Learning from the past

衛公孫朝問於子貢曰:「仲尼焉學?」子貢曰:「文武之道,未墜於地,在人。賢者識其大者,不賢者識其小者,莫不有文武之道焉。夫子焉不學,而亦何常師之有!」
Gongsun Chao of Wei asked Zigong: “From whom did Confucius learn?” Zigong said: “The Way of King Wen and King Wu has never disappeared; it has remained alive among the people. The wise have retained its most important elements; the ignorant have retained its least important details. There is not a single person who doesn’t have some elements of the Way of King Wen and King Wu. There is not a single person from whom our Master could not have learned something; and there is not a single person who could have been our Master’s only teacher.”

Zigong’s eloquent response to Gongsun Chao’s question reminds us that Confucius himself readily acknowledged in Chapter I of Book 7 that there was nothing new about the ideas and principles he espoused: “I transmit but I don’t create. I am faithful to and love the past.” (「述而不作,信而好古。」)

King Wen (1152 – 1056 BC) is remembered as the founder of the Zhou Dynasty even though it was his son King Wu who actually brought about the collapse of the previous Shang Dynasty with his victory at the Battle of Muye (牧野之戰) in 1046 BC. When King Wu died just three years afterwards, his elder brother and Confucius’s hero, the Duke of Zhou, took over as regent for the young King Cheng (周成王) and fought off various attempted coups while laying the foundations for the future growth and prosperity of the Zhou Dynasty.

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