The Ethics of Confucius - Chapter 1 (part 5)

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Genius and Inspiration. It is characteristic of Confucius that, where he did not know, he did not affirm. His saying, "When you do not know a thing, to acknowledge that you do not know it, is knowledge " (Analects, bk. ii., c. xvii.), is far from being: "If you do not know a thing, affirm that it is not true."


Therefore, especially since, as all candid souls must ever have been, he was impressed with the marvellous insight which the minds of some of earth's children had shown, he was not a doctrinaire concerning the possibility of quicker, surer, and deeper discernment of facts and truths than that of which ordinary human beings are capable. Accordingly he says of this: "Those who are born in the possession of knowledge, are the highest class of men. Those who learn and so acquire knowledge, are next. The dull and stupid who yet achieve knowledge, are a class next to these. Those who are dull and stupid and yet do not learn, are the lowest of the people." (Analects, bk. xvi., c. ix.)


Though he is now reverenced by millions in the Asiatic world as the greatest mind that has been incarnate among them, Confucius makes no claim to such inspiration and internal perception of knowledge without external observation, for himself; instead, he says: "I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity and earnest in seeking it there." (Analects, bk. vii., c. xix.)


In view of the fact that others were not able in his day to find what he set forth, in the archives of mankind or even in the contemplation of nature, and the further undeniable fact of his wonderful penetration and clarity, it may be questioned whether, in addition to his tireless industry, there was not present also the full measure of illumination from without and, let us reverently say, from above, which has attended others of the world's great moral teachers and leaders in all time.


That it was not all pure grind—nay, more, that it should never be all pure grind—but, instead, the organic absorption of knowledge into himself and as inherent parts of himself, blending into a harmonious, developed whole, these words indicate: "The Master asked, 'Tsze, you think, I suppose, that I am one who learns many things and keeps them in his memory?' Tsze-kung replied, 'Yes, but perhaps it is not so?' 'No,' was the answer, 'I seek unity, all pervading.'" (Analects, bk. xv., c. ii.)

 

That there might not be foolish reliance upon internal light as a means of escaping the onerous labour of learning, he spoke this parable: "The mechanic who wishes to do his work well must first sharpen his tools." (Analects, bk. xv., c. ix.)


Preparation for the practice of the art of living, he taught, is necessary unto all men, saying: "Let every man consider virtue as what devolves upon himself; he may not yield the performance of it even to his teacher." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxv.) And also that perfection is a plant of slow growth, matured only by steady progress in development, in this saying as in many others: "I saw his constant advance. I never saw him halt in his progress." (Analects, bk. ix., c. xx.)


Sincerity. "Their knowledge being extensive, their thoughts became sincere."

The foregoing from "The Great Learning" (Text, v. 5) is challenged more frequently, perhaps, than any other of its propositions; for the mind immediately recurs to the remembrance of many Machiavellian characters who were well-informed, even erudite, and yet insincere. And, although Confucius here speaks of sincerity within a man's self and toward himself, as counter-distinguished from sincere speech and action, yet, notwithstanding that one cannot read the inmost thoughts and purposes of another, few there are who have pondered deeply and observed widely and closely, that do not know that sincerity of thought must itself be cultivated or at least be preserved.

 

Confucius had no mind to say otherwise for he puts it thus in "The Great Learning" at the very outset: "Wishing to think sincerely, they first extended their knowledge as widely as possible. This they did by the investigation of things"; and he himself says, elsewhere: "Leaving virtue without proper cultivation; not thoroughly discussing what is learned; not being able to move toward righteousness of which knowledge has been gained; and not being able to change what is not good: these are the things which occasion me solicitude." (Analects, bk. vii., c. iii.)

 

He also said, referring to knowledge: "A man can enlarge his principles; the principles do not [i.e., of themselves] enlarge the man." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxviii.) The same is also implied, as well as that a man of character, while ready to serve, will not permit himself to be used, by this saying (Analects, bk. ii., c. xii.): "The superior man is not an utensil," i.e., his usefulness is not confined to one thing.


Therefore, not to one who must as a matter of mere consequence comply, but to one who may exercise a choice whether to obey or not, learned though he may be, he directs this injunction: "Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles and be moving continually toward what is right." (Analects, bk. xii., c. x.)

 

Mencius puts it, beautifully, thus: "There is no greater delight than to be conscious of sincerity upon self-examination." (Bk. vii., pt. i., c. iv., v. 2.)

 

In the "Doctrine of the Mean," Confucius says: "Is it not just entire sincerity which marks the superior man?" (c. xiii., v. 4); and in "The Great Learning": "The superior man must make his thoughts sincere." (C. vi., 4.)


The same idea Mencius presents in this pleasing trope: "The great man is he who does not lose his child's heart." (Bk. iv., pt. ii., c. xii.)

 

This sincerity of thought, as of action, Confucius included among the five qualities essential to perfect virtue, saying: "To be able to practise five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue: Gravity, magnanimity, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness." (Analects, bk. xvii., c. vi.)

 

That it should not be found in every man, however imperfect and however unstable, was incomprehensible to him, since to his view it is the very breath of life for an intelligent being. This he declares in these terms: "Ardent and yet not upright; stupid and yet not attentive; simple and yet not sincere: such persons I do not understand." (Analects, bk. viii., c. xvi.)


Yet that he did not expect those who were uninstructed to be sincere, is plain from this expression in the "Doctrine of the Mean": "If a man do not understand what is good, he will not attain sincerity in himself." (C. xix., v. 17.)

 

This is but a negative statement of what has already been quoted (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xx., v. 19): "To this attainment"—i.e., of sincerity" there are requisite extensive study of what is good, accurate inquiry concerning it, careful consideration of it, clear distinguishing about it, and earnest practical application of it"—many things, in short, besides and beyond mere knowledge, essential as the intelligent perception of things as they are, may be. As much is also implied in: "He who attains to sincerity chooses the good and firmly holds it fast." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xxi., v. 8.)


That the attainment of sincerity is an essential prerequisite to self-development, this book strongly asserts. "Sincerity," it says, "is that whereby self-development is effected and the path by which a man must direct himself " (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xxv., v. 1); and again: "It is only he who is possessed of the completest sincerity that can exist under Heaven, who can give full development to his nature." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xxii.) In the "Yi King" (appendix iv., sect. i., c. ii., v. 3), it is said: "He is sincere even in his ordinary words and earnest in his everyday conduct. Guarding against depravity, he preserves his sincerity. His goodness is recognized in the world but he does not boast of it."


This beneficent power he is also not confined to exerting upon himself and for his own development only. Instead, it is of broader and even universal application; for Confucius says: "The possessor of sincerity develops not himself only; with it, he also develops others." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xxv., v. 3.)


By means of sincerity, it is taught in the " Doctrine of the Mean," and by it alone, man becomes, and is welcomed as, the co-operator with Heaven, and may thus beneficially influence and even transform others. There is psychological import in the words: "It is only he who is possessed of the completest sincerity that can exist under Heaven, who can transform." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xxiii.)


This is but one of the many alluring rewards that the sage saw to attend sincerity, which is, besides, sufficiently its own reward. Insight and foresight are others, concerning which it is said in the "Doctrine of the Mean": "He who has sincerity without effort hits what is right and discerns without laborious thought; he is a sage who naturally and readily follows the path." (C. xx., v. 18.) "It is characteristic of the completest sincerity to be able to foreknow." (C. xxiv.) "When calamities or blessings are about to befall, the good or the evil will surely be foreknown by him. He, therefore, who is possessed of the completest sincerity, is like a spirit." (C. xxiv.)


Extreme as these statements may appear, who is there among earnest thinkers and students that has not seen or experienced something very like this? It is obvious that the mind can the better fulfil its highest offices, if steadily applied thereto and never to the grovelling arts of deception or, lower yet, of self-deception. If gross self-deception, as by cowardice, self-seeking, prejudice, or superstition, renders the mind incapable of perceiving the simplest truths concerning the phenomena of nature, it may well be that complete absence of the wish to deceive or to be deceived bespeaks clarity of vision and of -prevision—which is, perhaps, only clear reasoning from the known and now, to the unknown and to be—though it otherwise seem impossible.


"The Great Learning" teaches that a large measure of this clear vision may be attained; for, immediately after saying, "The superior man is watchful over himself, when alone," it is added: "There is no evil to which the inferior man will not proceed, when alone. When he beholds a superior man, he tries at once to disguise himself, concealing his evil under a display of virtue. The other penetrates him as if he saw his heart and reins" (Text, vi., v. 1, 2).


And this is said (Great Learning, vi., v. 2) to warn the inferior man and encourage the superior: "What is in fact within, will show without"; and the Master is quoted in the "Doctrine of the Mean" (c. xx., v. 18), as saying with an enthusiasm no more than commensurate with the subject: "Sincerity is the path of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the path for men," and the "Doctrine of the Mean" adds yet more rapturously in its praise: "Sincerity is the end and the beginning of all things; without sincerity, there is nothing. Therefore, the superior man regards the attainment of sincerity the highest excellence." (C. xxv., v. 2.)


This eloquent passage in the "Shu King" (pt. v., bk. ix., v. 2) is evidently at one with the view of Confucius: "Awful though Heaven be, it yet helps the sincere."



Menander Dawson
The Ethics of Confucius, p.27-35

Source: sacred-texts.com