Analects of Confucius Book 4: Confucius’s approach to learning

Confucius on learning

Confucius can certainly never be accused of sugarcoating the difficulties that any would-be student would face if he chose to follow his path. He promises no seven-step plan to guaranteed success or shortcut to fame and fortune with his approach to learning.

Indeed, he seems to almost revel in the “threadbare clothes and coarse food” (4.9) that his followers may have to subsist on while pursuing the rigorous path of intensive learning and self-cultivation he has laid out for them. “Don’t care about not having an official position;” he tells them in Chapter 14, knowing full well that most of them have signed up with him to secure a post in government. Rather, “care about making sure you have what it takes to secure one.”

“Don’t care about not being acknowledged,” he continues in a tone that offers no comfort at all to anyone wavering in their commitment to his path. “Focus on what can make you acknowledged.”

With this advice, Confucius is making the serious point that people should only follow his teachings because they believe it is the right thing for them to do rather than because they will receive a reward at the end of it. He is not willing to squander his precious energy and time nurturing students who are not fully committed to his path. He wants to share his wisdom with ones who are genuinely interested in it – not with those who plan to just leverage it for more utilitarian purposes like getting a job.

Confucius probably lost many more students and followers than he gained as a result of his uncompromising approach. However, it also meant that in the long term his teachings achieved a much greater impact because he didn’t have to water them down to cater to a much broader base. Not only did many of his top disciples like Zilu, Zixia, and Zigong go on to achieve great success in government and business; some also went on to found schools that promoted his teachings to future generations and laid the foundations for his enduring legacy as China’s greatest philosopher.

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