In 7.23 of the Analects, Confucius snaps back at his followers after hearing that some of them suspect he is refusing to reveal the secret sauce to his great learning and wisdom. “My friends, do you think I’m hiding something from you?” he protests. “I’m hiding nothing at all. There’s nothing I do without sharing it with you. That’s my way.”
Perhaps if they had listened more carefully to what he had to say to the them, these doubting Thomases wouldn’t have found any reasons to question the sincerity of his intentions. Book 7 of the Analects, in particular, is full of evidence of Confucius’s love of learning and teaching.
Confucius probably best sums up his philosophy in 7.2 when he says: “Quietly absorbing knowledge, learning and yet never growing weary, teaching and yet never becoming tired – how can any of these be difficult for me?” In 7.33, he hammers away at the same theme: “How could I possibly dare to claim that I’m a man of great wisdom and goodness? All that can be said of me is that I never grow weary of learning and never get tired of teaching others.” To him, learning and teaching are two sides of the same coin. They are a constant iterative process.
Confucius doesn’t claim to have any special talent or aptitude for learning. In 7.19, he says “I wasn’t born with innate knowledge. I simply love the past and am assiduous in seeking it there.” In 7.27, he continues in the same vein: “Perhaps there are some people who can create something new without really understanding what they’re doing, but I’m not one of them.”
He has no magic formula or trademarked Pole Star process either. In 7.27 he remarks: “I listen a lot, pick the best of it, and follow it; I observe a lot and take note of it. This is the best way for me to learn.” “Let me take a stroll with any two people, and I can always be sure of learning something from them,” he explains further in 7.21. “I can take their good points and emulate them, and I can take their bad points and correct them in myself.”
For all his great efforts to cultivate his learning, Confucius is never fully satisfied with his progress. “Although my commitment is as strong as anyone’s when it comes to cultural knowledge and refinement,” he says in 7.32. “I haven’t yet hit the target of becoming a true leader in how I conduct myself.”
If Confucius had a secret sauce that distinguished himself from others, therefore, it was his voracious desire for continuous self-improvement. Far from attempting to hide this, he put it in plain sight of everyone. Perhaps because it involved more dedication and hard work than many of his followers were willing to put into it, they chose not to discern it.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.