Recently, I was reminded by my wife about the importance of knowledge and education. It’s something we often take for granted in today’s era of universal (and often sub-standard) education, but throughout human history, education was something crucial and opened so many opportunities for people. It really spelled the difference between someone who might toil their entire life in the fields as a landless farmer, to someone who could have a position in government, make their family and themselves wealthy, and even leave a lasting legacy in history.
But for Confucius, education and knowledge were far more important: it was the root of good conduct and the cornerstone of a harmonious society. Chapter 7 in the Analects of Confucius features many good quotations (with great translations by Prof. Charles Muller).
Confucius was passionate about teachings others, as shown in a couple quotations:
[7:2] Confucius said: “Keeping silent and thinking; studying without satiety, teaching others without weariness: these things come natural to me.”
[7:7] Confucius said: “From the one who brought a bundle of dried meat (the poorest person) upwards, I have never denied a person my instruction.”
[7:8] Confucius said: “If a student is not eager, I won’t teach him; if he is not struggling with the truth, I won’t reveal it to him. If I lift up one corner and he can’t come back with the other three, I won’t do it again.”1
But for me the most inspiring quote in chapter 7 is this one:
[7:6] Confucius said: “Set your aspirations on the Way, hold to virtue, rely on your ren, and relax in the study of the arts.”
Here, the term rén (仁, pronounced like the English word “run”) is a central concept in Confucius’s teachings and might mean something like “sense of humanity”. The “Way” here is not to be confused with Taoism, but rather with the Way of the Gentleman, the way of self-cultivation, virtue and noble conduct even in a world where everyone is selfish and out to get their own.
For Confucius, a study of the arts, whether it be literature, calligraphy, poetry, music or sports was one way to help maintain one’s sense of humanity.
In a way, this point is really important. An animal and a human are fundamentally the same: both need food, water, sleep and sex, but the human in the ideal sense is something much more. A “human” is one who has compassion for others, even those who might be unattractive, is not swayed by sensory gratification, and exercises self-discipline for the benefit of others and for society at large.
If you think about it carefully, the difference between a human and an animal is one of conduct, not biology.
1 More on the subject.