The steps to goodness

顏淵問仁。子曰:「克己復禮,為仁。一日克己復禮,天下歸仁焉。為仁由己,而由仁乎哉?」 顏淵曰:「請問其目?」子曰:「非禮勿視,非禮勿聽,非禮勿言,非禮勿動。」顏淵曰:「回雖不敏,請事斯語矣!」
Yan Hui asked about goodness. Confucius said: “Overcome the self and restore the rites. This is what goodness is all about. If you overcome the self and restore the rites for just a single day, the whole world will respond to your goodness. The practice of goodness comes from the self. How can it come from others?” Yan Hui said: “May I ask what steps I should follow?” Confucius said: “Don’t look at anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t listen to anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t say anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t do anything that doesn’t conform with the rites.” Yan Hui said: “Although I may not be quick to understand it, with your blessing I will strive to follow your guidance.”

Book 12 of the Analects kicks off with the first in a series of three very famous passages on the key Confucian concept of 仁/rén, which I have chosen to translate as “goodness” but could just as easily be rendered as “humanity”, “benevolence” or more loosely “the right way you treat other people”.

The prose in this passage is highly-polished, perhaps even a little labored, but it does neatly encapsulate the essential duality of goodness: overcome your own selfish desires and behave in accordance with the rites, the unwritten conventions and customs that keep society operating harmoniously.

The responsibility of the individual to cultivate their own goodness is made crystal clear. Even the wisest counsel and guidance is of no value at all if you are not prepared to commit yourself to follow the path towards it.

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