The Ethics of Confucius: Chapter 1 (part 3)

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Mental Morality."When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to acknowledge that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xvii.)

In these words Confucius set forth more lucidly than any other thinker, ancient or modern, the essential of all morality, mental honesty, integrity of the mind—the only attitude which does not close the door to truth.

The same thing is put forward in a different way in the "Li Ki," thus: "Do not positively affirm when you have doubts; and when you have not, do not put forth what you say, as merely your view." (Bk. i., sect. i., pt. i., c. iii., 5.)

The Chinese sage had no delusions about the real nature of the art of living, the rules of human conduct; he knew and understood that ethics are of the mind, that sticks and stones are neither moral nor immoral but merely unmoral, and that the possibilities of good and evil choices come only when the intelligence dawns which alone can choose between them.

Mencius considerably extended this view, starting from the position: "If men do what is not good, the blame cannot be imputed to their natural powers." (Bk. xi., pt. i., c. vi., v. 6.)

Not that he did not recognize the perils of unrestrained animal passions, ministered to, instead of guided and controlled by, a human mind which accordingly becomes their slave instead of master; for he says: "That whereby man differs from the lower animals is little. Most people throw it away, the superior man preserves it." (Bk. iv., pt. ii., c. xix., v. 1.)

And again he refers to this inexcusable reversal of the natural order, thus: "When a man's finger is deformed, he knows enough to be dissatisfied; but if his mind be deformed, he does not know that he should be dissatisfied. This is called: 'Ignorance of the relative importance of things.'" (Bk. vi., pt. i., c. xii., v. 2.)

The "Li Ki" says of this, more explicitly: "It belongs to the nature of man, as from Heaven, to be still at his birth. His activity shows itself as he is acted on by external things, and develops the desires incident to his nature. Things come to him more and more, and his knowledge is increased. Then arise the manifestations of liking and disliking. When these are not regulated by anything within, and growing knowledge leads more astray without, he cannot come back to himself, and his Heavenly principle is extinguished.

"Now there is no end of the things by which man is affected; and when his likings and dislikings are not subject to regulation (from within), he is changed into the nature of things as they come before him; that is, he stifles the voice of Heavenly principle within, and gives the utmost indulgence to the desires by which men may be possessed. On this we have the rebellious and deceitful heart, with licentious and violent disorder." (Bk. xvii., sect. i., v. 11, 12.)

Therefore, with acumen and discernment never excelled, Confucius divined that the mind must first be honest with itself. This indicates the essential immorality of the mind which clings to that which it does not know, with fervency and loyalty more devoted than that with which it holds to that which it does know. That one should not be swayed by what he prefers to believe, is again asserted in these words of the "Shu-King," ascribed to I Yin (pt. iv., bk. v., sect. iii., v. 2.):

"When you hear words that are distasteful to your mind, you must inquire whether they be not right; when you hear words that accord with your own views, you must inquire whether they be not contrary to right."


It is consonant with the spirit and teaching of Confucius that the philosopher Ch‘ing should have said of the "Doctrine of the Mean": "This work contains the law of the mind which was handed down from one to another"; and that Confucius himself has said: "In the Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence: Have no depraved thoughts.'" (Analects, bk. ii., c. ii.)

It was thus that Confucius conceived the art of living, as a thing thought out, a response purposive, instead of automatic, to every impulse from without. He says of himself, meaning thereby to instruct his disciples and inspire them to emulation: "I have no course for which I am predetermined and no course against which I am predetermined." (Analects, bk. xviii., c. viii., v. 5.)

And, as already quoted, these are among his most striking attributes of the superior man: "The superior man is catholic and not partisan; the ordinary man is partisan and not catholic." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xiv.) "The superior man in the world does not set his mind either for anything or against anything; what is right, he will follow." (Analects, bk. iv., c. x.) "The superior man is anxious lest he should not get truth; he is not anxious lest poverty should come upon him." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxi.)


In yet more glowing and enthusiastic terms he sang the praises of the open mind, its need, its utility, its essential beauty and sure promise, saying: "They who know the truth are not equal to them that love it, and they who love it are not equal to them that find pleasure in it." (Analects, bk. vi., c. xviii.)

Socrates said something akin to this when he rebuked the "sophists," i.e., the "wise," and modestly called himself "philosophos," i.e., only a lover of wisdom and one who devoutly wishes to learn.


Confucius sets before his disciples the apprehension and ascertainment of the bald truth concerning the phenomena of nature, as the thing first to be desired; for he says: "The object of the superior man is truth." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxi.)

Of himself, his disciples present this portrayal: "There were four things from which the Master was entirely free: He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egoism." (Analects, bk. ix., c. iv.)

The Investigation of Phenomena. "Wishing to think sincerely, they first extended their knowledge. This they did by investigation of things. By investigation of things, their knowledge became extensive. Their knowledge being extensive, their thoughts became sincere."


These words from "The Great Learning" (Text, v. 4, 5) are meant to show how the mind, holding itself in resolution, its conclusions ready to take whatever form the compelling logic of the ascertained facts may require, must, as an essential prerequisite of a normal and well-rounded life, investigate the phenomena which are around it. These are its world, with which it must cope, and which, in order that it may cope therewith, it must also understand. Confucius says: "To this attainment"—i.e., perfect sincerity—"there are requisite extensive study of what is good, accurate inquiry into it, careful consideration of it, clear distinguishing about it, and earnest practical application of it." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xx., v. 19.)


That there must be this ardent spirit of inquiry, this insatiable thirst after knowledge, or the man is lost, is indicated by Confucius in many sayings. One of he aptest of these is: "When a man says not, 'What shall I think of this? What shall I think of this?', I can indeed do nothing with him." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xv.)


On another occasion he announced: "I do not reveal the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor assist any one who is not himself anxious to explain." (Analects, bk. vii., c. viii.)


The apprehension that effect follows cause, was rightly regarded by him the first office of the human mind and the primary moral act of an intelligent being. This was made the foundation of "The Great Learning" (Text, v. 3): "Things have their root and their fruition. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what goes first and what comes after, is near to what is taught in the Great Learning."


As the followers of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle soon lost the real point of view of the great lover of wisdom, by reason of their devotion to what they understood to be the positive teaching of himself and his disciples, and built up a system of prescriptive and authoritative learning which in fact stifled original investigation of phenomena, while encouraging mere speculation and dialectics, so in like manner the investigation of phenomena, enjoined by Confucius, soon degenerated into scholasticism, and the mere conning and memorizing of texts. The neglect of the true significance of his injunction was so complete that, though apparently no other sentences are missing, the chapter of "The Great Learning" in which was given the early author's version of what is meant by "investigation of things" is lost. Only these words are still extant: "This is called knowing the root. This is called the perfecting of knowledge."

Views, ascribed to the commentator Ch‘ing, are usually supplied to fill this hiatus. They are here quoted to show how the true function of investigation, which is not the duty merely of the young and untutored mind but yet more the duty of the trained and experienced, was distorted into something altogether contrary, by passing through the intellect of the adoring scholiast: "The meaning of the expression, 'The perfecting of knowledge depends upon the investigation of things' is this: If we wish to carry our knowledge to the utmost, we must investigate the principles of all things we come into contact with; for the intelligent mind of man is certainly formed to know and there is not a single thing of which its principles are not a part. But so long as all principles are not investigated, man's knowledge is incomplete. On this account, the 'Learning for Adults,' in its opening chapters, instructs the learner in regard to all things in the world, to proceed from what knowledge he has of their principles and pursue his investigations of them until he reaches the extreme point. After exerting himself in this way for a long time, he will suddenly find himself possessed of a wide and far-reaching penetration. Then the qualities of all things, whether external or internal, subtle or coarse, will be apprehended and the mind, in its whole substance and its relations to things, will be perfectly intelligent. This is called the investigation of things, this is called the perfection of knowledge."

But, while it may have been, and indeed was, called "the investigation of things," by Ch‘ing and by many of the scholiasts since his day, it is obviously far from that enduring open-mindedness and spirit of impartial inquiry which Confucius held to be the first essential to the art of living. The words of Confucius, therefore, have clearer and higher significance in this scientific age than in all the centuries during which Asiatic students have memorized them in the schools.

That Confucius meant no such blind following of authority is clear from this saying: "Hwuy gives me no assistance. There is nothing that I say, in which he does not delight." (Analects, bk. xi., c. iii.)


Investigation and the spirit of free investigation, in order that knowledge may ever be subjected to repeated tests, are "the root," according to the reasoning of Confucius, from which the conduct of life must proceed. Therefore and referring thereto, the philosopher Yew is quoted as saying: "The superior man bends his attention to what is radical. That being established, all practical courses naturally grow up." (Analects, bk. i., c. ii., v. 2.)

This is set forth at length in yet more enthusiastic language: "When we minutely investigate the nature and reasons of things till we have entered into the inscrutable and spiritual in them, we attain to the largest practical application of them; when that application becomes quickest and readiest and personal poise is secured, our virtue is thereby exalted. Proceeding beyond this, we reach a point which it is hardly possible to comprehend; we have thoroughly mastered the inscrutable and spiritual and understand the processes of transformation. This is the fulness of virtue." (Yi King, appendix iii., sect. ii., v. 33, 34.)

(to be continued)

Miles Menander Dawson
The Ethics of Confucius, p.12-20