confucius taught
four things: culture, conduct, loyalty, and truthfulness.6
Culture consisted of literature, music, and perhaps propriety,
though it is also a part of conduct. Confucius indicated the
value of each: "Let a man be stimulated by poetry, established
in character by the rules of propriety, and perfected by music."7
These pursuits were means by which one may achieve the higher
ideal of following the Way. "The gentleman extensively
studies literature and restrains himself with the rules of
propriety. Thus he will not violate the Way."8 Although
these may be aids to the Way, the higher ideals come before
the arts of culture in importance. "Set your heart upon
the Way. Support yourself by its virtue. Rely on goodness.
Find recreation in the arts."9 Actually the moral duties
were considered essential and came before the arts which were
almost like extra-curricular activities. "A young man's
duty is to behave well to his parents at home and to his elders
abroad, to be cautious in giving promises and punctual in
keeping them, to overflow in love to all, and to cultivate
the friendship of the good. If, when all that is done, he
has any energy to spare, then let him study the cultural arts."10
What was the literature? Even in Confucius' time there existed
six classics on poetry, history, music, changes, propriety,
and the annals, which were all studied in depth by the master,
as he often referred to them. Although it is not as early
a text as The Analects, the following selection from Chapter
26 of the Liki describes and illustrates the use of the six
Confucius said, "When I enter a country, I can easily
tell its type of culture. When the people are gentle and kind
and simple-hearted, that shows the teaching of poetry. When
people are broad-minded and acquainted with the past, that
shows the teaching of history. When the people are generous
and show a good disposition, that shows the teaching of music.
When the people are quiet and thoughtful, and show a sharp
power of observation, that shows the teaching of the philosophy
of change. When the people are humble and respectful and frugal
in their habits, that shows the teaching of propriety. When
the people are cultivated in their speech, ready with expressions
and analogies, that shows the teaching of prose, or Spring
and Autumn Annals. The danger in the teaching of poetry is
that people remain ignorant, or too simple-hearted. The danger
in the teaching of history is that people may be filled with
incorrect legends and stories of events. The danger in the
teaching of music is that the people grow extravagant. The
danger in the teaching of philosophy is that the people become
crooked. The danger in the teaching of propriety is that the
rituals become too elaborate. And the danger in the teaching
of Spring and Autumn Annals is that the people get a sense
of the prevailing moral chaos. When a man is kind and gentle
and simple-hearted, and yet not ignorant, we may be sure he
is deep in the study of poetry. When a man is broad-minded
and acquainted with the past, and yet not filled with incorrect
legends or stories of events, we may be sure he is deep in
the study of history. When a man is generous and shows a good
disposition and yet not extravagant in his personal habits,
we may be sure he is deep in the study of music. When a man
is quiet and thoughtful and shows a sharp power of observation,
and yet is not crooked, we may be sure that he is deep in
the study of philosophy. When a man is humble and polite and
frugal in his personal habits and yet not full of elaborate
ceremonies, we may be sure he is deep in the study of propriety.
And when a man is cultivated in his speech, ready with expressions
and analogies and yet is not influenced by the picture of
the prevailing moral chaos, we may be sure that he is deep
in the study of Spring and Autumn Annals."11
We see from this that more than a mere acquaintance with
the classics was recommended, but the quality of study and
practice which goes beyond the superficialities.
Confucius is often quoted in The Great Treatise on the I
Ching. In one passage he explains why the book was devised
in the first place. He said, "Writing cannot express
thoughts completely." Someone then asked if we are then
unable to see the thoughts of the holy sages. Confucius replied,
"The holy sages set up the images in order to express
their thoughts completely; they devised the hexagrams in order
to express the true and the false completely. Then they appended
judgments and so could express their words completely."12
It is likely that Confucius extensively used not only the
I Ching but the other classics as well in his instruction
of students. Ssu-ma Ch'ien records that Confucius read the
I Ching so frequently that the leather strap which held the
bamboo "pages" together was worn out and replaced
As we have seen, Confucius was a traditionalist who claimed
only to be a transmitter of the ancients, which explains his
great reverence for the classics. He said he followed the
traditions of the Chou dynasty particularly the Duke of Chou,
one of its founders. However, his ancestors were from the
state of Sung and were probably of the Shang nobility.14 This
may account for why he followed the three-year mourning period
which was a Shang custom. Also the legendary emperors he revered
above all were from the earliest Hsia dynasty. He explains
this eclectic approach as being due to the Chou's accumulation
of culture from these previous dynasties. "Chou could
survey the two preceding dynasties. How great a wealth of
culture! We follow upon Chou."15 In the biography of
Confucius by Ssu-ma Ch'ien written about 100 BC we have a
more elaborate description of how Confucius related to the
In the time of Confucius, the power of the Chou Emperors
had declined, the forms of worship and social intercourse
had degenerated, and learning and scholarship had fallen into
decay. Confucius studied the religious or ceremonial order
and historical records of the three dynasties, and he traced
the events from the times of the Emperors Yao and Shun down
to the times of Duke Mu of Ch'in and arranged them in chronological
order. And he once said, "I should be able to talk about
the feudal order of Hsia, but there are not enough surviving
customs in the city of Chi. I should be able to discuss the
feudal order of the Shang dynasty but there are not enough
surviving customs in the city of Sung. If there were enough
surviving customs, I should be able to reconstruct them with
evidence." And he surveyed the changes of customs between
the Hsia and Shang dynasties, and after noting how these customs
ran on into the Chou period with modifications, he said, "I
can even predict how the future historical development will
be for a hundred generations." He noted how one dynasty
represented a culture with a wealth of ceremonial forms, and
how the other dynasty represented a culture of the simple
life, and how the Chou dynasty had combined and merged the
two previous cultures into a perfect, beautiful pattern, and
he therefore decided that he would choose the Chou culture
as the ideal. Therefore, Confucius handed down a tradition
of historic records of the various ancient customs.16
Although there is probably some later projection here and
we can see why Ssu-ma Ch'ien is called the father of Chinese
historians using already Hegel's dialectic, still the tradition
of Confucius as a transmitter of historical tradition is probably
We mentioned earlier how Confucius practiced archery, and
although it may not have been taught by Confucius himself,
the gentleman's education was probably expected to include
athletics, especially this art of the bow.
Poetry and Music
Poetry, of course, was an important subject of study. Confucius
particularly used it to stress moral values. "All three
hundred odes can be covered by one of their sentences, 'Let
there be no evil in your thoughts.'"17 However, poetry
had broader humanistic value for understanding oneself and
other people, and even increased one's awareness of the natural
world. "My children, why do you not study the Book of
Poetry? The Odes serve to stimulate the mind. They may be
used for purposes of self-contemplation. They teach the art
of sociability. They show how to regulate feelings of resentment.
From them you learn the more immediate duty of serving one's
father, and the remoter one of serving one's prince. From
them we become largely acquainted with the names of birds,
beasts, and plants."18
Confucius was also a great lover of music and played some
himself. However, the teaching of this art was apparently
handed over to the Grand music master to whom Confucius gave
his ideas on how music should follow the ideal of the ancient
pattern and then allow for some improvisation while still
maintaining harmony. "Their music in so far as one can
find out about it began with a strict unison. Soon the musicians
were given more liberty; but the tone remained harmonious,
brilliant, consistent, right on till the close."19 Ssu-ma
Ch'ien quotes this exact passage, but then goes on to give
more information in regard to Confucius' use of poetry and
He once also said, "After my return to Lu from Wei,
I have been able to restore the musical tradition and classify
the music of sung and ya and restore the songs to their respective
original music." In the ancient times, there were over
three thousand songs, but Confucius took out the duplicates
and selected those that were suited to good form. The collection
began with the songs of Ch'i and Houchi, covered the great
period of the Shang and Chou kings and carried it down to
the times of the tyrants Yu and Li. It begins with a song
of marital love, and therefore it is said "the song Kuan-ch'ih
heads the collection of Feng; Luming heads the collection
of the 'Little ya'; and Ch'ingmiao heads the collection of
the Sung." Confucius personally sang all the three hundred
and five songs and played the music on a string instrument
to make sure that it fitted in with the score of hsiao, wu,
ya, and sung. Through his efforts, the tradition of ancient
rites and music was therefore rescued from oblivion and handed
down to posterity, that they might help in the carrying out
of this ideal of a king's government and in the teaching of
"the Six Arts."20
Lin Yutang tells us that "the six Arts" could not
only refer to the six classics mentioned above but also to
the six branches of study practiced during these times, namely
propriety, music, archery, carriage-driving, reading, and
mathematics.21 Also in considering these later accounts, we
must be aware of the tendency to glorify and expand on what
Confucius did. Although Ssu-ma Ch'ien often went against orthodox
Confucian beliefs, he was susceptible to exaggeration, as
can be seen from this: "Confucius taught poetry, history,
propriety, and music to 3,000 pupils of whom 72, like Yen
Tutsou, had mastered "the Six Arts."22
There is one more marvelous anecdote from Ssu-ma Ch'ien concerning
Confucius' playing of music.
Confucius was once learning to play on ch'in (a string instrument)
from the music master Hsiang-tzu, and did not seem to make
much progress for ten days. The music master said to him,
"You may well learn something else now," and Confucius
replied, "I have already learned the melody, but have
not learned the beat and rhythm yet." After some time,
the music master said, "You have now learned the beat
and rhythm, you must take the next step." "I have
not learned the expression," said Confucius. After a
while, the music master again said, "Now you have learned
the expression, you must take the next step." And Confucius
replied, "I have not yet got an image in my mind of the
personality of the composer." After some time the music
master said, "There's a man behind this music, who is
occupied in deep reflection and who sometimes happily lifts
his head and looks far away, fixing his mind upon the eternal."
"I've got it now," said Confucius. "He is a
tall, dark man and his mind seems to be that of an empire
builder. Can it be any other person than King Wen himself?"
The music master rose from his seat and bowed twice to Confucius
and said, "It is the composition of King Wen."23
As moderns, Confucius' emphasis on ritual ceremonies according
to the rules of propriety is probably more difficult for us
to relate to than any other aspect of his teaching. However,
in the ancient times when "civilized culture was by no
means universal, the danger of falling back into a primitive
"barbarism" was probably very real. The rules of
propriety offered a code of accepted conduct and behavior
which they knew would work from past experience. These were
the traditions and customs which demonstrated to themselves
and others that they were cultured and proper gentlemen. For
Confucius, the gentleman knew and behaved according to the
rules of propriety. In the first chapter of The Analects,
Yu Tzu gives an account of their value. "Among the functions
of propriety the most valuable is that it establishes harmony.
The Way of the ancient kings from this harmony got its beauty.
It is the guiding principle of all things great and small.
If things go amiss, and he who knows the harmony tries to
achieve it without regulating it by the rules of propriety,
they will still go amiss."24
Confucius himself explains what can happen if conduct is
not guided by propriety. "Courtesy not bounded by the
rules of propriety becomes tiresome. Caution not bounded by
the rules of propriety becomes timidity, daring becomes insubordination,
straightforwardness becomes rudeness."25 As much as he
loved them, Confucius did not believe in over- indulging in
ceremonies, and the feelings should be proper to the circumstances.
"In ceremonies it is better to be sparing than extravagant.
Funeral ceremonies should be observed in deep sorrow rather
than in fear."26
Often what was appropriate was a kind of golden mean. "When
substance exceeds refinement, one becomes rude. When refinement
exceeds substance, one becomes pedantic. When substance and
refinement are properly blended, then one is a gentleman."27
Confucius was aware that the ancient ways had been moderated
in his own time, and that such moderation was politic. "Were
anyone today to serve his prince according to the full rules
of propriety he would be thought a sycophant."28
As many of Confucius' students were anxious to obtain positions
in the government and also as Confucius himself hoped for
an opportunity to advise rulers, it is natural that the art
of politics was a favorite topic of conversation. The goal
for Confucius was not merely to be learned in many subjects,
but to be able to put one's knowledge into practice. Otherwise,
what good is it? He said, "A man may be able to recite
the three hundred Odes; but, if when given a post in the government,
he does not know how to act, or when sent on a mission to
far parts he cannot answer specific questions, however extensive
his knowledge may be, of what use is it to him?"29
However, a person first must improve himself and regulate
his own conduct before he could hope to rule over others.
Thus self-improvement was pre-requisite to engaging in politics.
"If a minister makes his own conduct correct, he will
have no difficulty in assisting in government. But if he cannot
rectify himself, how can he possibly rectify others?"30
Although Confucius describes wisdom and goodness as essential
to ruling, they still must be carried out with dignity, and
according to propriety. He explains why.
He whose wisdom brings him into power, needs goodness to
secure that power. Else, though he get it, he will certainly
lose it. He whose wisdom brings him into power and who has
goodness to secure that power, if he has not dignity to approach
the common people, they will not respect him. He whose wisdom
has brought him into power, who has goodness to secure that
power, and dignity to approach the common people, if he handles
them contrary to the rules of propriety, full excellence is
Confucius believed that one's political action should follow
the Way, as a higher ideal than whatever happens to be occurring
in a particular government. One's actions, therefore, will
vary depending on whether the government is following the
Way or not. He gives this advice for the different circumstances:
Have sincere faith and love learning. Be not afraid to die
for pursuing the good Way. Do not enter a state that pursues
dangerous courses, nor stay in a chaotic one. When the Way
prevails under Heaven, then show yourself; when it does not
prevail, then hide. When the Way prevails in your own land
and you are poor and in a humble position, be ashamed of yourself.
When the Way does not prevail in your land and you are wealthy
and in an honorable position, be ashamed of yourself.32
Confucius shows here political acumen and flexibility without
compromising moral principles. He expresses similar political
wisdom in these statements: "When the Way prevails in
the land, be bold in speech and bold in action. When the Way
does not prevail, be bold in action but conciliatory in speech."33
Without giving up courage in action, Confucius still recommends
verbal discretion. Confucius knew how to hold his tongue,
knowing not only when it was wise not to speak but also when
it was not proper to speak. "He who holds no office in
a state does not discuss its policies."34
There was always someone who might misunderstand how to put
the Way into practice. Chi K'ang-tzu asked Confucius if it
would be a good idea to kill those who had not the Way in
order to help those who had the Way. The master used the opportunity
to describe the influence of a good ruler on the common people.
He said, "You are there to rule, not to kill. If you
desire what is good, the people will be good. The essence
of the gentleman is that of wind; the essence of small people
is that of grass. And when a wind blows over the grass, then
The proper relation between a ruler and his minister or between
a parent and child, while not being reciprocal as between
equals, still benefited by the proper attitude and conduct
in each case. The political and family situations were treated
as being analogous. The ruler or parent should love his people
or children, while the minister or son should be loyal to
the ruler or parent. Confucius explains the proper behavior
of each. "How can he be said truly to love, who exacts
no effort from the objects of his love? How can he be said
to be truly loyal, who refrains from admonishing the object
of his loyalty?"36
Confucius summarizes the art of the ruler as follows:
A country of a thousand war-chariots cannot be administered
unless the ruler attends strictly to business, punctually
observes his promises, is economical in expenditure, loves
the people, and uses the labor of the peasantry only at the
proper times of year.37
For a moralist Confucius was quite down-to-earth and practical,
and in an age of aristocracy he shows a remarkable humaneness
toward the common people. But maybe this should not be so
surprising since humanity and goodness were at the heart of
Although Confucius himself was a religious man in that he
followed the religious practices of his time, he did not dwell
on those issues in his instruction. It is pointed out several
times in The Analects that Confucius rarely discussed spiritual
matters. Tzu-kung said, "We can hear our master on culture
and its manifestation, but we cannot hear his views on human
nature and the Way of Heaven."38 One reason may be that
the more sacred teachings were not for every man's ears, and
thus were kept esoteric among those who were ready to hear
them. Or, perhaps Confucius did not consider rational discussion
relevant or appropriate to transcendental and mystical questions.
As we have seen, "destiny" as the will of Heaven
was central in his personal beliefs, but The Analects states,
"Confucius seldom talked about profit, destiny, and goodness."39
Actually there were many sayings about goodness recorded in
The Analects which we will discuss later in this chapter.
We should keep in mind that The Analects certainly represents
only a small selection of Confucius' conversations over a
period of many years, and that discussions about goodness
were probably considered to be very important to the disciples;
thus, though they may have occurred infrequently, many of
them found their way into the written documents. It should
be obvious why an ethical teacher like Confucius did not talk
about profit as often as some of his listeners might have
Even more so did Confucius stay away from mentioning the
supernatural phenomena. "Confucius never discussed strange
phenomena, physical exploits, disorders of nature, or spirits."40
For Confucius, none of these issues were to the point, but
tended to side-track people from knowing and improving their
own character. Since serving the spirits of the dead was the
most important thing in the contemporary Chinese religion,
the following statements show Confucius as a radical humanist.
When Tzu-lu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits,
Confucius replied, "Till you have learned to serve men,
how can you serve ghosts?" Tzu-lu then ventured to ask
about the dead, and Confucius said, "Till you know about
the living, how can you know about the dead?"41 Yet Confucius
did practice the traditional religion with sincerity and reverence.
In fact he considered his own attitude to be the most important
factor in the sacrifices.
When Confucius offered sacrifice to his ancestors, he felt
as if his ancestral spirits were actually present. When he
offered sacrifice to other spiritual beings, he felt as if
they were actually present. He said, "If I do not participate
in the sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice at all."42
Perhaps the higher religion for Confucius was for a man to
follow the Way. The following statement expresses an idea
very similar to the philosophy of Lao Tzu, about whom legend
says Confucius talked with one time. "Who expects to
be able to go out of a house except by the door? How is it
then that no one follows this Way of ours?"43 For Confucius
the sure way was to follow the steps of the ancients. When
asked about the Way of the good man, Confucius replied, "He
who does not tread in the footprints cannot expect to find
his way into the Inner Room."44 Thus he felt that the
goal or perfection of man was found within oneself as symbolized
here by the inner sanctuary.
The inner nature rather than the outward appearance of a
man were what concerned Confucius. If these impoverished aristocrats
so prevalent at the time were ashamed of their outer circumstances,
then their inner attitude was not correct; thus their advice
could not be trusted. "A knight whose heart is set upon
the Way, but who is ashamed of wearing shabby clothes and
eating coarse food, is not worth calling into counsel."45
Confucius felt that there were different levels of the Way
as far as men are concerned. Knowing what the Way is was only
the first step. If one loves the Way, he will also follow
it; but this is not as good as following it enthusiastically.
"To know it is not as good as to love it, and to love
it as not as good as to take delight in it."46 Are these
stages of wisdom?
One of the central concepts for both Lao Tzu and Confucius
was teh, which is being translated here as "virtue"
in the ancient sense of a power or ability for goodness. The
Chinese term has the connotation of spiritual power or moral
power which people can "build up" within themselves.
Confucius saw that it took love and desire to build up this
virtue, but he was also aware of the power of sexual attraction.
"I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty."47
Another translation reads: "I have never yet seen anyone
whose desire to build up his moral power was as strong as
sexual desire."48 Virtue, for Confucius then, is developed
through love or desire for goodness, but it must compete with
the more powerful sexual urges. Thus becoming virtuous was
no easy task.
Once Tzu-chang asked about a rhymed couplet mentioning "piling
up virtue" and "deciding when in two minds."
Confucius said, "By 'piling up virtue' is meant taking
faithfulness and sincerity as one's guiding principles, and
moving continually to what is right. Again, to love a things
means wanting it to live; to hate a thing means wanting it
to perish. But suppose one wants something to live and at
the same time wants it to perish; that is 'being in two minds.'"49
Confucius was able to give more than one answer to the same
question to help explain it so his students could understand.
While the master was walking with Fan Ch'ih under the trees
at the Rain Dance altars, he was asked about the same two
lines of verse plus another rhyming line on "repairing
shortcomings." Confucius responded, "An excellent
question! 'Doing the work first, and considering the reward
afterwards;' is that not piling up virtue? 'Attack the evil
that is within yourself, rather than attacking the evil that
is in others;' is this not repairing shortcomings?
'Because of a morning's blind rage
To forget one's own safety
And even endanger one's kith and kind.'
is that not a case of a divided mind?"50 We see here
again the possibility of an inner conflict in motivation,
with one being clearly a greater good than the other.
One key to the practice of virtue was the golden mean. The
Doctrine of the Mean, one of the great Confucian classics
which was written within a few generations of Confucius, is
a beautiful treatise on this subject. Although the mean is
not elaborated upon in The Analects, it is mentioned by Confucius:
"How transcendent is the virtue of the middle conduct!
Rare for a long time has been its practice among the people."51
Virtue, for Confucius, was action, something which was practiced.
The greatest danger to it was incorrect speech. "Clever
talk can confound the workings of virtue, just as small impatiences
can confound great projects."52 The Way of Confucius
was a way of virtue, of inner spiritual power expressed through
deeds. How does one become virtuous, and how does a virtuous
person act? These were the most important studies for Confucius'
students. Let us examine character development and self-improvement
in Confucius' teachings and then explore his descriptions
of goodness and the true gentleman.
Character Development and Self-improvement
The dominant subject matter in Confucius' teachings was how
to become a good and virtuous person by improving one's own
character. There are several Confucian virtues; here he indicates
the results or criteria of goodness, wisdom, and courage.
"He who is really good can never be unhappy. He who is
really wise can never be perplexed. He who is really brave
is never afraid."53 Although courage is a commonly valued
virtue of the ancient times, Confucius believed it must be
subordinate to justice, another cardinal virtue. When Tzu-lu
asked if courage was to be esteemed by the gentleman, Confucius
qualified it, "The gentleman holds justice to be of highest
importance. If a gentleman has courage but neglects justice,
he becomes insurgent. If an inferior man has courage but neglects
justice, he becomes a thief."54 Confucius also give us
a remarkably Socratic description of human wisdom. Again,
Tzu-lu (Yu) who excelled in courage and daring needed to be
reminded not only of justice but also of what wisdom or "meta-knowledge"
is. Confucius said to him, "Yu, shall I teach you what
knowledge is? When you know a thing, to recognize that you
know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that
you do not know it. That is knowledge."55 Thus this higher-level
knowledge of recognition becomes a check on the everyday knowledge
Confucius' main methods for attaining these virtues was,
of course, learning. However, rote memorization was not at
all sufficient; one must also be able to think. "He who
learns but does not think is lost; he who thinks but does
not learn is in danger."56 What are the dangers when
one does not learn? Confucius asked Yu if he had heard the
Six Sayings about the Six Degenerations. Tzu-lu had not, so
Confucius explains what happens when love for each virtue
is obscured because of lack of love for learning. Here again
we see the role of love in the direction of motivation.
Love of goodness without love of learning degenerates into
simple-mindedness. Love of knowledge without love of learning
degenerates into utter lack of principle. Love of faithfulness
without love of learning degenerates into injurious disregard
of consequences. Love of uprightness without love of learning
degenerates into harshness. Love of courage without love of
learning degenerates into insubordination. Love of strong
character without love of learning degenerates into mere recklessness.57
The learning which Confucius implies seems to be a wholistic
knowledge of human character. The main emphasis is to know
oneself, but by studying key signs one can also evaluate the
character of another. The indications include one's goals,
motives, methods, and what gives him satisfaction. "Look
closely into his aims, observe the means by which he pursues
them, discover what brings him content - and can the man's
real worth remain hidden from you?"58 However, the most
advantageous use of studying others is to learn how to correct
and improve ourselves; regardless of the man's character we
can learn a lesson, positive or negative. "When we see
men of worth, we should think how we may learn to equal them.
When we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inward
and examine ourselves."59
Even so, it is difficult to recognize one's own failings
and accuse oneself, but this fact indicates that there is
always room for improvement. "In vain I have looked for
a single man capable of seeing his own faults and bringing
the charge home against himself."60 The important thing
is at least to be working to improve oneself. The worst error
is not to even make the attempt. "To have faults and
to be making no effort to amend them is to have faults indeed!"61
Confucius also mentions this in connection with friendship
and the virtues of faithfulness and sincerity. "First
and foremost, be faithful to your superiors, keep all promises,
refuse the friendship of all who are not like you; and if
you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the
fact and amending your ways."62 Confucius pointed out
to his students which kinds of friends are beneficial and
which may prove harmful to one's character. "There are
three sorts of friendships which are advantageous, and three
which are injurious. Friendships with the upright, friendships
with the sincere, and friendships with the well informed are
advantageous. Friendships with those who flatter, friendships
with those of weak principles, and friendships with those
who talk cleverly are injurious."63 Likewise it is beneficial
for one to be discriminating in his choice of pleasures, so
as not to be harmed by dissipation.
There are three sorts of pleasures which are advantageous,
and three which are injurious. Finding pleasure in the discriminating
study of ceremonies and music, finding pleasure in discussing
the good points in the conduct of others, and finding pleasure
in having many wise friends, these are advantageous. But finding
pleasure in profligate enjoyments, finding pleasure in idle
gadding about, and finding pleasure in feasting, these are
Confucius recommends a mean between extravagance and stinginess,
though to err on the side of thrift is not the normal tendency
and is less harmful. "Just as lavishness leads easily
to presumption, so does frugality to meanness. But meanness
is a far less serious fault than presumption."65 However,
excessive pride and stinginess can overshadow and nullify
many good attributes. Confucius illustrates this with the
hypothetical example of the Duke of Chou who represents an
ideal. "Even if a man had abilities as admirable as those
of the Duke of Chou, if he is arrogant and mean, all the rest
is of no account."66
In answering a question about what is enlightenment, Confucius
describes it as a detachment in the face of verbal attacks,
probably a necessary virtue for one involved in politics!
"He who is influenced neither by the soaking in of slander
nor by the assault of denunciation may indeed be called enlightened."67
He goes on to say that this could also be called "transcendence."
We have seen how important words were to Confucius in the
virtue of sincerity, or the keeping of promises. Here the
enlightened man must be able to withstand false charges. In
addition a man must live up to his inherent honesty or uprightness
if the continuation of his life is to depend upon anything
other than good fortune. "Man is born with uprightness.
If one loses it, he will be lucky if he escapes with his life."68
Of all the qualities and virtues of men Confucius esteemed
as greatest what he called jen, translated here as goodness,
but also interpreted as humanity, humaneness, human-heartedness,
benevolence, etc. For Confucius this term represents the essence
of being a good person. Although it was a noble ideal to the
master and not easily realized, it still can be found very
close at hand if not within oneself. "Is goodness far
away? If we really wanted goodness, we should find that it
is right here."69 Being good was the basis of character
and pre-requisite to other subjects of study because of its
importance. "If a man is not good, what has he to do
with the rules of propriety? If he is not good, what has he
to do with music?"70
Knowledge and wisdom are closely related to goodness. Also
it is more important to increase one's own awareness than
to be recognized by others. "A good man does not worry
about not being known by others, but rather is concerned about
not knowing them."71 He is also able to discern the qualities
in people and act appropriately. "Only the good man knows
how to like people or knows how to dislike people."72
This may be an old adage clarified by the statement which
immediately follows it. "He whose heart is set upon goodness
will dislike no one."73 This latter idea appeals to the
goodness of our hearts, yet Confucius indicates it is also
necessary to have the wisdom to discern the good. "It
is goodness that gives to a neighborhood its beauty. One who
is free to choose, yet does not prefer to dwell among the
good---how can he be accorded the name of wise?"74 Goodness
is also a stabilizing yet an adaptable quality within man
enabling him to overcome difficulties and sustain success;
therefore it is wise to pursue goodness. "Without goodness
a man cannot endure adversity for long, nor can he enjoy prosperity
for long. The good man is naturally at ease with goodness.
The wise man cultivates goodness for its advantage."75
Confucius describes how men lacking in goodness tend to respond
to hardships. "One who is by nature daring and is suffering
from poverty will not long be law-abiding. Indeed, any men,
save those that are truly good, if their sufferings are very
great, will be likely to rebel."76 Confucius explains
logically that goodness includes courage, but courage does
not include goodness; just as virtue includes eloquence, while
eloquence does not include virtue. "One who has accumulated
virtue will certainly also possess eloquence; but he who has
eloquence doe not necessarily possess virtue. A good man will
certainly also possess courage; but a brave man is not necessarily
good."77 The virtues are related to each other in an
organized pattern, the goal of the whole being goodness. By
analyzing individual faults and correcting them, one can approach
closer to goodness. "Every man's faults belong to a set.
If one looks for faults it is only as a means of recognizing
Confucius encouraged his students to strive toward goodness
in the belief that everyone has the energy to do so. By directing
one's energy toward the good, the negative will have no opportunity
to corrupt the person.
I have never seen one who really loves goodness or one who
really hates wickedness. One who really loves goodness will
not place anything above it. One who really hates wickedness
will practice goodness in such a way that wickedness will
have no chance to get at him. Is there anyone who has devoted
his whole strength to doing good for even as long as a single
day? I have not seen anyone give up such an attempt because
he had not the strength to go on. Perhaps there is such a
case, but I have never seen it.79
The caution in Confucius' speech can be seen in his not going
beyond what he has observed while allowing for other possibilities.
The good man is trusting to a point, but is wise enough not
to be made a fool. Tsai Yu tested Confucius on this point,
asking him if a good man, if told there was a man in a well,
would go in after him. The master replied, "Why should
he do so? A gentleman may go to it, but cannot be made to
go down into it. He may be deceived, but cannot be led astray."80
It is one thing to believe someone's words, but quite another
to enter into a wrong action.
Although a person who has accumulated virtue is also eloquent,
as we saw above, Confucius did not consider clever speaking
to be necessary to a good man. This is indicated by an incident
when someone said Jan Yung was good, but that he was a poor
talker. Confucius responded, "What need has he to be
a good talker? Those who put down others with smartness of
speech usually find themselves hated. I do not know if he
is good, but I see no need for him to be a good talker."81
Confucius rarely called anyone good. In fact Confucius believed
one might better approach goodness by being cautious in speech.
"Imperturbable, enduring, simple, slow to speak - such
a one is near to goodness."82
Above all, goodness was correct conduct and behavior whether
in private or public life. To express this Confucius mentions
familiar occasions of special behavior and states again his
Jan Jung asked about goodness. Confucius said, "Behave
when away from home as though you were in the presence of
an honored guest. Employ the people as though you were assisting
at an important sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would
not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition
to you, whether it is the affairs of a state that you are
handling or the affairs of a family."
Jan Jung said, "I know that I am not clever; I will make
it my business to practice this lesson."83
Confucius, of course, intended that his students should put
his recommendations into practice. When Fan Ch'ih asked about
goodness, he gave a more abstract summary, but equally applicable.
"In private life, be courteous; in public life, be diligent;
in relationships, be loyal. Even if you are living amidst
the barbarians of the east or north, these principles may
not be set aside."84 His advice was usually universal
enough to apply everywhere.
Ultimately goodness can go beyond improving oneself to actually
helping others to improve oneself to actually helping others
to improve themselves, but it must begin within oneself in
order for one to know how to help others. The following conversation
shows that Confucius could envision a level even beyond goodness
- that of the divine sage.
Tzu-kung asked, "If a ruler extensively confers benefits
on the people and can bring salvation to all, what do you
think of him? Would you call him good?"
Confucius said, "Why only good? He would without doubt
be a divine sage. Even Yao and Shun fell short of it. A good
man, wishing to establish his own character, also establishes
the character of others, and wishing to be successful himself,
also helps others to be successful. To be able to see others
by what is within ourselves may be called the art of realizing
Here is a great key! By knowing what is within ourselves
we can know others; knowing ourselves, we can improve ourselves
and then benefit others also.
Before we move on to examine Confucius' concept of the gentleman,
let us first note that he believed that goodness made a gentleman,
but a gentleman was not necessarily good. "It is possible
to be a gentleman and yet lack goodness, but there has never
yet existed a good man who was not a gentle- man."86
This is a strong statement indicating the priority of goodness.
Although not necessarily all-inclusive of all positive values
in every context in which Confucius used the term, goodness
does, however, appear to be the supreme value and the one
most emphasized in his instruction.
The term chun-tzu originally meant the "son of a ruler"
and up to the time of Confucius was used to refer to a member
of the upper class. Confucius may very well have been the
first one to use this term extensively to mean a man of virtue
and principle. Cho-yun Hsu in a recent history of ancient
China wrote, "The Analects appears to be the earliest
work in which chun-tzu was used to imply high moral standards
in a person; here it denotes the ideal man whom all men should
cultivate their characters to imitate.... Such a man, noble
in virtue, was not necessarily a noble in social status."87
This is an indication of the tremendous influence Confucius
must have had, that in his disciples' minds at least he could
so change the meaning of this socially-laden term and liberate
it from class notions to apply to one of moral principles.
We are using the word "gentleman" here as an English
equivalent although the common translation "superior
man" is certainly valid.
Many of the same ideas about the good man are used to describe
the gentleman as well. The following description indicates
that the virtues enable the gentleman to command the respect
of others: "If the gentleman is not serious, he will
not be respected, and his learning will not be on a firm foundation.
He considers loyalty and faithfulness to be fundamental, has
no friends who are not like him, and when he has made mistakes,
he is not afraid of correcting them."88 Although the
gentleman may not have attained goodness, he acts in such
a way so that he might become good.
Ssu-ma Niu once asked Confucius what the term "gentleman"
meant. Confucius said that a gentleman has no anxiety or fear.
Ssu-ma Niu then asked rhetorically if this is what is meant
by being a gentleman. The master then elaborated, "On
looking within himself he discovers nothing wrong. What is
there for him to be anxious about or fear?"89 Here again
self-examination and self-improvement are the keys. A gentleman
is not worried by what others think of him, only that he correct
himself. "A gentleman is distressed by his own lack of
capacity; he is never distressed at the failure of others
to recognize his merits."90 However, eventually he should
be able to bring his good points to light; if he is never
recognized at all, it may be an indication that he has not
accomplished anything worthwhile. "A gentleman has reason
to be distressed if he ends his days without making a reputation
At three different stages of life, Confucius observes that
the gentleman must watch out for certain prominent tendencies.
"There are three things which a gentleman guards against.
In his youth when his physical powers are not yet settled,
he guards against lust. In his prime when his physical powers
are full of vigor, he guards against strife. In old age when
his physical powers are decaying, he guards against avarice."92
A keen student of human nature, Confucius is able to admonish
his students to be aware of certain propensities of the life
Confucius gives his students an elaborate catalog of the
concerns of a gentleman as guidelines for their behavior.
The gentleman has nine cares. In seeing he is careful to
see clearly; in hearing he is careful to hear distinctly;
in his looks he is careful to be kind, in his manner to be
respectful, in his words to be sincere, in his work to be
diligent. When in doubt he is careful to ask for information;
when angry he has a care for the consequences; and when he
sees a chance for gain, he thinks carefully whether the pursuits
of it would be right.93
These may seem like common sense, but how often are these
basic fundamentals of conduct neglected or ignored? By delineating
them Confucius at least makes sure that his students have
been made aware of them. If they were put into practice, how
valuable they could be!
Confucius knew that wise words were not nearly as important
as wise or good deeds. "The gentleman prefers to be slow
in word but diligent in action."94 In fact the correlation
between them was very important to the gentleman of Confucius'
philosophy. "A gentleman is ashamed to let his words
outrun his deeds."95 Such reminders were probably very
helpful to his students who must have spent much time in conversation.
A gentleman should also have the wisdom not to evaluate a
man solely on his words, nor to reject a good idea because
of who said it. "A gentleman does not promote a man on
account of what he says; nor does he reject sayings, because
the speaker is what he is."96
To make his points regarding better behavior and conduct,
Confucius used to contrast the gentleman with the small man.
In this way the students could recognize the mediocre or usual
behavior and could seek to replace it with the higher ideal.
For example, "The gentleman sets his heart on virtue;
the small man sets his on comfort. The gentleman thinks of
sanctions; the small man thinks of favors."97 Confucius
recommends a more universal perspective. "The gentleman
can see a question from all sides without bias. The small
man is biased and can see a question only from one side."98
The broader view enables one to be guided by the higher standard
of justice. "A gentleman in dealing with the world is
not for anything or against anything; he follows what is right."99
The higher viewpoint begins from neutrality in order to see
objectively. What is it which leads most people away from
justice? "The gentleman understands what is right; the
lesser man understands profit."100
Confucius recommends a positive attitude toward others rather
than negative fault-finding. "The gentleman calls attention
to the good points in others; he does not call attention to
their defects. The small man does just the reverse of this."101
Continually Confucius emphasizes self-improvement and being
responsible for oneself rather than inflicting on others.
"The demands that a gentleman makes are upon himself;
those that a small man makes are upon others."102 The
influence of a gentleman, however, is not limited by his social
position. "The gentleman can influence those who are
above him; the small man can only influence those who are
below him."103 The gentleman can also be distinguished
by his disposition. "The gentleman is calm and at ease."104
Some of this difference may be the result of whether the conscience
is clear or not. The inner attitude also carries over into
one's manner. "The gentleman is dignified but not proud;
the small man is proud but not dignified."105
Confucius' gentleman is an idealist rather than one merely
striving to make ends meet; besides, the economy may go up
or down anyway. "A gentleman, in his plans, thinks of
the Way; he does not think how he is going to make a living.
Even farming sometimes has a shortage; and even learning may
incidentally bring a salary. A gentleman is concerned with
the progress of the Way; he is not anxious about poverty."106
For Confucius, ethics always came first. There is human value
beyond being able to work, and Confucius would avoid dehumanization.
"The gentleman is not an implement."107
The gentleman is a creative and active being who knows how
to get things accomplished in the correct way. "A gentleman
considers justice to be essential in everything. He practices
it according to the principles of propriety. He brings it
forth in modesty and faithfully completes it. This is indeed
Thus we find the model which Confucius placed before his
students for them to study and learn to emulate. His curriculum
is wholly concerned with the subjective development of the
human being. Although some humanities such as literature,
history, and philosophy were used as aids, the overall emphasis
is on the improvement of each person's character so that he
may be a good gentleman. If he were able to gain a political
appointment as the result of his education, as several did,
this was only an incidental consequence as far as Confucius
was concerned. His purpose was to help people to become good.
1. Analects 2:18.
2. An. 15:2.
3. An. 15:23.
4. An. 13:3.
5. An. 20:3.
6. An. 7:24.
7. An. 8:8.
8. An. 6:25.
9. An. 7:6.
10. An. 1:6.
11. Lin Yutang, ed., The Wisdom of Confucius, p. 190-192.
12. I Ching (Wilhelm/Baynes), p. 322.
13. Lin Yutang, Wisdom of Confucius, p. 82-83.
14. Mote, Frederick W., Intellectual Foundations of China,
15. An. 3:14.
16. Lin Yutang, Wisdom of Confucius, p. 80-81.
17. An. 2:2.
18. An. 17:9.
19. An. 3:23.
20. Lin Yutang, Wisdom of Confucius, p. 81-82.
21. Ibid. p. 82.
22. Ibid. p. 83.
23. Ibid. p. 67-68.
24. An. 1:12.
25. An. 8:2.
26. An. 3:4.
27. An. 6:16.
28. An. 3:18.
29. An. 13:5.
30. An. 13:13.
31. An. 15:32.
32. An. 8:13.
33. An. 14:4
34. An. 8:14.
35. An. 12:19.
36. An. 14:8.
37. An. 1:5.
38. An. 5:12.
39. An. 9:1.
40. An. 7:20.
41. An. 11:11.
42. An. 3:12.
43. An. 6:15.
44. An. 11:19.
45. An. 4:9.
46. An. 6:18.
47. An. 9:17 (Legge).
48. An. 9:17 (Waley).
49. An. 12:10.
50. An. 12:21.
51. An. 6:27.
52. An. 15:26.
53. An. 9:28.
54. An. 17:23.
55. An. 2:17.
56. An. 2:15.
57. An. 17:8.
58. An. 2:10
59. An. 4:17.
60. An. 5:26.
61. An. 15:29.
62. An. 9:24.
63. An. 16:4.
64. An. 16:5.
65. An. 7:35.
66. An. 8:11.
67. An. 12:6.
68. An. 6:17.
69. An. 7:29.
70. An. 3:3.
71. An. 1:16.
72. An. 4:3.
73. An. 4:4.
74. An. 4:1.
75. An. 4:2.
76. An. 8:10.
77. An. 14:5.
78. An. 4:7.
79. An. 4:6.
80. An. 6:24.
81. An. 5:4.
82. An. 13:27.
83. An. 12:2.
84. An. 13:19.
85. An. 6:28.
86. An. 14:7.
87. Hsu, Cho-yun, Ancient China in Transition, p. 161, 163.
88. An. 1:8.
89. An. 12:4.
90. An. 15:18.
91. An. 15:19.
92. An. 16:7.
93. An. 16:10.
94. An. 4:24.
95. An. 14:29.
96. An. 15:22.
97. An. 4:11.
98. An. 2:14.
99. An. 4:10.
100. An. 4:16.
101. An. 12:16.
102. An. 15:20.
103. An. 14:24.
104. An. 7:36.
105. An. 13:26.
106. An. 15:31.
107. An. 2:12.
108. An. 15:17.