Fan Chi asked about wisdom. Confucius said: “Do what is right for the common people; respect the spirits and gods but keep them at a distance. This is wisdom.” Fan Chi asked about goodness. Confucius said: “A good man is first in line to confront difficulties and last in line to collect rewards. This is goodness.” (1) (2)
Wisdom isn’t an abstract concept. It means figuring out what needs be done and then going ahead and doing it. It requires that you use your knowledge and insight for the benefit of everyone – not just on behalf of a select few of friends and associates.
Goodness isn’t an abstract concept either. It means stepping up to deal with the most challenging problems. Like wisdom, it requires working for the common good without any thought of personal reward.
For all the deep philosophical treatises that have been written about what Confucius meant by goodness (仁/rén), it is at heart a very simple idea. This passage sums it up perfectly. The same can be said for the definition of wisdom that Confucius gives here.
This article features a translation of Chapter 22 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.
(1) You can read more about the follower Fan Chi here.
(2) Confucius was focused on practical concerns rather than spiritual ones. While he respected folk religion he didn’t practice or encourage it.
I took this image at the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng, a small town near to Qufu. You can read more about it here.