Analects Book 1: on learning

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Although this may come as a surprise to people who have experienced or even just heard about the rigors of China’s so-called “Confucian” education system, Confucius himself believed that learning should involve much more than simply imbibing and regurgitating the ancient classics. Rather, it should be focused on the practical application of the timeless principles found in them to your daily life so that you can make a positive contribution to your family, your community, and ultimately the whole society you live in.

In short, Confucius saw the goal of learning as the cultivation of the self rather than the pure pursuit of knowledge. What would be the value of filling your head with the wisdom of the ancients if you didn’t apply it to your life? As he points out in the first chapter of Book 1 of the Analects: “To learn something and apply it at the appropriate time: isn’t this wonderful?”

In Chapter VI, Confucius goes on to explicitly favor the cultivation of behavioral values over academic study. The goal of learning is to translate the knowledge you already possess into meaningful actions such as showing respect to your parents, relatives, and elders rather than just trying to keep on expanding it: “At home, a young man should respect his parents. Outside, he should respect his elders; talk little but truthfully; and love everyone but only associate with those who are good. If he still has time and energy to spare after all this, he can study the cultural arts.”

In Chapter VII, his disciple Zixia builds on this theme by saying that a man who conducts himself correctly towards his wife, parents, ruler, and friends is “learned” even if others may see him as lacking in culture and sophistication: “A man who values virtue over beauty, who devotes all his energy to serving his father and mother, who is willing to sacrifice his life for his ruler, and who is true to his word in his dealings with his friends: even though some may say he is not learned, I will insist he is a learned man.”

Confucius thus saw learning as a lifelong iterative process that, to use a quotation that his disciple Zigong draws from the Book Songs in Chapter XV of Book 1, is ‘like carving and polishing stones, like cutting and grinding gems’.

In Chapter IV, Zengzi, another of his disciples, describes exactly how he applies this process in his daily life. Note he how examines his actions in terms of how they impact other people and how keeps on asking himself if he is living up to the principles he has been taught: “I examine myself three times every day. Have I been true to other people’s interests when acting on their behalf? Have I been sincere in my interactions with friends? Have I practiced what I have been taught?”

Progress in learning should not therefore be measured in terms of external recognition and rewards, but in how well you apply and share your knowledge in a social context. Some interesting food for thought in our own paper-qualification-obsessed times!

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