The Great Learning Analysis


The Pursuit of Virtue

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

It is not difficult to see why this short work, which until the late twentieth century every student learned by heart, was used as a basic guide to people's self-cultivation. Within its ten short chapters, the author outlines a complete theory on how to realize the Confucian ideal of life. He describes the process of making human beings worthy of their name out of an existence in ignorance. He teaches people how to attain the ideal goal of a person, which is self-perfection, in order to prepare themselves for the supreme task of bringing peace and order to the world.

The opening paragraph puts forth the gist of The Great Learning: to teach a man (at that time, almost always a man and not a woman) to know the great virtue, to love the people, and to pursue the highest good as his ultimate goal. Immediately after this statement, the reader is told that pursuing the highest good to perfect oneself individually is actually the first step, in which one proceeds to influence all people with one's personal virtue until the principle of great virtue is understood and accepted by all. When this condition obtains, a utopian state will exist on earth.

The author explains in greater detail the process of making the great virtue prevail. One must first cultivate oneself to perfection, then put one's own house in order, then bring the same harmonious order to the state, and finally extend the same influence to all corners of the world so that there will be universal peace and prosperity. For achieving this perfection, the author urges each individual to "rectify his heart [mind]." However, this cannot be done unless one traces this process back to its very beginning in the following order: make one's thoughts sincere, extend one's knowledge, and investigate things. The last is, therefore, the real beginning of people's self-cultivation.

The Meaning of Investigation

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Two problems emerge. One is a linguistic question on the order of the last two steps. The original language could mean either "to obtain knowledge is for the purpose of understanding things," or "investigating things in order to extend knowledge." The other problem involves the exact meaning of the phrase, "investigation of things." The text does not explain further, and two diametrically opposed schools of thought center their arguments on this phrase.

The school headed by Zhu Xi (whose annotations have become orthodox) believes in a dualism of principle and matter. Because each being contains its own principle, people's minds can comprehend the universe only after they have investigated all the principles of all things. Chapter 5 of The Great Learning, according to Zhu Xi, deals with this question. However, as the entire chapter is lost except for two fragmentary phrases, Zhu Xi's annotation becomes the only authoritative conjecture. Zhu Xi says that students must start from the principles of limited things already known to them and "search exhaustively for all the principles of all things." After a lengthy period of such concentration, students would "suddenly penetrate" the universal principle and then their knowledge would become complete. Zhu Xi's opponents tend to entertain a monistic view and regard the universal principle as indivisible. They therefore see no value in investigating the outside world but urge people to search within their own minds for an understanding of the universal principle.

Without going into details about this debate that lasted for centuries, it seems reasonable and acceptable to arrive at an understanding of this problem on the basis of several other key ideas in The Great Learning. One of these ideas is the notion of the end of the process of pursuing knowledge.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

It has been noted that the end of this process is stated in the opening paragraph as "the highest good." To know the end of this process is important because without knowing where to stop, people would go on searching for knowledge, drifting and getting confused, and being led astray by their contact with and involvement in the outside world. Consequently, they would never attain the "complete knowledge." Thus, the pursuit of knowledge continues until the attainment of extreme moral excellence. The Great Learning does not urge people to keep on accumulating objective facts and data which, as the author of this work rightly hints, are endless and confusing.

Also, the beginning paragraph contains some elaboration on the importance of "knowing where to stop." To know where to stop, it is said, precedes the fixation of the object of pursuit. Having fixed the object of pursuit, people can achieve the peace of mind (or quiescence, or calm) that is a necessary condition for deliberation. Without deliberation, no knowledge can be obtained. Thus, without knowing where to stop in the process of pursuing knowledge, there can be no possibility that people will ever acquire knowledge.

The next key idea is the notion of "root and branches." This is not merely a notion of a fixed order of things--for the root precedes the branches--it is a recognition of the distinction between the principal and the adjunct, or between the essence and its extension....

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The author demands that a person "make his thought sincere" in order to rectify the mind. Sincere thought means thought of concentration. The thought of a distracted mind cannot be sincere. When applied to the practical level of understanding, the author here is advising people to keep their minds on the object when they seek knowledge of it. Metaphysically, the author seems to assume that knowledge can be attained only by maintaining an ever-present mind, which is still an intuitive approach to knowledge.

Another application of the idea of making one's thought sincere is the author's injunction that an ideal person would be careful about action and speech even, and especially, when that individual is alone. When alone, an individual must consider himself or herself watched by ten eyes and pointed at by ten fingers. As a moral admonition, the author urges people to behave according to one moral standard by which they could face the world as well as themselves. However, as an elaboration of the notion of sincerity, the author here advocates a unity of being. A person's mind and behavior are one; his or her inner thought and outer expression cannot contradict each other because anyone knowing the individual could see the inner self, which no amount of pretension can hide. The underlying assumption here is that there is a unity of reality. The moment one perceives even a fraction of what is real and essential, one has perceived the whole.

A Political Application

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Examining the foregoing key ideas together, it is apparent that what the author means by "investigation of things" is, basically, an intuitive comprehension of the essence of things, which lies beyond deceptive appearances. In order to arrive at such intuitive comprehensions, one must prepare one's mind for the task by "emptying one's mind" of all biases and by ensuring undivided concentration. Having grasped the essence of things, one stops any further pursuit of knowledge because one's knowledge is already complete and because one has reached the highest good, which is also supreme moral excellence. The wise, in other words, is also the morally good. The author applies the whole theory to politics and develops a theory of the exemplar.

The final goal of self-cultivation being the maintenance of a peaceful and prosperous world, the author never loses sight of the application of his principles to politics. Each of the ten chapters develops one step in the process from investigation of things to bringing peace to the world. The last chapter, dealing with the art of government, occupies half of The Great Learning.

The Art of Governing

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Three principles of the art of government are discussed in this work. The first is that people of themselves will do exactly what the ruler does. People will follow their ruler as long as the latter is sincere; that is to say, as long as the ruler keeps his or her words and deeds in agreement and consistent. In the remote past, some rulers were said to have been benevolent and other kings violent, but the people followed them equally until the sovereign proved himself to be inconsistent in that he demanded his subjects to be moral while he himself exhibited no moral scruples. People always imitate their leaders. This premise is parallel to Mozi's teaching in the Mozi (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ethnical and Political Works of Motse, 1929; also known as Mo Tzu: Basic Writings, 1963; commonly known as Mozi). Therefore, if rulers set an example, they will function as the yardstick against which the conduct of their people will be measured. The Great Learning cites a number of historical cases to prove that the taste and value standards of a nation change along with what the royal court upholds. The Confucian doctrine of rule by moral magnetism thus finds another exponent in the author of this work. Rulers seeking the best way to run a state are always asked to examine their own conduct and to cultivate their own moral stature.

The second principle is to be able to recognize and make use of wise and moral people. From the sovereign down to the village chief, if the head can use good people as assistants and expel the bad elements from positions of influence, the state will be well governed. In this effort, the ruler must be sincere; he or she must not seek the good and capable merely because they are useful but because the ruler "likes them more than he can say." The ruler must be genuinely fond of these people and hate those who cannot practice the same principle. A minister who is jealous of others of the same caliber must be removed and exiled to the "land of the barbarians and never allowed to return."

The third principle is the esteem of what is right above what is materially profitable. The ideas of righteousness and profit were made the basis for the political philosophy of Mencius, and The Great Learning reaffirms the same principle by instructing the ruler to value moral excellence above material gain. A moral ruler attracts people and commands their respect. When people flock around the ruler, his or her domain extends. As the domain extends, the wealth of the nation grows, and the king has no need to...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Chan, Wing-tsit, ed. Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986. A collection of essays that examine the editor of the Four Books and his founding role in the neo-Confucian movement.

Chan, Wing-tsit, ed. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. This anthology includes Chan's excellent translation of and commentary on The Great Learning.

Fang, T. H. The Chinese View of Life: The Philosophy of Comprehensive Harmony. Taipei: Linking, 1981. This work posits a historical trend in...

(The entire section is 457 words.)