The Ethics of Confucius: Chapter 1 (part 4)

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 Learning. "Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xv.)

The emphasis is put upon thinking in this statement of the Duke of Kau, quoted in the "Shu King," by Confucius with approval: "The wise, through not thinking, become foolish; and the foolish, by thinking, become wise." (Pt. v., bk. xviii., 2.)

To the idea expressed in these astute words thus adopted by Confucius, he has added a personal application elsewhere, emphasizing the emptiness of mere speculation: "I have been the whole day without eating and the whole night without sleeping, occupied with thinking. It was of no avail. The better plan is to learn." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxx.)

The idleness of thought, desire, and conduct proceeding upon insufficient data is set forth by the sage in great detail, in the following: "There is the love of being benevolent without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to a foolish simplicity. There is the love of knowing without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to dissipation of mind. There is the love of being sincere without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to an injurious disregard of consequences. There is the love of straightforwardness without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to rudeness. There is the love of boldness without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to insubordination. There is the love of firmness without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to extravagant conduct." (Analects, bk. xvii., c. viii., v. 3.)

Therefore the necessity for patient, unremitting study, not merely of books but of men, animals, and things, of the phenomena of animate and inanimate nature, is urged by the great teacher again and again: "Learn as if you might not attain your object and were always fearing lest you miss it." (Analects, bk. viii., c. xvii.) "Is it not pleasant to learn with constant perseverance and application?" (Analects, bk. i., c. i., v. 1.)

In this regard, he leaves this picture of himself, in words which he spoke to one of his disciples: "The Duke of She asked Tsze-loo about Confucius and Tsze-loo did not answer him. The Master said, 'Why did you not say to him: He is simply a man who in his eager pursuit of knowledge forgets his food, who in the joy of attaining it forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that old, age is coming on?'" (Analects, bk. vii., c. xviii.)

And this is also declared to be an essential characteristic of the superior man: "The superior man learns and accumulates the results of his learning; puts questions and discriminates among those results; dwells magnanimously and unambitiously in what he has attained to; and carries it into practice with benevolence." (Yi King, appendix iv., c. vi., v. 31.)

That one must be modest as to his ability and acquirements, in order to learn, was as obvious to the mind of Confucius, as to that of Socrates. These words of Yueh in the "Shu King" are illustrative of this: "In learning there should be a humble mind and the maintenance of constant earnestness." (Pt. iv., bk. viii., sec. iii., i.)

And these are the words of Tsang, referring to his friend, Yen Yuan: "Gifted with ability and yet putting questions to those who were not so; possessed of much and yet putting questions to those possessed of little; having, as though he had not; full, and yet counting himself as empty; offended against, and yet entering into no altercation." (Analects, bk. viii., c. v.)

Though the mentor of princes, Confucius did not himself depart from such modesty in giving instruction, even as he adjured his disciples to observe it always in receiving t; for he gives this testimony concerning his course: "From the man bringing his bundle of dried flesh upwards, I have never refused instruction to any one." (Analects, bk. vii., c. vii.)

There comes before the mind of the modern student of Confucius, therefore, the same picture of humble companionship with the lowly as with the great, which the sojourn of Jesus, of Socrates, or of Epictetus among men also conjures forth. That such would be the universal consequence, were there universal instruction, i.e., that learning is essentially democratic and not a respecter of rank, riches, or even of persons, he affirms in this sentence: "There being instruction, there will be no distinction of classes" (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxviii.), which declaration, accepted and followed, has preserved China from that stifling death into which the caste system of India has forced its unhappy people.

Yet by no means unto all, the scoffer as well as the earnest student, the dull as well as the discerning, did Confucius consider that all knowledge should be imparted; instead he said: "To those whose talents are above mediocrity, the highest subjects may be announced. To those who are below mediocrity, the highest subjects may not be announced." (Analects, bk. vi., c. xix.)

The course which he who would learn must follow is given by Tsze-hea in these words: "He who from day to day recognizes what he has not yet attained to, and from month to month remembers what he has attained to, may be said to love to learn." (Analects, bk. xix., c. v.)

And that thoroughness and completion of all tasks are absolutely requisite, in these: "The prosecution of learning may be compared with what may happen in raising a mound. If there lack but one basket of earth to complete the work, and I there cease, the cessation is my own act." (Analects, bk. ix., c. xviii.)

That gravity and earnestness are requisite, he thus affirms: "If the scholar be not grave, he will not call forth any veneration, and his learning will not be solid." (Analects, bk. i., c. viii., v. 1.)

The reward of learning he declares to be: "It is not easy to find a man who has learned for three years, without coming to be virtuous." (Analects, bk. viii., c. xii.)

If observation in these twentieth-century days does not confirm this, is it not because of this, that investigation and study are but too often undertaken only in support of propositions to which the students are already committed, or, to put it otherwise, that such are rather the labours of the special advocate to establish his cause than of the impartial seeker after truth? And, if so, how could the result be as Confucius said? Moreover, in which of our schools are the rules of mental ethics,of correct study and thought, imparted? Is not the fault rather that education is not what it should be, than that there is education?

One of the disciples of Confucius testified concerning his instruction, "He enlarged my mind with learning and taught me the restraints of propriety" (Analects, bk. ix., c. x., v. 2), by which is meant the rules of conduct, mental and within one's self, as well as mental though outwardly expressed. Another disciple said: "There are learning extensively and having a firm and sincere aim, inquiring with earnestness, and reflecting with self-application; virtue is in such a course." (Analects, bk. xix., c. vi.)

Confucius himself remarked: "By extensively studying all learning and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety, one may thus likewise not err from what is right." (Analects, bk. xii., c. xv.)

And in the "Li Ki" this is found: "To acquire extensive information and remember retentively while yet modest; to do earnestly what is good and not become weary in so doing—these are characteristics of him whom we call the superior man." (Bk. i., sect. i., pt. iv., v. 27.)

By emphasizing that learning should be extensive, he did not mean to advise serious study of every idle speculation which the invention and ingenuity of human intellects can produce. Instead, the course which he marked out is that of close and careful observation of facts and pains-taking, cautious reasoning about them. Of the perils of the other, he says: "The study of strange doctrines is injurious indeed." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xvi.)

Notwithstanding this, he did not subordinate, and much less did he eliminate the need for, attention to the broad conception of the universe, while keeping one's eye upon the particle of dead matter or the infinitesimal forms of life. That the laws which operate in the phenomena of nature are the very laws of God, was ever present in his mind, and that narrow views of these phenomena, as if they were unrelated and independent, are not and cannot be true knowledge. Therefore is it, as he said, that "in order to know men," one "may not dispense with a knowledge of Heaven." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xx., v. 7.)

That everything cognizable is the field of learning is suggested in the words: "Accordingly, the sage, looking up, contemplates the brilliant phenomena of the heavens and, looking down, examines the definite arrangements of the earth; thus he knows the causes of darkness and of light. He traces things to their beginning and follows them to their end; thus he knows what can be said about death and life." (Yi King, appendix iii., c. iv., v. 21.)

The great utility to him who would round out his own life by knowledge of the achievements of ancient worthies was enforced as follows: "The scholar lives and associates with men of his own dime; but the men of antiquity are the subjects of his study." (Li Ki, bk. xxxviii., v. ii.)

The great, the all-important place of learning, so defined as a moving force in the scheme of life, and, within the measure of his capacity, its claim upon every human being, he thus affirmed: "Knowledge, magnanimity, and energy, these three are the virtues which are universally binding." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xx., v. 8.)

The union of a sublime trust and an earnest struggle to learn is thus praised by the sage himself: "With sincere trust he unites the love of learning; holding firm unto death, he is perfecting the excellence of his course." (Analects, bk. viii., c. xiii., v. i.)

(to be continued)

Miles Menander Dawson
The Ethics of Confucius, p. 20-27



 The Ethics of Confucius: Chapter 1 (part 3)