Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.
Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.

Those are just two of the hundreds of sayings, epigrams, and aphorisms that are attributed to Confucius. Over the past few weeks I have been reading, considering and meditating upon the classic translation of Confucius by James Legge entitled, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean. All works distilled over centuries from the teachings of Confucius who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.

Elias Canetti summed it up neatly: "The Analects of Confucius are the oldest complete intellectual and spiritual portrait of a man. It strikes one as a modern book." It also strikes this reader as a very un-western book and difficult to decipher. In spite of that there is a lot that Confucius' thought has in common with the wisdom of the west. One of the most famous doctrines is that of "reciprocity".

15.24 Zigong asked: "Is there any single word that could guide one's entire life?" The Master said: "Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others." (Simon Leys trans., p 77)

That is complementary to the more familiar "Golden Rule" that says one should "do unto others as one would have them do unto you." From reading the aphorisms one comes away with an appreciation for culture, family and what seems to be a conservative view of man. It also is a very humane, even humanistic, view of society.
Apparently this was just what was needed during the lifetime of Confucius as there was great change in his society. He lived during a period of acute cultural crisis. Confucius, like thinkers in the West from Socrates to Gandhi, demonstrated a confidence that in turn drew followers to him and his thought. We can thank them for what little of Confucius' thought that we have. In these books and fragments we have the distillation of his thought and it impresses me as worth meditating on. It is a treasure of humanity.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star.

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Men's natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.

Respect yourself and others will respect you.

Study the past if you would define the future.

Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean by Confucius. James Legge, trans. Dover Publications. 1971 (1893).

The Analects of Confucius. Simon Leys, trans. W. W. Norton & Company, New York. 1997.

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