The Great Learning Biography


Authorship and Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Tradition attributes The Great Learning to Zengzi (b. 505 b.c.e.), one of the most influential of Confucius's original seventy-seven disciples. Zengzi is frequently quoted in Confucius's Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects, 1861), usually in clarification of the master's statements. Although the Analects portrays Zengzi as the ultimate figure of Confucian orthodoxy, some critics have accused him of overemphasizing the concept of filial piety--in effect transforming Confucius's scattered admonitions on the subject into a fundamental principle of the Confucian creed.

Zengzi's preeminence among the master's disciples is illustrated by the number of anecdotes relating to him in the Analects. Most notable is an incident in which Confucius once puzzled his disciples with a complicated exposition of his philosophy: Zengzi explained--to the master's evident delight--that his principles were ultimately based on yi (righteousness) and ren (benevolence). After Confucius's death, Zengzi perpetuated the school that the master had founded. This assumption of authority is underscored by the structure of the Analects itself; in the latter chapters, Zengzi appears more frequently, particularly in an extended anecdote relating to his steadfast virtue in the face of a near-fatal illness. In a consummate display of filial piety, the stricken Zengzi asked his disciples to note his still healthy hands and feet, proudly explaining that he had maintained them in the condition in which he had received them from his parents. Mencius's Mengzi (early third century b.c.e.; The Works of Mencius, 1861; commonly known as Mengzi) makes Zengzi's role as Confucius's ideological heir even more explicit. It is recorded there that after the death of Confucius, some of his disciples initially devoted themselves to one of their peers simply because he physically resembled the master--until Zengzi reminded them that the master's virtue, not his appearance, was the proper object of their veneration.

Although Confucian orthodoxy has exalted Zengzi himself to the level of a sage, his ultimate importance to the creed lies in his position as transitional figure between Confucius and Mencius. Tradition credits Zengzi with having been the teacher of Zi Si (483-402 b.c.e.), Confucius's grandson and the reputed master of Mencius (c. 372-289 b.c.e.). Although the years in which they lived, according to modern scholarship, would seem to rule out an actual personal connection between Zi Si and Mencius, they are linked by a similar interpretation of the Confucian tradition. Zi Si is credited with the authorship of Zhong Yong (fifth to fourth century b.c.e.; The Doctrine of the Mean, 1861), another of the Four Books that, like The Great Learning, shifts the focus of Confucianism away from a unquestioning reverence for antiquity toward an inquiry-centered rational humanism. Some scholars have suggested that Zi Si composed The Great Learning as well--perhaps serving in the role of amanuensis for his master Zengzi.

Mencius, the so-called Second Sage of Confucianism, is regarded as having formalized the peripatetic insights of Confucius into a systematic philosophy. Significantly, Zengzi makes frequent appearances in Mengzi, perhaps in an attempt by its author to establish a canonical line between himself and the master. Zengzi often acts as the voice of Mencius as the Second Sage identifies rational self-examination as the core of Confucius's philosophy.

Most scholars are willing to give Zengzi or his disciple Zi Si credit for authoring some of The Great Learning, particularly the simpler anecdotal sections reminiscent of the Analects. The simplicity and repetitive nature of some sections suggest that parts of the work may have been chanted by Zengzi and his disciples, a practice common in the semiliterate China of the fifth century b.c.e. Perhaps the best example of this is the famous sorites, or extended syllogism, that summarizes the work:The ancients who wished to illustrate virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)