The Ethics of Confucius - Chapter 2 (part 3)- Self-Control

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Self-Control. " Want of forbearance in small matters confounds great plans." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxvi.)

The need for constancy and self-control is often urged by the sage, as thus: "Inconstant in his virtue, he will be visited with disgrace." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxii., v. 2.) In the "Shu King," I Yin is represented as expressing this sentiment: "Be careful to strive after the virtue of self-restraint and to cherish far-reaching plans." (Pt. iv., bk. v., sect. 1, 2.)

What is emphasized in these passages, is that he who has formed worthy conceptions of the significance of life and correct designs for accomplishing its ends must not permit himself, at unguarded moments, to be surprised into revelations of deeper-seated longings, by the unexpected presentation of opportunities for the safe enjoyment of sensual delights or by the excitement of rage or terror or other unworthy emotion.

It is well said in the "Shi King" (Minor Odes of the Kingdom, decade v., ode 2): "Men who are grave and wise, though they drink, are masters of themselves. Men who are benighted and ignorant become slaves of drink and more so, daily. Be careful, each of you, of your conduct! What Heaven confers, when once lost, will not be regained."

The necessity for reflection and consideration, though it be but momentary, before responding to any impulse from without, either in speech or in action, instead of the automatic, animal response of a curse or a blow, a smile or a caress, or whatever it may be when one is played upon, is always present in the mind of the sage. It is significantly expressed thus: "Ke Wan Tze thought thrice and then acted. When the Master was informed of it, he said: 'Twice may do.'" (Analects, bk. v., c. xix.)

That even greater prudence in speech is desirable, is indicated by this reply to the inquiry of Tsze-kung: "What constitutes the superior man? " "He acts before he speaks and afterwards speaks in accordance with his act." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xiii.)

Reasons for reticence are given in several passages, from which these are culled: "The Master said, 'The superior man is modest in his speech but exceeds in his actions.'" (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxix.) "This man seldom speaks; when he does, he is sure to hit the point." (Analects, bk. xi., c. xiii., v. 3.) "When a man feels the difficulty of doing, can he be otherwise than cautious and slow in speaking?" (Analects, bk. xii., c. iii., v. 3.) "The reason why the ancients did not readily give utterance to their words was because they feared lest their deeds should not come up to them." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xxii.)

The prudence of this course is illustrated in the "Shi King" (Major Odes, decade iii., ode 2) by this apt comparison: "A flaw in a mace of white jade may be ground away, but a word spoken amiss cannot be mended."

This is expatiated upon by the sage as follows: "Hear much and put aside the points of which you are in doubt, while you speak cautiously at the same time of others;—then you will afford few occasions for blame. See much and put aside the things which seem perilous, while you are cautious at the same time in carrying the others into practice;—then you will have few occasions for repentance." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xvii., v. 2.)

And when Fan Ch‘e asked about perfect virtue, Confucius replied in practical terms: "It is, in retirement, to be sedately grave; in the management of business, to be reverently attentive; in intercourse with others, to be strictly sincere." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xix.)

The portrait of such a man is well drawn in these outlines: "Looked at from a distance, he appears stern; when approached, he is mild; when he is heard to speak, his language is firm and decided." (Analects, bk. xix., c. ix.)

By this is not meant mere obstinacy, but firmness, based upon resolve, resting in turn on rectified purpose, that in turn upon clarified and illuminated desire, and all upon intelligent investigation and determination of facts. Therefore, he has also said: "The superior man is correctly firm, and not firm merely." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxvi.)

Dignity also accompanies this aplomb or mental and moral balance, as a consequence and not as a thing which must be thought about and striven for—simple dignity which comes as naturally as the bloom upon the peach or upon the cheek of youth or maiden—never to be confounded with arrogance. Of this, we learn: "The superior man has dignified ease without pride. The ordinary man has pride without dignified ease." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxvi.)

(to be continued)

Miles Menander Dawson
The Ethics of Confucius, p.61-64