Analects 1.6, and how Confucius envisioned moral progress

Confucius’ remark at Analects 1.6 is often cited to show that he thought proper moral development begins with filial piety and then extends that attitude to ever-larger groups of people (ever less intensely).  I shall argue that the remark does not display such a view.  Confucius did not in general envision moral progress as extension.

The Master said, “My lads: whenever you are home, be filial; whenever you are out in public be humble toward your elders. Be scrupulous and trustworthy. Care broadly for the many, and associate closely with the virtuous. If you have strength remaining, study high culture and records.”
子曰:「弟子 入則孝,出則弟,謹而信,汎愛眾,而親仁。行有餘力,則以學文。」

The remark at 1.6 does not speak of extending one’s concern from few to many, from filial piety through elder-respect to caring for the masses.  Nor was it intended to suggest such a view, if the design of the remark is any guide.

In an earlier posting, I argued that at least outside of 1.6, Confucius’ remarks in the Analects do not show him taking the family as the model for the state, nor taking filial piety or other family concerns as models for general virtue or of the virtue proper to governors.  On the contrary: at least outside of 1.6, the Analects seems to show that Confucius did not have such a view.

The theory that general or leaderly virtue grows by extension from filial piety is a specific version of a highly abstract or generic theory, that one’s moral progress consists in the extension of a pattern or patterns one already has.  Youzi held that view, at least regarding the higher stages of moral progress.  Here I shall argue that Confucius did not hold that generic view, and that we should not read such a view into 1.6 in particular.  On the contrary: Confucius tended to envision a person’s moral progress as her absorption of (or into) patterns from outside.

I’ll make my argument in four prepared Comments below.

Part A is a brief review of the received reading of Confucius’ remark at 1.6, at least among those who discuss it.

Part B argues broadly that Confucius tended to see moral progress in terms of absorption rather than extension.

Part C squints closely at 1.6, to clarify the terms and structure of the remark; and to argue on largely internal grounds that the remark was not meant to suggest progress by extension, nor does it reflect that idea.

Part D discusses Confucius’ few remarks that do address how filial piety and elder-respect might help someone gain further virtue.

All Chinese passages are taken directly from Donald Sturgeon’s Chinese Text Project web site.  All translations are from Legge’s Analects as shown at the CTP, unless otherwise specified. Mending Clothes - Ming cropped

4 replies on “Analects 1.6, and how Confucius envisioned moral progress”

  1. Bill Haines says:


    In his remark at 1.6, Confucius’ overall point is that study should take a back seat to certain virtues such as trustworthiness; he does not mention extending. Those who discuss his remark read it as follows:

    There is little disagreement [among scholars, regarding the Analects] that xiao is central to the ethical life. For example, Confucius remarks:

    A young man should be xiao at home, treat his elders properly when outside … extend his love to the multitude and draw close to those who are ren. If having devoted himself to these practices he had any strength left, he should, then, study the [classical] literature and the arts.

    —— Alan K. L. Chan, “Does xiao come before ren?” in Chan & Tan eds. Filial Piety in Chinese Thought and History (2004) p. 156

    [In 1.6] Confucius says that when a young man is away from home, he should extend brotherhood (ti) to others and “love the multitude at large” (fan ai zhong).
    ——Joseph Chan, “Territorial Boundaries,” in Bell ed. Confucian Political Ethics (2007), p. 65

    The general idea of these two passages [1.2 and 1.6] is that being filial at home is the root for one to be respectful outside the home, and filial love can be gradually expanded to include all others. Cultivation consists in the transferal of the family’s relation of hierarchy and fraternity to the larger society.
    ——Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle (2007), p. 125

    Confucius notes that filial love and brotherly respect are the roots of humankindness (Analects 1.2), and that filial piety should be practiced at home before one can extend one’s moral concern to others (1.6).
    ——Hagop Sarkissian, “Recent Approaches to Confucian Filial Morality,” Philosophy Compass (2010:9), pp. 727

    Kongzi says in Analects 1.6, “A young person should be filial when at home and when going out, respectful of his elders. Conscientious and trustworthy, he should care widely for the multitudes but have affection for those who are humane.” Having the proper feelings toward others is an essential part of moral development, and the cultivation of moral feelings in the context of filial relationships naturally leads to their extension in wider settings.
    ——Erin Cline, Families of Virtue (2015), p. 16

  2. Bill Haines says:


    B.1 . . . . Two simple visions.

    The basic contrast

    Contrast two simple abstract images of moral progress, two roughly opposite answers to the simplistic abstract question, “Where do the forms of a person’s moral greatness come from?”

    One picture is that improvement is the extension of a pattern or patterns that one has. Think of expanding a tiled patio in the same style. Think of the natural growth of a crystal or a tree. Think of Tocqueville’s view that participation in town meetings trains people to be better citizens of a democratic nation.

    In the other picture, one’s improvement is one’s absorption of a pattern or patterns from outside, ever more fully and deeply (or if you like, one’s absorption into a pattern that exists outside). Think of material being molded, carved, inscribed or painted; a vine growing to a trellis; or a person immersing herself in a language or in Shakespeare or history, or in a new job or game or family, coming to know and love it.

    Of course these two visions of moral progress are too simple and abstract to be exclusive alternatives. Extension of empathy is absorption of farther realities. (Extension of a pattern from department A of my life to department B might even be called B’s absorption from something outside itself, and likened to the people’s emulating a moral exemplar.)

    This pair of pictures, Extension and Absorption, could also serve simply as a classification of two kinds of increment of progress. When the Karate Kid’s master made him spend long hours waxing a car, the Kid was taking in a pattern supplied from outside. But once the Kid had absorbed that pattern, his car-waxing skills and habits were roots that could grow into similar skills and habits for a martial art.

    Aesthetics and Creativity

    Ames and Hall may be comparing something like the Extension and Absorption pictures when they write,

    “Education” has two principal roots—educere and educare. The first means “to evoke, lead forth, draw out”; the second “to cultivate, rear, bring up.” Educare resonates with the sense of education as rationally ordered guidance; it is the logical and rationally ordered mode of education. On the other hand, educere suggests the creative side of education that is complicit with aesthetic understanding. Education construed primarily as educere suggests that one “extends” one’s inner tendencies through a mode of self-cultivation that is, in fact, self-creation. (Focusing the Familiar (2001), p. 50f.)

    But perhaps it is not right to associate Extension with beauty and Absorption with dull exposition. Granted, any incremental step of progress that is directly motivated by immediate aesthetic attraction is going to have to appeal to one’s existing sensibilities. (Hanging bells and silks on the king appeals to the enjoyment of sounds and colors.) But similarly, any effective logical and rational persuasion is going to have to appeal to one’s existing judgment. And just as a trellis can lead a vine to spell out a commercial slogan, so one’s sensibilities, if they are truly receptive, can lead one to new patterns of sensibility that perhaps need not be analogous to one’s old patterns. Perhaps they can lead one to something of great beauty that one person or one generation could never have imagined unled.

    More to the point, there is such a thing as an acquired taste: something one comes to enjoy only after one is changed by repeated exposure to it. Hard exercise, for example, or hard liquor.

    Coming to know and love Shakespeare: can one really envision that process, in broad strokes, as the extension of patterns previously realized? It seems far more natural to see it as a process of gradual joyful revelation or discovery, the creative absorption of new patterns, as Shakespeare draws us gradually in.

    An Absorption view of individual progress is on its face compatible with the idea that there can be innovations, creating better forms for people to absorb. An Extension view based on a theory that we all have the same basic pattern and should add more of the same, might have more trouble accommodating creativity.

    Versions and Proponents of Extensionism

    In the Analects we certainly find an extension picture of moral progress. Each of Youzi’s statements in the Analects vividly exemplifies a version of the extension picture (as I argue in “The Purloined Philosopher”: PEW 58.4). Youzi holds that one should always be scrupulous about face-to-face virtues, because they generate or at least are needed to maintain higher virtues that follow similar patterns. Even Youzi’s argument on tax policy (12.9) says that one should give priority to something lower (the wealth of the people), trusting that it will generate something similar and higher (the wealth of the governors).

    (When Youzi says one virtue supports another because they are similar, the kind of similarity he has in mind is usually not aptly described as one’s relating in basically the same way to different groups. In most of Youzi’s examples, he describes a different kind of similarity; see “Purloined.”)

    Youzi in Analects 1.2 and 1.13, and Mencius in 2A6, offer genealogies of roughly the same list of cardinal virtues; but there are interesting apparent differences. Mencius’ origins (duan 端) are perhaps basic attitudes or sensitivities, more or less hardwired in human nature, each implying at least some small practice that is analogous to, and can be extended to become, the associated cardinal virtue. But the roots or stems Youzi mentions in the Analects are themselves practices, virtues that even a junzi must attend to. Youzi does not claim at 1.2 that filial piety and elder-respect are naturally universal, or normally strong early. (Mencius also sometimes echoes Youzi’s idea that filial piety is at least an important stage of the normal or proper etiology of ren.)

    While Mencius at least sometimes emphasizes trusting the origins and working on extending our application of them (but not too fast), Youzi emphasizes working on the virtues that are stems and having some trust in their momentum, their power to grow. He says at 1.2 that if the stem is present, the rest can’t be too bad; and that once the stem is established, the Way will grow. Of the scholars quoted in Part A above, only Cline attributes this view to the remark at 1.6.

    The only hint Youzi gives us of natural moral foundations is outside of the Analects, in a eulogy the Mencius attributes to Youzi at the end of 2A2 (I defend the attribution in “Purloined”). There, anticipating Mencius’ barley argument for human equality, Youzi seems to evoke (but does not articulate) the idea that within each type of thing — beasts, birds, hills, pools, humans — the same basic form is shared by the greatest and least instances of the type; and he says that the late Confucius differed from other men in a way analogous to having grown especially large. But this is not to say that Youzi’s natural foundations would be virtues such as filial piety and elder-respect.

    Individual and Global

    As distinct from virtues of individuals, an Extensionist might also think of a community’s virtue as having a collective root in another of the community’s virtues, a certain pattern of interaction, as Youzi does at Analects 1.12 (a reading defended here). But could a community have its own Mencian duan 端?

    An Absorptionist might on the one hand think the great pattern is the form of individual virtue, absorbed by each good person from others who exemplify the whole pattern and are, on average, older. The pattern might be absorbed in bits from others who exemplify parts of virtue.

    On the other hand, an Absorptionist might think that the great moral pattern is essentially a pattern of a community, such as a complete body of legislation and/or an array of distinctly different positions. This latter vision very naturally suggests that any one person’s moral progress is her absorption into the transpersonal pattern. Indeed, the more profoundly role-differentiated is one’s view of morality, the harder it is to think that morality is the extension of a basic pattern that is the same for each person.

    (One could hold that the transpersonal pattern is not so much global as, rather, the indefinite repetition of just one element: vertical dyadic relationships, in varying degrees of verticality. And one could hold that we learn to take upper and lower positions in such relationships outside the family by extending the attitudes we hold in upper and lower positions inside the family. And one could hold that these family attitudes in turn are extensions of inner seeds of care and respect. I have not found such a view in the Analects—with or without the part about the inner seeds.)

    Etiology v. Justification

    One should not of course confuse either of these two generic images of moral progress, Extension or Absorption, with a theory of the moral basis or justification of patterns of practice. But views about justification can certainly support views about the shape of moral progress. For example, if we think moral norms come from a priori reason, we may think each individual carries the seed of the moral law around with her from the start. Or if we know on some grounds that Heaven is morally authoritative and that it has given each individual seeds that can be cultivated into certain wide practices (17.19), we might infer that those practices are justified—that it is reasonable for each individual to trust her inborn taste, applying her core pattern in ever wider areas. Or if we think Heaven is morally authoritative and speaks to the people through the Son of Heaven, then arguably moral progress for human beings should follow the Absorption model, as we follow the lead of our political superiors, up to Heaven (8.19, 16.2). Or if we think that the best pattern we can know for a community to follow must be and has been worked up over eons by collective experience and attention to history (3.14, 15.11), then arguably moral progress should follow the Absorption model. A few of us might innovate at the margins, but on the whole we should absorb.

    B.2 . . . . Confucius thinks in terms of Absorption.

    I shall argue here that when Confucius thinks of moral progress, he usually thinks of absorption of (or into) patterns from outside ourselves. That way of envisioning progress is vivid, pervasive, and predominant in his remarks in the Analects. Granted, there a few remarks that could with effort be taken to suggest an extension view. The most important of these is Confucius’ account of the method of ren at 6.30, which may be cast as an instruction to take one’s attitude toward oneself and extend it to others. (Different would be: to take one’s attitude toward some others and extend it to other others.) But these moments are swamped by the prevailing image of reception or absorption from outside. Hence it is highly unlikely that Confucius’ main picture of moral progress was an extension view, such as is commonly read into his remark at 1.6.

    (I made a similar argument in a late section of “Purloined,” but more briefly and with some different mistakes.)

    If you wanted to caricature the idea that progress in morality is our absorption of patterns from outside us, you might invent Confucius’ view of ritual. Ritual is a set of forms of interactive behavior, especially mapping the global hierarchy. For Confucius, accord with ritual is a main and perhaps in some sense comprehensive moral requirement.

    Confucius would not sit unless his mat was rightly placed (10.12). He would not eat his fill beside a mourner (7.9); when he saw anyone in mourning or ceremonial garb he would make special gestures of respect (9.10); when someone sang well he would ask them to repeat so that he could and join in (7.32); but he would not sing on a day he had wept (7.10). These are techniques of receptivity and alignment. This is the vine grasping the trellis.

    Indeed the picture painted throughout Book 10 looks like an effort to instill in oneself and others a whole complex of attitudes by acting them out (like a cheering delegate at a televised party convention), especially in support of stable legitimate authority relations. Or it looks like a parody of such a project.

    The idea is that especially by living the forms of ritual, we eventually generate and maintain in ourselves the fitting attitudes, and ultimately the humanity (ren) that gives those forms great power and stability (12.1, 2.3, 12.2, 3.3, 3.4). Perhaps ritual is the main vehicle by which the virtue of humanity is transmitted, absorbed by each new generation of leaders, who bring the people along.

    The pattern of ritual does not spring from within each individual or family. Rather, each successful dynasty or state has its own distinct forms (3.9, 3.14, 3.21, 15.11). Where possible, any adjustments to the rules and forms are to be determined by the highest political authority (2.23, 16.2). Anyone who would become an adept in the most important and complex area of ritual, the ritual appropriate to high station, must study long and hard to take it in. Especially in disordered times, that means paying intelligent attention to the traces of the distant past.

    The Master said, “A transmitter and not a maker, believing in and loving the ancients, I venture to compare myself with our old Peng.”

    Gong Sun Zhao of Wei asked Zi Gong, saying. “From whom did Zhong Ni get his learning?” Zi Gong replied, “The doctrines of Wen and Wu have not yet fallen to the ground. They are to be found among men. Men of talents and virtue remember the greater principles of them, and others, not possessing such talents and virtue, remember the smaller. Thus, all possess the doctrines of Wen and Wu. Where could our Master go that he should not have an opportunity of learning them? And yet what necessity was there for his having a regular master?”

    But not all human beings would have had fragments of the way of Wen and Wu. In Book 3, on ritual and music, we read,

    The Master said, “The Yi and Di barbarians, even with their rulers, are inferior to the Chinese states without their rulers.” (Slingerland)

    Presumably Confucius thought the people of the tribes had families, especially if he thought it is human nature to love one’s close kin. What the tribes lacked was the ritual traditions of the great dynasties.

    Study or learning can also be a general metaphor for self-cultivation by active absorption, and there is room for debate over when or whether Confucius uses the term in that way.

    Confucius said that what set him apart from the good people of any tiny village was his love of study (5.28; cf. 7.2). He seems to sum up his self-cultivation as “study” (14.35; cf. 15.32). And at greater length:

    The Master said: When I was fifteen I set my heart on learning. At thirty I took my stand. At forty I was without confusion. At fifty I knew the command of Tian. At sixty I heard it with a compliant ear. At seventy I follow the desires of my heart and do not overstep the bounds. (Eno)

    Here the suggestion seems to be that the whole course is one of study in some sense; that knowing and absorbing the command of Heaven is indeed the fulfillment of the project of study. Surely we are not to think that he has finished the study project at 30. Rather, he has become more confirmed in the aim when he reaches the ages of 30 and 40. By 50 he has learned the command of Heaven, an outside agency; at 60 he is more willing to accept it; and only at 70 has he fully internalized it. The remark presents the arc of Confucius’ moral progress as one of active seeking and absorbing of certain things from outside himself: active receptivity.

    The Master said, “Study as if you cannot reach it, as if you fear losing it.” (BH)

    6.27 = 12.15
    The Master said, “A gentleman enlarges his learning through literature and restrains himself with ritual; therefore, he is not likely to go wrong. (Leys)

    The Master said, “It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established. It is from Music that the finish is received.”

    … ‘If you do not learn the Odes, you will not be fit to converse with.’ … ‘If you do not learn the rules of Propriety, your character cannot be established.’ …

    … “…The man who has not studied the Zhou Nan and the Shao Nan is like one who stands with his face right against a wall. Is he not so?” …

    Confucius did not think active receptivity is limited to learning books or fancy ritual moves. He thought we should actively try to copy others’ good ways in general. He says that when we see good people we should copy them, and when we see bad people we should look to correct the similar faults in ourselves (4.17, 7.22). We should in general associate with the worthy (1.6, 4.1, cf. 6.26) toward absorbing the Way (1.14). And we should avoid associating with the bad, or our moral inferiors (1.8, 4.6, 9.25, 12.23), either because they are simply no help or because vice too is somewhat contagious.

    Confucius advises Zizhang to observe widely, and to copy all the kinds of talk and action that don’t seem dubious or dangerous (2.18). Confucius once seems to characterize his own approach to learning in roughly the same way:

    The Master said, “There may be those who act without knowing why. I do not do so. Hearing much and selecting what is good and following it; seeing much and keeping it in memory – this is the second style of knowledge.”

    (Cf. 7.20, 16.9.)

    ( In opposition, one might cite the following passage (note that it lacks the idea of selecting what is good):

    The Master said, “Ci, you think, I suppose, that I am one who learns many things and keeps them in memory?” Zi Gong replied, “Yes – but perhaps it is not so?” “No,” was the answer; “I seek a unity all pervading.”

    Or: “I string them all on one.” But there is no explanation, and the idea of unity need not imply an Extension model. What might Confucius have meant here? Did Confucius perhaps mean unity itself, as Legge seems to think? (That might suggest social harmony, or absorbing a coherent global pattern.) If not, then whatever Confucius had in mind, he did not tell anyone on this occasion, nor at 4.15. And yet he is supposed to have said that he kept nothing hidden from his followers (7.24).

    Was the answer then so obvious that the teacher could leave it as an exercise for the auditors? Was it perhaps Heaven? Or the idea that sums up the Odes, “Have no errant thoughts” (2.2)? Or the golden or silver rule? Confucius seems not to think the metal rules will do for Duke Ding at 13.15, and he must have seen their obvious limitations; indeed we never see him using them to support or defend anything.

    Perhaps the unifying factor was something that even Confucius did not know how to describe adequately – perhaps ren仁? Yan Yuan’s speech at 9.11 suggests that there was indeed some such mystery at the core of Confucius’ way. )

    Now, receptivity or absorption is not the same thing as passivity. But one can make some moral progress by passive absorption. The vast majority of people cannot be governors or moral leaders. They are more passively receptive; they are grass to the leaders’ wind. Confucius seems to think that for the vast majority, their virtue depends on the virtue and especially the ritual propriety of the governors (or perhaps some very brightly shining moral examples out of office). The people absorb the virtue of their good leaders by emulation (2.1, 8.2, 12.17, 12.18, 12.19, 13.1, 13.6) and reciprocation (2.3, 2.20, 13.4).

    The people’s relatively passive receptivity is a main pillar of social order. The vast majority should be relatively passive.

    16.2 Confucius said, “…When right principles prevail in the kingdom, there will be no discussions among the common people.”
    孔子曰:「… 天下有道,則庶人不議。」

    The Master said, “You can get the people to follow it; you can’t get them to understand it” (BH)

    (Cf. 9.30; 6.21, 10.1, 3.11; 8.14.)

  3. Bill Haines says:


    C.1 . . . . Our feel for 1.6

    What a remark was intended to suggest, but didn’t actually say—that’s hard to demonstrate objectively. It’s a matter of feel. Here I’ll propose that our feel for 1.6 is very likely to have been shaped by extraneous causes having nothing to do with 1.6 itself.

    First encounters

    In each of our first few dozen encounters with 1.6, we have just read Youzi’s remark at 1.2, while coming to cherish 1.2 as one of the most clearly and comprehensively explanatory passages in the whole cryptic and confusing collection. We reasonably assume that 1.2 can be trusted as a guide to the whole. In our first few dozen encounters with 1.6, we are looking hard for echoes of 1.2. And 1.6 uses the key words of 1.2.

    But would Confucius’ audience have heard 1.2 in 1.6 if nobody had yet articulated the Youzian idea? And had anyone yet articulated it? 1.2 itself is presumably a much later remark. We have no serious record of Confucius actually articulating such a view; outside of 1.6 there is nothing in the broad philosophical vicinity.

    Mature encounters

    After our first dozen readings, the main reason we attend to 1.6 at all is that we want to report that Confucius holds that filial piety is the root of ren; we want a citation from Confucius but can’t find him actually saying the thing. The closest we can find is 1.6; we begin to be invested in thinking 1.6 expresses the view we find at 1.2.

    There are, however, key prima facie differences between what Youzi says at 1.2 and what Confucius says at 1.6. For one thing, 1.2 asserts strong causal connections among virtues; 1.6 does not assert any causal connections.

    For another thing, it is between prima facie similar virtues that 1.2 asserts a causal connection at first (between 孝弟 and 不好犯上), presumably on grounds of the similarity; and it goes on to assert an even stronger causal connection between the latter virtue and ren—presumably also on grounds of similarity, though there is room for debate about what similarity Youzi might have had in mind here. Now, 1.6 lists six virtues or practices plus study. Of the 15 possible pairings among these six practices, there is indeed a prima facie similarity between the first two, the adjacent pair filiality and elder-respect. And there is a different similarity between the members of one separated pair, filiality and wide care. One might make a case for a lesser similarity between another separated pair, elder-respect and wide care. But not for the other 4 adjacent and 8 separated pairs; they are prima facie dissimilar. Half of the six practices prior to study participate in no pair of prima facie similars, adjacent or separated. Of the five adjacent pairs prior to study, only one pair is of prima facie similars. If we bring in study as a seventh practice, we might find a similarity between associating with the virtuous and study, an adjacent pair; but only by taking on another 5 dissimilar pairs.

    Encounters through the scholarly literature

    At 1.6, Confucius does not mention anything like “extending,” and most of the seven virtuous practices he lists do not on their face fit an extension story. But in the secondary literature, in paraphrasing or even in quoting 1.6, scholars speak of “extending” concern from few to many, and often adjust what the remark seems tacitly to suggest, by omitting the practices that do not fit—for example, by ending the quotation before the end of the remark, without an ellipsis. [This omission entirely conceals the main point of the original remark, so the reader looks for some other main point. -1/26/17]

    In sum, as we read the Analects or the secondary literature, our feel for what 1.6 suggests is likely to be informed by things quite extraneous to 1.6. Our feel for what 1.6 suggests should recuse itself, or at least take a deep breath and count to ten.

    C.2 . . . . No intentional suggestion

    The intent of 1.6 is not to suggest such a picture of growth or extension. Let us review the list of virtues or good practices at 1.6 and the size of their object groups, boldfacing those cases where the object group is mentioned:

    Few – Filial piety
    Many – Elder-respect
    n/a – Scrupulousness
    Some – Trustworthiness
    Very many – Caring for the very many
    Few – Associating with the ren

    n/a or many – Study

    Granted, one might think an object group is salient in the very idea of each of the first two virtues. And each of the terms 入 and 出 gestures in the general direction of an object group or pool (in neither case characterizing it as an object group, and in neither case picking out the object group accurately).

    But most English translations of di 弟 here give a false impression as to how explicit Confucius was being here about an object group for that virtue. Is an object group distinctly salient in the very idea of di 弟? Confucius’ pairing of 弟 with 孝 here and at 13.20 does tend to suggest the conceptual salience of an object group. On the other hand, I wonder whether we should conceive the non-familial virtue 弟=悌 so definitely in terms of the object-group “one’s elders.” For (1) to consider a prima facie parallel case, I gather scholars do not think of 孫=遜 mainly as a way of relating to those who are distinctly older. Indeed, it seems to me that there is at least some indication that subfraternity may have been a later meaning of the virtue-name 弟, arising after Confucius, and not the paradigm for his non-familial virtue 弟. And (2) even if 弟 is specifically elder-respect, it would seem to be a virtue with an indefinite object-group—whatever elders one might encounter, during the encounter—rather than being a relationship-based virtue with a definite object group, like filial piety. Thus 弟 would be more like a general disposition that one carries around, perhaps generally visible in one’s bearing, like 恭 and maybe 遜.

    Perhaps the idea of an object group is equally salient in the very idea of trustworthiness or good faith 信. The size of the object group for one’s trustworthiness 信 would depend in part on how widely one were known, e.g. on whether one held office, and what office. And the size of the object group for one’s 信 here depends on whether here Confucius meant trustworthiness or trust or both.

    Here at 1.6 we see a list of virtues or good practices, most but not all of which are ways of relating to object groups; and the ways of relating show salient differences. Hence presumably Confucius’ intent at 1.6 was not to suggest a series of virtues taking the form of similar attitudes toward different object groups. A fortiori, his intent was not to suggest such a series whose object groups display a certain pattern (increasing size) from which his list saliently departs. A fortiori, his intent here was not to suggest that such a sequence and pattern has a key role in explaining moral development. Still, the remark at 1.6 might nevertheless reflect or evidence that view somehow.

    Let’s look more closely at the terms and structure of 1.6.

    C.3 . . . . How to understand the term “弟子”

    The whole statement at 1.6 applies to 弟子. Legge takes this to mean youths in general. (How young?) Soothill, Waley, Lau, Dawson, Huang, Slingerland, Watson, and Chin agree. But that is not the only way to take the term, and it is not the usual use of the term in the Analects.

    Confucius himself uses the term in just one other place, at 2.8. There he is describing how a son should be filial to his parents, and in context the term seems to refer specifically to sons – as it could easily do if the literal meaning were “the young [males].” (Perhaps at 2.8 the term is part of a common saying that Confucius is quoting, and perhaps the saying was meant as applicable in general to cases where people of very different ages are engaged in a substantial enterprise together?)

    A reason to think that the remark at 1.6 aims to prescribe for young men as such is that its first virtue is the specific role of a son. On the other hand, the prescriptions to care about the many and associate with the good, and then study if possible, seems to be prescriptions specifically for aspirants to public service. Discouragement of an overemphasis on study would seem unnecessary as directed toward sons or young men in general.

    Outside 1.6 and 2.8 (discussed just above), the term 弟子 is used four times in the Analects, by four people, each time referring specifically to disciples: by Duke Ai in 6.3, by the disciple Gong Xihua at 7.34, by Ji Kang at 9.2 (門弟子), and by the anonymous narrator at 11.7 (referring to Zengzi’s disciples). Thus it would seem that the term was in common use to refer to a retinue of Ru trainees, or else that people who conversed with Confucius picked up from him this term for his followers. This use might derive from a family metaphor, or from a more general use to mean “juniors.” It might imply being younger than someone else, without implying anything about one’s absolute age. Because of these other instances in the Analects and because of the content of the list at 1.6, I agree with the Brookses’ rendering of 弟子 here as “student,” meaning either “students of mine” or Ru apprentices in general: in any case, people in training to be officials in government.

    Ames and Rosemont translate this way:

    As a younger brother and son, be filial at home and deferential in the community; be cautious in what you say and then make good on your word …

    This formulation has Confucius speaking in terms of roles. If Ames and Rosemont’s translation of 弟子 can seem to escape the objection that it is not the specific role of a son or younger brother to love the multitude or study, that is because their translation of the sentence is formulated and punctuated in such a way as might suggest that the term 弟子applies only to the first two items in the list of prescriptions, filiality and deference; not to the whole list.

    But (1) the grammar of the original does not fit that parsing. (Granted, one can get away with saying e.g. “A young boy should obey his mother, study hard, make money, marry well, raise children, and in his retirement take up the arts.” But I suspect one would not so formulate a watchword meant to be held in mind.)

    And (2) if the term and sentence structure were originally meant as Ames & Rosemont’s translation suggests, then in the original language the remark would strongly suggest that it is in one’s specific capacity as someone’s younger brother 弟 that one should be deferential 弟 to elders outside the family—which of course it is not.

    But (3) suppose we read 弟子 as “a younger brother and son,” and take the prescriptions not as focusing on the specific role duties of those positions, but rather as listing the duties of any person who is a younger brother and son. Then “a younger brother and son” would be redundant, as being equivalent to “a younger brother”; and why prescribe only for younger brothers here? The remark so construed might not speak to most young men in Confucius’ circle, as it would not speak to most in mine. (“A younger brother or son” would be redundant too, as being equivalent to “a male.”)

    C.4 . . . . The order within the Doubles

    Here again is 1.6 with my translation:

    The Master said, “My lads, be filial whenever you are at home, and respectful of elders whenever out in public; be scrupulous and trustworthy; care broadly for the many, but associate closely with the virtuous. If you have strength remaining, study high culture and records.”
    子曰:「弟子 入則孝,出則弟,謹而信,汎愛眾,而親仁。行有餘力,則以學文。」

    It is reasonable to speculate that the order of presentation of the items in the list at 1.6 may stand for another kind of order: a chronological order in which one should begin or master them, or an order of increasing difficulty, or decreasing general obligatoriness, or all these together, or some other interesting order. But before we consider how the order of presentation might be significant, let us explore what the order of presentation is.

    The list at 1.6 is not simply a linear list of seven activities plus the assertion that the first six take priority over the seventh. On its face the list of six items before study is structured as three pairs; or as I’ll say, three Doubles:

    (1ab) be filial whenever you are at home,
    and respectful of elders whenever out in public;

    (2ab) be scrupulous and trustworthy;

    (3ab) care broadly for the many,
    but associate closely with the virtuous.

    There are thus three aspects to the order of presentation of the seven items at 1.6. First, there is the fact that the three Doubles are presented before (4) study. Second, there is the order in which the three Doubles are presented. Third, there is the order of presentation within each Double.

    Let us first ask: within each Double, does the order of presentation stand for a developmental order, a chronological order between two stages of moral progress?

    (1ab) – – -入則孝 出則弟

    One goes in from out. In the first Double, the verbs of motion 入 and 出 are used idiomatically as adverbs of location or context; but the picture painted by Confucius’ choice of words is of going in and going out. The picture is not of two stages of life; it is rather of a life or a stage during which one is in and out, out and in, and the right way to act is conditional (則) on the place, the context. (We find a similar pair at 9.16 and at 13.20, and a related pair at 12.2; but in two of these passages public life happens to be presented first, family second.)

    It is awkward to translate these verbs of motion, 入 and 出, with English verbs of motion here. But if we translate these Chinese verbs of motion as simple English adverbs of location, such as “at home”, we risk inviting the assumption that Confucius is talking about two stages of life (more so if we also translate 弟子 as referring to the young as such). This is true especially because modern readers will reflexively envision home life with one’s parents as the business mainly of childhood, the first stage of life.

    Where Ames and Rosemont have simply “at home”, Legge and some others have “when at home”. The latter is slightly less likely than the simple “at home” to suggest a sequence of stages, because it comes closer to preserving the explicit conditionality of the original. “Whenever” would better capture that aspect of the original.

    Consider Annping Chin’s translation and comment:

    The Master said, “A youngster should be filial to his parents when he is at home and respectful to his elders when he is away from home. He should […]”

    According to the Book of Rites, a child from an elite family would spend nearly all his time with his parents in the first ten years of his life. After that, he would have to “leave home and seek instruction elsewhere.” Learning the appropriate way of expressing his affection toward his parents while he is at home, will, therefore, prepare him to be respectful to his elders when he is outside the home. What Confucius stresses in this passage and throughout the Analects is the importance of grasping the fundamentals of human relationships in early life, before one sets out into the world. …

    The picture here is that a chronological ordering within the first Double is highly significant, and is a signpost to the order of the rest of the list. Because filial piety is the business of childhood.

    But in Confucius’ other remarks in the Analects, there is no trace of an association between filial piety and childhood. Confucius’ statements about filial piety are not addressed to children, nor are they about childhood filial piety. It is not true that “Confucius stresses … throughout the Analects the importance of grasping the fundamentals of human relationships in early life, before one sets out into the world.” On the contrary: at least outside of 1.6, he never says anything about that – about what one should do before involvement in life outside the family (see §§C.7, C.4 here).

    In any case, if 弟子 means “disciples” at 1.6, as it probably does, then ideas about children can have no relevance here. “My lads, when you are home” (or “A disciple, when at home”) pretty plainly does not refer to a stage prior to their disciplehood — especially if the idiom used is “when you go home”.

    (2ab) – – -謹 而 信

    In the second Double, the brevity itself suggests an absence of chronological sequence. I wonder whether the first part may be simply adverbial: “be scrupulously trustworthy.” Usage of 謹 by unnamed narrators at 10.1 and 20.1 may fit that reading of 1.6. But translators do not read it that way at 1.6, and a search at CTP does not show 謹而 used as an adverb phrase before the Han. English translations range from casting this Double as two separate but perhaps similar or related characteristics, to understanding it as a single kind of activity with two coordinate parts:

    “prudent in action and trustworthy in words” (Chin)
    “Conscientious and trustworthy” (Slingerland)

    “Earnest and truthful” (Legge)
    “earnest and trustworthy” (Dawson)

    “circumspect, and trustworthy” (Watson)
    “circumspect and truthful” (Soothill)
    “discreet and truthful” (Huang)
    “circumspect but faithful” (Brookses)

    “sparing of speech but trustworthy in what he says” (Lau)
    “to be cautious in giving promises and punctual in keeping them” (Waley)
    “be cautious in what you say and then make good on your word” (Ames and Rosemont)

    None of these suggests a sequence of two stages, mastering the one virtue before we focus on the other. The last two or three translations involve chronological order, but not that kind of chronological order.

    Indeed, if 1.6 is about developmental sequence, then Confucius would seem to have presented the second Double’s items in the wrong order. For at least in the last four translations listed above, the latter practice in the Double is an obvious way to train oneself to the former practice, but not vice versa.

    (3ab) – – -汎愛眾 而 親仁

    The third Double may describe a pair with or without internal ordering or sequence, or may describe one complex pattern of activity: caring for the many but at the same time associating mainly with the good.

    Indeed, if 1.6 is about developmental sequence, then Confucius would seem to have presented the third Double’s items in the wrong order. For it is natural to think that a main reason to associate with the good is that doing so will help train one to care for the many, but not vice versa.

    If the order of presentation in the third Double represented a chronological or developmental sequence, we would have a wide circle followed by a narrow circle, tending to interfere strongly with any suggestion of expanding circles over 1.6 as a whole, and perhaps evoking a more Brontosaurian picture.

    Recap of §C.4

    Having looked at the internal structure of each of the three Doubles, we have not found any indication that any of them is to be understood as two successive stages of life or of moral work. And we have found some indication to the contrary, for each Double.

    This point helps the expanding-circles reading of 1.6 in three ways.

    First, if (1ab) has no internal sequence, then there is a closer echo of Youzi’s remark at 1.2. For Youzi does not present filial piety as the root of ren. He presents 孝弟 as the root, without suggesting any priority between the parts. (Note that 1.6 resembles 1.2 in its reference to 孝 and 弟 only if Youzi’s 弟 is not the family virtue of subfraternity, and family is not the unifying idea of Youzi’s root.)

    Second, if (2ab) is to be seen as one complex virtue, then in the series of virtues prior to study we no longer have at least one (謹) that seems saliently not to involve any object group.

    Third, if (3ab) has no internal sequence, then the expanding-circles reading loses the awkwardness of a wide circle being followed by a conspicuously narrower one.

    But the expanding-circles reading suffers in other ways. If the Doubles lack internal sequence, then the remark at 1.6 does not open by speaking of beginning with a small circle and then progressing to a larger circle. Rather, we start with (1ab), respectful approaches to a wide and to a narrow group; we proceed to (2ab), a different kind of positive approach to a group of indeterminate size and a virtue that is not object-focused; and we end with (3ab), two more kinds of positive approaches to a wide and to a narrow group. And then study.

    The best move for the defender of the extension reading of 1.6 is to hold that while the first Double indicates a sequence of two stages (despite the 出入 and 則 and 弟子), nevertheless each Double with 而 is to be considered as a unit, so that the list of six becomes a list of four, addressing perhaps ever wider groups.

    One scholar goes a step farther, by reading (with Slingerland) as though a tacit third er 而 made the second Double a mere modifier of the third, so that the list of four becomes a list of three:

    The Analects emphasizes the importance of all people, and not just rulers, cultivating caring feelings for other members of society. Kongzi says in 1.6, “A young person should be filial when at home and when going out, respectful of his elders. Conscientious and trustworthy, he should care widely for the multitudes but have affection for those who are Ren (‘humane’).” Here, we should notice that Kongzi first describes filiality at home; second, respect for elders in the community; and third, care for others who are not in one’s immediate circle.
    (Erin Cline, Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice (2012), 136f.)

    (This presentation accepts the standard reading of 弟子 as not specifically addressing students training to participate in governance; and in quoting 1.6 it omits study, though the only explicit sequence in the remark at 1.6 is that study is to follow the other practices – to be begun later.)

    C.5 . . . . The order among the Doubles

    There does seem to be some kind of order among the three Doubles in 1.6, even something pertaining to chronological order.

    The virtues at (1ab) seems offhand to be applicable to everyone, and not to suggest participation in officialdom. Those at (2ab) may pertain especially to professional life (but see my discussion under David Elstein’s Comment 11 under this), and professional life is not everyone’s concern. The virtues at (3ab) seem to be matters of high aspiration, like the study mentioned at the end; and (3b) is close kin to study.

    Thus we seem to proceed by stages (i) from home and private life to professional and public life, (ii) from generally obligatory to specially aspirational, (iii) from easy to hard, and hence presumably (iv) from early-begun to later-begun. This all harmonizes with, but does not imply, the extension reading.

    This four-part theory of the order among the Doubles at 1.6 seems to conflict with what Confucius says at 13.20. For there he says that the virtues of 1.6’s second Double constitute a lower level of achievement than do the virtues of 1.6’s first Double.


    “May I ask what is next best?”
    “When his clan calls him filial and his neighborhood district calls him respectful of elders.”
    “May I ask what is next best?”
    “Keeping to one’s word and following through in one’s actions—it has the ring of a petty man, but indeed, this would be next.”

    … 曰:「敢問其次。」曰:「宗族稱孝焉,鄉黨稱弟焉。」曰:「敢問其次。」曰:「言必信,行必果,硜硜然小人哉!抑亦可以為次矣。」…

    Indeed he may be implying here, plausibly, that (2ab) of 1.6 is not dependent on (1ab), not an extension of (1ab). But it is not clear what weight we should give to this 13.20 evidence. I won’t mention it again.

    Now, the fact of an ordering from home and private life to professional and public life, from generally obligatory to specially aspirational, from easy to hard, etc.–– the fact of such an ordering does not demonstrate that Confucius was thinking here of any psychological linkage among the activities. One should put any list in some kind of intelligible order, especially in an intellectual culture that relies heavily on memory. Ordering the items in any of these ways woud aid memory.

    And if X is more obligatory than Y, it makes sense to do X first, even if X is not psychologically necessary for Y, and even if X does not provide the blueprint for Y. You should feed your children before stuffing envelopes for your candidate.

    Even if X inherently must be done before Y, it does not follow that X is a root or blueprint for Y. Indeed, usually when we think one thing must be done before another, we are not thinking that the second extends the pattern of the first or tends to grow from the first. One must prepare the materials before carving or troweling, and one must prepare the canvas before painting the picture; but the canvas does not tend to generate the picture. One’s must be respectful and disciplined to absorb a high art such as football from a master, but one’s high art is not an expanded version of one’s respect and discipline.

    C.6 . . . . Comparison with Confucius’ chronological sketches

    We might compare 1.6 to the lists by Confucius that have better prima facie claims to be chronological sketches of progress or cultivation.

    The Master said: When I was fifteen I set my heart on learning. At thirty I took my stand. At forty I was without confusion. At fifty I knew the command of Tian. At sixty I heard it with a compliant ear. At seventy I follow the desires of my heart and do not overstep the bounds. (Eno)

    The Master said, “Find inspiration in the Odes, take your place through ritual, and achieve perfection with music.” (Slingerland)

    The Master said, “There are some with whom we may study in common, but we shall find them unable to go along with us to principles. Perhaps we may go on with them to principles, but we shall find them unable to get established in those along with us. Or if we may get so established along with them, we shall find them unable to weigh occurring events along with us.”

    Confucius said, “There are three things which the superior man guards against. In youth, when the physical powers are not yet settled, he guards against lust. When he is strong and the physical powers are full of vigor, he guards against quarrelsomeness. When he is old, and the animal powers are decayed, he guards against covetousness.”

    There are significant harmonies among the first three of these four statements. Each gives a prominent place to study and includes li 立 (take one’s stand, take one’s place, get established), apparently preceded by substantial study. But none of these statements suggests extension of anything to expanding circles, or makes any mention of family. The fourth statement is about chastening rather than extending certain attitudes one brings to the table. (We don’t find a parallel remark about extending other attitudes.)

    There is one more passage to mention, because one might think it sketches an extension-to-expanding-circles view of the sequence of moral progress.

    Zi Lu asked what constituted the superior man. The Master said, “The cultivation of himself in reverential carefulness.” “And is this all?” said Zi Lu. “He cultivates himself so as to give rest to others,” was the reply. “And is this all?” again asked Zi Lu. The Master said, “He cultivates himself so as to give rest to all the people. He cultivates himself so as to give rest to all the people – even Yao and Shun were still solicitous about this.”

    But I submit that the moral progress referenced in this remark is all in the phrase “cultivates himself”; the reference to expanding groups pertains to the intended beneficiaries, quite likely because the self-cultivation is for the sake of office, and the hope is that greater cultivation would bring higher office and greater competence.

    It is fairly uncontroversial that in general, it is better and harder to help many than to help few. But it does not follow that moral progress is in large part about extending one’s caring attitude from few to many. Indeed one might think very many of us already have enough general concern; what we lack is the other important orientation, understanding, habits, skills, and tools to enable us to act effectively on that concern. The word at 1.6 is ai 愛, which is arguably more about tending and protecting than about having a caring attitude.

    On the whole, Confucius’ somewhat explicitly chronological lists sketching moral progress suggest an absorption rather than an extension picture of moral progress. If I am right about 14.42, then not one of them suggests an extension view. I gather even the term “脩己” at 14.42 literally means to adorn oneself: to add pattern to material that would otherwise lack it.

    C.7 . . . . Comparison with Confucius’ other lists in similar order

    Toward understanding the significance of the order of presentation at 1.6, we might look for other remarks by Confucius that feature the same private-to-public order we find at 1.6.

    Later in Book 1 there is a remark by Confucius that runs strikingly parallel to his remark at 1.6, and that clearly does not reflect the idea of extension. This fact suggests that the order at 1.6 reflects something other than the extension view.


    The Master said, “The junzi

    in his food does not seek to gratify his appetite,
    nor in his dwelling place does he seek the appliances of ease;

    he is earnest in what he is doing, and careful in his speech;

    he frequents the company of men of principle that he may be rectified –

    such a person may be said indeed to love to learn.”

    Like 1.6, this remark is perhaps best read as addressed to disciples who overemphasize learning in the narrow sense (such as the ones he mentions at 5.22), urging them to focus more on (1ab) certain very basic virtues of home and non-political life, (2ab) diligence and good faith in more public life, and (3) association with the virtuous. (A difference is that in order to make its point, 1.14 uses the term “study” in a wide sense encompassing moral cultivation/absorption fairly broadly; while 1.6 speak only of narrow “study.”) The order of presentation at 1.14 seems to be substantially the same as at 1.6: from simple norms for home and private life, to high norms for public life.

    Surely at 1.14 this order carries no suggestion of an order of development (among the items other than study), by extension or otherwise. When listing good practices other than narrow learning, toward de-emphasizing the latter, Confucius can order the practices from simple norms for home and private life, to high norms for public life, without having in mind any idea that this order represents a developmental or even chronological order.

    A more distantly parallel remark appears at 13.19. Here Confucius is asked about ren 仁, and he answers with a list that moves from home and private life to professional life, but again without a whiff of family:

    Fan Chi asked about ren. The Master said, “Let your bearing be reverent when you are at leisure, be respectfully attentive in managing affairs, and be loyal toward others. Though you be among barbarians, these may never be cast aside.” (Eno)

    Here arguably we have a series of somewhat similar attitudes in different contexts, and in that way the remark could suggest extension to ever wider circles. We might say there is a general emphasis on seriousness, respect, and humility in all contexts.

    But the emphasis seems rather to be on covering all contexts rather than on any kind of chronological sequence or development — nor even on the similarity of the attitudes. The phrasing seems to aim at highlighting differences among the attitudes, not similarity. Nor do the accounts of the contexts show any thought of expanding circles of objects of the attitudes. The first context is cast as a place, not people. The second context is “in managing affairs” (執事), speaking of work rather than people, and Confucius may well be thinking of respect for the work (cf. 1.5, 15.38). The third context is “toward others” (與人) suggesting perhaps an approach to one person at a time, or suggesting that here for the first time in the list we are talking about a way of relating to people.

    And again at 5.16 Confucius gives a list that begins at home and then rises through the ranks, but without any apparent suggestion of an order of psychological development:

    The Master said of Zi Chan that he had four of the characteristics of a superior man – in his conduct of himself, he was humble; in serving his superior, he was respectful; in nourishing the people, he was kind; in ordering the people, he was just.

    At 13.20, Confucius presents a series of accounts of kinds of acceptable officer, in order of decreasing excellence.

    …”One who conducts himself with a sense of shame and who may be dispatched to the four quarters without disgracing his lord’s commission, …”
    …“When his clan calls him filial and his neighborhood district calls him respectful of elders.”
    … ” Keeping to one’s word and following through in one’s actions. …” …
    …「行己有恥,使於四方,不辱君命 …。」

    At least in the first two accounts in 13.20, the virtues within each account are ordered from private to public life; but surely there is no suggestion of developmental or even chronological sequence.

    Ordering a list from home life to public life is natural from the point of view of aiding memory; it connects with a difference in places (like a memory palace), it may help a trainee envision the path she hopes to follow in life. But it need not therefore suggest a psychological causal chain.

    C.8 . . . . The order between the Doubles and study

    We have considered the significance of the order of presentation within the Doubles (§C.4) and among the Doubles (§§C.5-7). What about the order between the Doubles and study? Here Confucius is explicit. The relation he has in mind between the Doubles and study is a priority relation. The Doubles take priority over study narrowly construed.

    Of course, the idea that general morality is more important than narrow study, and should take priority over it, makes perfectly good sense on its own, without being supplemented by an extension model of moral progress. For example, it is common sense that an official will not know how to use his booklearning to good purpose unless he has a strong moral grounding (cf. 13.5). Granted, politics might seem sometimes to require compromise in the area of ordinary morality (see §C.6 in another post’s Part C, cf. 14.17, 17.7). But that point is quite consistent with the idea that a good general grounding in morality is necessary before the project of studying toward high office even makes sense.

    Does Confucius’ assertion of the priority of the Doubles over narrow study support the idea that the remark as a whole reflects an extension model of moral progress? Let’s consider two reasons why one might think it does.

    a. Confirming the significantly suggestive ordering

    The idea that study is to be done after the other things – that one is to begin it later in life than the Doubles, and then do it later each day or week than the Doubles – neatly fits the idea that the intended order among the Doubles is a progression from early private easy things that are obligatory, toward later leadership-oriented hard things that are supererogatory. Thus it fits the idea that a chronological and developmental order among the Doubles was intended. This latter idea is a key premise of the extension reading of 1.6. Of course it is also consistent with an absorption reading; but it may not as naturally suggest an absorption reading.


    IF we are to take such an order among the Doubles as (a) importantly confirmed or signaled by by the fact that study is explicitly said to follow the others in that very order, and as (b) signaling a process of extension, THEN we might expect to find extension characterizing, or especially saliently characterizing, the progression from the Doubles to study; we should find that study is a continuation of the expanding circles series. That is not what we find.

    There is, however, a salient echo between (3b) associating with the few virtuous and (4) study, as being on their face two modes of absorption.

    b. Dichotomy

    Alternately, the remark at 1.6 could be read as denigrating narrow study by distinguishing it from morality (which is of course morally prior), and suggesting an extension view of morality only.

    We might propose to align this distinction with Confucius’ distinction at 6.18 between substance (zhi 質) and culture or pattern (wen 文). At 12.20 he loosely associates substance with rightness (yi 義), and at 15.18 he says the junzi makes rightness his substance. We might go farther and propose to align this distinction with Confucius’ endorsement at 3.8 of the idea that “ritual comes after,” as colorful makeup is extrinsic to a plain background: we might propose that ritual, like music and the odes, is something additional to the morality that is represented in 1.6 by the Doubles. Progress in ritual may come by absorption, but progress in morality comes by extension.


    As we saw in §B.2 above, when Confucius envisions progress in terms of absorption, he is often thinking of general moral progress, not just progress in special refinements for specialists.

    Indeed, at 8.2 Confucius seems to reject explicitly the very possibility of a basic moral goodness independent of ritual:

    The Master said, “Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness. …”

    Further, whatever Confucius means by substance and pattern at 6.18, his point there is inconsistent with the idea that substance takes priority and pattern is dispensable. On the contrary: his claim at 6.18 is that one needs an even balance of both.

    At 15.18, where he says the junzi takes rightness as his substance, Confucius does list ritual as something additional to that substance; but the further additional things on his list are humble respectfulness (xun 孫) and trustworthiness (xin 信), which together amount to a big chunk of the Doubles of 1.6. We cannot identify the “substance” of 15.18 with the Doubles of 1.6.

  4. Bill Haines says:


    If we do not read into 1.6 a story about extension to expanding circles, what is left to us there? What is left is a remark that makes perfectly good sense on its face. Study in the narrow sense is a fine thing; but other things are even more important and have to take priority in case of conflict. Broad-strokes morality has to take priority even for Confucius’ disciples (弟子) as such.

    Still we might wonder why filial piety and elder-respect would have such a prominent position in a short list of virtues. Did Confucius accept the view Youzi lays out at 1.2, that filiality and elder-respect have a certain momentum, a distinct tendency to grow into greater virtue and ultimately into ren 仁? In Confucius’ remarks in the Analects there is little indication that he thought of an individual’s moral progress as a kind of growth that might proceed on its own, an area where momentum plays an important role.

    The Master said, “Think of it as making a mountain. If, one bucketful short of completion, I stop, then I’ve stopped. Think of it as filling a pit. Though I’ve thrown in only a single bucketful, I’m progressing.”

    Youzi’s view about filiality and elder-respect seems to be an instance or application of a more general view about how lesser local virtues are the roots of broad cardinal virtues. He says filial piety and elder-respect tend to grow to humanity (1.2), and also that a community’s ritual practice tends to bring social harmony (1.12). Perhaps it is in a similar spirit that Youzi says trustworthiness is near to justice, and respectful demeanor is near to ritual propriety (1.13): in short, punctilious attention to the lesser local virtues brings a certain momentum toward the great cardinal virtues. By contrast, Confucius seems not to trust the lesser virtues as roots. He seems to think they will just go bad unless they are informed by patterns from outside. He says the lesser virtues will go bad if not supplemented by ritual propriety (8.2, quoted in §C.8 above). Also he is reported to say in a very similar vein at 17.8 that the lesser virtues will go bad if not supplemented by study. (But the prima facie conflict between 17.8 and 1.6 is some reason to think that one of the two passages is inauthentic – or else that they spring from different times or contexts.)

    Let us look at all the passages where Confucius says or pretty plainly implies that filiality and/or elder-respect can help bring other virtue (as he does not do at 1.6), and ask: what mechanism does he seem to have in mind? How might these virtues help bring further virtue?

    Elder-respect is helpfully slowing.

    At 14.44, Confucius comments on a young man who is thought to show great promise:

    … The Master said, “I observe that he is fond of occupying the seat of a full-grown man; I observe that he walks shoulder to shoulder with his elders. He is not one who is seeking to make progress in learning. He wishes quickly to become a man.”
    … 子曰:「吾見其居於位也,見其與先生並行也。非求益者也,欲速成者也。」

    The young man seems to overestimate how much progress he had made. Real progress must be slow; if you think yours can be fast, or has been fast, your efforts will be misdirected.

    In another remark, Confucius may suggest that elder-respect promotes progress because it enables us to receive teachings, so that later we can transmit them:

    Yuan Rang was squatting on his heels, and so waited the approach of the Master, who said to him, “In youth not humble as befits a junior; in manhood, doing nothing worthy of being handed down; and living on to old age – this is to be a pest.” With this he hit him on the shank with his staff.

    Filial piety is helpfully slowing.

    At 1.11 and 4.20, Confucius says that it is filial to adhere to one’s father’s way for (at least) three years after the father dies. (His remark seems to be phrased as an account of a sufficient condition of filial piety, but surely we shouldn’t read it that way.) It would follow that filial piety promotes further virtue, by absorption, at least for a while, at least for some people: those whose fathers have good ways. But I wonder whether that can have been the point of the remark. Might it instead have been a defense of someone whose father’s way was not ideal from the point of view of Confucius and his followers? One must make allowances for such a son, at least for a while. If that is what Confucius had in mind, then the remark harmonizes with his only other remark about how filial piety can help promote other virtue, at least for some people, at 11.22.

    At 11.22, two disciples each ask Confucius whether to act immediately on each new lesson. To one, Confucius says yes. To the other he says, “Why do that? Your elder male kin are still alive.” Confucius explains to a third disciple:

    … “[Ran You] is retiring and slow; therefore I urged him forward. [Zilu] has more than his own share of energy; therefore I kept him back.”

    Why does Confucius want to slow Zilu? Surely not because there is something wrong with internalizing what one is taught.

    The Master said, “Can men refuse to assent to the words of strict admonition? But it is reforming the conduct because of them which is valuable. Can men refuse to be pleased with words of gentle advice? But it is unfolding their aim which is valuable. If a man be pleased with these words, but does not unfold their aim, and assents to those, but does not reform his conduct, I can really do nothing with him.”

    Just what sort of instruction is Confucius giving to Zilu at 11.22? Is Confucius suggesting that Zilu wait until his father is three years dead before acting on any norm he did not receive from his father? That would be slowing indeed. Or perhaps Confucius is simply advising that Zilu should go slow on the grounds that he should not regard himself as quite his own man just yet. He lacks standing to be a leader, to throw himself into the fray; for he is someone’s boy. Or is Confucius suggesting that Zilu consult with his elder male kin before acting on any new lesson? That would be prudent advice for any master to give to his young disciples, but if the family is nearby it might not have much slowing effect. (If the family is at some distance, the temptation would be to consult with them about a large number of lessons once a year.) Perhaps the hope is that by consulting with his elders, Zilu will have his attention drawn to potential drawbacks of acting on each new lesson (which is no doubt expressed with great economy), so that his efforts to act on it will be more thoughtful, cautious, and therefore stable. As Confucius tells Zilu on another occasion,

    … “He who will unarmed attack a tiger, or cross a river without a boat, dying without any regret, I would not have act with me. My associate must be the man who proceeds to action full of solicitude, who is fond of adjusting his plans, and then carries them into execution.”
    … 「暴虎馮河,死而無悔者,吾不與也。必也臨事而懼,好謀而成者也。」

    Part of Confucius’ thought at 11.22 and at 14.44 may be this. Gaining a new pattern of action takes time. Learning needs practice or review (1.1); what changes people is practice (17.2). Granted, one can adopt a new pattern of action quickly without a habit; and courage or arrogance can even make that easy. But only practice, only time invested, can give one’s new pattern the strength to persist when one’s attention shifts to something else. Losing what one thinks one has learned can be surprisingly easy.

    The Master said, “Study as if you cannot reach it, as if you fear losing it.” (BH)

    Similarly, Confucius’ sketch of his own development at 2.4 seems designed to chasten the self-confidence of someone who expects to follow Confucius’ way quickly. It is as though Confucius were saying, “You sincerely want to follow me; when I say something you quickly nod Yes Sir, and you mean it. But that shows you do not understand. Look at me: at 15 I set my heart on study, but only at 60 was I really ready to listen, and even then I needed another ten years to absorb the lesson.”

    Hence Confucius’ view of the developmental value of filial piety and of elder-respect may be that (a) each is a kind of receptivity to lessons from those who are likely to have good lessons, and that (b) more generally, each is a kind of chastening of the ego, important for real receptivity and absorption from any source. Confucius arguably implies that only some people have this need for filial piety; but I think it would be more reasonable to conclude that he thinks some people need it more than others, or need more of it than others.

    Now, recall that while filial piety and elder-respect make up Double (1ab) in Confucius’ discouragement at 1.6 of excessive focus on learning in the narrow sense, a different pair of virtues occupies the parallel position in Confucius’ discouragement at 1.14 of excessive focus on learning in the narrow sense (see §C.7 above):

    … in his food he does not seek to gratify his appetite,
    nor in his dwelling place does he seek the appliances of ease; …

    I propose that Confucius saw these two kinds of temperance, like filial piety and elder-respect, as kinds of propaedeutic restraint of oneself (克己) – restraint of physical desires and pride. Each of us has a natural tendency to seek the luxuries of food and comfort for herself, not to mention fine clothing and glorious position or reputation.

    Confucius may have associated ego or pride with an interest in material luxury:

    The Master said, “A scholar who aims at the Way, and who is ashamed of bad clothes and bad food, is not fit to be discoursed with.”

    The universal natural inclinations to luxury and status, at least if one lets them extend as they tend, are familiar as kinds of selfishness, kinds of excessive focus on oneself. The associated virtues of non-extension of these natural inclinations – temperance, humility, respectful deference – are in that sense negative virtues, virtues of receptivity or openness. Or so Confucius may have regarded those virtues, when thinking of how they would support further virtue. Perhaps they are like the blankness of a canvas (3.8).

    There were four things from which the Master was entirely free. He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egoism.

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