The Analects, 1.1: Putting it Into Practice
This is an older post I made a while back, I’m bringing it back to the front for my Values Analysis students, given that we’re starting the Analects on Monday.
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 constant effort to learn. 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.) In the context of Values Analysis, Confucius would most certainly think that such a course was important, because it teaches people to learn about and think about the very sorts of things required to be a good person.
2. Is it not delightful when friends come from distant quarters?
The central claim of the book, I would suspect is that a core and essential part of what we are is formed through our close relationships with others. Human beings are not defined, in the Confucian view, 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. So one becomes a person within the family, or within one’s relationship with one’s girlfriend or boyfriend. You aren’t a person first and then you are a member of the family. Such a view would be incoherent to the Confucian.
3. Isn’t it virtuous to feel no ill-effects when people fail to recognize you?
I would forward that this claim — repeated again in Analects 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 recognition. So here I am upset that people have failed to recognize my ‘courageous’ deeds 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 (a fake version) of excellence.
Confucius’ point here cannot be overstated. How many tasks do you invest your life in that you don’t do because you want recognition from others? Can you name any? I think immediately of education: do you learn to learn or do you learn to be recognized by others? Of course, you can do it for its own sake and be hopeful that someone might recognize it, but my question is different: if people stopped recognizing your learning, would you stop studying? I know I wouldn’t.
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 an internal state (in this case, emotion or feeling) with the world in a given situation (in this case, behaviors or states of affairs).
There’s a lot packed into that little aphorism.