With North Korea and China still at the top of international news, we’ve been thinking a lot about the Far East. So we decided to interview the Far East’s most famous man: the great Confucius. (Yes, we know he’s dead. But no deader than John Stuart Mill, whom we interviewed a few weeks ago to shed light on free speech.)
Confucius taught in China a generation before Socrates taught in Greece, living from 551 to 479 BC. Back then, no one called him Confucius. They called him K’ung-fu-tzu (or Kongfuzi, depending on how you romanize the Chinese). It meant "Master K’ung." He was born K’ung Qiu. He became "Confucius" when Christian missionaries sent his teachings to the West in the 17th century and gave him a Latin name.
Like Socrates, Confucius didn’t write anything down. We know what he taught only because his students collected his sayings into a slim volume that westerners call the Analects of Confucius. What does it say? Let’s ask Confucius himself, who still lives in that book.
Master K’ung, how did you get to be such a wise man?
"At 15, I set my heart on learning; at 30, I took my stand; at 40, I came to be free from doubts; at 50, I understood the Decree of Heaven; at 60, my ear was attuned; at 70, I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line."
Sounds like you’ve led a very deliberate life.
"By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart."
Are you still learning? Or have you gotten to a point where you just sit around all day and think wise thoughts?
"I once spent all day thinking without taking food and all night thinking without going to bed, but I found that I gained nothing from it. It would have been better for me to have spent the time learning."
"If one learns from others but does not think, one will be bewildered. If, on the other hand, one thinks but does not learn from others, one will be in peril."
People say you’re a "sage" and as benevolent a man as anyone could ever meet. Are you?
"How dare I claim to be a sage or a benevolent man? Perhaps it might be said of me that I learn without flagging and teach without growing weary."
"Quietly to store up knowledge in my mind, to learn without flagging, to teach without growing weary, these present me with no difficulties."
"It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability–when I am told what is right–to move to where it is, and inability to reform myself when I have defects."
Is virtue more important than knowledge?
"I do not see how a man can be acceptable who is untrustworthy in word. When a pin is missing in the yoke-bar of a large cart or in the collar-bar of a small cart, how can the cart be expected to go?"
Don’t virtue and knowledge go together?
"A man of virtue is sure to be the author of memorable sayings, but the author of memorable sayings is not necessarily virtuous."
So what is virtue? What does it take to be what you call a "gentleman" guided by "benevolence"?
"The gentleman never deserts benevolence, not even for as long as it takes to eat a meal. If he hurries and stumbles, one may be sure that it is in benevolence that he does so."
"In his dealings with the world the gentleman is not invariably for or against anything. He is on the side of what is moral."
"While the gentleman cherishes benign rule, the small man cherishes his native land. While the gentleman cherishes respect for the law, the small man cherishes generous treatment."
What advice would you give would-be "gentlemen"?
"Make it your guiding principle to do your best for others and to be trustworthy in what you say."
"Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire."
Ah, the Golden Rule. But people can’t really be expected to measure up to that, can they? I mean, we know it’s the way to go, but we don’t have the strength to stay the course.
"A man whose strength gives out collapses along the course. In your case you set the limits beforehand."
"Even when walking in the company of two other men, I am bound to be able to learn from them. The good points of the one I copy; the bad points of the other I correct in myself."
"When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self."
So look for mentors, eh?
"Virtue never stands alone. It is bound to have neighbors."
"The gentleman helps others to realize what is good in them; he does not help them to realize what is bad in them. The small man does the opposite."
"The virtue of the gentleman is like the wind; the virtue of the small man is like grass. Let the wind blow over the grass and it is sure to bend."
But how do you know who’s virtuous, and who’s not?
"Look at the means a man employs, observe the path he takes, and examine where he feels at home. In what way is a man’s true character hidden from view?"
"In his errors a man is true to type. Observe the errors and you will know the man."
And good people don’t mind being pestered by small people looking to grow?
"To fail to speak to a man who is capable of benefiting is to let a man go to waste. To speak to a man who is incapable of benefiting is to let one’s words go to waste. A wise man lets neither men nor words go to waste."
Thank you, Master K’ung, for your time and your thoughts. For more of Confucius’s collected wisdom, check out the Analects of Confucius, available in bookstores now.
October 16, 2006