Confucius and Socrates Contents
BECK index

How Confucius Taught

by Sanderson Beck

Effort in Learning
Individualized Instruction
Questions and Answers
Correct Use of Language
Metaphors and Poetry
Human Examples
Cogent Sayings

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.

As we have seen, Confucius considered himself a teacher and worked as diligently as he could to instruct his students. How did he relate to them? The main requirement to study with Confucius was a desire to learn, although he did accept pay or gifts. "From the very poorest upwards-beginning even with the man who could bring no better present than a bundle of dried meat-none has ever come to me without receiving instruction."1 Confucius did not set himself up as a man of wisdom, and no matter how humble the student may have been, he was ready and willing to discuss the issue on its own terms; thus anyone in the world could become a fellow learner with him because of his openness.

Do I regard myself as a possessor of wisdom? Far from it?
But if even a simple peasant comes in all sincerity
and asks me a question, I am ready to thrash the matter out,
with all its pros and cons, to the very end.2

Although he was willing to instruct anyone, he did not necessarily agree to take on responsibility for all of the person's future actions. Once while in a village where the people were not very receptive to his teachings, an "uncapped boy" (not yet initiated into manhood) asked to be admitted. The disciples were in doubt whether to bring him in before the master, but Confucius clarified the point:

In sanctioning his entry here
I am sanctioning nothing he may do when he retires.
We must not be too particular.
If anyone purifies himself in order to come to us,
let us accept this purification.
We are not responsible for what he does when he goes away.3

There is no definite indication of what age his students were, but this did appear to be an exceptional case because of the lack of interest among the adults of the community. Probably most of Confucius' students and disciples were adults, some of them even in his own age group. Two other incidents concern boys or young men. When he found Yuan Rang waiting for him in a sprawling position, Confucius said, "Those who when young show no respect to their elders achieve nothing worth mentioning when they grow up. And merely to live on, getting older and older, is to be a useless pest." With this he struck him across the shins with his staff.4 This is the only known case where Confucius used anything like physical punishment. Perhaps it was used because what needed correction had to do with physical posture and respect. Another time someone asked him about the progress of a youth who gained entrance to Confucius' house as a messenger. With insightful observation Confucius said, "Judging by the way he sits in grown-up people's places and walks alongside of people older than himself, I should say he was bent upon growing up quickly rather than upon improving himself."5 After all, learning was the important thing, not mere association.

Effort in Learning

The most important characteristic which Confucius asked from his students, then, was that they make the effort to learn. He encouraged them to make this effort by allowing them room to think for themselves.

I do not enlighten those who are not eager to learn,
nor arouse those who are not anxious
to give an explanation themselves.
If I have presented one corner of the square
and they cannot come back to me with the other three,
I should not go over the points again.6

Naturally it is helpful if the student is intelligent and can grasp things easily. Yet he emphasized that as long as the student was making the effort he would continue to help him.

The case is like that of someone raising a mound.
If he stops working,
the fact that it perhaps needed only one more basketful
makes no difference; I stay where I am.
Whereas even if he has not got beyond leveling the ground,
but is still at work,
the fact that he has only tilted one basketful of earth
makes no difference. I go to help him.7

Here Confucius also indicated that how far a person had advanced in his studies did not determine how much help he would receive from his teacher, but again what mattered was whether he was working to continue to improve himself.

When it came to the essential self-improvement of one's character, Confucius did not even allow his own limitations to hold back the student, but he encouraged them even through friendly rivalry. "When it comes to goodness, one need not avoid competing with one's teacher."8 However, he could not find too many who were willing to apply themselves to learning strictly for self-improvement rather than for extrinsic rewards such as career gain. He said, "One who will study for three years without thought of reward would be hard indeed to find."9

Ran Qiu was one of those who only stayed with Confucius until he was able to receive a good position in the government. Ran Qiu made this excuse: "It is not that your Way does not commend itself to me, but that it demands powers I do not possess."

Whereupon Confucius rebuked him for quitting, saying, "The one whose strength gives out collapses during the course of the way, but you deliberately draw the line."10 A keen student of human nature, Confucius was able to see that people tended to be lazy rather than work too hard. So he naturally pointed this out: "Those who err on the side of strictness are few indeed!"11 When he did find a student whose diligence exceeded what was expected, he showed his approval by a warm response. When Qidiao Kai was encouraged by the master to take office, he replied, "I have not yet sufficiently perfected myself in the virtue of good faith." Confucius was delighted.12

Not only did Confucius encourage his students to make effort in learning, but most important was that they put what they heard into practice through actual deeds. Can there be any wisdom without action? Self-improvement to this teacher meant actually changing oneself for the better.

The words of the Model Sayings
cannot fail to commend themselves to us;
but what matters is that we should carry them out.
For those who approve but do not carry out,
who are stirred, but do not change,
I can do nothing at all.13

Perhaps we need to revise the common notion that wisdom consists of proverbs and moral homilies or even appreciation of same. To Confucius, of ultimate importance was the improvement of character, and when he saw someone working to better oneself, he did all he could to assist him. In these ways, then, he encouraged his students to put forth positive effort.

How Confucius perceived that he himself learned naturally influenced greatly how he taught others. Although he did not rule out the possibility of acting correctly without having to think, Confucius' own experience was that he had to learn by observation and study what was best to do.

There are those who act without knowing why,
but I am not one of them.
To hear much and select what is good and follow it,
to see much and take note of it,
is the second type of knowledge.14

His feeling that he did not act best spontaneously and automatically was probably a major reason why he emphasized learning so much. Consequently this is the method he used in teaching. He had experimented one time with meditation, but he did not consider the results to be as good as from study. "I once spent a whole day without food and a whole night without sleep, in order to meditate. It was no use. It is better to learn."15 Confucius was not one to reject something without trying it. As a teacher he recommended to his students what he found to be most successful in his own experience.

What really did impress Confucius was the teaching of the ancients. In humility and perhaps also with the awareness that valuable wisdom is eternal and not original with any one individual, he claimed he was only a transmitter, not a creator of new ideas. "I have transmitted what was taught me without making up anything of my own. I believe in and love the ancients."16 Like a good transmitter he allowed the information to flow continually through without trying to hold anything back. His openness and honesty allowed his disciples to learn all that he knew, if they could.

My friends, I know you think that
there is something I am keeping from you.
There is nothing at all that I keep from you.
I take no steps about which I do not consult you, my friends.17

This does not necessarily mean that he told everyone everything, but the close disciples he was addressing here he had taken into his fullest confidence (cf. Analects 9:29 where he recommended taking counsel only with the most select people). Yet at the same time he did not waste his time by trying to teach advanced ideas to those who were not capable of understanding them.

To those who have risen above the middling sort,
one may talk of the higher things.
But to those who are below the middling sort
it is useless to talk of things that are above them.18

To be a good teacher Confucius believed he had to be a good student continually. Thus one of his most important methods of teaching was to be an attentive listener in order to learn from his students how to teach them. "To listen silently, to learn untiringly, and to teach others without being wearied-that is just natural with me."19 Patience and perseverance were qualities which apparently enabled Confucius to stay with his students until they finally saw the light. This continual striving to better himself and others must have given the master an enduring energy. If he was so vigilant and disciplined with himself, he must have been an ever-present model for his students, even if he did not expect as much from them as he required from himself.

The thought that I have not properly cultivated virtue,
that what is learned has not been thoroughly discussed,
that knowing what is right I have not moved toward it,
that what is wrong I have not been able to change-
these are the things which bother me.20

By examining himself so conscientiously he was inviting his listeners to work on improving their characters also, but he was doing it authentically without preaching or inflicting upon their freedom. By thinking out loud in this way he was showing them how to begin the work on oneself.

Although most of Confucius' teaching was through the conversational style, he once expressed the wish not to speak. One of his disciples immediately objected; they expected their teacher always to be talking with them so they could pass on his teachings. Confucius used the situation to call their attention to the silent teachings of Nature. "Does Heaven speak? Yet the four seasons run their course and all creatures are born according to it. Does Heaven speak?"21 Perhaps he was pointing out that there is a greater teacher which would remain even after he had gone.

Individualized Instruction

Confucius recognized that people learn in different ways with varying abilities, and the highest class was even beyond him. He said,

Highest are those who are born wise.
Next are those who become wise by learning.
After them come those who have to work hard
in order to acquire learning.
Finally, to the lowest class of the common people
belong those who work hard without ever managing to learn.22

The master carefully observed each of his students to study the strengths and weaknesses of their character. When Zigong asked Confucius who was better between Shi and Shang, he readily replied, "Shi goes too far and Shang does not go far enough." Zigong assumed that this meant that Shi excelled, but the master corrected him, "To go too far is as bad as not to go far enough."23

Once he understood the character of his students he was then able to individualize his teaching for the good of each person. Zilu and Ran Qiu both became important in government; yet Confucius knew that he had to handle them in opposite ways if each was to improve. Zilu once asked Confucius whether one should put a maxim into practice as soon as he heard it. Confucius pointed out that Zilu's father and elder brother were still alive, and he asked him how could he apply it immediately, probably hoping that he would take counsel before rushing off into action. Yet when Ran Qiu asked exactly the same question, Confucius told him that one should immediately put it into practice. A third student who had heard both conversations became confused and asked Confucius for an explanation. The master said, "Qiu is retiring and slow; so I urged him on. Yu tends to be fanatical; so I held him back."24

Zilu was well-known for his boldness and daring, and Confucius was aware of this. Another time when he was in a humorous mood, probably to overcome his discouragement, Confucius said, "The Way makes no progress. I shall get upon a raft and float out to sea. I am sure Yu (Zilu's nickname) would come with me." Hearing this, Zilu became enthusiastic, so that Confucius said, "That is Yu indeed! He sets far too much store by feats of physical daring, but he does not exercise his judgment."25 Thus Confucius labored to encourage him to do so.

When asked whether Zilu was good, Confucius said he did not know. When the question was repeated, he responded, "In a country of a thousand war-chariots Yu could be trusted to carry out the recruiting. But whether he is good I do not know." Then he was asked about Ran Qiu. The master believed that he could govern a clan of a hundred chariots, but he did not know whether he was good. A third student he said could take a place at court and converse, but again he did not know whether he was good.26 Although Confucius knew the practical abilities of his students, he still did not claim to know if they were truly virtuous, so high a value did he place on goodness itself.

Zigong, another important disciple, asked the master's opinion of him. Confucius called him a vessel. Zigong asked, "What sort of vessel?" Confucius replied, "A sacrificial vase of jade!"27 This implies again that the master would not call him good, though he was capable of being used on high occasions. On another occasion Zigong expressed Confucius' version of the golden rule: "What I do not want others to do to me, I do not want to do to them." Confucius was quick to point out that he had not lived up to that. "Ah Ci! You have not quite got to that point yet."28 Apparently Zigong was often criticizing other people. Confucius must have considered this a negative activity because he said, "It is fortunate for Ci that he is so perfect himself as to have time to spare for this. I myself have none."29 By giving his own positive example with a little irony, Confucius subtly attempted to move Zigong away from the fault-finding of others to the positive improvement of himself.

Confucius had a way of correcting a person without telling him directly that he was wrong. Ji Wen-zi thought three times before acting. Confucius heard of it and said that twice is quite enough.30 Continually we see the master focusing on and emphasizing what is right and proper; he did not say that three times is wrong, but merely that twice is sufficient. He did not want his students to be influenced by a poor example; so he had to correct it in a positive way.

Confucius was not afraid of correcting men in power if they asked for his advice. When Ji Kang-zi was upset about all the thieves, he asked Confucius what he should do. Confucius replied, "If only you were free from desire, they would not steal even if you paid them to."31 This was hardly the answer the ruler would have been expecting! Most people want to try and change others' behavior by external means, but here the master suggested changing one's internal state so that others will also adapt their internal condition; then conduct will improve in a natural way. If the ruler does not horde and covet all the luxurious items, then others will more likely be content with what they have, and stealing will be a dangerous and superfluous task.

Confucius was asked about the treatment of parents by four different men, and he gave four differing answers stressing obedience according to propriety,32 behavior which would not make parents anxious,33 sincere feeling of respect,34 and proper demeanor.35 Not only was each answer probably suited to the questioner, but also Confucius was able to examine the issue from several perspectives for the sake of the other listeners.

Questions and Answers

In using the conversational style, Confucius would often answer questions put to him by his students. However, he did not attempt to answer if it concerned something which someone else might know better than he. When he was asked about farming and gardening, he recommended that the inquirer go to an experienced farmer and to a skilled vegetable gardener.36 He also did not claim to know about such auspicious matters as the Ancestral Sacrifice, but in this case he did not know of anyone to recommend. "Anyone who knew the explanation could deal with everything under Heaven as easily as I lay this here." He laid his finger upon the palm of his hand.37

When a ruler asked him a question, Confucius was able to give an answer which could probably work if applied. Duke Ting asked him for a precept on how a ruler should use his ministers and how the ministers should serve the ruler. Confucius had a ready response: "A ruler should employ his ministers according to the rules of propriety; ministers should serve their ruler with faithfulness."38 Such an answer was simple to understand and easy to remember.

Many of the questions Confucius answered had to do with virtue, character and correct conduct. These questions he was eager to answer if he could help to clarify the understanding of students. Fan Chi asked first about wisdom and then about goodness. Confucius said,

Devote yourself earnestly to the duties due to people,
and respect spiritual beings but keep them at a distance;
this may be called wisdom....
The good person first considers what is difficult
and only then thinks of success.
Such a person may be called good.39

He extended his descriptions by using natural metaphors showing the quality and result of these virtues.

The wise person delights in water;
the good person delights in mountains.
For the wise are active, and the good are tranquil.
The wise enjoy happiness, and the good enjoy long life.40

On another occasion Fan Chi asked again about the good and the wise. Confucius said that the good person loves people and the wise person knows people. Fan Chi did not understand the second part; so Confucius told him, "By raising the straight and putting them on top of the crooked, one can make the crooked straight." Apparently Fan Chi still did not understand because he asked a disciple to explain what Confucius had said; Zixia gave an example from history to clarify the principle.41 In this way Confucius encouraged his students to think about his own enigmatic responses.

Confucius was always anxious to correct ideas and beliefs which could be improved. Here he used a rhetorical question to make his point. Someone had asked him about the principle of repaying injury with virtue. He responded, "In that case how will you repay virtue? Rather, repay injury with justice, and repay virtue with virtue."42 Confucius was practical and discriminating in his ethics so that his precepts could be easily followed and would prove successful. The following incident shows how seriously some of the students took the master's precepts. Zizhang asked how to get along with people, the fundamental humanistic question. Confucius said,

Be sincere and true to your word,
serious and careful in your actions;
and you will get along even among barbarians.
But if you are not sincere and untrustworthy in your speech,
frivolous and careless in your actions,
how will you get along even among your own neighbors?
When standing, see these principles in front of you;
in your carriage see them on the yoke.
Then you may be sure to get along. 43

So Zizhang inscribed these words upon his sash. Apparently the students often memorized the master's precepts, and Confucius apparently encouraged this practice. This is probably how these conversations were passed down until they were recorded in The Analects.

Often an enterprising student would ask follow-up questions in order to draw forth more information from his teacher. Zilu asked about the truly better person, and Confucius said, "One cultivates oneself carefully." Zilu asked if that was all, and Confucius said, "One cultivates oneself so as to help other people." Zilu asked again if that was all, and Confucius said, "One cultivates oneself so as to help all the people. Even Yao and Shun found that difficult."44 Confucius began with the primary step-improve yourself. If a person could do that, then one could help others. If one could help some, then one could strive to help all humanity. Thus he showed the successive stages. On another occasion Zilu asked about government, and Confucius said, "Lead by example; work hard for them." Again Zilu asked for further instruction, and Confucius said, "Untiringly."45

Zigong asked about the true knight and received an answer related to an officer in the court. When he asked the next rank, Confucius answered concerning one who acts well in his community. Then Zigong asked for the next rank, and Confucius referred to the individual level in regard to truthful words and successful accomplishment of one's tasks; these can be attained even by one in humble circumstances. Finally Zigong asked about those in the present government, whereupon Confucius grimaced and said they were not worth taking into account.46 Again we see how the questions enabled him to discuss the various levels of a situation.

Sometimes Confucius would ask his students questions. Often these were very open-ended and personal so that there was no single, right answer. Rather, each person was allowed to express one's personal preference, and they could learn from and about each other. When Confucius asked Zilu and Yen Hui their life's ambition, he was likely to receive opposite responses. Perhaps by the interplay of opposite temperaments, each man's character might be broadened. Zilu, as we have seen, was active and oriented toward the physical. Yen Hui, on the other hand, was quiet and sensitive. In fact Confucius said he was not very helpful in discussions because he agreed with everything the master said.47 Maybe he could draw Yen Hui out a little this way. Zilu said, "I wish to have horses, carriages, and fur clothes, to share them with my friends, and I should not be upset if they wore them all out." Yen Hui said, "I wish never to boast of my good qualities and never to mention the trouble I have taken for others." In the midst of the camaraderie of the group, Zilu said he wished to hear the master's ambition. Confucius said, "It is my ambition to comfort the old, to be faithful to friends, and to cherish the young."48

In another similar exercise, Confucius asked Zilu, Zeng Xi, Ran Qiu and Gongxi Hua to forget for a moment that they usually considered him as older than themselves and to say what office they would like to have. Zilu was the first to reply, and he did so characteristically as he said,

Give me a country of a thousand war-chariots,
hemmed in by powerful enemies,
or even invaded by hostile armies,
with drought and famine in addition;
within three years I could make the people courageous
and teach them in what direction right conduct lies.

Confucius smiled at him, and asked Qiu, who said,

Give me a domain of sixty or seventy li, or say fifty or sixty,
and within three years I could make
plenty abound among the common people.
As to the principles of propriety and music,
I shall have to wait for a really better person.

Chi then wished to be a junior assistant at the ceremonies of the Ancestral Temple. When Zeng Xi was asked, he stopped the music he was softly playing and said his wishes were not as select as the others. Confucius said that that did not matter, but he should speak his desire. Zeng Xi said,

At the end of spring
when the clothes of the season are all complete,
I would like to go with five or six newly-capped youths
and six or seven uncapped boys and wash in the River Yi,
enjoy the breeze at rain altars, and return home singing.

Confucius sighed and said he agreed with him. Then the other three men went away, and Confucius answered Zeng Xi's questions as to why the other three's wishes were not proper.49 Here we see Confucius only agreeing with the one whose ambition was practical and humble. If the other three left because offended, then they missed the special attention which Zeng Xi received.

Often Confucius encouraged his students to think and discuss the ideas on their own which he only tersely mentioned. For example, he said his Way had an all-pervading unity. After he left, they discussed the issue, and Zeng-zi said that it was sincerity and benevolence.50 In this way Confucius did not always hand-feed them, but he stimulated his students to think for themselves.

Correct Use of Language

Sincerity and trustworthiness were important to Confucius because words were often worthless if not backed up by equivalent deeds. Language has the peculiar attribute of being able to be true or false to actual situations, past or future actions. In good human relations Confucius believed that honesty was essential. "I do not know how a man without truthfulness is to get along. How can a wagon be made to go if it has no yoke-bar, or a carriage if it has no collarbar?"51 Confucius had learned that some men do not do what they say; therefore wisdom demands that he not only listen to people's words but watch their actions as well. Zai Yu used to sleep during the day. Not able to reform him, the master decided to make it an object lesson, saying,

Rotten wood cannot be carved,
nor a wall of dried dung be trowelled.
What use is there in my scolding him anymore?
There was a time when I merely listened attentively
to what people said, and took for granted
that they would carry out their words.
Now I am obliged not only to give ear to what they say,
but also to keep an eye on what they do.
It was my dealings with Zai Yu that brought about the change.52

If the students were to learn to be true to their word, then one way that Confucius could help them was to caution them on their speech. "Do not be too ready to speak of it, lest the doing of it should prove to be beyond your powers."53 The "it" could refer to anything, but it could have strongly implied goodness (ren) itself. Confucius demonstrated that he was especially careful about discussing this great ideal because its perfection was so difficult to attain. When Sima Niu asked about goodness, he used an appropriate pun. "The good (ren) person is careful (ren) in speech." Sima Niu wanted to know if this was the definition of goodness -"careful in speech." Confucius replied, "Seeing that the doing of it is so difficult, how can one be otherwise than careful in talking about it."54 Perhaps he was implying that no verbal definition would be sufficient because goodness can only be expressed through action.

Confucius hated the misuse of language because it could destroy communication and intellectual discussion. When Zilu got an uneducated man appointed governor of Bi, Confucius felt that he was injuring someone; for if he was not capable of the position, he could only come to harm. Zilu defended his judgment by saying that he would only be in charge of peasants and the ritual of the grain. Then he quoted a proverb which may have been from Confucius himself; "Learning consists of other things besides reading books." Since the maxim had been misappropriated and did not apply to this man who had not learned how to govern at all, Confucius severely criticized Zilu's sophistry. "It is remarks of that kind that make me hate glib people."55

A necessary part of communication through language is that both parties agree on the meaning of the words which they are using; otherwise confusion results. If Confucius thought that the word another man was using did not mean the same thing to him as to the other, he would ask him his definition of it. Zizhang asked about the knight who is to be called "influential." Confucius replied, "That depends on what you mean by 'influential.'" It turns out that Zizhang's idea of the word was really much closer to the common meaning of the word "famous." Whereupon Confucius proceeded to describe how the Chinese word for "influential" implies the effective use of virtue (moral power) while anyone with a cocky manner and a reputation, without necessarily any good conduct, might become famous.56 Confucius spent considerable time with his students describing what he meant by various key terms so that they could understand them and apply them in practice. This clarification of language was later to become the important Confucian doctrine known as the "rectification of names." Confucius was adamant that the mental communication correspond to the actual reality, even in small matters such as the name of a container. "A cornered vessel without any corners! Should it be called a cornered vessel? Should it?"57

Metaphors and Poetry

Confucius used commonplace things as metaphors to describe deeper truth. The following implies that pulling on the negative trait too much can ruin the wholeness of the character. "Whoever acts to work upon a loose strand destroys the whole fabric."58 In fact, some translate it metaphorically: "The study of strange doctrines is injurious indeed!"59

Much like Heraclitus, Confucius recognized the continuity of change as being like a river. Once when standing by a stream, he pondered, "It passes on like this, never ceasing day or night!"60 He liked to express philosophical ideas the way the Book of Changes did, through natural imagery. Here is a metaphor of the type of people who can endure hard times because they have lasting virtue: "Only when the year grows cold do we see that the pine and cypress are the last to fade."61 By relating his ideas to natural events, the students could see in actual experience what was to remind them of the higher ideals.

Confucius loved to discuss poetry and songs with his students and drew many lessons from them. This incident shows an enlightening discussion, as Confucius improved on Zigong's ideas and then is pleased by a suitable reference to poetry.

Zigong said, "What do you think of a man
who is poor and yet does not flatter,
and the rich man who is not proud?"

Confucius replied, "They will do,
but they are not as good as
the poor man who is happy with the Way,
and the rich man who loves the rules of propriety."

Zigong said, "It is said in the Book of Poetry:

As a thing is cut and filed,
As a thing is carved and polished ...

Does that not mean what you have just said?"

Confucius said, "Ah Ci!
Now I can begin to talk about the odes with you.
When I have told you what has gone before,
you know what is to follow."62

For Confucius, to be able to interpret poetry properly was an advanced study because he felt that very few of his disciples were ready to do so. Zixia (nicknamed Shang) was another disciple who could discuss poetry with the master. He asked Confucius the meaning of these lines:

Oh the sweet smile dimpling,
The lovely eyes so black and white!
Plain silk that would take the colors.

Confucius said, "The painting comes after the plain groundwork." Zixia correctly apprehended the symbolism that the ceremonies come after virtue. The master was pleased: "It is Shang who can bring out my meaning. Now I can begin to talk about the odes with him."63 A student must be prepared and demonstrate it before Confucius would consider going into an advance study with him.

Confucius apparently gave his own son no particular treatment. The son told one of the disciples that his father recommended to him that he study the Odes, or he would not do well in conversation. On another occasion Confucius asked him if he had studied the rules of propriety; again the son replied he had not. This was necessary in order to become established.64 Confucius here did not command even his son to study certain things, but he merely said what the results would be if he did or did not. The disciple was able to get this information by questioning the son. Apparently Confucius made no requirements; but students could not enter into the advanced studies until they knew the preliminary subjects such as poetry and propriety. Even so, these were secondary to virtue and character development.

Lines from poetry could be used as references to personal character. Confucius felt that he and Yen Hui fulfilled the maxim:

When in office, do your duty;
When not in office, stay out of sight.

Then Zilu impetuously asked him whom he would take to help him if he had command of the whole army. To soften the rejection, Confucius quoted a line from a poem.

Not the man who was ready to
'attack a tiger bare-handed or swim across a river'
not caring whether he lived or died,
but I should take someone
who approaches difficulties with due caution,
who likes to plan precisely and carry it out.65

By using poetic imagery as a mirror, the students of Confucius could see themselves more clearly.

Poetry and ceremonies were often formal activities, and it was in these cases that Confucius used the more universally correct pronunciation rather than his native dialect.66 Confucius as much as anyone knew the impressiveness and majesty of the ancient heritage. This is why he criticized the Three Families' use of the Yong Ode which was only appropriate for the Emperor's Court.67

Confucius did not revere the poems to the point that he could not correct their ideas if it would help his students' understanding. In the following lines he showed the shallowness of the feeling, inspiring the listener to a deeper and more actualized love.

The flowery branch of the wild cherry,
How swiftly it flies back!
It is not that I do not love you;
But your house is far away.

Confucius said, "He did not really love her. Had he done so, he would not have worried about the distance."68 Another poem which begins with the cry of the ospreys tells of a lover grieved by separation from his lady, but it concludes with their happy union. In this poem Confucius elucidated the proper handling of the two emotional extremes. "The ospreys! Pleasures not carried to the point of debauch; grief not carried to the point self-injury."69 Thus by interpreting poetry well-known to his students, Confucius could help them to refine their feelings.

Human Examples

Confucius used many human examples to illustrate various lessons. He was especially fond of referring to the legendary emperors of the ancient golden age (before 2000 BC). Because of their great antiquity he could use them as models of perfection, and no one could deny it. Yet if they were the greatest individuals over a period of thousands of years, then maybe they were great indeed! Confucius said,

Greatest as sovereign was Yao. How majestic was he.
'There is no greatness like the greatness of Heaven,'
yet Yao could emulate it.
So boundless was it that the people could find no name for it;
yet how majestic were his achievements,
how brilliant the expression of his culture!70

Here he pointed out how the best ruler follows the Way of Heaven. Nearly as great were the other two emperors of early antiquity whom Confucius loved to mention. "How majestic was the manner of Shun and Yu! Everything under Heaven was theirs; yet they remained aloof from it."71 These were the two who did not begin to rule until the people came to them and they were assured that they had the mandate of Heaven. In this way Confucius used them as models of perfect detachment. Yu was known as a great engineer, who drained the land so that it could be used for farming; then he was chosen as emperor because of his ability.

Nangong Guo once pointed out to Confucius, "Yi was a mighty archer, and Ao overturned a boat; yet both of them came to a bad end. Whereas Yu and Ji, who devoted themselves to agriculture, came into possession of everything under Heaven." Confucius did not respond until Nangong had left; then he praised him as a truly better person who knew how to value the power of virtue.72 This way the master could make clear the lesson to the students without making Nangong egotistical by praising him to his face.

Humility could accompany detachment as in the case of Tai Bo, a legendary ancestor of the Zhou sovereigns. "Of Tai Bo it may indeed be said that he attained to the very highest pitch of virtue. No less than three times he renounced the sovereignty of everything under Heaven, without letting the people praise his actions."73 When the last Shang ruler's actions became too corrupt, the Zhou clan attacked him. Two brothers were famous for renouncing violence despite their sufferings. Confucius cited them as worthy examples, "Bo Yi and Qi never bore old wrongs in mind and had but the faintest feelings of resentment."74

Confucius used historical examples to contrast two kinds of behavior, each insufficient. "Duke Wen of Jin could rise to an emergency, but failed to carry out the rules of propriety. Duke Huan of Qi carried out the rules of propriety but failed when it came to an emergency."75

The history lesson went on. Zilu said, "When Duke Huan put to death Prince Jiu (his brother), Shao Hu gave his life in an attempt to save the prince; but Guan Zhong did not. Must one not say that he fell short of goodness?"

However, Confucius suggested they look at other considerations even though one may not exemplify perfect goodness, saying, "That Duke Huan was able to convene the rulers of all the states without resorting to the use of his war-chariots was due to Guan Zhong. But as to his goodness, as to his goodness!?"76 Zigong felt that he was not good, so Confucius made even more clear the benefits he gave to their culture.

Through having Guan Zhong as his minister,
Duke Huan became leader of the feudal princes,
uniting and bringing order to everything under Heaven;
so that even today the people are benefiting
by what he then did for them.
Were it not for Guan Zhong
we might now be wearing our hair loose
and folding our clothes to the left (as the barbarians).
We must not expect from him
what ordinary men and women regard as fidelity-
to go off and strangle oneself in some ditch or drain,
and no one the wiser."77

In this way Confucius showed them how to take into consideration the overall situation.

Confucius did not accept blindly every legend, and he examined the famed paragon of truthfulness. "How can we call even the great Weisheng Kao upright? When someone asked him for vinegar he went and begged it from people next door and then gave it as though it were his own gift."78 Each of these examples from legend and history gave the students ethical questions to consider and discuss so that they themselves would know better how to behave.

Confucius also discussed contemporary issues. He suggested the possibility that the neighboring state and his own state could be improved. "A single change could bring Qi to the level to Lu; and a single change would bring Lu to the Way."79 Such a vague statement would probably stimulate the disciples to think how this could be done. Is it necessary for everyone to be educated in order to realize the Way in a state? Actually most people are followers. He said, "The common people may be made to follow the Way, but may not be made to understand it."80 Understanding requires making an effort to learn, and who can force anyone to do that? However, the actions of good people tend to influence others.

Confucius often pointed to certain human qualities as object lessons for his students. He cited Zijian, one of his disciples, to illustrate the mutual influence of people upon each other. "A better person indeed is such a one! If the land of Lu were indeed without better people, how could he have developed his character?"81 The master might even use himself as an example if it was appropriate. After Confucius had gone into the Grand Temple and asked questions about everything there, someone wondered if he really was an expert in the rules of propriety. When the master heard this, he said, "Just so! Such is a rule of propriety."82 He did not go out of his way to use himself as an example, but he quickly made the point when it came up spontaneously.

Confucius could be skeptical about what someone said if he had reason to be. When Zang Wu Zhong went into exile for conspiracy to revolt, he seized the fief of Fang. Then he sent a message to the duke that he would go into exile if Fang was given to his brother; the request was granted. Confucius, perceiving manipulation, commented, "It is said that he applied no pressure upon his prince; but I do not believe it."83 Here was a subtle political lesson for his students.

We have seen how Confucius pointed out areas in which the bold Zilu (Yu) could improve, but he also used his positive qualities as an example. It was said that the impetuous Zilu "never slept over a promise," and Confucius said of him, "It is Yu who could settle a lawsuit with half a word."84 Having shown where he needed improving by a quote from literature, he also used the same means to set forth his good points.

"Wearing a shabby hemp-quilted gown,
yet capable of standing unabashed
with those who wore fox and badger."
That would apply quite well to Yu, would it not?

Who harmed none, was foe to none,
Did nothing that was not right.

So taken up with this praise was Zilu that he kept on continually chanting those lines to himself until finally Confucius had to awaken him again to higher wisdom. "Come now, the wisdom contained in them is not the full extent of excellence."85

Confucius mentioned a Qi minister (d. 500 BC), who was famous as a wise advisor, in order to illustrate friendly behavior. "Yen Ping Zhong was a good example of what one's intercourse with one's fellowmen should be. However long he knew anyone, he always maintained the same scrupulous courtesy."86 He pointed to a Zheng minister, who died in 522 BC, as an exemplar of four of the virtues which belong to the Way of the truly better person: in his private conduct he was humble; in serving his superiors he was respectful; in nourishing the people he was kind; in ordering the people he was just.87 Yet there were some qualities which no one seemed to fulfill completely. Confucius said, "I have never yet seen a person who was truly steadfast." Someone suggested Shen Cheng. The master replied, "Cheng! He is at the mercy of his desires. How can he be called steadfast?"88 By this oblique reference, the students could learn to become more steadfast by watching their desires.

Cogent Sayings

Perhaps Confucius is most famous for his aphoristic sayings, many of which became well-known proverbs of the master. He seemed to have a way of making a moral statement which could inspire one to virtue without it seeming like he was preaching or telling them what to do. He expressed his wisdom as instruction for anyone who wished to take advantage of it rather than as direct commandments. Let us look at some of the statements he made to inspire and enlighten his listeners toward a better life. On the steadiness of governing virtuously, he used a natural metaphor. "A ruler who governs his state by the power of virtue is like the north polar star, which remains in its place while all the other stars revolve around it."89 How is this done as compared to how rulers usually attempt it? He said,

Lead the people by governmental measures
and keep order by laws and punishments,
and they will try to avoid them,
and will lose all self-respect.
Lead them by virtue
and keep order by the rules of propriety,
and they will keep their self-respect
and set themselves right.90

Strong laws and harsh punishments had not worked well in the long run. Confucius believed in and recommended the influence of moral goodness; for once a person attained it, one could regulate oneself.

In human relations, if one tries to take advantage of another, what will be the result? Confucius said "If one's acts are motivated by profit, one will have many enemies."91 He did not say "Do this" or "Do not do this," but rather he elucidated the consequence of various actions, negative and especially positive. He described how a truly better person behaves, inspiring others to freely decide to become what seems so admirable. What about competition, as in sports, for example?

Better people never compete.
You will say that in archery they do so.
But even then they bow and make way for one another
when they are going up to the archery-ground,
when they are coming down
and at the subsequent drinking bout.
Thus even when competing, they still remain better people.92

Is not good sportsmanship a sign of a cultured person? In these situations it is often the motive which indicates the person's character. "In ancient times people studied for the sake of self-improvement; nowadays people study in order to impress other people."93 Such a statement might bring an inner realization to a student and lead one to change one's attitude for the better.

Confucius encouraged his students to consider long-range problems, which some try to ignore. Why? Because it was practical. "Whoever is not concerned about what is far off will soon find something worse nearby."94 Although courage is not one of the highest Confucian virtues, it is still essential in action. "To see what is right and not do it is cowardice."95 Once an action has taken place, however, what good does it do to cast blame? When one of his disciples brought such a charge against Duke Ai's ancestors while talking with the duke, Confucius made the following suggestion: "What is over and done, one need not discuss. What has already taken its course, one need not criticize; what already belongs to the past, one need not censure."96 Wisdom often involves discernment of when to speak and when not to. Confucius told us one reason why.

When a man may be spoken with,
not to speak to him is to waste a man.
When a man may not be spoken with,
to speak to him is to waste one's words.
The truly wise never wastes a man;
but on the other hand, he never wastes his words either.97

The reference here is probably to the discussion of the Way, which everyone is not ready to hear.

As a teacher Confucius was always encouraging his students to learn. Here he used an everyday metaphor. "Learn as if you were following someone you could not catch up to, as though it were someone you were frightened of losing."98 No matter how much one knows, there is always more to learn; and no matter how advanced one becomes, there is always room for improvement. Yet for Confucius it was a joyful process to know that one was doing one's best.

Is it not pleasant to learn continually
and put it into practice?
Is it not delightful to have friends coming from afar?
Is one not a better person if one does not feel hurt
even though one is not recognized?99

Regardless of how the world treated him, Confucius could still maintain a positive attitude and go on learning and teaching.

From the material that is available to us, we have examined several of the techniques which Confucius used in order to lead others toward greater wisdom. Before we look at whether they were successful or not in terms of actual results among his students, we need to investigate the subject matter which Confucius emphasized.


1. Analects. 7:7.
2. An. 9:7.
3. An. 7:28.
4. An. 14:46.
5. An. 14:47.
6. An. 7:8.
7. An. 9:18.
8. An. 15:35.
9. An. 8:12.
10. An. 6:10.
11. An. 4:23.
12. An. 5:5.
13. An. 9:23.
14. An. 7:27.
15. An. 15:30.
16. An. 7:1.
17. An. 7:23.
18. An. 6:19.
19. An. 7:2.
20. An. 7:3.
21. An. 17:19.
22. An. 16:9.
23. An. 11:15.
24. An. 11:21.
25. An. 5:6.
26. An. 5:7.
27. An. 5:3.
28. An. 5:11.
29. An. 14:31.
30. An. 5:19.
31. An. 12:18.
32. An. 2:5.
33. An. 2:6.
34. An. 2:7.
35. An. 2:8.
36. An. 13:4.
37. An. 3:11.
38. An. 3:19.
39. An. 6:20.
40. An. 6:21.
41. An. 12:22.
42. An. 14:36.
43. An. 15:5.
44. An. 14:45.
45. An. 13:1.
46. An. 13:20.
47. An. 11:3.
48. An. 5:25.
49. An. 11:25.
50. An. 4:15.
51. An. 2:22.
52. An. 5:9.
53. An. 14:21.
54. An. 12:3.
55. An. 11:24.
56. An. 12:20.
57. An. 6:23.
58. An. 2:16 (Waley).
59. An. 2:16 (Legge).
60. An. 9:16.
61. An. 9:27.
62. An. 1:15.
63. An. 3:8.
64. An. 16:13.
65. An. 7:10.
66. An. 7:17.
67. An. 3:2.
68. An. 9:30.
69. An. 3:20.
70. An. 8:19.
71. An. 8:18.
72. An. 14:6.
73. An. 8:1.
74. An. 5:22.
75. An. 14:16.
76. An. 14:17.
77. An. 14:18.
78. An. 5:23.
79. An. 6:22.
80. An. 8:9.
81. An. 5:2.
82. An. 3:15.
83. An. 14:15.
84. An. 12:12.
85. An. 9:26.
86. An. 5:16.
87. An. 5:15.
88. An. 5:10.
89. An. 2:1.
90. An. 2:3.
91. An. 4:12
92. An. 3:7.
93. An. 14:25.
94. An. 15:11.
95. An. 2:24.
96. An. 3:21.
97. An. 15:7.
98. An. 8:17.
99. An. 1:1.

Copyright © 1996, 2006 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi

BECK index