The Ethics of Confucius, by Miles Menander Dawson, , at sacred-texts.com
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.
p. 52[paragraph continues] 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)
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.)
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Miles Menander Dawson