Yan Hui said with a heavy sigh: “The more I contemplate it, the higher it seems; the deeper I probe it, the harder it becomes; when I catch a glimpse of it in front of me, it’s suddenly behind me. Our master knows how to guide people skillfully and methodically. He broadens my mind with culture and restrains me with ritual. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just as all my talents are exhausted, there seems to be something new towering above me. But although I long to follow it, I can’t find a way to it.”
The greatest idea in the world is worth nothing if it isn’t channeled in the right direction through discipline. That brilliant novel you have mapped out in your mind will never see the light of the day if you lack the willpower to pound away at your keyboard day after day. And that bright fiery potential that burned in your eyes when you were in your twenties will be extinguished by the time you reach middle age if you don’t temper and tend it.
This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.
(1) Confucius’s favorite follower Yan Hui is being a tad, shall we say, sycophantic with his praise of the sage here. Or perhaps, given that Yan Hui wasn’t normally given to such loquaciousness, he didn’t actually say these words at all and they were “reimagined” by an over-enthusiastic contributor or editor eager to burnish Confucius’s reputation. Whatever its origin, the breathless prose in this passage seems more fitted to a Harlequin Romance than the Analects. Let’s call it purple praise. You can read more about Yan Hui here.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan. You can read more about the rather convoluted history of this temple in this excellent article by Josh Ellis here.