Confucius said: “At fifteen, I applied my mind to learning. At thirty, I set my course. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty my ear was attuned. At seventy, I followed all my heart’s desires without overstepping the line.”
This is a a famous snapshot of Confucius’s life journey from his teenage years to the final ones approaching his death.
As he tells it, Confucius assiduously studied the classics and rites as a boy in a voracious search for knowledge. As a result, when he reached the age of thirty he was ready to apply all the learning and ritual practice he had acquired by setting off on his chosen path.
As he progressed towards middle age, Confucius cleared away any lingering doubts about the direction he was going in and built up his understanding of how the world worked and the needs of the people around him. By the age of seventy, therefore, he had reached such a state of contentment that he was able to easily balance his own personal wants and needs with the demands of society.
Some commentators see a divine element to the phrase “At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven” (五十而知天/wǔshíérzhītiān). Since Confucius shows little interest, not to mention no signs of belief, in spiritual affairs in his extensive teachings, I see its meaning to be a lot more prosaic as in “the way the world works”.
The sentence “At sixty my ear was attuned” (六十而耳順/liùshíérěrshùn) is a little strange and has befuddled both Chinese and western commentators alike. Its literal meaning is exactly as I have translated it (at sixty my ear was attuned) but it is quite possible that the last two characters have been corrupted.