The Ethics of Confucius - Chapter 2 (part 2): Fortitude

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Fortitude. When the will accords completely with the purpose and the desire, courage follows necessarily; for, if one desires a given result, designs to compass it, and wills to achieve it, it can only mean that he is not fearful about it but instead is cool and determined. As it costs nothing to will, when the purpose are rectified; so, when the will is clear and firm, it costs nothing to be brave. Therefore in "The Great Learning" it is said that by this course, "unperturbed resolve is attained." Confucius elsewhere puts it: "To see what is right and not to do it, is want of courage." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xxiv., v. 2.)

For if one see what is right, he should think sincerely about it, without self-delusion; and, thinking thus, his desires and his purposes should be rectified and therefrom the will to do right will flow. And if he see the truth and do not do these things, it is plainly want of courage—the courage to cast aside comfortable delusions, to think sincerely and be undeceived. When undeceived and with desire and resolve purified, the will and courage follow inevitably.

Confucius again refers to this, saying: "When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them." (Analects, bk. i., c. viii., v. 4.) This is also the gist of the following injunction from the "Li Ki" (bk. xv., v. 22): "Do not try to defend or conceal what was wrong in the past."

So also speaks Yueh in the "Shu King": "Do not be ashamed of mistakes and so proceed to make them crimes!" (Pt. iv., bk. viii., sect. v. I.)

The fear here referred to is doubtless both the fear of discomfort and the fear of the prying eyes and the caustic tongues of others. To this craven dread, reference is made when Tsze-Hea says: "The inferior man is sure to gloss his faults." (Analects, bk. xix., c. viii.) The remedy for it, Confucius demonstrates in these brave words: "I am fortunate! If I have any faults, people are sure to know them." (Analects, bk. vii., c. xxx., v. 3.)

Thus Mencius puts it: "When any one told Tsze-loo that he had a fault, he rejoiced." (Bk. ii., pt. i., c. viii., v. 1.)

Again speaking in the "Yi King" in praise of the son of the Yen family, Confucius says: "If anything that he did was not good, he was sure to become conscious of it; and, when he knew it, he did not do the thing again." (Appendix iii., v. 42.)


So, also, King Thang is represented in the "Shu King" as saying: "The good in you I will not dare to keep concealed; and for the evil in me, I will not dare to forgive myself." (Pt. iv., bk. iii., v. 3.)


And in the "Shu King," also, the great Shun is reported to have said: "When I am doing wrong, it is yours to correct me. Do not concur to my face and when you have retired, speak otherwise!" (Pt. ii., bk. iv., I.)


Fearlessness Confucius ever named as an attribute of the superior man, saying (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxx., v. 1): "The way of the superior man is threefold, but I am not equal to it. Virtuous, he is free from anxieties; wise, he is free from perplexities; bold, he is free from fear"; and he presents this opposite picture (Analects, bk. iv., c. ii.): "They who are without virtue cannot abide long either in a condition of poverty and hardship or in a condition of enjoyment."

This is even more strikingly presented in the following: "Having not and yet affecting to have, empty and yet affecting to be full, straitened and yet affecting to be at ease! It is difficult with such characteristics to have constancy." (Analects, bk. vii., c. xxv., v. 3.)


And in this contrast: "The superior man is satisfied and composed, the ordinary man is always full of distress." (Analects, bk. vii., c. xxxvi.)

The cowardice of such concern about the future as sets one to speculating and worrying is condemned in the "Li Ki" (bk. xv., 22) as follows: "Do not try . . . to fathom what has not yet arrived."


The sage was not unaware that boldness may be the result of ignorance as well as of knowledge, that it may be madness and folly instead of clear sanity and wisdom. It was concerning such that Confucius spoke when he said of the superior man: "He hates those who have valour only and are unobservant of propriety. He hates those who are forward and determined and at the same time of contracted understanding." (Analects, bk. xvii., c. xxiv., v. 2.)

That the bravery of the superior man and the bravado of the inferior should be distinguished, is the gist of the following saying: "Men of principle are sure to be bold, but those who are bold may not always be men of principle." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. v.)

The absolute need of fearlessness, Mencius enjoins in this which he puts into the mouth of Mang She-Shay: "I look upon not conquering and conquering in the same way. To measure the enemy and then advance, to calculate the chances of victory and then engage—this is to stand in dread of the opposing force. How can I make certain of conquering? But I can rise superior to all fear." (Bk. ii., pt. i., c. ii., v. 5.)

The shame of moral cowardice is well set forth by Confucius in the " Yi King, "thus: "If one be distressed by what need not distress him, his name is sure to be disgraced." (Appendix iii., sect. ii., c. v.)

What, then, may the superior man fear? The answer, disclosing that upon which the courage of the superior man rests securely, is in this query: "They sought to act virtuously and they did so; and what was there for them to repine about?" (Analects, bk. vii., c. xiv., v. 2.)

The freedom from fear which is here referred to costs no effort; if the precedent conditions have been fulfilled, it is their natural and necessary consequence and appears in the noble attributes of the superior man, to which Confucius often adverted, as thus: "The superior man has neither anxiety nor fear." (Analects, bk. xii., c. iv., v. t.) "When internal examination discovers nothing wrong, what is there to be anxious about, what is there to fear?" (Analects, bk. xii., c. iv., v. 3.)

Poise. "To this"—i.e., to unperturbed calm—"succeeds tranquil poise. In this poise is found deliberation."

This passage from "The Great Learning" (Text, v. 2) aims to enforce that it is not enough that one should be resolute and composed in the presence of danger; he must ever be calm and resolute. Thus the sage has said: "What the superior man seeks, is in himself; what the ordinary man seeks, is in others." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxviii.) And his disciple, Tsang, says: "The superior man in his thoughts does not go out of his place." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxviii.)

In the "Yi King" (appendix ii., c. iii.), it is put thus: "The superior man does not in his thoughts go beyond the position in which he is."

And thus, also: "The influence of the world would make no change in him; he would do nothing merely to secure fame. He can live withdrawn from the world without regret; he can experience disapproval without a troubled mind. . . . He is not to be torn from his root." (Appendix iv., c. ii., v. 41.)

In the "Li Ki" this is much expatiated upon, in part only as follows: "The scholar keeps himself free from all stain; . . . he does not go among those who are low, to make himself seem high, nor set himself among those who are foolish, to make himself seem wise; . . . he does not approve those who think as he, nor condemn those who think differently; thus he takes his stand alone and pursues his course, unattended." (Bk. xxxviii., v. 15.)

The reward for this attainment of perfect poise is described in the "Yi King" (appendix iii., sect. i., c. i., v. 8), in these words: "With the attainment of such ease and such freedom from laborious effort, the mastery is had of all principles under the sky."


And the mode and manner of it are portrayed in the same book (appendix iii., sect. ii., c. v., v. 44) by this saying attributed to Confucius: "The superior man composes himself before trying to move others; makes his mind at rest and easy, before he opens his mouth; determines upon his method of intercourse with others, before he seeks anything of them."


The central conception is that the man should be so balanced that, instead of giving unconscious reactions or semi-conscious responses to stimuli from without, every response, however promptly delivered in speech or act, should be purposive—the consequence of intelligent understanding and resolve.

Mencius said of himself (bk. ii., pt. i., c. ii., v. 1): "At forty I attained to an unperturbed mind"; and Confucius of himself (Analects, bk. vi., c. xxvii.): "There may be those who do this or that, without knowing why. I do not do so."

The sage also eulogizes the balanced, self-centred man in no uncertain terms, as follows: "He with whom neither calumny which slowly soaks into the mind, nor insults that startle like a wound to the flesh, are successful, may indeed be called intelligent; yea, he with whom neither soaking calumny nor startling insults are successful may be called far-seeing." (Analects, bk. xii., c. vi.)

Here are yet other words of penetrating wisdom concerning the advantages of this perfect poise and calm: "He who does not anticipate attempts to deceive him nor think beforehand of his not being believed, and yet apprehends these things readily when they occur, is he not a man of superior worth?" (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxxviii.)

Mencius also characterizes such a man as follows: "When he obtains the desired position to practise virtue for the good of the people; when disappointed in that ambition to practise virtue for himself; to be above the power of riches and honours to corrupt, of poverty and a mean condition to swerve and of might and sway to bend—these characterize the great man." (Bk. iii., pt. ii., c. ii., v. 3.)

Confucius deemed it indispensable for a ruler to thus possess his soul. Alone it would make a ruler good, if not indeed great. Therefore, he says: "May not Shun be instanced as having governed efficiently without exertion? What did he do? He did nothing but gravely and reverently occupy his imperial seat." (Analects, bk. xv., c. iv.)

And again in these enthusiastic words: "How majestic was the manner in which Shun and Yu held possession of the empire, as if it were nothing to them!" (Analects, bk. viii., c. xviii.)

How this singleness of purpose and this perfect poise of soul, unsuspected during an uneventful life, when great occasion arises, stand forth and reveal the man, is the burden of this saying: "The superior man cannot be known in little matters but he may be entrusted with great concerns." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxiii.)

(to be continued)

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




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