Bill Long 9/4/10
Getting Into the "Flow" of the Book
Confucius starts us with three rhetorical questions in I.1, quoted in the previous essay, that comprise only 32 characters in Chinese and are memorized by many Chinese school children. The first two characters introduce us to Confucius by abbreviating his name: zi (short for kong(3) zi(3)--Confucius). Zi(3) yue(1) or "The Master says," becomes a steady refrain throughout the book. Often a disciple of kong(3) zi(3) speaks in the book, and we wonder for a moment whether the words attributed to Confucius really were really his, whether one can in fact discover the "historical Confucius" or whether his thoughts are so hopelessly interwoven with those of his disciples that one can only identify a "Confucian school." The debate is strikingly similar to the quests for the historical Socrates or the historical Jesus; of course there were vibrant, brilliant, perceptive and vivid-speaking historical characters behind the traditions, but we really cannot say in any of the cases where the Master left off and his disciples began. It doesn't really matter, since we have the essence of the tradition handed down to us, and we are free to exposit the texts as we have them--even if we can't vouch for Confucius or Socrates or Jesus actually having spoken them.
Learning from Analects 1.1
Three things are powerful to me about this first verse. (1) He begins the entire text with the centrality of study or diligent learning. We learn and we practice what we learn. We study and we take the time to make sure, through practice, that the material studied is internalized. The learning is repeated and practiced (shi(2)--time(s); xi(2)--practice). What pleasure this gives, according to Confucius. That he refers to the first pleasure of our lives as the pleasure of learning gives us an insight into this culture and a mirror into our own motivations. Learning, in a word, was central. Knowledge gathering and the wisdom, patience, filial piety and honor that flowed from it are essential to a good life. Though Confucius was a person who was most interested in teaching the way of the gentleman, and of right conduct in family and the public sphere, he begins with the centrality of diligent learning. We will come to understand the scope of that little word yue(2) (learn) as this chapter, and the entire work, unfolds.
Perhaps he begins there because study, one of the adjuncts or roots of learning, is the heardest thing to continue in one's life once the rush of other life activities descends on you. Shortcuts abound; memos rather than articles are read; summaries of articles rather than books are digested; languages are no longer learned and memorization becomes a thing of the past. Perhaps Confucius and his school, knowing the difficulty, then, of maintaining a life of study, of study not simply as leisure activity but as central to determining our character and motivating our lives, put diligent learning first. And, it is not simply persistent learning that is listed first; it is the sense that this effort brings absolute delight (yue(4)). My Chinese commentary lists several Chinese synonymns for yue(4), and they all emphasize pleasure, joy, and delight. I not only agree with Confucius on this point but, because he said it so well and so briefly, I now want to listen to everything Confucius teaches.
(2) So, then, in a rhythmically parallel rhetorical question, he takes us from our internal world to an external world: interaction with friends. Isn't it also delightful to have firends visiting from afar? As I read the literature on aging, seemingly coming out more and more as I seem to age (or maybe I just notice it!), I note a theme repeated: healthy longevity is related to having good friends in one's life. We probably don't need our modern federally-funded studies to tell us this; Confucius had it there from the beginning. Delights in life are both internal and external; we come to the text and the friends come to us. Aren't these things delightful?
(3) Then Confucius gives us a figurative slap in the face, a third bracing rhetorical question that cuts right to the heart of our motivations for living. Well, maybe it is principally the "ambitious male" motivation for living--to be recognized, to leave a legacy, to be thought of as the best, richest, sexiest, smartest, most powerful, most interesting, strongest....you name it. Men rush around their whole lives in a frantic and often futile attempt to assure our immortality; yet more than 99% of us will quickly be forgotten, except by our families. This third statement? In James' Legge's translation:
"Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?"
Or, another translation:
"To be unperturbed when not appreciated by others is gentlemanly, is it not?"
King Solomon may have said in Ecclesiastes that all strivings after wisdom, riches, and power were nothing but "vanity" and a "striving after wind," but Confucius has a way of stating it in langauge that actually motivates while it admonishes. The first six characters of the statement catch the drift nicely: "a man, not known, but not angry/indignant/resentful..." The word translated angry is yun(4), so rare a word that it doesn't appear in most Chinese-English dictionaries. The natural thing for so many talented men to feel is that they are underappreciated or not recognized; that they haven't received the kudos they deserve; that somehow life has "short-changed" them by not delivering the strokes to which they are justly entitled. Nursing these feelings for year after numbing year can lead to a steady gnawing in the heart, a sense of injustice in the world, a hidden bitterness or resentment, a desperation and anger that eventually can be assuaged by nothing. Confucius recognizes in this very first maxim that such is the condition of people--we live in anger and resentment.
Rather than condemn that thought or exhort us to live differently, he simply states that such thoughts are incompatible with the idea of the jun(1) zi(3)--the "gentleman" or the "person of virtue." It is almost as if he is just making a matter-of-fact observation about the world. Our resentment at being passed over short-circuits our ability to build the most important foundation stone of our lives--that which builds the life of the gentleman, the person of virtue.
Confucius, unlike any sacred literature in the West, begins by recognizing our human motivations and delights. Delights are of the inner (study) and outer (friends) variety. But our motivations are often mixed, and the seething resentment we feel over not being recognized or known in the world really hinders us from taking the first step in living a good life. No drama; no promises of divine help if we pray hard enough; no sending of a savior to deliver us from ourselves and help us resolve to live a new life. No confession of sin or absolution. Simply an observation; if you want to live the life of a virtuous person, you can't be living with a sense of resentment for having been passed over.
He has struck us right in our hearts, and now we are ready for whereever he might lead us.