Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION III.: ITS SCOPE AND VALUE. - The Chinese Classics: Vol. 1. The Life and Teachings of Confucius (Analects, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean)
Return to Title Page for The Chinese Classics: Vol. 1. The Life and Teachings of Confucius (Analects, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
SECTION III.: ITS SCOPE AND VALUE. - Confucius, The Chinese Classics: Vol. 1. The Life and Teachings of Confucius (Analects, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean) 
The Chinese Classics: Translated into English with Preliminary Essays and Explanatory Notes by James Legge. Vol. 1. The Life and Teachings of Confucius. Second Edition (London: N. Trübner, 1869).
Part of: The Chinese Classics
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
ITS SCOPE AND VALUE.
1.The Doctrine of the Mean is a work not easy to understand. “It first,” says the philosopher Ch‘ing, “speaks of one principle; it next spreads this out and embraces all things; finally, it returns and gathers them up under the one principle. Unroll it, and it fills the universe; roll it up, and it retires and lies hid in secrecy.” There is this advantage, however, to the student of it, that, more than most other Chinese Treatises, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The first chapter stands to all that follows in the character of a text, containing several propositions of which we have the expansion or development. If that development were satisfactory, we should be able to bring our own minds en rapport with that of the author. Unfortunately it is not so. As a writer he belongs to the intuitional school more than to the logical. This is well put in the “Continuation of the General Examination of Literary Monuments and Learned Men:”—“The philosopher Tsăng reached his conclusions by following in the train of things, watching and examining; whereas Tsze-sze proceeds directly and reaches to heavenly virtue. His was a mysterious power of discernment, approaching to that of Yen Hwuy.” We must take the Book and the author, however, as we have them, and get to their meaning, if we can, by assiduous examination and reflection.
2. “Man has received his nature from Heaven. Conduct in accordance with that nature constitutes what is right and true,—is a pursuing of the proper path. The cultivation or regulation of that path is what is called instruction.” It is with these axioms that the Treatise commences, and from such an introduction we might expect that the writer would go on to unfold the various principles of duty, derived from an analysis of man’s moral constitution.
Confining himself, however, to the second axiom, he proceeds to say that “the path may not for an instant be left, and that the superior man is cautious and careful in reference to what he does not see, and fearful and apprehensive in reference to what he does not hear. There is nothing more visible than what is secret, and nothing more manifest than what is minute, and therefore the superior man is watchful over his aloneness.” This is not all very plain. Comparing it with the 6th chapter of Commentary in The Great Learning, it seems to inculcate what is there called “making the thoughts sincere.” The passage contains an admonition about equivalent to that of Solomon,—“Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.”
The next paragraph seems to speak of the nature and the path under other names. “While there are no movements of pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy, we have what may be called the state of equilibrium. When those feelings have been moved, and they all act in the due degree, we have what may be called the state of harmony. This equilibrium is the great root of the world, and this harmony is its universal path.” What is here called “the state of equilibrium” is the same as the nature given by Heaven, considered absolutely in itself, without deflection or inclination. This nature acted on from without, and responding with the various emotions, so as always “to hit” the mark with entire correctness, produces the state of harmony, and such harmonious response is the path along which all human activities should proceed.
Finally, “Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.” Here we pass into the sphere of mystery and mysticism. The language, according to Choo He, “describes the meritorious achievements and transforming influence of sage and spiritual men in their highest extent.” From the path of duty, where we tread on solid ground, the writer suddenly raises us aloft on wings of air, and will carry us we know not where, and to we know not what.
3. The paragraphs thus presented, and which constitute Choo He’s first chapter, contain the sum of the whole Work. This is acknowledged by all;—by the critics who disown Choo He’s interpretations of it, as freely as by him. Revolving them in my own mind often and long, I collect from them the following as the ideas of the author:—1st, Man has received from Heaven a moral nature by which he is constituted a law to himself; 2nd, Over this nature man requires to exercise a jealous watchfulness; and 3rd, As he possesses it, absolutely and relatively, in perfection, or attains to such possession of it, he becomes invested with the highest dignity and power, and may say to himself—“I am a God; yea, I sit in the seat of God.” I will not say here that there is blasphemy in the last of these ideas; but do we not have in them the same combination which we found in The Great Learning,—a combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the plain and the vague, which is very perplexing to the mind, and renders the Book unfit for the purposes of mental and moral discipline?
And here I may inquire whether we do right in calling the Treatise by any of the names which foreigners have hitherto used for it? In the note on the title, I have entered a little into this question. The Work is not at all what a reader must expect to find in what he supposes to be a treatise on “The Golden Medium,” “The Invariable Mean,” or “The Doctrine of the Mean.” Those names are descriptive only of a portion of it. Where the phrase Chung Yung occurs in the quotations from Confucius, in nearly every chapter, from the 2nd to the 11th, we do well to translate it by “the course of the Mean,” or some similar terms; but the conception of it in Tsze-sze’s mind was of a different kind, as the preceding analysis of the first chapter sufficiently shows.
4. I may return to this point of the proper title for the Work again, but in the mean time we must proceed with the analysis of it.—The ten chapters from the 2nd to the 11th constitute the second part, and in them Tsze-sze quotes the words of Confucius, “for the purpose,” according to Choo He, “of illustrating the meaning of the first chapter.” Yet, as I have just intimated, they do not to my mind do this. Confucius bewails the rarity of the practice of the Mean, and graphically sets forth the difficulty of it. “The empire, with its component States and families, may be ruled; dignities and emoluments may be declined, naked weapons may be trampled under foot; but the course of the Mean cannot be attained to.”1 “The knowing go beyond it, and the stupid do not come up to it.”2 Yet some have attained to it. Shun did so, humble and ever learning from people far inferior to himself;3 and Yen Hwuy did so, holding fast whatever good he got hold of, and never letting it go.4 Tszeloo thought the Mean could be taken by storm, but Confucius taught him better.5 And in fine, it is only the sage who can fully exemplify the Mean.6
All these citations do not throw any light on the ideas presented in the first chapter. On the contrary, they interrupt the train of thought. Instead of showing us how virtue, or the path of duty, is in accordance with our Heaven-given nature, they lead us to think of it as a mean between two extremes. Each extreme may be a violation of the law of our nature, but that is not made to appear. Confucius’ sayings would be in place in illustrating the doctrine of the Peripatetics, “which placed all virtue in a medium between opposite vices.” Here in the Chung Yung of Tsze-sze, I have always felt them to be out of place.
5. In the 12th chapter Tsze-sze speaks again himself, and we seem at once to know the voice. He begins by saying that “the way of the superior man reaches far and wide, and yet is secret,” by which he means to tell us that the path of duty is to be pursued everywhere and at all times, while yet the secret spring and rule of it is near at hand, in the Heaven-conferred nature, the individual consciousness, with which no stranger can intermeddle. Choo He, as will be seen in the notes, gives a different interpretation of the utterance. But the view which I have adopted is maintained convincingly by Maou Se-ho in the second part of his “Observations on the Chung Yung.” With this chapter commences the third part of the Work, which embraces also the eight chapters which follow. “It is designed,” says Choo He, “to illustrate what is said in the first chapter that the path may not be left.” But more than that one sentence finds its illustration here. Tsze-sze had reference in it also to what he had said—“The superior man does not wait till he sees things to be cautious, nor till he hears things to be apprehensive. There is nothing more visible than what is secret, and nothing more manifest than what is minute. Therefore, the superior man is watchful over himself when he is alone.”
It is in this portion of the Chung Yung that we find a good deal of moral instruction which is really valuable. Most of it consists of sayings of Confucius, but the sentiments of Tsze-sze himself in his own language are interspersed with them. The sage of China has no higher utterances than those which are given in the 13th chapter:—“The path is not far from man. When men try to pursue a course which is far from the common indications of consciousness, this course cannot be considered the path. In the Book of Poetry it is said—
We grasp one axe-handle to hew the other, and yet if we look askance from the one to the other, we may consider them as apart. Therefore, the superior man governs men according to their nature, with what is proper to them; and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops. When one cultivates to the utmost the moral principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.
“In the way of the superior man there are four things, to none of which have I as yet attained:—To serve my father as I would require my son to serve me: to this I have not attained; to serve my elder brother as I would require my younger brother to serve me: to this I have not attained; to serve my prince as I would require my minister to serve me: to this I have not attained; to set the example in behaving to a friend as I would require him to behave to me: to this I have not attained. Earnest in practising the ordinary virtues, and careful in speaking about them; if in his practice he has anything defective, the superior man dares not but exert himself, and if in his words he has any excess, he dares not allow himself such license. Thus his words have respect to his actions, and his actions have respect to his words;—is it not just an entire sincerity which marks the superior man?”
We have here the golden rulo in its negative form expressly propounded:—“What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.” But in the paragraph which follows we have the rule virtually in its positive form. Confucius recognizes the duty of taking the initiative,—of behaving himself to others in the first instance as he would that they should behave to him. There is a certain narrowness, indeed, in that the sphere of its operations seems to be confined to the relations of society, which are spoken of more at large in the 20th chapter; but let us not grudge the tribute of our warm approbation to the sentiments.
This chapter is followed by two from Tsze-sze, to the effect that the superior man does what is proper in every change of his situation, always finding his rule in himself; and that in his practice there is an orderly advance from step to step,—from what is near to what is remote. Then follow five chapters from Confucius:—the first, on the operation and influence of spiritual beings, to show “the manifestness of what is minute, and the irrepressibleness of sincerity;” the second, on the filial piety of Shun, and how it was rewarded by Heaven with the empire, with enduring fame, and with long life; the third and fourth, on the kings Wăn and Woo, and the duke of Chow, celebrating them for their filial piety and other associate virtues; and the fifth, on the subject of government. These chapters are interesting enough in themselves, but when I go back from them, and examine whether I have from them any better understanding of the paragraphs in the first chapter which they are said to illustrate, I do not find that I have. Three of them, the 17th, 18th, and 19th, would be more in place in the Classic of Filial Piety than here in the Chung Yung. The meaning of the 16th is shadowy and undefined. After all the study which I have directed to it, there are some points in reference to which I have still doubts and difficulties.
The 20th chapter, which concludes the third portion of the Work, contains a full exposition of Confucius’ views on government, though professedly descriptive only of that of the kings Wăn and Woo. Along with lessons proper for a ruler there are many also of universal application, but the mingling of them perplexes the mind. It tells us of “the five duties of universal application,”—those between sovereign and minister, husband and wife, father and son, elder and younger brother, and friends; of “the three virtues by which those duties are carried into effect,” namely, knowledge, benevolence, and energy; and of “the one thing, by which those virtues are practised,” which is singleness or sincerity. It sets forth in detail the “nine standard rules for the administration of government,” which are “the cultivation by the ruler of his own character; the honouring men of virtue and talents; affection to his relatives; respect towards the great ministers; kind and considerate treatment of the whole body of officers; cherishing the mass of the people as children; encouraging all classes of artizans; indulgent treatment of men from a distance; and the kindly cherishing of the princes of the States.” There are these and other equally interesting topics in this chapter; but, as they are in the Work, they distract the mind, instead of making the author’s great object more clear to it, and I will not say more upon them here.
6. Doubtless it was the mention of “singleness,” or “sincerity,” in the 20th chapter, which made Tsze-sze introduce it into this Treatise, for from those terms he is able to go on to develope what he intended in saying, that “if the states of Equilibrium and Harmony exist in perfection, a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.” It is here, that now we are astonished at the audacity of the writer’s assertions, and now lost in vain endeavours to ascertain his meaning. I have quoted the words of Confucius that it is “singleness,” by which the three virtues of knowledge, benevolence, and energy are able to carry into practice the duties of universal obligation. He says also that it is this same “singleness” by which “the nine standard rules of government” can be effectively carried out. This “singleness” is just a name for “the states of Equilibrium and Harmony existing in perfection.” It denotes a character absolutcly and relatively good, wanting nothing in itself, and correct in all its outgoings. “Sincerity” is another term for the same thing, and in speaking about it, Confucius makes a distinction between sincerity absolute and sincerity acquired. The former is born with some, and practised by them without any effort; the latter is attained by study and practised by strong endeavour. The former is “the way of Heaven;” the latter is “the way of men.” “He who possesses sincerity,”—absolutely, that is,—“is he who without effort hits what is right, and apprehends without the exercise of thought;—he is the sage who naturally and easily embodies the right way. He who attains to sincerity is he who chooses what is good, and firmly holds it fast. And to this attainment there are requisite the extensive study of what is good, accurate inquiry about it, careful reflection on it, the clear discrimination of it, and the earnest practice of it.” In these passages Confucius unhesitatingly enunciates his belief that there are some men who are absolutely perfect, who come into the world as we may conceive the first man was, when he was created by God “in His own image,” full of knowledge and righteousness, and who grow up as we know that Christ did, “increasing in wisdom and in stature.” He disclaimed being considered to be such an one himself,1 but the sages of China were such. And, moreover, others who are not so naturally may make themselves to become so. Some will have to put forth more effort and to contend with greater struggles, but the end will be the possession of the knowledge and the achievement of the practice.
I need not say that these sentiments are contrary to the views of human nature which are presented in the Bible. The testimony of Revelation is that “there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not.” “If we say that we have no sin,” and in writing this term, I am thinking here not of sin against God, but, if we can conceive of it apart from that, of failures in regard to what ought to be in our regulation of ourselves, and in our behaviour to others;—“if we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” This language is appropriate in the lips of the learned as well as in those of the ignorant, to the highest sage as to the lowest child of the soil. Neither the Scriptures of God nor the experience of man know of individuals absolutely perfect. The other sentiment that men can make themselves perfect is equally wide of the truth. Intelligence and goodness by no means stand to each other in the relation of cause and effect. The sayings of Ovid, “Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor,” “Nitimur in vetitum semper, cupimusque negata,” are a more correct expression of the facts of human consciousness and conduct than the high-flown phrases of Confucius.
7. But Tsze-sze adopts the dicta of his grandfather without questioning them, and gives them forth in his own style at the commencement of the fourth part of his Treatise. “When we have intelligence resulting from sincerity, this condition is to be ascribed to nature; when we have sincerity resulting from intelligence, this condition is to be ascribed to instruction. But given the sincerity, and there shall be the intelligence; given the intelligence, and there shall be the sincerity.”
Tsze-sze does more than adopt the dicta of Confucius. He applies them in a way which the sage never did, and which he would probably have shrunk from doing. The sincere, or perfect man of Confucius is he who satisfies completely all the requirements of duty in the various relations of society, and in the exercise of government; but the sincere man of Tsze-sze is a potency in the universe. “Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full development to the nature of other men, he can give their full development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion.” Such are the results of sincerity natural. The case below this—of sincerity acquired, is as follows,—“The individual cultivates its shoots. From these he can attain to the possession of sincerity. This sincerity becomes apparent. From being apparent, it becomes manifest. From being manifest, it becomes brilliant. Brilliant, it affects others. Affecting others, they are changed by it. Changed by it, they are transformed. It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can transform.” It may safely be affirmed, that when he thus expressed himself, Tsze-sze understood neither what he said nor whereof he affirmed. Maou Se-ho and some other modern writers explain away many of his predicates of sincerity, so that in their hands they become nothing but extravagant hyperboles, but the author himself would, I believe, have protested against such a mode of dealing with his words. True, his structures are castles in the air, but he had no idea himself that they were so.
In the 24th chapter there is a ridiculous descent from the sublimity of the two preceding. We are told that the possessor of entire sincerity is like a spirit, and can foreknow, but the foreknowledge is only a judging by the milfoil and tortoise and other auguries! But the author recovers himself, and resumes his theme about sincerity as conducting to self-completion, and the completion of other men and things, describing it also as possessing all the qualities which can be predicated of Heaven and Earth. Gradually the subject is made to converge to the person of Confucius, who is the ideal of the sage, as the sage is the ideal of humanity at large. An old account of the object of Tsze-sze in the Chung Yung is that “he wrote it to celebrate the virtue of his grandfather.” He certainly contrives to do this in the course of it. The 30th, 31st, and 32nd chapters contain his eulogium, and never has any other mortal been exalted in such terms. “He may be compared to Heaven and Earth in their supporting and containing, their overshadowing and curtaining all things; he may be compared to the four seasons in their alternating progress, and to the sun and moon in their successive shining.” “Quick in apprehension, clear in discernment, of far-reaching intelligence, and all-embracing knowledge, he was fitted to exercise rule; magnanimous, generous, benign, and mild, he was fitted to exercise forbearance; impulsive, energetic, firm, and enduring, he was fitted to maintain a firm hold; self-adjusted, grave, never swerving from the Mean, and correct, he was fitted to command reverence; accomplished, distinctive, concentrative, and searching, he was fitted to exercise discrimination.” “All-embracing and vast, he was like heaven; deep and active as a fountain, he was like the abyss.” “Therefore his fame overspreads the Middle Kingdom, and extends to all barbarous tribes. Wherever ships and carriages reach; wherever the strength of man penetrates; wherever the heavens overshadow and the earth sustains; wherever the sun and moon shine; wherever frosts and dews fall; all who have blood and breath unfeignedly honour and love him. Hence it is said,—He is the equal of Heaven!” “Who can know him but he who is indeed quick in apprehension, clear in discernment, of far-reaching intelligence, and all-embracing knowledge, possessing all heavenly virtue?”
8. We have arrived at the concluding chapter of the Work, in which the author, according to Choo He, “having carried his descriptions to the highest point in the preceding chapters, turns back and examines the source of his subjects; and then again from the work of the learner, free from all selfishness and watchful over himself when he is alone, he carries out his description, till by easy steps he brings it to the consummation of the whole empire tranquillized by simple and sincere reverentialness. He moreover eulogizes its mysteriousness, till he speaks of it at last as without sound or smell.” Between the first and last chapters there is a correspondency, and each of them may be considered as a summary of the whole treatise. The difference between them is, that in the first a commencement is made with the mention of Heaven as the conferrer of man’s nature, while in this the progress of man in virtue is traced, step by step, till at last it is equal to that of High Heaven.
9. I have thus in the preceding paragraphs given a general and somewhat copious review of this Work. My object has been to seize, if I could, the train of thought, and to hold it up to the reader. Minor objections to it, arising from the confused use of terms and singular applications of passages from the older Classics, are noticed in the notes subjoined to the translation. I wished here that its scope should be seen, and the means be afforded of judging how far it is worthy of the high character attributed to it. “The relish of it,” says the younger Ch‘ing, “is inexhaustible. The whole of it is solid learning. When the skilful reader has explored it with delight till he has apprehended it, he may carry it into practice all his life, and will find that it cannot be exhausted.”
My own opinion of it is much less favourable. The names by which it has been called in translations of it have led to misconceptions of its character. Were it styled “The states of Equilibrium and Harmony,” we should be prepared to expect something strange and probably extravagant. Assuredly we should expect nothing more strange or extravagant than what we have. It begins sufficiently well, but the author has hardly enunciated his preliminary apophthegms, when he conducts into an obscurity where we can hardly grope our way, and when we emerge from that, it is to be bewildered by his gorgeous but unsubstantial pictures of sagely perfection. He has eminently contributed to nourish the pride of his countrymen. He has exalted their sages above all that is called God or is worshipped, and taught the masses of the people that with them they have need of nothing from without. In the mean time it is antagonistic to Christianity. By and by, when Christianity has prevailed in China, men will refer to it as a striking proof how their fathers by their wisdom knew neither God nor themselves.
CONFUCIUS; HIS INFLUENCE AND DOCTRINES.
[1 ] Ch. ix.
[2 ] Ch. iv.
[3 ] Ch. iv.
[4 ] Ch. viii.
[5 ] Ch. x.
[6 ] Ch. xi.
[1 ] Ana. VII. xix.