Seen and Not Heard

Confucius said: “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.”

The sixth chapter of Book 1 of The Analects brought some long-buried admonitions from my childhood bubbling to the surface of my brain as I worked my way through the words. What was it about little children? Oh yes, shouldn’t they be seen but not heard?

Still, there’s no denying the enduring validity of the rules of behavior that Confucius lays out, even if they may sound a little archaic in the supposedly more enlightened times that we like to believe we live in. Children should respect their parents and elders (though equally parents and others should behave in a way that earns their respect); it would probably benefit all of us if we talked much less and listened more closely to what others have to say; and even though we should be polite to everyone we come across it certainly does pay to choose our friends wisely.

The last sentence of the chapter does, however, strike a rather odd note – at least to the modern reader. What does Confucius mean when he says that “if he [the young man] still has time and energy to spare after all this, he can study literature and the arts”?

Although Confucius was a great lover of the arts, he believed that instructing young men how to conduct themselves properly was the number one goal of education, while teaching them about literature, music, and painting was of secondary importance and should only be done during their leisure time.

In other words, like a modern parent telling their children that they can’t watch TV or play on their computer until they’ve finished their homework, he was saying that they should finish the serious business done first and save the fun for later.

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