Analects of Confucius Book 2: Confucius on lifelong learning

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In the famous snapshot he gives of his life in Chapter 4 of Book 2, Confucius summarizes the four-step process that he followed on what we might these days describe as his “lifelong learning journey.”

As the first step, Confucius applied himself to the rigorous study of the classics in order to internalize the wisdom of the ancients and to draw the appropriate lessons it. With all the fundamentals in place, he understood the path he should follow and thus felt able to declare at the age of thirty that “I stood on my own two feet.”

Over the next twenty years of his life, Confucius became increasingly comfortable with the path he had chosen and started to build up an understanding of how his personal wishes and motivations accorded with “how the world works.”

Finally, during the last two decades of his life his own desires were so in tune with the way the world works that he instinctively knew how to follow his “heart’s desires without overstepping the line.”

For Confucius, therefore, the ultimate objective of learning was to reach a state of effortless harmony with the world around you that meant you automatically thought the right thought and behaved in the right manner no matter what kind of situation you encountered. 

While he regarded rigorous academic study as the critical first step in building up the necessary knowledge base to draw from, he believed that applying and cultivating this knowledge during the course of your life is even more important over the long term. Without a constant process of reflecting on your thoughts and actions, you will never be able to reach the point in which your own desires and conduct are perfectly aligned with the laws governing the natural world.

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