Courage (yong, 勇)–a Confucian virtue?

I’ve been working on some cross-comparisons of contemporary ideas about courage, the ancient Greek idea (andreia), and the early Confucian idea (yong). I gave the following as part of a presentation about yong in Hong Kong at a moral psychology conference in December. I didn’t end up with enough time in that session to get a lot of feedback, so I’m going to post the relevant portion of it below. The gist of it is that courage/yong isn’t a virtue in early Confucianism; in the following, I try to make that case with regard to the Analects:

There is a significantly ambivalent attitude displayed in some passages of the Analects, which perhaps reflects the unclear or contested status of yong as a virtue at all. As Bryan Van Norden ( “Mencius on Courage,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXI: The Philosophy of Religion, 1997) and other contemporary commentators have pointed out, the Analects doesn’t provide a consistently positive portrayal of yong. The following translations and some commentary are taken from Edward Slingerland’s Confucius Analects. I include relevant commentary from Slingerland that seems to me to show how difficult it is to regard yong, “courage,” as a virtue and comment coherently on the text.

Analects 5.7 – The Master said, “If the Way is not put into practice, I will set off upon the sea in a small raft. And the one who would follow me—would it not be Zilu?” Upon hearing this, Zilu was happy. The Master commented, “Zilu’s fondness for courage exceeds mine. But where can I find some really suitable material (cai)?”

Slingerland’s comment on Zilu: “A former warrior, Zilu was admired by Confucius for his courage, but seems to lack other virtues (such as good judgment) that would balance out his courage. Understood this way, the point of this passage is that a virtue such as courage that is entirely uninformed by other virtues becomes a vice.”

It’s not clear to me why Slingerland takes Confucius to be showing admiration for Zilu’s courage, since Zilu’s fondness for it exceeds Confucius’s, probably to Zilu’s failing. Slingerland’s understanding of the passage has yong as a virtue that can become a vice if uninformed by other virtues. This seems puzzling too; we need to know what conception of the virtues allows one to say that a virtue can become a vice. Slingerland’s reading is based overall on this along with other passages as well, of course. So to understand what conception of the virtues might make sense of yong as a virtue, we need to examine them. These other passages seem to show how possession of yong without possession of crucial other traits results in less than favorable outcomes:

Analects 8.2 – The Master said, “If you are respectful but lack ritual you will become exasperating; if you are careful but lack ritual you will become timid; if you are courageous but lack ritual you will become unruly; and if you are upright but lack ritual you will become inflexible….”

Analects 17.8 – The Master said, “Zilu! Have you heard about the six [virtuous] words and their six corresponding vices*?”…”Loving Goodness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of foolishness. Loving wisdom without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of deviance. Loving trustworthiness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of harmful rigidity. Loving uprightness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of intolerance. Loving courage without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of unruliness. Loving resoluteness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of willfulness. (*Slingerland translates bi 蔽 as “vices;” it could also be translated as “obfuscations.”)

Analects 17.23 – Zilu asked, “Does the gentleman admire courage?” The Master said, “The gentleman admires rightness above all. A gentleman who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would create political disorder, while a common person who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would become a bandit.”

Analects 17.24 – Zigong asked, “Does the gentleman also have those whom he despises?” The Master replied, “Yes, he does. He despises those who proclaim the faults of others; those who, occupying an inferior position, slander their superiors; those who are courageous but lack ritual; and those who are resolute and daring, but overly stubborn.

According to these passages, yong requires ritual, love of learning, and a sense of rightness in order to keep it from producing unruliness (luan 亂). These passages clearly show yong to be a neutral characteristic that can either be put to use for virtuous ends or not. What conception of virtue would regard yong, so characterized, to be a virtue? A “unity of virtues” conception would not be useful here. On a strong version of that view, a person possesses some virtue if and only if she possesses all other virtues. On a weaker version the virtues are so closely related to each other that as a matter of fact a person could not have one virtue without having all the others (see Terry Penner, “The Unity of Virtue,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 82). Neither version helps us here, since it is made abundantly clear the a person could possess yong while not possessing some other characteristics, supposing they are virtues, that are necessary for it to produce good results. Slingerland’s comment quoted above is inadvertently instructive here. It can’t really be that yong is a virtue that “becomes a vice” without the relevant other things present. Rather, it seems more accurate to say that yong is not a virtue at all but is something can be instrumental to the pursuit of virtuous ends—at least as these passages present it.

Things are somewhat different in the following two passages , however, and that is why there seems to be an overall ambivalence—or perhaps incoherence—in the Analects regarding yong:

Analects 9.29 ﹣ The Master said, “The wise are not confused, the Good* do not worry, and the courageous do not fear.” (*Slingerland translates ren zhe 仁者 here as “the Good;” “the benevolent” or “the humane” would probably be more standard.)

Analects 14.28 ﹣ The Master said, “The Way of the gentleman is threefold, and yet I have not been able to achieve any aspect of it: ‘The Good do not worry, the wise are not confused, and the courageous do not fear.’” Zigong replied, “[By quoting this saying], the Master has in fact described himself.”

In both of these passages, there is clear indication that a short-list description of admirable people includes possession of yong. That does not directly imply that yong is a virtue—all it implies is that admirable people have yong. But that might be enough for some people to regard these passages as showing yong to be a virtue—not yet for me, however.

24 replies on “Courage (yong, 勇)–a Confucian virtue?”

  1. What good would an upright person be if he lacked the courage to carry it out?

    If courage is the disposition of fearlessness then it is necessary to carrying out actions in the face of dangerous opposition. A villain could be fearless but we would not call him good because his fearlessness is in the promotion of his less laudatory dispositions. Perhaps then, by the same token, a possessor of yi without yong cannot be admirable because his yi remains ineffective against dangerous opposition to its enactment.

    If virtuousness and viciousness are world-directed dispositions (which I believe they are) then absence of yong halts virtue when other virtues are present and the presence of yong when no other virtues are present results in directing one’s vice into the world.

    I hope that made sense.

  2. Excellent question, Thomas. It certainly seems like without the ability to carry out what you think is right, the moral conviction has no, or very weak, teeth. But that assumes that being upright requires (a) the belief that some things are worth standing up for, (b) the motivation to stand up for those things, and (c) some other “helper” virtue (courage) to help me stand up for those things in the face of hardships. Why wouldn’t it make sense to think being upright was sufficient, hence that one only needed (a) and (b) in the moral psychological conception? In the full paper, I try to argue that this is the early Confucian conception. Part of my argument is that we should resist thinking of yong the way that we’ve come to think of the modern conception of courage, in which courage plays exactly that “supplemental” role in modern moral psychology.

    One good place to see my point about the early Confucians is in Mencius 2A2, where Mencius quotes Zengzi as recalling a teaching of Confucius:

    “Looking back at oneself, if one is not upright (suo; literally, “drawn tight”*), shouldn’t one fear even the beggar? Looking back at oneself, if one is upright (suo), one advances even against thousands upon ten thousands of men!” (*See Jeffrey Riegel (1980), “Reflections on an Unmoved Mind: An Analysis of Mencius 2A2,” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47:3, Thematic Issue S.)

    Yong, or “courage” if we must translate, is something that is beside the point; what matters is being upright, or so I try to argue.

  3. If yong can also mean fearlessness, then I suppose thieves are that way only because they don’t fear being punished, and some criminals don’t stop no matter how severe the penalties are if they’re caught. So I took courage as being a tool that can be used to do good or evil, just like people with money can do a lot of good for people even when money is supposed to be the root of all evil. I figured uprightness was more psychological, as in nobody can make you change your beliefs. As in, an upright person who isn’t courageous might be forced to change their religion, but they couldn’t be swayed into actually agreeing with/believing in it.

    What I’m thinking is that uprightness is what the person aspires to do, and courage is what actually happens in practice. Like the same way a person might have interesting ideas but turn out to be a terrible writer/not good at conveying those thoughts.

  4. Manyul, it seems to me that Confucius, at least as represented in the Analects, regards yong as a virtue. (I’m not sure yet what to think about Mencius.)

    Among the main passages I’d cite in support of this view are the first two you cite against it, 8.2 and 17.8. There we find courage on two lists of what appear to be virtues highly regarded by Confucius. In the second list, as you more or less note, we seem to be told that it is a list of virtues.

    Our main difference, I think, is over what it is to be a virtue. I think a virtue is a character trait in virtue of which, characteristically, people are better people (or morally better people if that’s not the same thing). On that definition it would be possible for a bad person to have a virtue and use it for bad ends.

    Compare: Sharpness is an excellence of a knife, not a neutral feature; but combined with great slipperiness of the handle it can be a bad thing. In general, for most interesting kinds (knives, people, poems, pizzas), the features we can fairly easily identify as the main features that make a thing of that kind a better thing of that kind operate only in general, not absolutely.

    I am not sure whether in Comment #2 you are saying that you thing uprightness lacks the flaw you think Confucius sees in courage. But uprightness is on both lists: 8.2 and 17.8.

    I think you are right to say “According to these passages, yong requires ritual, love of learning, and a sense of rightness in order to keep it from producing unruliness (luan 亂).” But I think it is not right to conclude, “These passages clearly show yong to be a neutral characteristic that can either be put to use for virtuous ends or not.” For, first, and maybe this is just a quibble, the passages make no mention of putting yong to use for any ends, good or bad. They do not suggest that yong is an instrument. More importantly, the passages do not even strictly imply that there is anyone who would be a better person if she lost her yong, other things being equal.

    17.8 implies that loving yong isn’t sufficient for being a good person. This could be because if one does not love learning one will be mistaken about how to pursue or have yong. 17.8 is thus strictly consistent with the claim that anyone who has yong is morally perfect. Probably, of course, 17.8 is making the same kind of point as 8.2.

    8.2 says that yong is in some circumstances consistent with, or even tends to cause, a certain vice. That’s not the same as saying that yong is consistent with being a bad person. One can have the odd vice and still be a good person overall. 8.2 does, however, imply that yong doesn’t automatically make us perfect.

    8.2 probably means that yong in some circumstances produces a vice, and doesn’t guarantee that one is a good person overall. That doesn’t mean yong is neutral. Yong can still be a virtue.

    I’m inclined to agree with what I take to be the usual view that the exchanges with Zilu are examples of Confucius tailoring his remarks to his interlocutors. Confucius seems to have thought Zilu went too far with courage and tended to overvalue one excellence or saying at a time.

    I’m sorry to be responding so late; I’ve only just now found the earliest parts of the blog!

  5. The last trait of Zilu’s that I mentioned seems related to the principledness we see on those occasions when Confucius has a job offer from a shady character and Zilu urges him to refuse. Confucius looks in these places like someone who thinks that a good trait or a good rule might still not always be right.

  6. Manyul –

    Oh, I see – your idea about 8.2 and 17.8 might be this. Confucius may see ritual and the love of study as relatively rare. (He says somewhere that among his followers only Yan Hui loved study.) And if the supplement courage needs to avoid causing a vice or turning into a vice is rare, courage is then not even a good thing in general.

    I think there are several problems with that argument.

    First, there is the problem that if we accept that argument about courage we have to accept the same argument about, say, uprightness and wisdom.

    Second, it’s not clear what degrees of ritual or love of study or courage Confucius is talking about here in 8.2 and 17.8.

    A third reply (to the argument I imagine you might have in mind) has to distinguish 8.2 from 17.8. The imaginary argument supposes C thinks ritual propriety (RP) is rare, and that he thinks RP is necessary for us to be non-stunted specimens of humanity. But his thought might only be that RP is rare in his day (and indeed it’s hard to shake hands well if it’s hard to find a partner). If that’s his thought, then he may still think that among people who are approximately non-stunted specimens, courage almost always makes them better people. (We wouldn’t say water is not in general beneficial for acorns just because it rots most of them – the ones that lack other necessaries.)

    You ask why one would need courage if one has uprightness, given that uprightness should involve the requisite motivation. But maybe another way to put the premise is to say that uprightness involves a certain amount or variety of courage. If some people can think the virtues are one and we don’t call them crazy for it, then surely we’re allowed to think the virtues overlap some.

    How about that?

  7. Hi Bill,

    I really appreciate your close scrutiny of my argument. Your second charitable reading in comment 6 isn’t what I had in mind; I think you got it right in 4 above. And the issue really is what counts as a virtue, as you note.

    The account I’m employing is:

    V) If a trait is a virtue, then its possession necessarily constitutes having good character.

    Now, V combined with a Unity of Virtue thesis:

    U-V) If someone possesses a virtue, then she possesses all the virtues.

    gives us some sort of “globally” good character view of virtues–i.e. if yong is a virtue then someone who possesses yong is someone with globally good character. Whereas, without U-V, we could think that if yong is a virtue, then someone who possesses yong has “locally” good character–a clumsier way of saying that her possession of yong *is* a good state of her character.

    As I think I’ve shown, U-V is not relevant to my argument about the Analects–because even if it is conceded that yong is a virtue, someone could possess it while not possessing ritual propriety or rightness. I think that means we can disregard questions about whether having yong implies globally good character. So, I’m not arguing that because people with yong seem not to have *globally* good character in the Analects, then either they don’t have yong or their possession of yong is not possession of a virtue. That argument, the one I am not making, would be a modus tollens argument using V and U-V, and the denial of U-V’s consequent.

    My argument turns only on V and the denial of V’s consequent. In other words, I am arguing that since possession of yong does not constitute–i.e. is not *by itself*–a (locally) good character trait, therefore yong is not a virtue.

    So, your disagreement with me rests, as you suspected, solely on the difference between V and your account of virtue:

    V-1) If a trait is a virtue, then its possession characteristically, but not necessarily, constitutes having good character.

    Using V-1, you could argue that the possession of yong is characteristically good, but with the exception that (a) every once in a while (say, in a situation equivalent to “the knife handle being slippery”), or (b) in the possession of someone who lacks other traits or training, it is not good.

    I guess I think V-1 is an unacceptable account of virtuous traits for two reasons.

    First, addressing exception (a): this seems to me to end up allowing for moral luck in the wrong way. It would be fine, I think, for an account of virtue to allow that a virtuous person acted in good character but, given the unusual circumstances–bad moral luck–the resulting state of affairs was unfortunate. But if the account allows that a person acts *virtuously* but due to some circumstances, she *does not act in good character*, that sounds incoherent to me at an ordinary-parlance level. I’m pretty sure that’s not a caricature or straw-man version of V-1’s implications; but you should call me on this if you think it is. (The knife analogy applies here: the blade’s sharpness is an excellence of a knife, but occasional slipperiness of its handle doesn’t make the knife cut any less excellently; it only results in making a mess of things. Suddenly this all feels like a Mencius 6A argument!)

    Second, addressing exception (b): Again, I think V-1 misplaces something, but it’s harder for me to put a finger on it. I want to say something like: if possession of trait X is characteristically good, but in the absence of traits Y or Z, X is not good, then that suggests X is only a virtue in the presence of Y and Z. In other words, “characteristically good” only seems to be obscuring the further specifiable condition that X is good when combined with Y and Z. So that, without Y or Z, X may be in the person’s possession, but it isn’t a virtue. (Does that beg the question against you? I’m not sure.)

    I’m sorry if that is a bit convoluted, but I’ve tried to restate things in a way that clarifies what you find objectionable about my reading of the Analects–and what I don’t find satisfactory about your alternative suggestion. (Take your time replying; it’s late on this side of the world and I won’t be back on until the morning.)

  8. A couple of minor addenda, Bill:

    I don’t note that 17.8 is a list of virtues–the insertion of “virtuous” in brackets, in the phrase “the six [virtuous] words” is Slingerland’s insertion in his translation (the phrase in the text is just “the six words” 六言).

    I *do* think there is a major issue here about whether early Chinese concepts like ren 仁, yi 義, and so forth–not only yong–line up well with the concept of virtue that we have, which we inherit from Aristotle, mutated as it is from his concept. That’s the larger project.

  9. Manyul, thanks! That’s very helpful. But I’m not convinced, and I want to press my case. I’ll make a short and a long and a short reply, separated by fences like this:


    From what you say it sounds as though you are indeed committed to holding that Confucius did not regard these as virtues: respectfulness, carefulness, uprightness (these from 8.2) and perhaps even ren, wisdom, trustworthiness, resoluteness (these from 17.8).


    The idea I had in mind in Comment #4 is not V1 but V2:

    V1) its possession characteristically constitutes having good character.
    V2) its possession characteristically helps constitute having better character overall.

    Here’s your general formula and some possible elaborations of it.

    A trait is a virtue when
    V) its possession necessarily constitutes having good character.

    Va) its possession necessarily constitutes having good character overall.
    Vb) its possession necessarily consitutes having a character that is good in some respect.
    Vc) its possession necessarily constitutes having a good character trait.
    Vd) acting from it is necessarily acting in good character

    Regarding Va – It’s not your view. (Sounds to me like V though.)
    Regarding Vb – If it’s different from Vc, the difference could use explaining.
    Regarding Vc – It’s an empty tautology.
    Regarding Vd – This is tricky and interesting.

    Vd1) acting from it is acting from a good character trait.
    Vd2) necessarily an action that is characteristic of it, and of which it is a leading cause, is morally good.
    Vd3) same as Vd2 but ending in “morally right.”

    Regarding Vd1 – I think this is an empty tautology like Vc.

    I won’t worry here about the distinction between Vd2 and Vd3. Rather I’m concerned with the rest of each, the parts that try to clarify “acting from” a trait. For a trait will combine in various ways with other traits to yield an action.

    Consider this argument:

    1. One might have a virtue and a vice, and do an action that is caused by and characteristic of both (e.g. honest and rude).
    2. If Vd2 is true, the flipside principle for vices is true too.
    3. Vd2 and its flipside can’t both be true (from 1).
    4. Vd2 is false.

    The argument seems relevant to our discussion because Confucius may regard a lack of effective concern for ritual propriety as a vice.


    I think one of the main good reasons to do some of one’s moral/ethical thinking in terms of virtues is that some traits that are characteristically good (V2) are easily seen to be such. It’s a matter of starting from what’s well known to us, to use Aristotle’s words. Also following Aristotle, I think what’s characteristically true is better known to us than what’s necessarily true, in this field (unless we’re talking tautologies).

  10. I haven’t answered (b), which you lay out in the penultimate paragraph of Comment #7.

    If we could draw a clear distinction and say that courage generates good actions on dry but not rainy days, or for lazy people but not for energetic people, then I’d be with you: it would make sense to say not simply that courage is a virtue, but rather something more Goldwatery: courage in the wet and energetic is no virtue, and vice versa.

    Now, Confucius does seem to be drawing a clear distinction. But (at least in the case of 8.2), it’s a special kind of clear distinction, remotely analogous to the distinction between minors and adults. A serious person, choosing traits or sayings to guide her moral aspiration, won’t care what traits or sayings are good when accompanied by great vices. The good dispositions of character, Confucius is suggesting, don’t work unless we follow the rules and study up.

    I wonder whether, with a little stretching, his point could even be put this way: “You can have all the good intentions or dispositions in the world but if you’re not following the manual you’ll just make a mess.”

  11. Oh, my V2 could be misleading. I didn’t mean that a virtue is a trait that characterstically supports all the other virtues. I meant that a virtue is a trait that characteristically makes one a better person.

    So it’s not like I was saying a fat limb is a limb that makes all the limbs fatter; rather it’s like saying a fat limb is a limb that helps constitute the person’s being fatter (overall).

  12. Here’s an imaginary dialogue that strikes me offhand as realistic.

    Confucius: If you are respectful but lack ritual you will become exasperating; if you are careful but lack ritual you will become timid; if you are courageous but lack ritual you will become unruly; and if you are upright but lack ritual you will become inflexible. (8.2)

    Glaucon: Are you saying that in being exasperating I’ll still be respectful, in being timid I’ll still be careful, in being unruly I’ll still be courageous, and in being inflexible I’ll still be upright? Or are you saying instead that if I start out with what Aristotle would call the “natural virtues” along those lines, or at least beginners’ versions of the virtues, i.e. the relevant talents and propensities, realized as the young might realize them on the way to the full adult virtues, — but I don’t properly train and practice — the I’ll end up with the vices you list rather than the proper virtues?

    Confucius: Hmm. My original thought was indeterminate as between those two, but I think the second is a better overall fit with my considered judgments.

  13. Hi,

    I haven’t read all of the replies, so forgive me if I say something already pointed out.

    re: Courage (yong 勇) “is not a virtue at all but is something [that] can be instrumental to the pursuit of virtuous ends”
    I think you’re right. In a less technical manner though, we can easily say courage is a virtue: it is an admirable quality. As opposed to cowardice. In Confucius’ day, courage had been considered a virtue for centuries, perhaps millenia, as part of the warrior aristocracy ethos. Confucius approved of this view, with the condition that it must also be exercised with appropriateness (yi 義) and class (li 禮) and tempered by wisdom culled from learning (Xue 學). So, it’s a conditional virtue, as are most. (I’m reminded of Daojia views here.) It can certainly be necessary to conduct oneself virtuously, as Thomas writes, “it is necessary to carrying out actions in the face of dangerous opposition.” It can elevate another virtue, by enabling us to act on it.

    Check out:
    Zhongyong 20
    Patrick Moran: “Wisdom, benevolence, and bravery are the highest [or ‘pervasive’] virtues in the world. That by which they are put into operation is Unity, (i.e., integrity).”

  14. Ooops. I didn’t notice how old this blog entry was. Oh well.
    I’ve since noticed Lunyu 2.24: “To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage (無勇)” which portrays Yong as necessary to conduct oneself correctly (義).

  15. Hi Bao Pu,

    I don’t mind at all returning to older posts. The Zhongyong and Lunyu passages you bring up are interesting ones. I agree with you entirely that LY 2.24 portrays yong as a necessary element of conducting oneself correctly. That goes along with what I argue in the paper that the post is a snippet from, namely that yong is not a virtue at all but is something that is instrumental to the pursuit of virtuous ends.

    In fact, the Zhongyong passage can also support that idea. I read 所以行之者一也 as implying that the three characteristics are *together* constitutive of the highest/most pervasive virtue, unless one wants to say that the highest/most pervasive virtue is not something that is carried out (行). So, each by itself, is not sufficient. I suppose one could call each by itself a 德, but that would give us some reason in this context not to translate 德 as ‘virtue,’ since a strong notion of moral virtue would include its sufficiency for correct action.

    Are you working on this topic?

  16. I’m not exactly working on this topic. I have long suspected that De 德 originally had the same sense as Virtus did, namely, courage/fortitude, seeing as how the aristocracy in Western Zhou and Chunqiu times was a warrior aristocracy. But it seems to me that martial qualities were either downplayed or omitted by the Ru to further their agendas which was to reduce the value of physical strength, courage and violence and encourage the value of righteousness, as Confucius tries to do with Zilu.

    The Lüshi Chunqiu 8.2 expounds a Confucian attitude and says that bravery is an inauspicious virtue (凶德).

  17. Hello,

    Since you do not object to old posts being revisited, and since I have just recently discovered your blog and am reading through it backwards (or is it forwards?) from the beginning, I thought I’d add my two cents here if a non-philosopher may do so. I do not have any very fine ideas about what the word virtue means and in what follows will essentially use it to mean “a good thing”. The enterprise of pinning the word virtue down to a precise definition sounds very Socratic to me; is there a definition in the Analects, or even an equivalent we have in mind of the word “Virtue”? I know we are exhorted to rectify the terminology, but that is one bit of terminology I do not recall seeing in this text.

    To begin with, then, I have to agree with Bill Haines up to a point. 8.2 puts courage in the company of carefulness respectfulness, and uprightness; 17.8 puts it in the company of the love of humaneness, wisdom, trustworthiness, uprightness, and resolution. Since the first three are surely among the supreme Confucian virtues (surely by any definition?) it would be hard to deny anything the status of a virtue on the grounds that it needs ritual or learning to be perfect or to express itself properly.

    For me the striking thing about the world of Confucius is the interdependence of the various qualities he urges his followers to develop. Here, all these good traits need learning and ritual to be expressed properly; similarly learning and ritual are also dependent, for of learning he says in another place “to learn without thinking is useless” and of ritual he says that “if a man is not humane, of what use is ritual?” I get the impression, reading Confucius, that if we don’t get “the whole consort dancing together”, then nothing really works.

    I think it was Benjamin Schwartz who said that in discussing an idea, it is a common mistake to confine our discussion only to those passages of a text in which there occurs the word which we associate with that idea. In this way, there are surely several passages in the Analects where, although the word yong may not appear, yet what we would call courage is clearly required. The need to “speak truth to power” (in the form of honest ministers reprimanding their ruler, for example) is an ongoing theme not only of the Analects but of the whole Confucian tradition. (It appears in very strong form in the Li Ji, for example.) Twice Confucius seems to be in some danger from a hostile power. On both occasions he mentions Heaven, so that these episodes tend to be mentioned in discussion of the fatalism to which the Mohists objected, but are they not applicable here as well? Surely if he went into those dangerous places he had a reason to do so, and he surely needed courage to do so when he knew that he was entering the territory of a hostile power.

    Is there a hierarchy of virtues in the Analects? It often seems that there is. But 9.29 and 14.28, which you quote, seem unambiguously to place courage alongside humaneness and wisdom in a sort of trinity of virtues. (I don’t want to use “good” for “ren” because it is also used to translate “shan”.) But even wisdom, is it not subordinate to humaneness? When in 4.2 Confucius says “ren zhi an ren, zhi zhi li ren” (the humane rest in humaneness, the wise profit from humaneness) is humaneness not suggested to prior to and greater than wisdom? And the wonderful passage that begins “The humane delight in mountains, the wise delight in water….”–are humaneness and wisdom there suggested to be equal, or is humaneness there too given the upper hand?

    Finally there is the criterion of frequency. Yong surely does not (though I have not counted) occur in the Analects with anything like the frequency of ren or even wisdom or trustworthiness. Does that indicate a lower rank? But then, not necessarily–there are only a few mentions of reciprocity, and yet that seems to occupy a very exalted station indeed.

    That is all I can say from what I remember of the Analects. As for the question of whether a quality which is neutral in the absence of other qualities can be called a virtue, my own impulse would be to say that it is. I value strength in myself, if I am struggling against a would-be kidnapper, and in anyone who is trying to help me, but I am unhappy to see strength in the kidnapper himself. I value intellect and eloquence when they are used in the service of some worthy cause, but frown on them when they are used in support of some cause I hate. Yet I cannot call strength, intellect, or eloquence neutral or not virtues. (Well, maybe eloquence I have to call neutral, but that’s another story.) Mainly I see these things as good in themselves; only they need something else for their goodness to be made manifest. Confucius says that courage is nothing without uprightness, and of course nobody can disagree (do we admire the courage of the thief? Well, perhaps we do, but all the while regretting that the courage was not exerted in some worthier cause?) But at the same time, could we not say that uprightness without courage is equally useless? What good would the Confucian minister be if he could not speak dangerous truth to an erring ruler? And when you suggest that uprightness is enough without courage, might that not mean that your conception of uprightness already includes courage?

    I’ve written too much for a first comment on a blog but I hope it’s not without a point! Thank you for reading.

  18. Hi Christopher; welcome to the discussion. The only thing worse than being a non-philosopher is, as you might guess, being a philosopher. You make some interesting, challenging points. I do think a lot rides on how we’re understanding the term ‘virtue.’ I’ve been arguing from a narrower understanding, in which something is a virtue only if it is a characteristic that is always at least a “good-maker” — i.e. it always contributes something good to the mix. That may seem too much like an old Greek view (Plato, say), but it seems to be the way a lot of philosophers understand it.

    However, I can certainly see how it would be sensible to think about virtues from a broader understanding, where a characteristic might emerge as virtuous from how it actually functions and affects the people or the outcomes involved in a situation. On that understanding, a characteristic is a virtue in a particular set of circumstances so long as it contributes something good to the mix in it. So, we might say, bravery, strength, eloquence, intelligence, and so forth are all subject to circumstantial judgment — they are each virtues in the right circumstances (also, with the right combination of other characteristics) and either neutral or even vicious in others. Extreme eloquence and wit in making cruel and cutting remarks about people has a certain social power to it (it seems in one sense, awesome), but we could all imagine it in the service of vice. Likewise, for other characteristics.

    Perhaps this provides a model on which we could call 勇 a virtue. Call it a more holistic account of virtues, one that is not “atomistic” in supposing that there are essential, “good-making” elements that are the only things identifiable as virtues. My initial thought about such a model is that there is something attractive about it, but I’m not sure how someone who thinks virtues are *central* to an account of goodness (whether of people or of a type of life) would warm up to it. This more holistic account seems to de-centralize virtues by supposing there to be other criteria by which to determine whether something is good (more specifically, whether something counts as a virtue or not, in a particular circumstance — outcomes, perhaps?). I could see the model being very friendly to a consequentialist account of virtues, for example.

    Personally, I’m not wedded to a centralized account of virtues, so what you suggest is quite helpful for my thinking about the account of 勇 in the Analects. Thanks.

  19. re: “I’ve been arguing from a narrower understanding, in which something is a virtue only if it is a characteristic that is always at least a “good-maker” — i.e. it always contributes something good to the mix.”
    — Does “good to the mix” include characteristics that benefit no one other than oneself? Does virtue = moral virtue for you?

    re: “That may seem too much like an old Greek view (Plato, say), but it seems to be the way a lot of philosophers understand it.”
    — Wasn’t courage a virtue for Plato?

  20. Hi Bao Pu; thanks for the questions.

    Whether virtues include those characteristics that benefit no one other than oneself depends, I think, on details of the larger account of virtue that may be in question. Some philosophers might feel more comfortable restricting virtue to what we might call social or moral characteristics; and generally philosophers think of things that benefit only oneself (even if at no cost to anyone else) as “prudential” in a sense that is independent of morality. But, that’s not the only option. Like I said, it depends on the account.

    Yes, courage (andreia) was a virtue for Plato; so, actually, he thought that courage could not lead someone to do something bad — i.e. someone with courage could not act rashly, viciously, or foolishly, and so forth. That is because ultimately Plato thinks all virtues are unified in being forms of knowledge and thinks that true knowledge can’t lead a person to anything but the good. By contrast, Confucius seems to think one could have courage (yong) and act rashly, etc. That’s actually one part of the project I’m working on with respect to yong — that if it is courage, it plays a very different role in the overall view in the Analects than in either Plato or Aristotle.

  21. Hi Manyul,

    I suppose I’m not one of those who want to restrict ‘virtue’ to a narrower moralistic meaning. I think of things like resilience, open-mindedness, and calmness to be virtues. I’m more comfortable with a broader view of ‘virtue’ due to my study of Aretê, Virtus and De in the literature prior to the common era, which matches definitions 4 & 5 below. (Note, the example in #1b ‘patience’ isn’t necessarily a moral virtue.)

    1 a) Moral excellence and righteousness; goodness.
    b) An example or kind of moral excellence: the virtue of patience.
    2. Chastity, especially in a woman.
    3. A particularly efficacious, good, or beneficial quality; advantage: a plan with the virtue of being practical.
    4. Effective force or power: believed in the virtue of prayer.
    5. virtues Christianity. The fifth of the nine orders of angels in medieval angelology.
    6. Obsolete. Manly courage; valor.

    Note: #6 was the original meaning of both Virtus and Aretê, but apparently not De.

  22. Hi Manyul,

    Thank you for your interesting comments! I think I’ve revised my feelings slightly about what I said in my first post. That is, if I see such things as intellect or eloquence being used for a bad end–say, by someone promoting some injustice–I don’t feel that they are bad things; I feel that they are good things being perverted. Similarly if strength or courage is used by a thief in carrying out his crime.

    If we imagine a potential thief whom only cowardice, not morals, prevents from carrying out a theft, that cowardice makes things better for the people from whom he might otherwise have stolen, but I don’t think it makes him a better person. Similarly, we feel some awe at an evil genius, whereas someone who is both stupid and evil we find merely pathetic. When we watch “The Thief of Bagdad” we admire his cleverness and his courage, even as we disapprove of the ends to which he puts them.

    But all of this still leads me to a rather different view of courage than the one which you attribute to Plato–for I still describe the Thief of Bagdad as having courage and as behaving immorally, whereas for Plato, it seems, that is impossible. To continue with the example: in the middle of the film, the thief gets education, morality and religion; thenceforth he uses his courage in the service of good (saving kidnapped princesses for example) rather than for stealing and evading the law. In the first half, if the film-maker achieves his goal, we have a sort of divided view of the hero: attractive and with a rude grandeur, he excites our admiration by his heroism, but we regret the low and mean ends which he makes it serve. In the second half of the film, we courage informed by, and used in the service of, goodness and humanity; now he has become a real hero.

    Is the Thief of Bagdad perhaps a parallel of a Confucian rather than a Platonic view of courage? Or can we reconcile the two? Is Plato’s true andreia perhaps definable as “yong and ren acting together”?

    Thanks for the fascinating discussion!

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