The Pursuit of Virtue
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.