Yan Hui asked about goodness. Confucius said: “Exercising self-discipline and returning to ritual constitute goodness. If you manage to exercise self-restraint and return to ritual for just one single day, goodness will prevail throughout the world. You can only achieve goodness through your own efforts. How can it come from anybody else?” Yan Hui said: “May I ask what specific steps I should follow?” Confucius said: “Don’t look at anything that goes against ritual; don’t listen to anything that goes against ritual; don’t say anything that goes against ritual; don’t do anything that goes against ritual.” Yan Hui said: “Although I may not be quick to understand it, with your blessing I will strive to live up to your guidance.”
Only you can become your best self. Nobody else can do it for you. The buck stops with you.
Only you can make bad choices. Nobody else is responsible for them. There are plenty of proven practices for you to adopt.
The question is whether you’re truly willing to commit to them.
This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.
(1) This the first in a series of three very famous passages on the key Confucian concept of 仁/rén. I have chosen to translate this as “goodness”, but it could just as easily be rendered as “humanity”, “benevolence”, or more loosely “the right way to conduct yourself and treat other people”.
(2) The prose in this passage is highly-polished, perhaps even a little labored, but it does neatly encapsulate the essential duality of goodness: overcome your own selfish desires and behave in accordance with ritual (禮/lǐ), the unwritten conventions and customs that keep society operating harmoniously.
(3) Confucius regarded self-discipline or self-restraint (克己/ kèjǐ) as the key to achieving goodness. Only you have the ability to decide what to look at, to listen to, to say, and to do.
(4) With his call for a return to ritual, Confucius was advocating the restoration of the rules of propriety that were established in the early days of the Zhou dynasty under the leadership of his personal hero, the Duke of Zhou. He was greatly concerned that society was collapsing because the corrupt and extravagant lifestyles of the ruling elite were setting the wrong example to the common people. The only way to solve this problem was a return to traditional values.
(5) You can read more about the follower Yan Hui here. He is being characteristically modest in this passage.
I took this image on the climb up Jiuwufeng in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.