Doctrine of the Mean

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子曰:「中庸之為德也,其至矣乎!民鮮久矣。」
Confucius said: “Virtue acquired by the application of the Doctrine of the Mean is supreme. Yet it has been rare among people for a long time.”

The term 中庸 (zhōngyōng) literally means “central ordinary” so it’s probably no surprise that it has caused endless scratching of heads among translators of the Analects. I have chosen to go with Burton Watson’s “Doctrine of the Mean” for the simple reason that it has a much grander ring to it and is much better known than alternatives such as “Constant Mean”, “Middle Way”, or even “Focusing the Familiar”.

Even Chinese commentators can’t be absolutely certain what the phrase means either, because Confucius didn’t take the trouble to provide a definition of it (or at least the editors of the Analects didn’t bother to include one). That task was, at least according to the tradition, left to his only grandson Zisi (子思), who wrote the eponymous book on the subject that was subsequently adopted as one of the four Confucian classics.

Whether or not Zisi’s book accurately represents Confucius’s own thinking is of course open to question, but it did open up some interesting lines of enquiry among various scholars looking for potential areas of convergence between Confucianism and more mystical philosophies such as Daoism. One more for my reading list after finishing the Analects….

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