The Ethics of Confucius - Chapter 2 (part 1): Self-development

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THE characteristics of the superior man having been presented, it is in logical order to examine the faculties and qualities which Confucius would have one cultivate to attain this ideal state. First in importance is the will.

The Will. "Their purposes being rectified, they cultivated themselves."

By these words in "The Great Learning" (Text, v. 5) it is meant that when there is no conflict of aims, of duties and desires, when one wills what he wishes, and with all his heart singly and clearly wishes what he wills, then and not till then does the will become clear and firm and strong.

The man is his will; back of his will is his purpose; and back of his purpose, his desire. If his knowledge enable him to make right choices, he should be sincere, his desires should be disciplined, his purpose lofty, and, resting thereupon as on a rock, his will fixed and immovable. That is character.

Confucius puts it: "If the will be set on virtue,there will be no practice of wickedness." (Analects, bk. iv., c. iv.) True; for when the will rests upon set purpose, based upon purified desire, born of knowledge and discriminating investigation of phenomena, nothing can undermine it!

This rectification of the antecedent conditions is what the sage refers to when he says: "To subdue one's self and return to propriety is perfect virtue" (Analects, bk. xii., c. 1), and again: "The firm, the enduring, the simple, and the unpretentious are near to virtue." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxvii.)

That the will is proved by its resistance rather than its impelling force, Mencius says in this: "Men must be resolute about what they will not do and then they are able to act with vigor." (Bk. iv., pt. ii., c. viii.)

The same is meant, i.e., that if one's trust is thus grounded, nothing external can shake his determination, when Confucius says: "The commander of the forces of a large state may be carried off, but the will of even a common man cannot be taken from him." (Analects, bk. ix., c. xxv.) So speaks Ibsen who puts into the mouth of Brand:


                  "That one cannot him excuses,
                    But never that he does not will."

 Confucius refuses to accept the excuse of inability unless one actually expires in a supreme effort to achieve. Therefore, when his disciple, Yen K‘ew, said: "It is not that I do not delight in your doctrines, but my strength is insufficient," he admonished him: "They whose strength is insufficient give over in the middle of the way, but now you do but set limits unto yourself." (Analects, bk. vi., c. x.)


The scorn of craven compromise is well voiced in this: "Tsze-Chang said, 'When a man holds fast virtue, but without seeking to enlarge it, and credits right principles, but without firm sincerity, what account can be made of his existence or non-existence?'" (Analects, bk. xix., c. ii.)

That the path of duty leads to the very brink of the grave—and beyond it—Confucius says in no uncertain language: "The determined scholar and the man of virtue will not seek to live at the expense of injuring their virtue. They will even sacrifice their lives to preserve their virtue complete." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. viii.) "The man who in the view of gain thinks of righteousness, who in the view of danger is prepared to give up his life, and who does not forget an old agreement, however far back it extends—such a man may be reckoned a complete man." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xiii., v. 2.)


His disciple, Tsze-Chang, said of this: "The scholar, beholding threatened danger, is prepared to sacrifice his life. When the opportunity for gain is presented to him, he thinks of righteousness." (Analects, bk. xix., c. i.)


This picture, which to uninstructed mortals may seem dark and forbidding,—it should not seem so, since to die is before every man and few can hope to have so noble an end,—Confucius did not always hold before the eyes of his disciples, however, but on the contrary justly declared, in the face of their craven dread: "Virtue is more to man than either fire or water. I have seen men die by treading upon fire or water, but I have never seen a man die by treading the path of virtue." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxiv.)

It costs really nothing to will that which is good and beneficial; the cost is all on the other side. That one sacrifices, is pure delusion; the pleasure as well as the solid benefit is to be found where the enlightened will would bear us. Such conduct is heroic to contemplate; but it is simple truth and not merely personal praise which Confucius spake of another: "With a single bamboo dish of rice, a single gourd dish of drink, and living in a mean, narrow lane, while others could not have endured the distress, he did not allow his joy to be affected by it." (Analects, bk. vi., c. ix.)


It might, indeed it ought and would, be true of any other, if unspoiled; and, as he has well said: "For a morning's anger, to wreck one's life and involve the lives of his parents, is not this a case of delusion?" (Analects, bk. xii., c. xxi., v. 3.)


And, while not so strikingly and obviously true, this statement holds for every aberration from the path of duty, into which one may believe himself led by reason of the greater pleasure and satisfaction that it seems to offer, be it what it may.

The beauty, the compensations and relaxations of the upward course are thus set forth by the sage: "Let the will be set on the path of duty! Let every attainment of what is good be firmly grasped! Let perfect virtue be emulated! Let relaxation and enjoyment be found in the polite arts!" (Analects, bk. vii., c. vi.)


To the instructed mind there is nothing uninviting in this prospect; and low and mind-destroying pleasures and comforts which are in fact, though not apparently, lower and more destructive are well abandoned for these higher, simpler, keener, and more abiding satisfactions. Confucius puts it also more explicitly thus: "To find enjoyment in the discriminating study of ceremonies and music; to find enjoyment in speaking of the goodness of others; to find enjoyment in having many worthy friends:—these are advantageous. To find enjoyment in extravagant pleasures; to find enjoyment in idleness and sauntering; to find enjoyment in the pleasures of feasting: these are injurious." (Analects, bk. xvi., c. v.)

Even reverses and hardships have their lesson and reward if one but meet them with resolution; for as Mencius says: "When Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first disciplines his mind with suffering and his bones and sinews with toil. It exposes him to want and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens him, and supplies his shortcomings." (Bk. vi., pt. ii., c. xv., v. 2.)


This development of the will, which is the development of the man, is therefore not a thing to terrify or repel. Instead, it is mastery, power, sway, achievement—that for which the mind of man longs unceasingly. And it comes of itself, if the basis for it has been safely and carefully laid in purified desires and righteous aims, without effort, without strain, without pain or penalty.

"Is virtue a thing remote?" asked the sage; and answered: "I wish to be virtuous, and lo, virtue is at hand!" (Analects, bk. vii., c. xxix.)

What, then, is this will? What, this virtue? The disciples of Confucius handed the secret of it down from one to another, in these words: "The doctrine of our master is to be true to the principles of our nature and the benevolent exercise of them to others." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xv., v. 2.)

That the joy of well-doing is more than comparable with the pleasure of abandonment to sensual playing with elemental appetites, is said in these words of Wu, reported in the "Shu King": "I have heard that the good man, doing good, finds the day insufficient; and that the evil man, doing evil, also finds the day insufficient." (Pt. v., bk. i., sect. 2)

(To be continued)

Miles Menander Dawson
The Ethics of Confucius, p.48-53




The Ethics of Confucius - Chapter 1 (part 7)