Confucius set the bar high. The autobiography in his Analects is a six-line classic.
At fifteen, I set my heart upon learning.
At thirty I established my resolve.
At forty I became free of doubts.
At fifty I understood the Mandate of Heaven.
At sixty, I ceased to resist it.
At seventy, I could follow the inclinations of my heart-and-mind, for I no longer transgressed the boundaries of righteousness. (II.4)
I have cobbled this translation together from many that I have seen; in addition, I have used blogger’s liberty with the last word. Let’s reflect on the stages.
“At fifteen I set my heart upon learning.” The teachings of Confucius came to dominate Chinese family life, education, government, and culture during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 200 CE); and Chinese families around the world still have a reputation for the importance they place upon education. Along with duties within the family, diligent study and academic achievement are paramount during one’s years in school.
“At thirty I established my resolve.” Translator D.C. Lau (Penguin edition) is probably closer to the classical understanding: “I took my stand.” But the translation I choose reflects Neo-Confucian spirituality, which regarded this step of Confucius’ life as the watershed for any person’s self-cultivation. After this great decision, there was no turning back, no backsliding. The implication is that this was a major achievement, requiring considerable maturity of character and will. Since one could not simply force one’s way into such a commitment, there are stories of persons who established their resolve in a spontaneous moment to which their heart-and-mind was opened when they were open and relaxed in the contemplation of a beautiful scene in nature.
“At forty I became free of doubts.” I follow Lau here, though a more common translation is “free from perplexity.” In other words, there is a certain kind of confusion-and-frustration that no longer occurs in a progressing individual.
“At fifty I understood the Mandate of Heaven” (Lau: “Decree of Heaven). Current scholars reject the tendency of some Western readers to identify the Mandate of Heaven with the will of God; the first meaning of the character for “Heaven” is “sky.” Surely something cosmic is intended; but my own view is that current scholarship goes too far in trying to excise every trace of overlap between the Mandate of Heaven and the will of God. My own view is that there are commonalities in human experience that are obscured when translators relying too much on context (which varies greatly) to interpret the meaning of words.
“At sixty, I ceased to resist [the Mandate of Heaven].” Lau: “my ear was attuned.”
“At seventy, I could follow the leadings of my heart-and-mind, for I no longer transgressed the boundaries of righteousness.” “The boundaries of right” is the most common translation. Lau: I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line.” On this term, I exercised blogger’s license and practiced what I call “transplanting into your own garden.” In other words, we may find some impressive words of wisdom in translation from some other culture or perspective, and we realize that what they mean to us is different from what they meant to the author. But we make use of our interpretation of those words.
On my seventieth birthday last February I began using this somewhat irresponsible translation in conversations with a couple friends, expressing what I had not achieved, though I certainly had had Confucius’ goal in mind for the previous four decades.
However, during the past month, as I was working to revise my chapter on character achievement in conversation with my editor (who was also wrestling with the same topic in her life), I had a breakthrough. I had been thinking about Jesus and his teaching “Be you perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I believe that the meaning of that invitation is that perfection is a long-term goal fulfilled in heaven, not on earth; nevertheless, there is a limited but important sense in which we can reasonably strive to become like God as we are on earth–and succeed. The sense of perfection that available in this life is righteousness. And righteousness is a gift of God. It is not something we acquire by the Aristotelian method of doing the right thing in the right way in the appropriate situation often enough to establish a habit that becomes second nature. We all grow in courage, say, or self-mastery in matters of pleasure, or fairness, partly by relying on this kind of process. The Aristotelian process and the spiritual process are two dimensions that weave together in strong character.
Righteousness as the gift of God does not bring us cognitive, emotional, or practical perfection; but it is a game-changer. Righteousness without love can become fanaticism; but the divine gift, woven into the naturally growing character, brings with it a beautiful wholeness.
I look forward to your comments on my last chapter. I don’t have a contract yet, so it is premature to refer to the book as “forthcoming,” and to tell you the press. But you’ll be the first to know (almost) once things become definite.
In the meantime, let’s all enjoy our walk with the One who satisfies our hunger and thirst for righteousness, taking away the misery of a morbid, anguished struggle for growth, and replacing it with beatitude—happiness.
“Confucius 02”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Confucius_02.png#/media/File:Confucius_02.png