A Ku Indeed!

Analect 1.1: Putting It Into Practice

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Course Material by Chris on June 18, 2007

Analects 1.1 reads:

The Master said, “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters? Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?”

There are three points here, and my guess is that they are closely related, at least insofar as they make up the composition of the first aphorism of the book. My instinct here tells me that there are three lessons here of central importance to the book. The three separate points are:

1. Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant effort?

Here we see the clear Confucian emphasis on the necessity of effort and learning. It is impossible for a person to become virtuous without a constant desire to learn more. For the Confucian, of course, this has one obvious dimension — learning often means that one should be attentive to the Li or to the rituals and traditions of one’s past. If the Li (broadly construed) are the language of virtue, then one must spend a considerable amount of time focusing on understanding and becoming fluent in that language (perhaps here this is where Confucius would insist on the need for Jen persons to be Ru (scholars), though of course not, as he says later on, petty Ru.

2. Is it not delightful when friends come from distant quarters?

The central claim of the book, I would suspect — that a core and essential part of what we are is formed through our close relationships with others. Human beings are not defined in isolation from one another, as one might suspect from a more modern Western view on the self; rather, selves are defined — and flourish — in their relational contexts.

3. Isn’t it virtuous to feel no ill-effects when people fail to recognize you?

I would forward that this claim — repeated in 1.16 — is the central psychological warning of the book. To be overly focused on external rewards (as MacIntyre would call them) is to miss the point of how one’s relationship to virtue must be oriented. The relationship cannot be petty (or “small”), so one must be focused on overcoming one’s own needs and instead focused on helping to care (Jen) for those around you. Here Confucius has a great point. If I am upset that people don’t recognize me, then it is surely the case that my motivation in being courageous (say) is not aimed at courage, but rather honor. So here I am upset that people have failed to honor me so I start to question “the point” in pursuing courage if people aren’t going to pat me on the back for achieving it. Clearly in such a case my aim is not excellence, but a simulacra of excellence.

A side point here about 1.1: there is, in each case, a linkage of emotional state with a state of affairs or behavior. So, in the first, “pleasant” and “effort to learn” are linked; in the second, “delight” and “arrival of friends” is linked, and in the third, “not feeling ill-effects” is linked to “lack of recognition”. Here I think we are getting another central lesson of the Analects — namely, that appropriateness (Yi) is the right unification of internal state (in this case, emotion or feeling) with the world in a given situation (in this case, behaviors or states of affairs).





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