Water and mountains


Confucius said: “The wise love water, the good love mountains. The wise are active, the good are tranquil. The wise are joyful, the good enjoy long life.”

At first sight, Confucius seems to be comparing “the wise” and “the good” in this passage, but like a traditional Chinese shanshui (mountain water) painting he is actually using these comparisons to highlight the multiple and often contradictory facets of our personalities.

Wisdom and goodness are not mutually exclusive: just as the mountains and water come together to form a perfect whole, so too is the human experience enhanced by the fusion of conflicting qualities and impulses. The sum is indeed greater than the parts.

The wise love water because so much remains to be learned underneath its surface. The good love mountains because everything is laid out in front of them before their very eyes. We all need a mix of exploration and contemplation.

The wise like to be busy, while the good prefer peace and quiet. Like Ying and Yang, these are complementary.

The wise have a zest and passion for life so that they can live it to the full, while the good carefully pace themselves so that they can enjoy their time on earth as long as possible. While you shouldn’t burn yourself out through overwork, you shouldn’t be so laid back that you don’t reach your potential either.

I’d like to thank my friend William Lue for his great help in explaining the meaning and philosophical underpinnings of this passage. Without his guidance, I would still be looking at the surface of the water with no idea of the riches lying underneath it.

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