Confucius and Socrates Contents
BECK index


Content and Topics

Subjects of Study
The Classics
Poetry and Music
Character Development and Self-improvement
The Better Person

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Subjects of Study

Because Confucius was perhaps the first professional teacher of adults, or what we call higher education, there probably was no organized curriculum in his time. Although Confucius did discourse on definite subjects repeatedly and also recommended that his students study specific pursuits, it appears unlikely that these subjects were categorized or isolated from each other anywhere near like they are today. The continual purpose of Confucius' teaching was practical and designed to help each person improve one's character and conduct, and perhaps become prepared for an official position in the government.

Although Confucius encouraged his students to learn about many things, he suggested that they be very selective and careful in what they said and did. Since Zizhang was studying to attain an official salary, the master recommended,

Hear much and put aside what is doubtful
while you speak cautiously of the rest.
Then few will blame you.
See much and put aside what seems perilous
while you are cautious in carrying the rest into practice.
Then you will have few occasions for regret.
When one's words give few occasions for blame
and one's acts give few occasions for repentance,
one is on the way to receiving a salary.1

Actually Confucius was not as concerned about the quantity of one's knowledge, but he emphasized what he considered to be the essence of it all. Once when talking with Zigong, Confucius perceived that his student was getting the wrong impression and said to him to clarify the situation, "I believe you look upon me as one whose aim is simply to learn and remember as many things as possible." Zigong replied that this is what he thought, and he asked the master if it was so. Confucius responded, "No; I have one thread which runs through them all."2 We hope to discover this underlying unity which pervaded Confucius' teachings as we examine their content. However, the golden rule does stand out as the most important rule of conduct. When Zigong asked if there was a single saying which one could practice all the time, Confucius said, "Perhaps the saying about consideration: 'Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.'"3 Stated in the negative this way, the golden rule allows each person more freedom. Instead of telling a person how to act toward others, which could be an infliction of one's personal values or tastes upon the other, it says only not to do those things which one feels would be an infliction, leaving the other choices of conduct free.

Before we catalog the various topics of Confucius' teaching, there is one pre-requisite he emphasized for there to be any clear communication, and that was the correct use of language. When Zilu asked Confucius what would be his first measure in administering the government for the prince of Wei, he answered with certainty that it would be to correct language. Zilu could not believe it and scoffed at such an idea. So Confucius explained why:

Yu! How uncultivated you are!
A better person, in regard to things one does not know,
maintains a cautious reserve.
If language is incorrect, then what is said
is not in accordance with the truth of things.
If language is not in accordance with the truth of things,
affairs cannot be carried on to success.
When affairs cannot be carried on to success,
proprieties and music will not flourish.
When proprieties and music do not flourish,
punishments will go astray.
When punishments go astray,
the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
Therefore the better person uses
only such language as is proper to speak,
and only speaks of what it would be proper to carry out.
The better person, in what one says,
leaves nothing to mere chance.4

We see here the importance of a close correlation between reality and knowledge, between knowledge and words, and between words and deeds. The correct understanding of language, then, plays a key intermediary function. The final quote in The Analects emphasizes this for human understanding. Confucius said,

Whoever does not understand the will of Heaven
cannot be regarded as a better person.
Whoever does not know the rules of propriety
cannot establish one's character.
Whoever does not understand words,
cannot understand people.5

According to one passage in The Analects, Confucius taught four things: culture, conduct, loyalty, and truthfulness.6 Culture consisted of literature, music, and perhaps propriety, though it is also a part of conduct. Confucius indicated the value of each: "Let a person be stimulated by poetry, established in character by the rules of propriety, and perfected by music."7 These pursuits were means by which one may achieve the higher ideal of following the Way. "The better person extensively studies literature and restrains oneself with the rules of propriety. Thus one will not violate the Way."8 Although these may be aids to the Way, the higher ideals came before the arts of culture in importance.

Set your heart upon the Way.
Support yourself by its virtue.
Rely on goodness.
Find recreation in the arts.9

Actually the moral duties were considered essential and came before the arts, which were almost like extra-curricular activities.

A young person's duty is to behave well
to one's parents at home and to one's elders abroad,
to be cautious in giving promises and punctual in keeping them,
to overflow in love to all,
and to cultivate the friendship of the good.
If, when all that is done, one has any energy to spare,
then let one study the cultural arts.10

The Classics

What was the literature? Even in Confucius' time there existed six classics on poetry, history, music, changes, propriety, and the annals. These were all studied in depth by the master, as he often referred to them. Although it is not as early a text as The Analects, the following selection from Chapter 26 of the Liki describes and illustrates the use of the six ancient classics.

Confucius said, "When I enter a country,
I can easily tell its type of culture.
When the people are gentle and kind and simple-hearted,
that shows the teaching of poetry.
When people are broad-minded and acquainted with the past,
that shows the teaching of history.
When the people are generous and show a good disposition,
that shows the teaching of music.
When the people are quiet and thoughtful,
and show a sharp power of observation,
that shows the teaching of the philosophy of change.
When the people are humble and respectful
and frugal in their habits,
that shows the teaching of propriety.
When the people are cultivated in their speech,
ready with expressions and analogies,
that shows the teaching of prose, or Spring and Autumn Annals.
The danger in the teaching of poetry is that
people remain ignorant, or too simple-hearted.
The danger in the teaching of history is that
people may be filled with incorrect legends and stories of events.
The danger in the teaching of music is that
the people grow extravagant.
The danger in the teaching of philosophy is that
the people become crooked.
The danger in the teaching of propriety is that
the rituals become too elaborate.
And the danger in the teaching of Spring and Autumn Annals
is that the people get a sense of the prevailing moral chaos.
When a person is kind and gentle and simple-hearted,
and yet not ignorant,
we may be sure that one is deep in the study of poetry.
When a person is broad-minded and acquainted with the past,
and yet not filled with incorrect legends or stories of events,
we may be sure that one is deep in the study of history.
When a person is generous and shows a good disposition
and yet not extravagant in one's personal habits,
we may be sure that one is deep in the study of music.
When a person is quiet and thoughtful
and shows a sharp power of observation, and yet is not crooked,
we may be sure that one is deep in the study of philosophy.
When a person is humble and polite
and frugal in one's personal habits
and yet not full of elaborate ceremonies,
we may be sure that one is deep in the study of propriety.
And when a person is cultivated in one's speech,
ready with expressions and analogies
and yet is not influenced by the picture of the prevailing moral chaos,
we may be sure that one is deep
in the study of Spring and Autumn Annals."11

We see from this that more than a mere acquaintance with the classics was recommended, but rather the quality of study and practice which went beyond the superficialities.

Confucius was often quoted in The Great Treatise on the Yi Jing. In one passage he explained why the book was devised in the first place. He said, "Writing cannot express thoughts completely." Someone then asked if they were then unable to see the thoughts of the holy sages. Confucius replied,

The holy sages set up the images
in order to express their thoughts completely;
they devised the hexagrams
in order to express the true and the false completely.
Then they appended judgments
and so could express their words completely.12

Confucius extensively used not only the Yi Jing but the other classics as well in his instruction of students. Sima Qian recorded that Confucius read the Yi Jing so frequently that the leather strap which held the bamboo "pages" together was worn out and replaced three times.13

As we have seen, Confucius was a traditionalist who claimed only to be a transmitter of the ancients, which explains his great reverence for the classics. He said he followed the traditions of the Zhou dynasty, particularly the Duke of Zhou, one of its founders. However, his ancestors were from the state of Song and were probably of the Shang nobility.14 This may explain why he followed the three-year mourning period which was a Shang custom. Also the legendary emperors he revered above all were from the earliest Xia dynasty. He explained that this eclectic approach was because of the Zhou's accumulation of culture from these previous dynasties. "Zhou could survey the two preceding dynasties. How great a wealth of culture! We follow upon Zhou."15 In the biography of Confucius by Sima Qian written about 100 BC we have a more elaborate description of how Confucius related to the three dynasties.

In the time of Confucius,
the power of the Zhou Emperors had declined,
the forms of worship and social intercourse had degenerated,
and learning and scholarship had fallen into decay.
Confucius studied the religious or ceremonial order
and historical records of the three dynasties,
and he traced the events from the times
of the Emperors Yao and Shun
down to the times of Duke Mu of Qin
and arranged them in chronological order.
And he once said,
"I should be able to talk about the feudal order of Xia,
but there are not enough surviving customs in the city of Ji.
I should be able to discuss the feudal order of the Shang dynasty
but there are not enough surviving customs in the city of Song.
If there were enough surviving customs,
I should be able to reconstruct them with evidence."
And he surveyed the changes of customs
between the Xia and Shang dynasties,
and after noting how these customs ran on
into the Zhou period with modifications, he said,
"I can even predict how the future historical development
will be for a hundred generations."
He noted how one dynasty represented a culture
with a wealth of ceremonial forms,
and how the other dynasty represented a culture of the simple life,
and how the Zhou dynasty had combined
and merged the two previous cultures
into a perfect, beautiful pattern,
and he therefore decided that
he would choose the Zhou culture as the ideal.
Therefore, Confucius handed down a tradition
of historic records of the various ancient customs.16

Although there is probably some later projection here, and we can see why Sima Qian is called the father of Chinese historians, using already Hegel's dialectic. Still the tradition of Confucius as a transmitter of historical tradition was probably not unfounded.

We mentioned earlier how Confucius practiced archery; although it may not have been taught by Confucius himself, the better person's education was probably expected to include athletics, especially this skill of the bow.

Poetry and Music

Poetry, of course, was an important subject of study. Confucius particularly used it to stress moral values. "All three hundred odes can be covered by one of their sentences, 'Let there be no evil in your thoughts.'"17 However, poetry had broader humanistic value for understanding oneself and other people, and it even increased one's awareness of the natural world.

My children, why do you not study the Book of Poetry?
The Odes serve to stimulate the mind.
They may be used for purposes of self-contemplation.
They teach the art of sociability.
They show how to regulate feelings of resentment.
From them you learn
the more immediate duty of serving one's father,
and the remoter one of serving one's prince.
From them we become largely acquainted
with the names of birds, beasts, and plants.18

Confucius was also a great lover of music and played some himself. However, the teaching of this art was apparently handed over to the grand music master to whom Confucius gave his ideas on how music should follow the ideal of the ancient pattern and then allow for some improvisation while still maintaining harmony. "Their music in so far as one can find out about it began with a strict unison. Soon the musicians were given more liberty; but the tone remained harmonious, brilliant, consistent, right on till the close."19 Sima Qian quoted this exact passage, but then went on to give more information in regard to Confucius' use of poetry and music.

He once also said, "After my return to Lu from Wei,
I have been able to restore the musical tradition
and classify the music of song and ya
and restore the songs to their respective original music."
In the ancient times, there were over three thousand songs,
but Confucius took out the duplicates
and selected those that were suited to good form.
The collection began with the songs of Qi and Houchi,
covered the great period of the Shang and Zhou kings
and carried it down to the times of the tyrants Yu and Li.
It begins with a song of marital love, and therefore it is said
"the song Guanchi heads the collection of Feng;
Luming heads the collection of the 'Little ya';
and Qingmiao heads the collection of the Song."
Confucius personally sang all the three hundred and five songs
and played the music on a string instrument
to make sure that it fitted in
with the score of xiao, wu, ya, and song.
Through his efforts, the tradition of ancient rites and music
was therefore rescued from oblivion and handed down to posterity,
that they might help in the carrying out of this ideal
of a king's government and in the teaching of "the Six Arts."20

Lin Yutang wrote that "the six Arts" could refer not only to the six classics mentioned above but also to the six branches of study practiced during these times, namely propriety, music, archery, carriage-driving, reading, and mathematics.21 Also in considering these later accounts, we must be aware of the tendency to glorify and expand on what Confucius did. Although Sima Qian often went against orthodox Confucian beliefs, he was susceptible to exaggeration, as can be seen from this: "Confucius taught poetry, history, propriety, and music to 3,000 pupils of whom 72, like Yen Duzou, had mastered "the Six Arts."22

There is one more marvelous anecdote from Sima Qian concerning Confucius' playing of music.

Confucius was once learning to play on qin (a string instrument)
from the music master Xiang-zi,
and did not seem to make much progress for ten days.
The music master said to him,
"You may well learn something else now."

And Confucius replied, "I have already learned the melody,
but have not learned the beat and rhythm yet."

After some time, the music master said,
"You have now learned the beat and rhythm,
you must take the next step."

"I have not learned the expression," said Confucius.

After a while, the music master again said,
"Now you have learned the expression,
you must take the next step."
And Confucius replied, "I have not yet
got an image in my mind of the personality of the composer."

After some time the music master said,
"There's a man behind this music,
who is occupied in deep reflection
and who sometimes happily lifts his head
and looks far away, fixing his mind upon the eternal."

"I've got it now," said Confucius.
"He is a tall, dark man,
and his mind seems to be that of an empire builder.
Can it be any other person than King Wen himself?"

The music master rose from his seat
and bowed twice to Confucius and said,
"It is the composition of King Wen."23


As moderns, Confucius' emphasis on ritual ceremonies according to the rules of propriety is probably more difficult for us to relate to than any other aspect of his teaching. However, in the ancient times when "civilized" culture was by no means universal, the danger of falling back into a primitive "barbarism" was probably very real. The rules of propriety offered a code of accepted conduct and behavior which they knew would work from past experience. These were the traditions and customs which demonstrated to themselves and others that they were cultured and proper people. For Confucius, the better person knew and behaved according to the rules of propriety. In the first chapter of The Analects, Yu Zi gave an account of their value.

Among the functions of propriety
the most valuable is that it establishes harmony.
The Way of the ancient kings from this harmony got its beauty.
It is the guiding principle of all things great and small.
If things go amiss,
and one who knows the harmony tries to achieve it
without regulating it by the rules of propriety,
they will still go amiss.24

Confucius himself explained what can happen if conduct is not guided by propriety.

Courtesy not bounded by the rules of propriety
becomes tiresome.
Caution not bounded by the rules of propriety
becomes timidity, daring becomes insubordination,
straightforwardness becomes rudeness.25

As much as he loved them, Confucius did not believe in over-indulging in ceremonies, and the feelings should be proper to the circumstances. "In ceremonies it is better to be sparing than extravagant. Funeral ceremonies should be observed in deep sorrow rather than in fear."26

Often what was appropriate was a golden mean.

When substance exceeds refinement, one becomes rude.
When refinement exceeds substance, one becomes pedantic.
When substance and refinement are properly blended,
then one is a better person.27

Confucius was aware that the ancient ways had been moderated in his own time, and that such moderation was politic. He said, "Were anyone today to serve his prince according to the full rules of propriety he would be thought a sycophant."28


As many of Confucius' students were anxious to obtain positions in the government and also as Confucius himself hoped for an opportunity to advise rulers, naturally the art of politics was a favorite topic of conversation. The goal for Confucius was not merely to be learned in many subjects, but to be able to put one's knowledge into practice. Otherwise, what good is it? He said,

A person may be able to recite the three hundred Odes;
but, if when given a post in the government,
one does not know how to act,
or when sent on a mission to far parts
one cannot answer specific questions,
however extensive one's knowledge may be,
of what use is it to that one?29

However, a person first must improve oneself and regulate one's own conduct before one could hope to rule over others. Thus self-improvement was pre-requisite to engaging in politics.

If a minister makes one's own conduct correct,
one will have no difficulty in assisting in government.
But if one cannot rectify oneself,
how can one possibly rectify others?30

Although Confucius described wisdom and goodness as essential to ruling, they still must be carried out with dignity and according to propriety. He explained why.

The one whose wisdom brings one into power,
needs goodness to secure that power.
Else, though one gets it, one will certainly lose it.
The one whose wisdom brings one into power
and who has goodness to secure that power,
if one has not dignity to approach the common people,
they will not respect that one.
The one whose wisdom has brought one into power,
who has goodness to secure that power,
and dignity to approach the common people,
if one handles them contrary to the rules of propriety,
full excellence is not reached.31

Confucius believed that one's political action should follow the Way as a higher ideal than whatever happened to be occurring in a particular government. One's actions, therefore, would vary depending on whether the government was following the Way or not. He gave this advice for the different circumstances:

Have sincere faith and love learning.
Be not afraid to die for pursuing the good Way.
Do not enter a state that pursues dangerous courses,
nor stay in a chaotic one.
When the Way prevails under Heaven, then show yourself;
when it does not prevail, then hide.
When the Way prevails in your own land
and you are poor and in a humble position,
be ashamed of yourself.
When the Way does not prevail in your land
and you are wealthy and in an honorable position,
be ashamed of yourself.32

Confucius showed here political acumen and flexibility without compromising moral principles. He expressed similar political wisdom in these statements: "When the Way prevails in the land, be bold in speech and bold in action. When the Way does not prevail, be bold in action but conciliatory in speech."33 Without giving up courage in action, Confucius still recommended verbal discretion. He knew how to hold his tongue, knowing not only when it was wise not to speak but also when it was not proper to speak. "Whoever holds no office in a state does not discuss its policies."34

There was always someone who might misunderstand how to put the Way into practice. Ji Kang-zi asked Confucius if it would be a good idea to kill those who had not the Way in order to help those who had the Way. The master used the opportunity to describe the influence of a good ruler on the common people. He said, "You are there to rule, not to kill. If you desire what is good, the people will be good. The essence of the better person is that of wind; the essence of lesser people is that of grass. And when a wind blows over the grass, then it bends."35

The proper relation between a ruler and one's minister or between a parent and child, while not being reciprocal as between equals, still benefited by the proper attitude and conduct in each case. The political and family situations were treated as being analogous. The ruler or parent should love one's people or children, while the minister or child should be loyal to the ruler or parent. Confucius explained the proper behavior of each. "How can one be said truly to love, who exacts no effort from the objects of one's love? How can one be said to be truly loyal, who refrains from admonishing the object of one's loyalty?"36

Confucius summarized the art of the ruler as follows:

A country of a thousand war-chariots cannot be administered
unless the ruler attends strictly to business,
punctually observes his promises,
is economical in expenditure, loves the people,
and uses the labor of the peasantry
only at the proper times of year.37

For a moralist Confucius was quite down-to-earth and practical, and in an age of aristocracy he showed a remarkable humaneness toward the common people. But maybe this should not be so surprising because humanity and goodness were at the heart of his philosophy.


Although Confucius himself was a religious man in that he followed the religious practices of his time, he did not dwell on those issues in his instruction. Several times The Analects noted that Confucius rarely discussed spiritual matters. Zigong said, "We can hear our master on culture and its manifestation, but we cannot hear his views on human nature and the Way of Heaven."38 One reason may be that the more sacred teachings were not for everyone's ears, and so they were kept esoteric among those who were ready to hear them. Or, perhaps Confucius did not consider rational discussion relevant or appropriate to transcendental and mystical questions. As we have seen, "destiny" as the will of Heaven was central in his personal beliefs, but The Analects stated, "Confucius seldom talked about profit, destiny, and goodness."39 Actually there were many sayings about goodness recorded in The Analects which we will discuss later in this chapter. We should keep in mind that The Analects certainly represents only a small selection of Confucius' conversations over a period of many years and that discussions about goodness were probably considered to be very important to the disciples; thus, though they may have occurred infrequently, many of them found their way into the written documents. It should be obvious why an ethical teacher like Confucius did not talk about profit as often as some of his listeners might have wished.

Confucius stayed away from mentioning supernatural phenomena. "Confucius never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorders of nature, or spirits."40 For Confucius, these issues were not to the point, but they tended to side-track people from knowing and improving their own characters. Since serving the spirits of the dead was the most important thing in the contemporary Chinese religion, the following statements show Confucius as a radical humanist. When Zilu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits, Confucius replied, "Till you have learned to serve people, how can you serve ghosts?" Zilu then ventured to ask about the dead, and Confucius said, "Till you know about the living, how can you know about the dead?"41 Yet Confucius did practice the traditional religion with sincerity and reverence. In fact he considered his own attitude to be the most important factor in the sacrifices.

When Confucius offered sacrifice to his ancestors,
he felt as if his ancestral spirits were actually present.
When he offered sacrifice to other spiritual beings,
he felt as if they were actually present.
He said, "If I do not participate in the sacrifice,
it is as if I did not sacrifice at all."42

Perhaps the higher religion for Confucius was for a person to follow the Way. The following statement expresses an idea very similar to the philosophy of Lao-zi, who, according to Sima Qian, talked with Confucius one time. "Who expects to be able to go out of a house except by the door? How is it then that no one follows this Way of ours?"43 For Confucius the sure way was to follow the steps of the ancients. When asked about the Way of the good person, Confucius replied, "Whoever does not tread in the footprints cannot expect to find one's way into the Inner Room."44 Thus he felt that the goal of human perfection was found within oneself as symbolized here by the inner sanctuary.

The inner nature rather than the outward appearance of a person were what concerned Confucius. If these impoverished aristocrats so prevalent at the time were ashamed of their outer circumstances, then their inner attitude was not correct; thus their advice could not be trusted. "A knight whose heart is set upon the Way, but who is ashamed of wearing shabby clothes and eating coarse food, is not worth calling into counsel."45 Confucius felt that there were different levels of the Way as far as people are concerned. Knowing what the Way is was only the first step. If one loves the Way, one will also follow it; but this is not as good as following it enthusiastically. He said, "To know it is not as good as to love it, and to love it as not as good as to take delight in it."46 Are these stages of wisdom?


One of the central concepts for both Lao-zi and Confucius was de, which is being translated here as "virtue" in the ancient sense of a power or ability for goodness. The Chinese term has the connotation of spiritual power or moral power which people can "build up" within themselves. Confucius saw that it took love and desire to build up this virtue, but he was also aware of the power of sexual attraction. "I have not seen one who loves virtue as much as beauty."47 Another translation reads: "I have never yet seen anyone whose desire to build up one's moral power was as strong as sexual desire."48 Virtue, for Confucius then, is developed through love or desire for goodness, but it must compete with the more powerful sexual urges. Thus becoming virtuous was no easy task.

Once Zizhang asked about a rhymed couplet mentioning "piling up virtue" and "deciding when in two minds." Confucius said,

By "piling up virtue" is meant
taking faithfulness and sincerity as one's guiding principles,
and moving continually to what is right.
Again, to love a things means wanting it to live;
to hate a thing means wanting it to perish.
But suppose one wants something to live
and at the same time wants it to perish;
that is "being in two minds."49

Confucius was able to give more than one answer to the same question to help explain it so that his students could understand. While the master was walking with Fan Chi under the trees at the Rain Dance altars, he was asked about the same two lines of verse plus another rhyming line on "repairing shortcomings." Confucius responded,

An excellent question!
"Doing the work first, and considering the reward afterwards;"
is that not piling up virtue?
"Attack the evil that is within yourself,
rather than attacking the evil that is in others;"
is this not repairing shortcomings?

Because of a morning's blind rage
To forget one's own safety
And even endanger one's kith and kind.

Is that not a case of a divided mind?50

We see here again the possibility of an inner conflict in motivation, with one being clearly a greater good than the other.

One key to the practice of virtue was the golden mean. The Doctrine of the Mean or Center of Harmony, one of the great Confucian classics which was written within a few generations of Confucius, is a beautiful treatise on this subject. Although the mean is not elaborated upon in The Analects, it is mentioned by Confucius: "How transcendent is the virtue of the middle conduct! Rare for a long time has been its practice among the people."51 Virtue, for Confucius, was action, something which was practiced. The greatest danger to it was incorrect speech. "Clever talk can confound the workings of virtue, just as small impatiences can confound great projects."52 The Way of Confucius was a way of virtue, of inner spiritual power expressed through deeds. How does one become virtuous, and how does a virtuous person act? These were the most important studies for Confucius' students. Let us examine character development and self-improvement in Confucius' teachings and then explore his descriptions of goodness and the truly better person.

Character Development and Self-improvement

The dominant subject matter in Confucius' teachings was how to become a good and virtuous person by improving one's own character. There are several Confucian virtues; here he indicated the results or criteria of goodness, wisdom, and courage. "Whoever is really good can never be unhappy. Whoever is really wise can never be perplexed. Whoever is really brave is never afraid."53 Although courage was a commonly valued virtue of the ancient times, Confucius believed it must be subordinate to justice, another cardinal virtue. When Zilu asked if courage was to be esteemed by the better person, Confucius qualified it, "The better person holds justice to be of highest importance. If a better person has courage but neglects justice, that one becomes insurgent. If a lesser person has courage but neglects justice, that one becomes a thief."54 Confucius also gave us a remarkably Socratic description of human wisdom. Again, Zilu (Yu), who excelled in courage and daring, needed to be reminded not only of justice but also of what wisdom or "meta-knowledge" is. Confucius said to him,

Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is?
When you know a thing, to recognize that you know it,
and when you do not know a thing,
to recognize that you do not know it.
That is knowledge.55

Thus this higher-level knowledge of recognition becomes a check on the everyday knowledge and ignorance.

Confucius' main method for attaining these virtues was, of course, learning. However, rote memorization was not at all sufficient; one must also be able to think. "Whoever learns but does not think is lost; whoever thinks but does not learn is in danger."56 What are the dangers when one does not learn? Confucius asked Yu if he had heard the Six Sayings about the Six Degenerations. Zilu had not, so Confucius explained what happens when love for each virtue is obscured because of lack of love for learning. Here again we see the role of love in the direction of motivation.

Love of goodness without love of learning
degenerates into simple-mindedness.
Love of knowledge without love of learning
degenerates into utter lack of principle.
Love of faithfulness without love of learning
degenerates into injurious disregard of consequences.
Love of uprightness without love of learning
degenerates into harshness.
Love of courage without love of learning
degenerates into insubordination.
Love of strong character without love of learning
degenerates into mere recklessness.57

The learning which Confucius implied seemed to be a holistic knowledge of human character. The main emphasis was to know oneself, but by studying key signs one could also evaluate the character of another. The indications include one's goals, motives, methods, and what gives one satisfaction. He said, "Look closely into one's aims, observe the means by which one pursues them, discover what brings one content-and can the person's real worth remain hidden from you?"58 However, the most advantageous use of studying others is to learn how to correct and improve ourselves; regardless of the person's character we can learn a lesson, positive or negative. Confucius said, "When we see people of worth, we should think how we may learn to equal them. When we see people of a contrary character, we should turn inward and examine ourselves."59

Even so, it is difficult to recognize one's own failings and accuse oneself, but this fact indicates that there is always room for improvement. He said, "In vain I have looked for a single person capable of seeing one's own faults and bringing the charge home against oneself."60 The important thing is at least to be working to improve oneself. The worst error is not to even make the attempt. Confucius said, "To have faults and to be making no effort to amend them is to have faults indeed!"61 He also mentioned this in connection with friendship and the virtues of faithfulness and sincerity.

First and foremost, be faithful to your superiors,
keep all promises,
refuse the friendship of all who are not like you;
and if you have made a mistake,
do not be afraid of admitting the fact
and amending your ways.62

Confucius pointed out to his students which kinds of friends are beneficial and which may prove harmful to one's character.

There are three sorts of friendships
which are advantageous, and three which are injurious.
Friendships with the upright, friendships with the sincere,
and friendships with the well informed are advantageous.
Friendships with those who flatter,
friendships with those of weak principles,
and friendships with those who talk cleverly are injurious.63

Likewise it is beneficial for one to be discriminating in one's choice of pleasures so as not to be harmed by dissipation.

There are three sorts of pleasures
which are advantageous, and three which are injurious.
Finding pleasure in the discriminating study
of ceremonies and music,
finding pleasure in discussing
the good points in the conduct of others,
and finding pleasure in having many wise friends,
these are advantageous.
But finding pleasure in profligate enjoyments,
finding pleasure in idle gadding about,
and finding pleasure in feasting, these are injurious.64

Confucius recommended a mean between extravagance and stinginess, though to err on the side of thrift was not the normal tendency and is less harmful. "Just as lavishness leads easily to presumption, so does frugality to meanness. But meanness is a far less serious fault than presumption."65 However, excessive pride and stinginess can overshadow and nullify many good attributes. Confucius illustrated this with the hypothetical example of the Duke of Zhou who represented an ideal. "Even if a person had abilities as admirable as those of the Duke of Zhou, if one is arrogant and mean, all the rest is of no account."66

In answering a question about what is enlightenment, Confucius described it as a detachment in the face of verbal attacks, probably a necessary virtue for one involved in politics! "Whoever is influenced neither by the soaking in of slander nor by the assault of denunciation may indeed be called enlightened."67 He went on to say that this could also be called "transcendence." We have seen how important words were to Confucius in the virtue of sincerity, or the keeping of promises. Here the enlightened person must be able to withstand false charges. In addition a person must live up to one's inherent honesty or uprightness if the continuation of one's life is to depend upon anything other than good fortune. "Man is born with uprightness. If one loses it, one will be lucky if one escapes with one's life."68


Of all the qualities and virtues of people Confucius esteemed as greatest what he called ren, translated here as goodness but also may be interpreted as humanity, humaneness, human-heartedness, benevolence, etc. For Confucius this term represented the essence of being a good person. Although it was a noble ideal to the master and not easily realized, it still can be found very close at hand if not within oneself. "Is goodness far away? If we really wanted goodness, we should find that it is right here."69 Being good was the basis of character and pre-requisite to other subjects of study because of its importance. "If a person is not good, what has one to do with the rules of propriety? If one is not good, what has one to do with music?"70

Knowledge and wisdom are closely related to goodness. Also it is more important to increase one's own awareness than to be recognized by others. "A good person does not worry about not being known by others, but rather is concerned about not knowing them."71 One is also able to discern the qualities in people and act appropriately. "Only the good person knows how to like people or knows how to dislike people."72 This may be an old adage clarified by the statement which immediately followed it. "The one whose heart is set upon goodness will dislike no one."73 This latter idea appeals to the goodness of our hearts, yet Confucius indicated it is also necessary to have the wisdom to discern the good. "It is goodness that gives to a neighborhood its beauty. One who is free to choose, yet does not prefer to dwell among the good-how can that one be accorded the name of wise?"74 Goodness is also a stabilizing yet an adaptable quality within people, enabling them to overcome difficulties and sustain success; therefore it is wise to pursue goodness.

Without goodness a person cannot endure adversity for long,
nor can one enjoy prosperity for long.
The good person is naturally at ease with goodness.
The wise person cultivates goodness for its advantage.75

Confucius described how people lacking in goodness tend to respond to hardships. "One who is by nature daring and is suffering from poverty will not long be law-abiding. Indeed, any people, save those that are truly good, if their sufferings are very great, will be likely to rebel."76 Confucius explained logically that goodness includes courage, but courage does not include goodness; just as virtue includes eloquence, while eloquence does not include virtue. He said,

One who has accumulated virtue
will certainly also possess eloquence;
but whoever has eloquence does not necessarily possess virtue.
A good person will certainly also possess courage;
but a brave person is not necessarily good.77

The virtues are related to each other in an organized pattern, the goal of the whole being goodness. By analyzing individual faults and correcting them, one can approach closer to goodness. "Every person's faults belong to a set. If one looks for faults, it is only as a means of recognizing goodness."78

Confucius encouraged his students to strive toward goodness in the belief that everyone has the energy to do so. By directing one's energy toward the good, the negative will have no opportunity to corrupt the person.

I have never seen one who really loves goodness
or one who really hates wickedness.
One who really loves goodness will not place anything above it.
One who really hates wickedness
will practice goodness in such a way
that wickedness will have no chance to get at one.
Is there anyone who has devoted one's whole strength
to doing good for even as long as a single day?
I have not seen anyone give up such an attempt
because one had not the strength to go on.
Perhaps there is such a case, but I have never seen it.79

The caution in Confucius' speech can be seen in his not going beyond what he had observed while allowing for other possibilities.

The good person is trusting to a point but is wise enough not to be made a fool. Zai Yu tested Confucius on this point, asking him if a good person, if told there was a person in a well, would go in after that one. The master replied, "Why should he do so? A better person may go to it, but cannot be made to go down into it. One may be deceived, but cannot be led astray."80 It is one thing to believe someone's words, but quite another to enter into an unnecessary action.

Although a person who has accumulated virtue is also eloquent, as we saw above, Confucius did not consider clever speaking to be necessary to a good person. This is indicated by an incident when someone said Ran Yong was good, but that he was a poor talker. Confucius responded, "What need has he to be a good talker? Those who put down others with smartness of speech usually find themselves hated. I do not know if he is good, but I see no need for him to be a good talker."81 Confucius rarely called anyone good. In fact Confucius believed one might better approach goodness by being cautious in speech. "Imperturbable, enduring, simple, slow to speak-such a one is near to goodness."82

Above all, goodness was correct conduct and behavior, whether in private or public life. To express this Confucius mentioned familiar occasions of special behavior and stated again his golden rule.

Ran Rong asked about goodness.
Confucius said, "Behave when away from home
as though you were in the presence of an honored guest.
Employ the people
as though you were assisting at an important sacrifice.
Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.
Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you,
whether it is the affairs of a state that you are handling
or the affairs of a family."

Ran Rong said, "I know that I am not clever;
I will make it my business to practice this lesson."83

Confucius, of course, intended that his students should put his recommendations into practice. When Fan Chi asked about goodness, he gave a more abstract summary, but equally applicable. "In private life, be courteous; in public life, be diligent; in relationships, be loyal. Even if you are living amidst the barbarians of the east or north, these principles may not be set aside."84 His advice was usually universal enough to apply everywhere.

Ultimately goodness can go beyond improving oneself to actually helping others to improve themselves, but it must begin within oneself in order for one to know how to help others. The following conversation shows that Confucius could envision a level even beyond goodness-that of the divine sage.

Zigong asked, "If a ruler extensively confers benefits
on the people and can bring salvation to all,
what do you think of him?
Would you call him good?"

Confucius said, "Why only good?
He would without doubt be a divine sage.
Even Yao and Shun fell short of it.
A good person, wishing to establish one's own character,
also establishes the character of others,
and wishing to be successful oneself,
also helps others to be successful.
To be able to see others by what is within ourselves
may be called the art of realizing goodness."85

Here is a great key! By knowing what is within ourselves we can know others; knowing ourselves, we can improve ourselves and then benefit others also.

Before we move on to examine Confucius' concept of the better person, let us first note that he believed that goodness made a better person, but a better person was not necessarily good. "It is possible to be a better person and yet lack goodness, but there has never yet existed a good person who was not a better person."86 This is a strong statement indicating the priority of goodness. Although not necessarily all-inclusive of all positive values in every context in which Confucius used the term, goodness does, however, appear to be the supreme value and the one most emphasized in his instruction.

The Better Person

The term zhun-zi originally meant the "son of a ruler" and up to the time of Confucius was used to refer to a member of the upper class. Confucius may very well have been the first one to use this term extensively to mean a person of virtue and principle. Cho-yun Hsu in a history of ancient China wrote,

The Analects appears to be the earliest work in which
zhun-zi was used to imply high moral standards in a person;
here it denotes the ideal man
whom all men should cultivate their characters to imitate....
Such a man, noble in virtue,
was not necessarily a noble in social status.87

This is an indication of the tremendous influence Confucius must have had, that in his disciples' minds at least he could so change the meaning of this socially-laden term and liberate it from class notions to apply to one of moral principles. We are using the expression "better person" here as a non-sexist equivalent although the common translations "superior man" or "gentleman" are certainly valid.

Many of the same ideas about the good person are used to describe the better person as well. The following description indicates that the virtues enable the better person to command the respect of others:

If the better person is not serious,
one will not be respected,
and one's learning will not be on a firm foundation.
That one considers loyalty and faithfulness to be fundamental,
has no friends who are not like that one,
and when one has made mistakes,
one is not afraid of correcting them.88

Although the better person may not have attained goodness, one acts in such a way so that one might become good.

Sima Niu once asked Confucius what the term "better person" meant. Confucius said that a better person has no anxiety or fear. Sima Niu then asked rhetorically if this is what is meant by being a better person. The master then elaborated, "On looking within oneself one discovers nothing wrong. What is there for one to be anxious about or fear?"89 Here again self-examination and self-improvement are the keys. A better person is not worried by what others think of one, only that one correct oneself. "A better person is distressed by one's own lack of capacity; one is never distressed at the failure of others to recognize one's merits."90 However, eventually one should be able to bring one's good points to light; if one is never recognized at all, it may be an indication that one has not accomplished anything worthwhile. "A better person has reason to be distressed if he ends his days without making a reputation for himself."91

At three different stages of life, Confucius observed that the better person must watch out for certain prominent tendencies.

There are three things which a better person guards against.
In one's youth when one's physical powers are not yet settled,
one guards against lust.
In one's prime when one's physical powers are full of vigor,
one guards against strife.
In old age when one's physical powers are decaying,
one guards against avarice.92

A keen student of human nature, Confucius was able to admonish his students to be aware of certain propensities of the life process.
Confucius gave his students an elaborate catalog of the concerns of a better person as guidelines for their behavior.

The better person has nine cares.
In seeing one is careful to see clearly;
in hearing one is careful to hear distinctly;
in one's looks one is careful to be kind,
in one's manner to be respectful,
in one's words to be sincere,
in one's work to be diligent.
When in doubt one is careful to ask for information;
when angry one has a care for the consequences;
and when one sees a chance for gain,
one thinks carefully whether the pursuits of it would be right.93

These may seem like common sense, but how often are these basic fundamentals of conduct neglected or ignored? By delineating them Confucius at least made sure that his students had been made aware of them. If they were put into practice, how valuable they could be!

Confucius knew that wise words were not nearly as important as wise or good deeds. "The better person prefers to be slow in word but diligent in action."94 In fact the correlation between them was very important to the better person of Confucius' philosophy. "A better person is ashamed to let one's words outrun one's deeds."95 Such reminders were probably very helpful to one's students who must have spent much time in conversation. A better person should also have the wisdom not to evaluate a person solely on one's words, nor to reject a good idea because of who said it. "A better person does not promote a person on account of what one says; nor does one reject sayings because of what the speaker is."96

To make his points regarding better behavior and conduct, Confucius used to contrast the better person with the lesser person. In this way the students could recognize the mediocre or usual behavior and could seek to replace it with the higher ideal. For example, "The better person sets one's heart on virtue; the lesser person sets it on comfort. The better person thinks of sanctions; the lesser person thinks of favors."97 Confucius recommended a more universal perspective. "The better person can see a question from all sides without bias. The lesser person is biased and can see a question only from one side."98 The broader view enables one to be guided by the higher standard of justice. "A better person in dealing with the world is not for anything or against anything; one follows what is right."99 The higher viewpoint begins from neutrality in order to see objectively. What is it which leads most people away from justice? "The better person understands what is right; the lesser person understands profit."100

Confucius recommended a positive attitude toward others rather than negative fault-finding. "The better person calls attention to the good points in others; one does not call attention to their defects. The lesser person does just the reverse of this."101 Continually Confucius emphasized self-improvement and being responsible for oneself rather than inflicting on others. "The demands that a better person makes are upon oneself; those that a lesser person makes are upon others."102 The influence of a better person, however, is not limited by one's social position. "The better person can influence those who are above one; the lesser person can only influence those who are below one."103 The better person can also be distinguished by one's disposition. "The better person is calm and at ease."104 Some of this difference may be the result of whether the conscience is clear or not. The inner attitude also carries over into one's manner. "The better person is dignified but not proud; the lesser person is proud but not dignified."105

Confucius' better person is an idealist rather than one merely striving to make ends meet; besides, the economy may go up or down anyway.

A better person, in one's plans, thinks of the Way;
one does not think how one is going to make a living.
Even farming sometimes has a shortage;
and even learning may incidentally bring a salary.
A better person is concerned with the progress of the Way;
one is not anxious about poverty.106

For Confucius, ethics always came first. There is human value beyond being able to work, and Confucius would avoid dehumanization. "The better person is not an implement."107

The better person is a creative and active being who knows how to get things accomplished in the correct way.

A better person considers justice
to be essential in everything.
One practices it according to the principles of propriety.
One brings it forth in modesty and faithfully completes it.
This is indeed a better person.108

Thus we find the model which Confucius placed before his students for them to study and learn to emulate. His curriculum was wholly concerned with the subjective development of the human being. Although some humanities such as literature, history, and philosophy were used as aids, the overall emphasis was on the improvement of each person's character so that one may be a better person. If one were able to gain a political appointment as the result of one's education, as several did, this was only an incidental consequence as far as Confucius was concerned. His purpose was to help people to become good.


1. Analects 2:18.
2. An. 15:2.
3. An. 15:23.
4. An. 13:3.
5. An. 20:3.
6. An. 7:24.
7. An. 8:8.
8. An. 6:25.
9. An. 7:6.
10. An. 1:6.
11. Lin Yutang, ed., The Wisdom of Confucius, p. 190-192.
12. I Ching (Wilhelm/Baynes), p. 322.
13. Lin Yutang, Wisdom of Confucius, p. 82-83.
14. Mote, Frederick W., Intellectual Foundations of China, p. 36.
15. An. 3:14.
16. Lin Yutang, Wisdom of Confucius, p. 80-81.
17. An. 2:2.
18. An. 17:9.
19. An. 3:23.
20. Lin Yutang, Wisdom of Confucius, p. 81-82.
21. Ibid. p. 82.
22. Ibid. p. 83.
23. Ibid. p. 67-68.
24. An. 1:12.
25. An. 8:2.
26. An. 3:4.
27. An. 6:16.
28. An. 3:18.
29. An. 13:5.
30. An. 13:13.
31. An. 15:32.
32. An. 8:13.
33. An. 14:4
34. An. 8:14.
35. An. 12:19.
36. An. 14:8.
37. An. 1:5.
38. An. 5:12.
39. An. 9:1.
40. An. 7:20.
41. An. 11:11.
42. An. 3:12.
43. An. 6:15.
44. An. 11:19.
45. An. 4:9.
46. An. 6:18.
47. An. 9:17 (Legge).
48. An. 9:17 (Waley).
49. An. 12:10.
50. An. 12:21.
51. An. 6:27.
52. An. 15:26.
53. An. 9:28.
54. An. 17:23.
55. An. 2:17.
56. An. 2:15.
57. An. 17:8.
58. An. 2:10
59. An. 4:17.
60. An. 5:26.
61. An. 15:29.
62. An. 9:24.
63. An. 16:4.
64. An. 16:5.
65. An. 7:35.
66. An. 8:11.
67. An. 12:6.
68. An. 6:17.
69. An. 7:29.
70. An. 3:3.
71. An. 1:16.
72. An. 4:3.
73. An. 4:4.
74. An. 4:1.
75. An. 4:2.
76. An. 8:10.
77. An. 14:5.
78. An. 4:7.
79. An. 4:6.
80. An. 6:24.
81. An. 5:4.
82. An. 13:27.
83. An. 12:2.
84. An. 13:19.
85. An. 6:28.
86. An. 14:7.
87. Hsu, Cho-yun, Ancient China in Transition, p. 161, 163.
88. An. 1:8.
89. An. 12:4.
90. An. 15:18.
91. An. 15:19.
92. An. 16:7.
93. An. 16:10.
94. An. 4:24.
95. An. 14:29.
96. An. 15:22.
97. An. 4:11.
98. An. 2:14.
99. An. 4:10.
100. An. 4:16.
101. An. 12:16.
102. An. 15:20.
103. An. 14:24.
104. An. 7:36.
105. An. 13:26.
106. An. 15:31.
107. An. 2:12.
108. An. 15:17.

Copyright © 1996, 2006 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi

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