Episode 5 of “This Is the Way”: Cultivation and the Autobiography of Confucius

In the fifth episode of This Is the Way, we discuss Confucius’s autobiography as found in Analects 2.4, one of the most famous passages in the Analects and a rich resource for reflection on the process of moral self-cultivation. Among the many topics we explore: what Confucius meant by being “free of doubts” and “understanding Heaven’s Mandate,” and the relationship between practicing and understanding the Confucian Way. We discuss how traditional commentaries and commentators have interpreted some of the most interesting and disputed lines, and puzzle over the philosophical concept of ‘wholeheartedness.’

Below you will find a more detailed accounting of topics, some specific passages and books or articles mentioned in the episode, and an opportunity to “weigh in” and share your views about the topic (or about the hosts’ wild claims about Confucius and the Analects).

Your feedback is very welcome! Please leave a comment below, mail the hosts at ChinesePhilosophyPodcast@gmail.com, or follow them on X @ChinesePhilPod.

Chapter markers

0:00 Part I — Introduction
   6:03 Preface to today’s topic and passage
10:25 Part II — Cultivation and the autobiography of Confucius
   10:26 Richard sets the stage for the spiritual autobiography
   12:26 Justin reads the spiritual autobiography and breaks it down into three stages
   17:48 “At 15, I set my heart-mind on learning” — “learning” (xue 學) and ritual
   25:38 “At 30, I stood straight” (li 立)
   27:29 “At 40, I became free of doubts,” and some discussion of Mencius vs. Xunzi on cultivating ethical virtue
   50:25 “At 50, I understood Heaven’s Mandate”
   1:00:57 “At 60, my ear was compliant” (ershun 耳順)
   1:06:43 “At 70, I could follow my heart-mind’s desires without overstepping the bounds”
   1:10:57 Is it significant that Confucius singles out the desires of the heart or heart-mind (as opposed to desires of the mouth, eyes, etc.)?
   1:14:40 One takeaway from the passage a whole: interest in different degrees and types of epistemic achievement
  1:18:49 Another takeaway: the priority of ethical cultivation over other religious and philosophical aims
   1:27:22 Preview of the next episode: partiality and impartiality in early Chinese philosophy
Key passages
Analects 2.4 (“The Spiritual Autobiography of Confucius”)
[Stage one: preparing for enlightenment]
At fifteen, I set my heart-mind on learning;
at thirty, I stood straight;
[Stage two: achieving understanding]
at forty, I became free of doubts;
at fifty, I understood Heaven’s Mandate;
[Stage three: achieving wholeheartedness]
at sixty, my ear was compliant;
at seventy, I could follow my heart-mind’s desires without overstepping the bounds.
(Analects 2.4, modified from Edward Slingerland’s translation)
Some references mentioned in the episode

Analects 2.4
Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation (where he writes that for Xunzi, the practice of the Way “runs far ahead of one’s understanding of it,” p. 96)
Analects 1.15 (grinding and polishing)
Analects 8.9 (the ordinary people can be made to follow it but not to understand it)
Analects 2.15 (thinking without learning…learning without thinking…)
Analects 9.30 (learning to apply some ritual or rule with appropriate “discretion” indicates a very high level of epistemic achievement)
Dasan 茶山(1762–1836) (a.k.a. Jeong Yak-yong) — his commentary on Analects 2.4 is translated in this book
Analects 9.12 (students attend to Confucius as though he were their lord and not just their teacher)
Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) — his commentary on Analects 2.4 is translated in this book
Justin’s article on “getting it oneself” (zide 自得)
T’oegye 退溪 (1501–1570) (a.k.a. Yi Hwang 李滉)
Analects 14.24 (learning for one’s own sake vs. learning for the sake of impressing others)

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