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 person 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) It’s believed that Fan Chi is asking for advice from Confucius about how to conduct himself as an official. As was habit, Confucius personalizes his responses to his follower’s questions about wisdom and goodness to make them relevant to his needs. As an official, Fan Chi’s top priority should be to promote social harmony by making sure that the people conduct themselves properly by observing the appropriate rituals of ancestor worship without straying into superstitious or supernatural practices. At the same time, he should act as a shining example to them by doing what is right without expecting any rewards.
(2) You can read more about the follower Fan Chi here.
I took this image at the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng, a small town near to Qufu. You can read more about it here.