The pursuit of major virtues

子夏曰:「大德不踰閑,小德出入可也。」
Zixia said: “As long as you don’t overstep the bounds when it comes to major virtues, it doesn’t matter if you take the occasional liberty with minor ones.”

Just as Zixia urged his students to focus on reaching their most important goals rather than wasting their time on minor diversions in Chapter IV of Book 19, he was willing to overlook minor missteps from them if they showed they were fully committed to the pursuit of the major virtues.

However, in his response to the biting criticism that Ziyou makes of his teaching methods in the following chapter, he makes it clear that such tolerance should only be afforded to students who have already mastered the teachings of Confucius. The first step in helping them achieve that lofty goal was to make sure that the basics were inculcated in them through seemingly simple and repetitive tasks.

子游曰:「子夏之門人小子,當洒掃,應對,進退,則可矣。抑末也;本之則無,如之何?」子夏聞之曰:「噫!言游過矣!君子之道,孰先傳焉?孰後倦焉?譬諸草木,區以別矣。君子之道,焉可誣也?有始有卒者,其惟聖人乎!」
Ziyou said: “Among the students of Zixia the younger ones are well trained for sprinkling and sweeping the floor, responding to instructions, and greeting guests. But these are only details. When it comes to the fundamentals, they are totally lost. How is this possible?” When Zixia heard this he said: “No! Ziyou is badly mistaken! When it comes to the way of the leader, who is to decide what should be taught first and what should be taught last? Students should be taught according to their characteristics in the same way plants and trees are sorted. How can it be the way of the leader to turn them into fools? Only a sage, however, would be able to master everything from the beginning to the end.”

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