The Ethics of Confucius - Chapter 1 (part 7) - Rectified Purpose

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Rectified Purpose.  "Exalted merit depends on high aim."

This precept, taken from the "Shu King" (pt. v., bk. xxi., v. 4), in altered form and otherwise applied, runs through these sentences of Confucius: "Do not be desirous of having things done quickly. Do not look at small advantages. Desire to have things done quickly prevents their being done thoroughly. Looking at small advantages prevents great affairs from being accomplished." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xvii.)

Stern self-examination is inculcated in the "Li Ki" as the first duty of him who aspires to be of service, or who assumes responsibilities: "For one who wished to serve his ruler, the rule was first to measure his abilities and duties and then enter upon the responsibilities; he did not first enter and then measure. The same rule applied when one begged or borrowed from others or sought to enter their service." (Bk. xv., v. 19.)

And yet more pointedly in this from the "Shi King" (Major Odes, decade iii., ode 6): "He was always anxious lest he should not be equal to his task."

Thoroughness, continuity of purpose and persistence are strongly urged; but, above all things, that rigorous judgment of a man's self which alone can keep his effort directed toward the goal. On this point, Confucius sadly and repeatedly warns his disciples against over-confidence that these things will come of themselves, saying: "I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty." (Analects, bk. ix., c. xvii., bk. xv., c. xii.) And again: "I have not yet seen one who could perceive his faults and inwardly accuse himself." (Analects, bk. v., c. xxvi.)

Nevertheless the necessity for constant self-inspection was held before his disciples, as in this parable (Great Learning, c. ii.): "On the bathtub of Tang the following words were engraved: 'If you can purify yourself a single day, do so every day. Let no day pass without purification!'"; and the same he said, even more vigorously, thus: "To assail one's own wickedness and not assail that of others, is this not the way to correct cherished evil?" (Analects, bk. xii., c. xxi., v. 3.)


On another occasion Confucius illustrated it by referring to archery and saying: "In archery, we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the centre of the target, he turns around and seeks the cause of his failure within himself." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xiv., v. 5.)


His disciple, Tsang, thus describes the scrutiny to which he habitually and daily submitted his own thoughts and conduct: "I daily examine myself on three points: whether, in transacting business for others I may not have been faithful; whether, in intercourse with friends, I may not have been sincere; and whether I may not have mastered and practised the instructions of my teacher." (Analects, bk. i., c. iv.)


This the "Doctrine of the Mean" enjoins as necessary in order that one may justly cherish true self-respect, saying: "The superior man examines his heart that there may be nothing wrong there and that he may have no cause for dissatisfaction with himself." (C. xxxiii., v. 2.)


Both emulation of the virtues of superior men and this unrelenting introspection are urged in this counsel: "When we see men of worth, we should think of equalling them; when we see men of the contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xvii.)


Mencius illustrates this and enlarges upon it thus: "To support the resolution, there is nothing better than to make the desires few. Here is a man whose desires are few; in some things he may not be able to maintain his resolution, but they will be few. Here is a man whose desires are many; in some things he may be able to maintain his resolution, but they will be few." (Bk. vii., pt. ii., c. xxxv.)


The emphasis which the sage thus puts upon desire and purpose, does not imply that he deems the act good or bad, only according as the motive is virtuous or evil. The act will be judged by its effect and the motive also by its result. The act may affect for weal or woe the man or others or both, entirely independently of the purpose; but the wish and intention immediately affect the development of the man himself, and make him more or less a man.


Therefore is it that from earliest youth one must be careful about that which he most earnestly desires, not because he will not obtain it, but because he will, to his making or his undoing; and the teachers of the young have greater reason to direct with care their wishes, longings, and ambitions than merely their present application to study and work.

Mencius refers to this when he aptly says: "Let a man stand fast in the nobler part of himself and the meaner part will not be able to take it from him." (Bk. vi., pt. i., c. xv., v. 2.)

He also points out how men are distinguished by the loftiness or lowness of their purposes, thus: "Those who follow that part of themselves which is great, are great men; those who follow that part of themselves which is little, are little men." (Bk. vi., pt. i., c. xv., v. 1.)

The intimate and immediate connection between sincerity and purity of purpose is self-evident; only by the most searching sincerity can the human intellect be prevented from deceiving itself, where elemental appetites, useful for the purposes for which they exist but destructive if unrestrained, plead for freedom from restraint and even for stimulation as ends in themselves and not in furtherance of the cosmic purposes of self-preservation and race-preservation for which they were given.

This glorious picture of achievement Confucius puts before those of his disciples who will preserve in thought and action unswerving integrity of purpose and of aim: "Contemplating good and pursuing it as if they could not attain to it, contemplating evil and shrinking from it as they would from thrusting the hand into boiling water—I have seen such men as I have heard such words." (Analects, bk. xvi., c. xi., v. 1.)

There may, then, be such men; no impossible standard is here set up. Confucius had long held his conduct up to it and says of himself: "With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink and my bended arm for a pillow, I still have joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honours, acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a. floating cloud." (Analects, bk. vii., c. xv.)

Miles Menander Dawson
The Ethics of Confucius, p. 43-47