Water and fire

子曰:「民之於仁也,甚於水火。水火,吾見蹈而死者矣,未見蹈仁而死者也。」
Confucius said: “Goodness is even more vital to the common people than water and fire. I have seen people step through water and fire and die; I have yet to see anyone step through goodness and die.”

An uncharacteristically hyperbolic statement from Confucius – and an utterly nonsensical one to boot. Surely he wasn’t so naïve as to believe that the toiling masses prized goodness over basic necessities like fire and water?

The character 蹈 (dǎo), meaning to step or to tread, is probably a play on words with character 道 (dào), meaning the Way. As such “step through goodness” could be taken to mean “step along the way of goodness.

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