A shabby hemp gown

BSP20

子曰:「衣敝縕袍,與衣孤貉者立,而不恥者,其由也與!不忮不求,何用不臧?」子路終身誦之。子曰:「是道也,何足以臧!」
Confucius said: “Only Zilu can stand in his shabby hemp gown next to people wearing fox and badger furs without feeling a trace of embarrassment: ‘free of envy, free of greed, he must be a good man.’” When Zilu continuously chanted these lines, Confucius said: “These two qualities cannot possibly be sufficient to reach the pinnacle of perfection.”

Confucius greatly enjoyed teasing his disciple Zilu, so he is probably setting him up here with his compliment, the latter part of which is a direct quotation from Poem 33 of the Book of Songs. Continue reading A shabby hemp gown

Free will

BSP19

子曰:「三軍可奪帥也,匹夫不可奪志也。」
Confucius said: “You may seize the commander-in-chief of an army, but you cannot remove free will from even the humblest person.”

This is one of the most powerful passages in the Analects: over 2,000 years before French revolutionaries proclaimed liberty, equality, and fraternity for the common people, Confucius was warning rulers to show respect for the individuality of even their lowest-born subjects and recognize that they had no right to take away their free will.

Loyalty and trustworthiness

BSP18

子曰:「主忠信,毋友不如己者,過則勿憚改。」
Confucius said: “Hold loyalty and trustworthiness as your highest principles; don’t make friends with people who are not your equal; and when you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to correct yourself.”

Presumably this is the kind of advice Confucius had in mind in the previous chapter. This is a repeat of the second half of Chapter VIII of Book 1.

Words of advice

BSP17

子曰:「法語之言,能無從乎?改之為貴!巽與之言,能無說乎?繹之為貴!說而不繹,從而不改,吾末如之何也已矣!」
Confucius said: “We are always ready to accept words of advice. But they only have any value if we act on them. We are always delighted to hear words of praise. But they only have any value if we understand their true purpose. People who are delighted but don’t understand and people who accept words of advice without acting on them – I have absolutely no idea what to do with them!”

Advice is probably not quite a muscular enough word to convey the full meaning of the term 法語 (fǎyǔ), which literally means something like “language that accords with the rites”, but I prefer it to alternatives such as “admonishment”, “admonition”, “correction” and even “exemplary sayings”. Continue reading Words of advice

The younger generation

BSP16

子曰:「後生可畏,焉知來者之不如今也?四十五十而無聞焉,斯亦不足畏也已!」
Confucius said: “We should treat the younger generation with awe: how do we know that the next generation will not equal the current one? But if a man reaches the age of forty or fifty and has not distinguished himself, he is no longer worthy of being treated with awe.”

Given that his entire philosophy was predicated on reforming society so that it could return to a past golden age, it’s no big surprise that Confucius was unable to imagine that the younger generation could actually surpass the current and previous ones in terms of its achievements. Contrast this with the Western belief that the younger generation has the potential to improve on its predecessors and create a better future than the past.