Analects Book 4: on learning

learning

Confucius can certainly never be accused of sugarcoating the difficulties that any would-be student would face if he chose to follow his path. He promises no seven-step plan to guaranteed success or shortcut to fortune and fame.

Indeed, he seems to almost revel in the “threadbare clothes and coarse food” that his followers may have to subsist on while pursuing the rigorous path of intensive learning and self-cultivation he has laid out for them. “Don’t be concerned if you don’t have an official position,” he tells them in Chapter XIV, knowing full well that most of them have signed up with him to secure a post in government. Rather, “be concerned if you don’t deserve such a position.”

“Don’t be concerned if you’re not famous,” he continues in a tone that offers no comfort at all to anyone wavering in their commitment to his path, but “be concerned if you don’t deserve to be famous.”

With this advice, Confucius is making the serious point that people should only follow his teachings because they believe it is the right thing for them to do rather than because they will receive a reward at the end of it. He is not willing to squander his precious energy and time nurturing students who are not fully committed to his path. He wants to share his wisdom with ones who are genuinely interested in it – not with those who plan to just leverage it for more utilitarian purposes like getting a job.

Confucius probably lost many more disciples than he gained as a result of his uncompromising approach. However, it also meant that in the long term his teachings achieved a much greater impact because he didn’t have to water them down to cater to a much broader base. Not only did many of his top disciples like Zilu, Zixia, and Zigong go on to achieve great success in government and business; they also went on to found schools that promoted his teachings to future generations and laid the foundations for his enduring legacy as China’s greatest philosopher.

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