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 4.2, 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.
In 4.3, Confucius argues rather obliquely that only a person who has achieved the sublime state of goodness has the wisdom and maturity to correctly determine who else is good and who is evil: “Only a person who possesses goodness can love people and can hate people.” As for the rest of us, we should focus our energy and talents on cultivating our own goodness rather than wasting them on adulating or condemning others for their alleged brilliance or wickedness.
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 4.6 when he laments: “I’ve never seen anyone who truly loves goodness and truly detests evil.”
Other examples can be seen in 7.29 when he asks the rhetorical question “Is goodness really so far away?” and in 6.13 when he blasts his disciple Ran Qiu for claiming that he doesn’t have the strength to follow “the way of the Master.”
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.