Duke Ai asked: “Which of your disciples love learning?” Confucius replied: “There was Yan Hui who loved learning; he never vented his anger; he never made the same mistake again. Sadly, his allotted time was short and he died. I have not heard of anyone else with such a love of learning.”
What is purpose of learning? Is it the accumulation of knowledge or the cultivation of the right moral qualities?
For Confucius, the latter was the answer to this question. Thus, when Duke Ai, the titular head of the state of Lu, asks Confucius which of his disciples “love learning”, he singles out Yan Hui because he never “vented his anger” or “made the same mistake again.” In other words, it’s how Yan Hui translates his knowledge into action that is important – not his intellectual abilities.
Confucius was absolutely devastated by the untimely death of his protégé Yan Hui. This is isn’t the only time that he laments his loss in the Analects. Other instances can be found in Chapter XXI of Book 9 and Chapter IX and Chapter X of Book 11.