Confucius: The River Flows On

One of the most famous quotations from the Analects of Confucius* comes from Book 9, verse 17 (translation by Burton Watson):

Standing by a stream, the Master [Confucius] said, It flows on like this—does it not?—never ceasing day or night.

Commentators for more than 2,000 years have pondered what Confucius meant by this. Confucius was pretty thoughtful with his words, so it’s not like him to just make idle chatter, so he probably had some deeper meaning behind this, but we may never know for sure.

I tend to see it form a somewhat Buddhist viewpoint which emphasizes a cosmology of “Big Time”, where universes expand and collapse in a near-infinite stream of time. This is generally in keeping with ancient India’s tendency to “think big” when it comes to philosophy. But Confucius I don’t think was familiar with Indian philosophy at the time. Maybe he just meant that Life just goes on and on, never stopping and no end in sight. Maybe he just meant problems and corruption keep arising in new forms.

What do you think he meant?

* – I finally figured out what this is called in Japanese: rongo (論語). I wanted to know because it came up in the movie Twilight Samurai a couple times, and I couldn’t quite understand what “rongo” was.

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2 Comments on “Confucius: The River Flows On”

  1. It is said that the talks Confucius gave were not always confined in classroom settings. He traveled together with the students to various places such as cities, mountains and rivers, and his wisdom flew out naturally and turned into words to point out the essence of a thought at that moment when they captured a sight at that spot.

    So I imagine one day Confucius and his students traveled to a river bank. They saw the current of the river was constantly pushing forward. In sight of this nature’s phenomenon, he alerted his student time could not be turned back and there were a lot to be done in our limited lifetime.

  2. Doug says:

    Kuei-sen, that was a really thougtful reply and made me think. Nice work! :)

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