The Ethics of Confucius: Chapter I (part 1)

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THE central idea of Confucius is that every normal human being cherishes the aspiration to become a superior man—superior to his fellows, if possible, but surely superior to his own past and present self. This does not more than hint at perfection as a goal; and it is said of him that one of the subjects concerning which the Master rarely spoke, was "perfect virtue." (Analects, bk. ix., c. i.) He also said, "They who know virtue, are few" (Analects, bk. xv., c. iii.), and was far from teaching a perfectionist doctrine. It refers rather to the perpetually relative, the condition of being superior to that to which one may be superior, be it high or low,—that hopeful possibility which has ever lured mankind toward higher things.

This accords well with the ameliorating and progressive principle of evolution which in these days offers a substantial reward, both for a man and for his progeny, if he will but cultivate higher and more useful traits and qualities. The aim to excel, if respected of all, approved and accepted by common consent, would appeal to every child and, logically presented to its mind and enforced by universal recognition of its validity, would become a conviction and a scheme for the art of living, of transforming power and compelling vigour.

In various sayings Confucius, his disciples, and Mencius present the attributes of the superior man, whom the sage adjures his disciples to admire without ceasing, to emulate without turning, and to imitate without let or hindrance. These are some of them:

Purpose: "The superior man learns in order to attain to the utmost of his principles." (Analects, bk. xix., c. vii.)

Poise: "The superior man in his thought does not go out of his place." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxviii.)

Self-sufficiency: "What the superior man seeks, is in himself; what the ordinary 1 man seeks, is in others." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xx.)

Earnestness: "The superior man in everything puts forth his utmost endeavours." (Great Learning, ii., 4.)

Thoroughness: "The superior man bends his attention to what is radical. That being established, all practical courses naturally grow up." (Analects, bk. i., c. ii., v. 2.)

Sincerity: "The superior man must make his thoughts sincere." (Great Learning, vi., 4.) " Is it not his absolute sincerity which distinguishes a superior man?" (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xiii., 4.)

Truthfulness: "What the superior man requires is that in what he says there may be nothing inaccurate." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. iii., v. 7.)

Purity of thought and action: "The superior man must be watchful over himself when alone." (Great Learning, vi., 2.)

Love of truth: "The object of the superior man is truth." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxi.) "The superior man is anxious lest he should not get truth; he is not anxious lest poverty come upon him." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxi.)

Mental hospitality: "The superior man is catholic and not partisan; the ordinary man is partisan and not catholic." (Analects, bk. ii., c. xiv.) " The superior man in the world does not set his mind either for anything or against anything; what is right, he will follow." (Analects, bk. iv., c. x.)

Rectitude: "The superior man thinks of virtue; the ordinary man thinks of comfort." (Analects,bk. iv., c. xi.) " 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.) " The superior man in all things considers righteousness essential." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xvii.)

Prudence: "The superior man wishes to be slow in his words and earnest in his conduct." (Analects, bk. iv., c. xxiv.)


Composure: "The superior man is satisfied and composed; the ordinary man is always full of distress." (Analects, bk. vii., c. xxxvi.) "The superior man may indeed have to endure want; but the ordinary man, when he is in want, gives way to unbridled license." (Analects, bk. xv., c. i., v. 3.)

Fearlessness: "The superior man has neither anxiety nor fear." (Analects, bk. xii., c. iv., v. i.) "When internal examination discovers nothing wrong, what is there to be anxious about, what is there to fear?" (Analects, bk. xi., c. iv., v. 3.) " 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.)


Ease and dignity: "The superior man has dignified ease without pride; the ordinary man has pride without dignified ease." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxvi.) "The superior man is dignified and does not wrangle." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxi.)

Firmness: "Refusing to surrender their wills or to submit to any taint to their persons." (Analects, bk. xviii., c. viii., v. 2.) "The superior man is correctly firm and not merely firm." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxvi.) "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.)

Lowliness: "The superior man is affable but not adulatory; the ordinary man is adulatory but not affable." (Analects, bk. xiii., c. xxiii.)

Avoidance of sycophancy: "I have heard that the superior man helps the distressed, but he does not add to the wealth of the rich." (Analects, bk. vi., c. iii., v. 2.)

Growth: "The progress of the superior man is upward, the progress of the ordinary man is downward." (Analects, bk. xiv., c. xxiv.) "The superior man is distressed by his want of ability; he is not distressed by men's not knowing him." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xviii.)

Capacity: "The superior man cannot be known in little matters but may be entrusted with great concerns." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxxiii.)

Openness: "The faults of the superior man are like the sun and moon. He has his faults and all men see them. He changes again and all men low look up to him." (Analects, bk. xix., c. xxi.)

Benevolence: "The superior man seeks to develop the admirable qualities of men and does not seek to develop their evil qualities. The ordinary man does the opposite of this." (Analects, bk. xii., c. xvi.)

Broadmindedness: "The superior man honours talent and virtue and bears with all. He praises the good and pities the incompetent." (Analects, bk. xix., c. iii.) "The superior man does not promote a man on account of his words, nor does he put aside good words on account of the man." (Analects, bk. xv., c. xxii.)

Charity: "To be able to judge others by what is in ourselves, this may be called the art of virtue." (Analects, bk. vi., c. xxviii., v. 3.)

Moderation: "The superior man conforms with the path of the mean." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xi., vi. 3.)

The Golden Rule: "When Gm cultivates to the utmost the capabilities of his nature and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xiii., v. 3.)

Reserve power: "That wherein the superior man cannot be equalled is simply this, his work which other men cannot see." (Doctrine of the Mean, c. xxxiii., v. 2.)

(to be continued)

Miles Menander Dawson

The Ethics of Confucius, p.1-6