The Ethics of Confucius - Chapter 1 (part 6)

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Rectification of Purpose. "Their thoughts being sincere, their purposes were rectified."

In "The Great Learning," from which this is taken (Text, v. 5), the following brief explanation of it is given: "This is meant by 'Self-development depends upon rectifying one's purposes': If a man be swayed by passion, his conduct will be wrong; and so also if he be swayed by terror, by fondness, by sorrow, by distress. When the mind is not dominant, we look but see not, we hear but comprehend not, we eat but taste not." (C. vii., v. 1, 2.)

The same thought Confucius expresses at another time when addressing one of his disciples: "Ch‘ang is under the influence of his passions; how can he be pronounced firm and unbending?" (Analects, bk. v., c. x.)

Rarely in any of the books edited by Confucius, composed of his sayings or purporting to set forth his views, is anything advanced as the very word of God. Yet upon this topic the following is found in the "Shi King" (Major Odes, decade i., ode 7): "God said to King Wan: 'Be not like them who reject this and cling to that! Be not like them who are ruled by their likes and desires!'"

And in the "Li Ki" is found this account of the methods and purposes of the ancient kings, already once quoted: "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." (Li Ki, bk. xvii., sect. i., v. 11, 12.)

The starting-point for such rectification is vividly portrayed by the sage in the following passage, also from the "Li Ki" (bk. vii., sect. ii., v. 20): "The things which men greatly desire are comprehended in meat, drink, and sexual pleasure; the things which they greatly dislike are comprehended in death, exile, poverty, and suffering. Likes and dislikes are the great elements of men's minds."


If to the three things desired by all men were added "air," the four primal animal requisites to self-preservation and race-preservation would have been named, each good and well adapted for its own purposes and not one of them subject to any abuses by the unthinking beast.


That the mind of man, in possessing which he differs from his brother animals, should fail to subordinate each of these and at the same time more perfectly and accurately to adapt it to its own purposes, constitutes abandonment by him of his highest heritage; and such abuses of normal appetites as are involved in feasting, drinking, abandoned venery, or snuff-taking, or tobacco or opium smoking, each an exercise in an abnormal way of a special function for its own sake and without design that the consequences of its healthful exercise should follow, obviously are perversions of the mind and well illustrate that saying of the sage: "The progress of the superior man is upward; the progress of the ordinary man is downward." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxiv.)

The destructive results of setting the heart upon blind indulgence in these refinements of sensual pleasure were sung in "The Odes" by one of the ancient bards:

                   He who love hunting and women

                  Abandons his state to ruin
                                                                             (Li Ki, bk. ix., sect. ii., v. 12.)

 And this bald fact, abundantly shown in this age by the vital statistics of every country, was spoken by the Duke of Kau and handed down in the "Shu King" (pt. v., bk. xv., v. 2): "They sought for nothing but excessive pleasure and so not one of them had long life."


The greater longevity of men who were earnest students and vigorous, forceful thinkers, not given to dissipation of their energies in any of the ways described, had already been remarked, indeed, centuries before the time of Confucius. Yet he had more respect for misguided seekers after pleasure, at bottom, than for the smug lovers of safe comfort; the former at least lived, however mistaken their view of life's true aim, the strenuous existence, making sacrifices to obtain that which they desired. He would not have been ready to go so far, perhaps, as Ibsen who says through the lips of Brand:


          "Let be, ye are the serfs of pleasure;

           Be such, then, with no let nor measure!

           Not one thing merely for today
           And quite another thing tomorrow. 
           The Bacchants were ideal. They
           Kept up a constant round of revel.
           The sot who swings ’twixt drink and sorrow
            Is but a 'pitiable devil.'
            Silenus was a fine figure,
            The tippler but his caricature."


But much more clearly than any of the other great ethical teachers of ancient times, Confucius recognizes the true opposite of lofty purpose when he puts the contrast thus: "The superior man thinks of virtue; the ordinary man thinks of comfort." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xi.)


He thus sets one against the other the highest and the lowest aims of which man is capable; for all other low aims involve at least some sacrifice, while he who seeks comfort only, thinks that he would be happier as a mere parasite. Of such, Confucius says: "Hard is the case of him who will stuff himself with food the whole day, without applying his mind to anything. Are there not gamesters and chessplayers? Even to be one of these would be better than doing nothing at all." (Analects, bk. xvii., c. xxii.)

In this age, when comfort is the sole god of the many, who also deem themselves good and virtuous and even superior, surely these truths need to be held before all men without surcease, lest the race degenerate and perish—degenerate because of low aim and its successful attainment, and perish because they whose god is comfort tend to cease to propagate. Was it not to this the sage referred when he said, "Your good, careful people of the villages are the thieves of virtue" (Analects, bk. xvii., c. xiii.), and, as quoted by Mencius, "I hate your good, careful men of the villages, lest they be confounded with the virtuous"? (Bk. vii., pt. ii., c. xxxvi., v. 12.)

The Duke of Kau is represented in the "Shu King " (pt. v., bk. xv., v. 1) to have said of old: "The superior man rests in this, that he will indulge in no injurious ease."

Confucius was ever insistent upon contrasting the love of virtue with the love of comfort as in these sayings: "The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. iii.) "A scholar, whose mind is set on truth and who is ashamed of poor clothes and poor food, is not fit to be discoursed with." (Analects, bk. iv., c. ix.)

Scarcely less apposite to the conditions of the present day is this contrast which he makes: "The mind of the superior man is conversant with righteousness; the mind of the ordinary man is conversant with gain." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xxi.)


Yet he holds that one may receive and welcome his reward, albeit that to secure it should not be his purpose in doing an excellent thing or service. Indeed, one must not even set before him the purpose to secure rewards which are real, though not material, such as fame or even success and self-approbation. The course of virtue, leading to singleness of purpose and thoroughness of work, is thus marked out: "The man of virtue makes the difficulty to be overcome his first business, and success only a subsequent consideration." (Analects, bk. vi., c. xx.)

This he adverts to again, saying: "If doing what is to be done be made the first business, and success a secondary consideration, is not this the way to exalt virtue?" (Analects, bk. xii., c. xxi., v. 3.)


And repeatedly in the "Li Ki" this idea is presented in such varied and beautiful forms as these: "The Master said: 'The superior man will decline a position of high honour, but not one that is mean; will decline riches, but not poverty. . . . The superior man, rather than be rewarded beyond his desert, will have his desert greater than the reward.'" (Bk. xxvii., v. 7.) "The Master said: 'There is only now and then a man under heaven who loves what is right without expectation of reward, or hates what is wrong without fear of consequences.'" (Bk. xxix., v. 13.) "A superior man will not for counsel of little value accept a great reward, nor for counsel of great value a small reward." (Bk. xxix., v. 36.)

Yet more reprehensible, if possible, he deems it that in learning the purpose be not solely the attainment of truth and the acquisition of know- ledge, but also or even exclusively the praise or favours of others; for he says: "In ancient times men learned with a view to their own improvement.

Nowadays men learn with a view to the approbation of others." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxv.)

From the book of Mencius the following is taken: "Yang Hoo said: 'He who seeks to be rich will not be benevolent; he who seeks to be benevolent will not be rich.'" (Bk. ii., pt. i., c. iii., v. 5.)

The following inspiring saying from the "Li Ki" (bk. xxix., v. 27) points out the goal to attain which the sincere mind must perforce direct all its power: "The services of Hau Ki were the most meritorious of all under heaven. . . . But all he longed for was that his actions should be better than the fame of them, and so he said of himself that he was simply 'a man who is useful to others.'"

Mencius supplies these infallible indications that one's purpose is not unmixed with selfish designs, and therefore that it requires careful scrutiny and rectification: "If a man love others and that love is not returned, let him examine himself as to his love of others. If he rules others but his government is not successful, let him examine himself as to wisdom. If he is polite to others but they impolite to him, let him examine himself as to real respect for them. When by what we do we do not achieve our aim, we must examine ourselves at every point. When a man is right, the whole empire will turn to him." (Bk. iv., pt. i., c. iv., v. 1, 2.)

Miles Menander Dawson
The Ethics of Confucius, p.35-43