Practical Confucius: Book 1, Chapter 1

子曰:「學而時習之,不亦說乎?有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?」
Confucius said: “To learn something and apply it at the appropriate time: isn’t this wonderful? To have friends visit from afar: isn’t this delightful? To remain unconcerned when others don’t recognize your talents: isn’t this the mark of an exemplary person?”

When reading the Analects, don’t be too surprised if some of the passages appear to be rather ambiguous or disjointed. The Analects is a mashup of sayings from multiple sources strung together by many different editors. Narrative coherency is not one of its greatest virtues.

For all its ambiguity, the opening chapter does highlight two very important threads of Confucius’s thought. The first is that learning should be grounded in the practical application of knowledge rather than in academic theory. The second is the importance of following the right path even if you don’t receive any credit for it.

Woven together, these two threads form the basis of a lifelong process of self-improvement that the “exemplary person” should follow and inspire others with. Unlike many popular religions, there’s no pot of gold waiting for you at the end the rainbow; the only reward, assuming that there is one at all, is the knowledge that you are doing the right thing.

Notes
One key challenge of translating this chapter is deciding how closely the second sentence should be tied in with the first one. Confucius, after all, enjoyed nothing more than bringing together his friends and followers for an impromptu discussion of politics and philosophy.

Given the context, the overall passage might read more smoothly with the addition of “to share your knowledge with”:

Confucius said: “To learn something and apply it at the appropriate time: isn’t this wonderful? To have friends visit from afar to share your knowledge with: isn’t this delightful? To remain unconcerned when others don’t recognize your talents: isn’t this the mark of an exemplary person?”

The other key challenge is finding an appropriate modern translation of the term 君子, which has been variously rendered as “gentleman”, “man of virtue”, and “superior man”.

Although Confucius was only referring to members of the male sex, I have opted for the gender-neutral term of “exemplary person”. I did briefly toy with using the term “role model” but decided it was a little too clunky for the text.

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