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The Doctrine of Equilibrium and Harmony

The Great Learning

Confucius Himself


The Superior Man


The Mean Man





  Confucius (about 551-479 BCE) was born with the family name K'ung. The respect he gained for his teachings led to his being referred to as Grand Master K'ung — K'ung Fu-tzu.  He said that at fifteen he bent his mind to learning, and he continued to express a deep admiration for learning throughout his life.  Confucius married at 19, his son being  born a year later. Subsequently he had two daughters, one of whom died when she was quite young.

 In his twenty-second year, Confucius started his career as a public teacher, and his house became a gathering place for young people who wished to learn from the lessons of the past. He was concerned with opening up education to all, with an emphasis on character building rather than vocational training. In his fifties he became a magistrate and a minister of justice. At 56 he sought to spread his doctrines by traveling extensively with some of his students. After 13 years he returned somewhat disappointed to his own state, where he is believed to have written down his philosophy and compiled the Chinese Classics. 

Confucius argued that acting according to our humanity provides a true path through life. When asked for a rule of conduct, Confucius asked, “Is not reciprocity  such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” He taught letters, ethics, devotion of soul, and truthfulness, and was said to be entirely free from foregone conclusions, arbitrary predetermination, obstinacy, and egoism. Confucius did not talk about extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder, or spiritual beings. When  asked about  death he replied “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?”  He urged the practice of gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.

Confucius lived in times when there was constant warfare between neighboring states and local warlords had little concern for the high moral principles enunciated by an itinerant teacher. While his goal was to bring peace and order to states, his words had little effect during his lifetime. His ideas subsequently became the foundation for most of the concern for humanity found in subsequent Chinese philosophy. Unfortunately, his name has often been used as a cloak for despotic rule, by a false analogy between a dictator and the head of a family.

Some primary aspects of Confucius's thought are to be found in The Great Learning and in The Doctrine of the Mean (referred to here as the Doctrine of Equilibrium and Harmony). Parts of these are given here, followed by extracts from The Analects, a large collection of sayings of and about Confucius.



The Doctrine of Equilibrium and Harmony

1    The heavens have conferred a human nature on mankind alone. Acting according to our humanity provides the true path through life. Wisdom from the past helps us learn how to follow this path.

It is wrong to leave this path for an instant. A path which you are free to leave is not the true path. On this account, the superior man is cautious and careful with respect to where he focuses his attention and how he is regarded; he is anxious to give his mind to only what is worth listening to and what is worth saying.

Secret thoughts and minute expressions of  concealed feelings may be transparently obvious. Therefore the superior man is watchful over himself even when alone.

When there are no stirrings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy, the mind may be said to be in a state of equilibrium. When those feelings are stirred and act in their due degree, there ensues what may be called a state of harmony. Equilibrium is the great root from which grow all acts of humanity; harmony is the universal path that guides them.

Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout the heavens and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.


The Great Learning

2   The path for learning greatness is to illuminate the goodness in man, to bring out what is best in people, and to achieve the highest excellence. Once the true point of departure on this path is found, thought becomes clear. A calm imperturbability yields the tranquility needed for careful deliberation. That deliberation will achieve the desired goal.

3   Things have their roots and their branches. Affairs have their ends and their beginnings. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in The Great Learning.

4   The ancients wishing to exhibit goodness throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. To order well their own states, they first brought order into their families. To bring order into their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. To rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
    The investigation of things rounded out knowledge. Their knowledge being rounded out, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, order was brought into their families. Their families being in order, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

 5   From the supreme ruler down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything else.
     When the root is neglected, what springs from it cannot be well ordered. What is of great importance cannot be slightly cared for, nor can what is of slight importance be greatly cared for.



                                         The Analects


Confucius Himself

6    When the disciple Tsze-lu asked to hear his wishes, Confucius replied, “They are, in regard to the aged, to give them rest; in regard to friends, to show them sincerity; in regard to the young, to treat them tenderly.”

7    When Tsze-kung asked for one word that might serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life. Confucius asked, “Is not reciprocity  such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

8    Confucius remarked to Tsze-yu, “My doctrine is that of an all-pervading unity.” When Confucius went out, the other disciples asked what these words meant. Tsze-yu replied, “The doctrine of our master is to be true to the principles of our natures and to exercise them benevolently towards others— this and nothing more.”

9   His disciples listed four things that their Master taught—letters, ethics, devotion of soul, and truthfulness. They said he was entirely free of four things—foregone conclusions, arbitrary predetermination, obstinacy, and egoism.

10  Frequent themes for Confucius were the Chinese Odes, history, and maintaining rules of propriety.  He said, “It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established.  And it is from Music that the finish is received.”

11  Confucius said “Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.” He remarked that three hundred pieces in the Book of Odes could be summed up in one sentence—“Have no twisted or depraved thoughts.” Of language itself , he said, “It is simply required that it convey the meaning.”

12  His disciples recall that Confucius did not talk about extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder, or spiritual beings. When Tsze-lu asked about serving the spirits of the dead Confucius responded, “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?” 
    Tsze-lu went on, “May I ask about death?” 
    He received the answer, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” 
    Confucius added, “The study of strange doctrines is injurious indeed!”

13  The things in reference to which Confucius exercised the greatest caution were—fasting, sickness and war.

14  Tsze-lu asked, “If you had the conduct of the armies of a great State, whom would you have to act with you?”

    Confucius replied, “I would not have him to act with me who will unarmed attack a tiger, or cross a river without a boat, dying without any regret. My associate must be the man who proceeds to action full of thoughtfulness, who is fond of carefully laying out his plans, and then carries them into execution.”

15  The stable was burned down when Confucius was at court; on his return he asked, “Has any man been hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.

16  When any of his friends died, if he had no relations who could be depended on for the necessary offices, he would say, “I will bury him.” When he saw any one in a mourning dress, his countenance would become grave.  When Confucius was eating by the side of a mourner, he never ate to the full. He did not sing on the same day in which he had been weeping.

17  Confucius said of Kung-ye Chang that he could become married: although he was put in bonds, he had not been guilty of any crime. Accordingly, he gave him his own daughter to wife.

18  Confucius valued filial piety. He suggested, “In serving his parents, a son may remonstrate with them, but gently; when he sees that they do not incline to follow his advice, he shows an increased degree of reverence, but does not abandon his purpose; and should they punish him, he does not allow himself to murmur.”

19  He said, “A youth is to be regarded with respect. How do we know that his future will not be equal to our present? If he reach the age of forty or fifty and has not made himself heard of, then indeed he will not be worth being regarded with respect.”

20  The Music-master, Mien, having called upon him, when they came to the steps, Confucius said, “Here are the steps.” When they came to the mat for the guest to sit on, he said, “Here is the mat.” When all were seated, he told him, “So and so is here; so and so is there.” 
    The Music-master, Mien, having gone out, Tsze-chang asked saying, “Is it the rule to tell those things to the Music-master?”
    Confucius replied, “Yes. This is certainly the rule for those who lead the blind.”

21  At one time Confucius was depressed and lamented, “My doctrines make no way. I will get upon a raft, and float about on the sea. He that will accompany me will be Yu, I dare say”.
Yu hearing this was glad.
 Upon which Confucius observed tartly, “Yu is fonder of daring than I am. He does not exercise his judgment upon such matters.”

22  The Master said, “In letters I am perhaps equal to other men, but the character of the superior man, carrying out in his conduct what he professes, is what I have not yet attained to.”

23 “I will not be afflicted at men's not knowing me; I will be afflicted that I do not know men.”

24  Confucius said, “The sage and the man of perfect virtue—how dare I rank myself with them? It may simply be said of me, that I strive to become such without satiety, and teach others without weariness.” 
    Kung-hsi Hwa said, “That is just what we disciples cannot imitate in you.”

25  A man of the village of Ta-hsiang scoffed, “Great indeed is the philosopher K'ung! His learning is extensive, and yet he does not render his name famous by any particular thing.”
Hearing the gibe, Confucius asked his disciples, “What must I do to please this man?  Shall I go in for archery contests? Shall I become a charioteer? That's it, I will take up chariot racing!”



26  Confucius summed up the importance of knowledge this way, “Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men. Those who learn and readily gain possession of knowledge are the next. Those who are dull and stupid, and yet manage to learn are another class next to these. As to those who are dull and stupid and yet do not learn—they are the lowest of the people.
 “But”, he warned,  “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”

27  To Yu he said, “Lack of love of learning is at the heart of six sources of confusion.
“There is the love of being benevolent without the love of learning—the confusion here leads to a foolish simplicity. There is the love of knowing without the love of learning—the confusion here leads to dissipation of mind. There is the love of being sincere without the love of learning—the confusion here leads to an injurious disregard of consequences. There is the love of straight­forwardness without the love of learning—the confusion here leads to rudeness. There is the love of boldness without the love of learning—the confusion here leads to insubordination. There is the love of firmness without the love of learning—the confusion here leads to extravagant conduct.”

28  Chi K'ang asked which of the disciples loved to learn. Confucius replied to him, “There was Tsze-yuan. He loved to learn. Unfortunately his appointed time was short, and he died. Now there is no one who loves to learn as he did.”
When Tsze-yuan died, Confucius bewailed him exceedingly, and the disciples who were with him said, “Master, isn't your grief  excessive?
 “Is it excessive?” he asked. “If I am not to mourn bitterly for this man, for whom should I mourn?”

29  The duke of Sheh asked Tsze-lu about Con­fucius, and Tsze-lu did not answer him. Confucius asked, “Why did you not say to him—He is simply a man who in his eager pursuit of knowledge forgets his food, who in the joy of its attainment forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that old age is coming on?”

30  “When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, know their bad qualities and avoid them.”

31  “When we see men of worth, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.”

32  He said, “There may be those who act without knowing why.  I do not do so. Hearing much, selecting what is good and following it; seeing much and keeping it in memory—this is the style of knowledge I prefer.”

33  Tsai Yu being asleep during the day time, Confucius observed, “Rotten wood cannot be carved; a wall of dirty earth will not receive the trowel. This Yu!—what is the use of my reproving him? At first, my way with men was to hear their words and give them credit for their conduct. Now my way is to hear their words and look at their conduct. It is from Yu that I have learned to make this change.” 

34  “I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.”

35 “When a man is not in the habit of saying, ‘What shall I think of this? What shall I think of this?’ I can indeed do nothing with him!”


The Superior Man

36  Tsze-lu asked what constituted the superior man. Confucius answered, “The cultivation of himself in reverential careful­ness.”
 “And is this all?”
“He cultivates himself so as to give rest to others.”
 “And is this all?”
 “He cultivates himself so as to give rest to all the people.”

37  Confucius confessed, “The way of the superior man is threefold, but I am not equal to it. Virtuous, he is free from anxieties; wise, he is free from perplexities; bold, he is free from fear.”

38  Tsze-kung also asked what constituted the superior man.  Confucius replied, “He acts before he speaks, and afterwards speaks according to his actions.”

39  “The superior man has nine things that are subjects of thoughtful consideration:
           In regard to the use of his eyes, he is anxious to see clearly.
           In regard to the use of his ears, he is anxious to hear distinctly.
           In regard to his countenance, he is anxious that it should be benign.
           In regard to his demeanor, he is anxious that it should be respectful.
           In regard to his speech, he is anxious that it should be sincere.
           In regard to his way of doing business, he is anxious that it should be reverently careful.
           In regard to what he doubts about, he is anxious to question others.
          When he is angry, he thinks of the difficulties his anger may involve him in.
When he sees gain to be got, he thinks of righteousness.”

40  “The superior man wishes to be slow in his speech and earnest in his conduct. He is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.  In every action he considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He executes it with humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed the way of a superior man.”

41  “The superior man is distressed by his want of ability. He is not distressed by men's not knowing him. He is correctly firm, and not firm merely.”

42  “He does not promote a man simply on account of his words, nor does he put aside good words because of the man.”

43  “He who does not anticipate attempts to deceive him, nor think beforehand of his not being believed, and yet apprehends these things readily when they occur —is he not a man of superior worth?”

44  “There are three things which the superior man guards against. In youth, when the physical powers are not yet settled, he guards against lust.. When he is strong, and the physical powers are full of vigor, he guards against quarrelsomeness. When he is old, and the animal powers are decayed, he guards against covetousness.”

45  “In dealing with people, the superior man does not set his mind either for anything, or against anything; what is right he will follow.”

46  When he was in Chan, their provisions were exhausted, and his followers became so ill that they were unable to rise. Tsze-lu, with evident dissatisfaction, said to Confucius, “Has the superior man likewise to endure in this way?”
    The Master said, “The superior man may indeed have to endure want, but the mean man, when he is in want, gives way to unbridled license.”



47  Tsze-chang asked Confucius the source of perfect virtue. Confucius said, “To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue: gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnest­ness, and kindness. If you are grave, you will not be treated with disrespect. If you are generous, you will win all. If you are sincere, people will repose trust in you. If you are earnest, you will accomplish much. If you are kind, this will enable you to employ the services of others. The firm, the enduring, the simple, and the modest are near to virtue.”

48  When Tsze-ch'ih asked about perfect virtue Confucius replied, “In retirement, it is to be sedately grave; in the management of business, to be reverently attentive; in dealing with others, to be strictly sincere. Though a man go among rude, uncultivated tribes, these qualities may not be neglected.”

49  “The man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established him­self, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.
 To be able to judge others as we would wish to be judged ourselves: this may be called the art of virtue.”

50  Tsze-kung asked, saying, “What do you say of a man who is loved by all the people of his neighborhood?”
     Confucius replied, “We may not for that reason alone accord him our approval.”
“And what do you say of him who is hated by all the people of his neighborhood?”
Confucius replied, “We may not for that reason conclude that he is bad. It is better than either of these cases that the good in the neighborhood love him, and the bad hate him.”


The Mean Man

51  “The superior man cannot be known in little matters; but he may be entrusted with great concerns. The small man may not be entrusted with great concerns but he may be known in little matters.
“The superior man thinks of virtue; the small man thinks of comfort. The superior man thinks of the enactions of law; the small man thinks of favors that he may receive.
“The mind of the superior man is conversant with righteousness; the mind of the mean man is con­versant with gain.
“The superior man seeks to perfect the admirable qualities of men, and does not seek to perfect their bad qualities. The mean man does the opposite of this.
“What the superior man seeks, is in himself. What the mean man seeks, is in others.”

52  “Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination; straight-forwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness.” 



53   Tsze-chang asked Confucius, “In what way should a person in authority act in order that he may conduct government properly?” 
    The Master replied, “Let him observe the five excellent things, and banish away the four bad things, then he may conduct government properly.”
    Tsze-chang said, “What are meant by the five excellent things? ”
    Confucius replied:
“When the person in authority is beneficent without great expenditure.
“When he lays tasks on the people without their being discontented.
“When he pursues what he desires without being covetous.
“When he maintains a dignified ease without being proud.
“When he is majestic without being fierce.
“When the person in authority makes more beneficial to the people the things from which they naturally derive benefit—is not this being beneficent without great expenditure? 
    “When he chooses the labors which are proper, and makes them labor on them, who will be discontented? 
    “When his desires are set on benevolent government, and he secures it—who will accuse him of covetousness? 
    “When dealing with many people or few, or with great things or small, he does not dare to indicate any disrespect, is not this to maintain a dignified ease without any pride? 
    “When he dresses properly and looks dignified, so that he is looked at with awe, is not this to be majestic without being fierce? ”
Tsze-chang then asked, “What are meant by the four bad things?”
“To put the people to death without having instructed them—this is called cruelty.
“To suddenly require from them all of their work, without having given them warning—this is called oppression.
“To issue orders as if without urgency at first but when the time comes to insist on them with severitythis is called injury.
“And, generally, in giving pay or rewards to men, to do it in a mean way—this is called acting the part of a mere official.”

 54  The disciple Tsze-lu said, “The duke of Wei [who had usurped the title of his father] has been waiting for you to assist in administering the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
The Master replied, “What is necessary is to call things by their right  names.”
“So, indeed!”said Tsze-lu [who had assisted the duke in administration for many years]. “You are wide of the mark. Why must the names of things be corrected?”
Confucius responded, “How uncultivated you are, Yu. A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be 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 harmony will not flourish. When proprieties and harmony do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
 “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires, is that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

55 Confucius said, “To rule a country, there must be reverent attention to business, and sincerity; economy in expenditure, and love for men; and the employment of the people at the proper seasons.”

56 When Tsze-hsia, being governor of Chu-fu, asked about government, Confucius replied, “Do not be desirous to have things done quickly; do not look at small advantages. Desire to have things done quickly prevents their being done thoroughly. Looking at small advantages prevents great affairs from being accomplished.”

57  Tsze-kung asked about government. Confucius replied, “The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler.”
    Tsze-kung said, “If it cannot be helped, and one of these must be dispensed with, which of the three should be foregone first?”
“The military equipment,” said the Master.
    Tsze-kung again asked, “If it cannot be helped, and one of the remaining two must be dispensed with, which of them should be foregone?”
The Master answered, “Part with the food. From ancient times, death has been the lot of all men; but if the people have no faith in their rulers, there is no justification for the state.”

58 Chi K'ang, the usuring head of the Chi clan, was distressed about the number of thieves in his state. When he inquired of Confucius how to do away with them, Confucius replied, “If you, sir, were not covetous, they would not steal even if you should reward them to do so.”

59 “To govern means to rectify. If you lead on the people with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?”

60 Chi K'ang asked “What do you say to killing the unprincipled for the good of the principled?”
Confucius replied “Sir, in carrying on your government, why should you use killing at all? Let your evinced desires be for what is good, and the people will be good. The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass. The grass must bend when the wind blows across it.”

61 Tsze-kung asked,  “What qualities must a man possess to entitle him to be called a government official?”
Confucius replied, “He who in his conduct of himself maintains a sense of shame, and when sent to any quarter will not disgrace his leader's commission, deserves to be called an official.”
Tsze-kung pursued, “I venture to ask who may be placed in the next lower rank?”
He was told, “He whom the circle of his relatives pronounce to be filial and whom his fellow-villagers and neighbors pronounce to be fraternal.”
The disciple continued, “I venture to ask about the class still next in order.”
    Confucius replied, “They are determined to be sincere in what they say, and to carry out what they do. They are obstinate little men. Yet perhaps they may make the next class.”
 Tsze-kung finally inquired, “Of what sort are those of the present day, who engage in government?”
Confucius replied, “Oh,  they are so many misfits and bunglers—not worth being taken into account.”

62 The Master said, “To lead an uninstructed people to war is to throw them away.”


     Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000


   Adapted from Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean translated with Chinese text, critical and exegetical notes, prolegomena, copious indexes, and dictionary of all characters by James Legge. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1893. Published in paperback by Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1971.

 The Analects of Confucius translated and annotated by Arthur Waley. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1938.

  A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1963.

  Web Sites

Analects of Confucius

Doctrine of the Mean by Confucius

The Great Learning by Confucius

The Analects of Confucius translated by Charles Muller for the study of East Asian Language and Thought

The Great Learning of Confucius translated by Charles Muller for the study of East Asian Language and Thought

The Doctrine of the Mean of Confucius translated by Charles Muller for the study of East Asian Language and Thought