Primary and secondary virtues

有子曰:「信近於義,言可復也。恭近於禮,遠恥辱也。因不失其親,亦可宗也。」
Youzi said: “Trustworthiness is close to rightness because it means that your word can be counted on. Reverence is close to ritual because it means that you avoid shame and disgrace. Never losing sight of these virtues is worthy of respect.”

(義) is another term that doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English. I have translated it here as “rightness”— as in having the moral disposition to do the right thing or act in the right way in any given situation. Alternatives include righteousness, propriety, and morality.

Rightness is categorized as one of the primary virtues of Confucius’s thought. Trustworthiness (信/xìn), on the other hand, is regarded only as a secondary virtue, because, like a loyal member of a criminal gang who refuses to rat out the names of his accomplices to the police, you can be trustworthy without doing the right thing.

The same rule applies to the relationship between reverence (恭/gōng) and the ritual (禮/). While showing reverence is a critical part of attending participating in a ritual ceremony, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have fully entered into the spirit of it. Indeed, you could very well be faking it in order to avoid being criticized by others for failing to show due respect.

The final sentence is open to multiple interpretations, none of which are particularly satisfactory. That includes including my own rendering of it.

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