Analects Book 4: on goodness


Goodness is such an ambiguous concept that even Confucius shied away from attaching an exact meaning to it. He found it much easier to describe the benefits that the cultivation of a strong internal sense of goodness can bring to people rather than defining its precise features.

In Chapter II of Book 4, he points out that goodness gives people a sense of peace and balance that allows them to handle the peaks and valleys of life with equanimity. Whereas people who do not possess goodness are unable to “endure adversity or enjoy happiness for long,” those who do possess it remain at ease no matter what external circumstances they have to deal with.

People who possess goodness are therefore happy with their lot in life. They do not sacrifice their principles in order to escape poverty and obscurity or to acquire wealth and status. If they achieve riches and acclaim, they do not let their newfound affluence and celebrity go to their heads and if they lose their possessions and their reputation is ripped to shreds, they don’t fall into a pit of despond and despair. Nothing diverts them from their path.

Although Confucius was usually an optimist about his ability to show people how to cultivate their sense of goodness through his teachings, there were a few random occasions when even he expressed doubts about the efficacy of all his hard work and dedication. One such example can be found in Chapter VI when he laments that while everyone he has ever met has the capacity “to devote all his strength to goodness” nobody can be bothered to pursue it even “for a single day”.

Others can be seen in Chapter XXIX of Book 7 when he asks the rhetorical question “Is goodness really so far away?” and in Chapter XII of Book 6 when he blasts his disciple Ran Qiu for admitting that he doesn’t have the strength to follow “his Master’s Way.”

Despite such frustrations, Confucius continued to plug away with his teaching until the end of his days. As a result of his own highly-developed sense of goodness, he was always able to dust himself off after any setback or disappointment and set off once again down his path.

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