The Pursuit of Virtue

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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

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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

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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. The overriding principle upheld in The Great Learning is that people must distinguish the root from the branches when they approach anything, acquisition of knowledge being no exception. To know a thing is to know its essence, and the person who has learned of the essence of things possesses complete knowledge. The author of this work considers knowledge of the distinction between the essence and the outward features of things to be the work's central theme. The underlying assumption is that knowledge of phenomena is not true knowledge.

A third key idea lies in the term "peace of mind" or "quiescence." The attainment of quiescence is necessary to acquiring knowledge. This state of mind is directly linked to the theory of "rectifying the heart [mind]." The author stresses the importance of maintaining an undisturbed mind, free from anger, anxiety, sorrow, and even the feeling of fond attachment. Only after one has succeeded in ridding one's mind of all prejudices that ordinary people erroneously call knowledge can one expect to reach true or complete knowledge. A rectified mind is a mind immune to emotional influences. Such a mind comes close to the "empty mind" of the Daoists, whose approach to knowledge is intuitive rather than investigative.


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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

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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

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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 be concerned with any insufficiency of material supplies. It is not that The Great Learning disregards the solvency of a state. Rather, it stresses the importance of "accumulating wealth in the right way."

Such a morally magnetic ruler is one who appears in the eyes of his people under a paternal halo. The Great Learning metaphorically calls this ruler a "people's parent" and advises him or her to "like what the people like and hate what the people hate." What is unclear about the last statement is how it can be reconciled with the exemplar theory that sees the people as followers and not as the ones to make decisions. If the ruler is to observe only what the people want, then how is the ruler to function as an exemplar?

The answer seems to lie in the confusion about a basic understanding of human nature that disturbed the philosophical world of ancient China and was not clarified even within the Confucian orthodoxy. Confucius himself was silent on this point, and his sayings merely suggest faith in the teachability of humankind. According to Confucius, people can and need to be cultivated toward the good. Mencius, the second standard-bearer of Confucianism, insisted on the innate goodness of human nature, but he also acknowledged the need for self-cultivation. Xunzi, the third great Confucian philosopher whose doctrines are said to have influenced The Great Learning more than those of the two earlier philosophers, held a diametrically opposed view. He said that people have undesirable propensities that, if uncurbed, will inevitably lead them to evil.

On the question as to what the ruler should do for the people, The Great Learning reflects all three views in different passages. When it says that people follow only examples above them, the book accepts Xunzi's views. When it advises the ruler to love what the people love, the book takes Mencius's theory. However, in most instances, the book appears to stay with Confucius himself in holding that people can be taught to follow the good, so that the responsibility of the ruler is teaching by demonstration, using himself or herself as an example. Consequently, the cycle appears to be as follows: At first, people are ignorant and seek only to meet their basic needs, which are neither good nor bad. They follow the good example of a ruler and cultivate their moral senses until the atmosphere (moral customs) of the nation becomes good. When they have attained this moral discipline, they know, generally, what is good and what is bad. Hence the ruler loves what the people love and hates what the people hate.

The influence of the key ideas in this book, however underdeveloped and ill-defined they may be in the original text, can hardly be exaggerated. After Zhu Xi extracted the work from the Book of Rites, the ideas it contained became a force in molding the ideology of China for hundreds of years. Self-cultivation, explained exactly in Zhu Xi's terms, was upheld by all orthodox educators up to the very end of the nineteenth century. Self-education, explained with some variation, remained a living idea among the Marxist and the rightist Chinese theorists at the end of the twentieth century. An authoritative pamphlet written by the Chinese Communist leader Liu Shaoqi (elected chairman of the People's Republic of China in 1959) instructs the youth of the nation to "set their thoughts sincere" and "watch over their behavior when alone" in order to become good communists. The whole cadre theory in the Marxist frame, urging the good and capable to set themselves up as exemplars, is so congenial with the exemplar theory in The Great Learning that it won the nation overnight without encountering any resistance.


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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 Chinese philosophy toward achieving consensus rather than accentuating difference between the Confucian and other schools of thought.

Fingarette, H. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. This standard critical biography of Confucius explores the nuances of his philosophy by analyzing his relationships with various disciples such as Zengzi.

Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Vol. 1. Translated by Derek Bodde. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952. This standard history of Chinese philosophy (originally published in Chinese in 1913) includes a lengthy discussion of The Great Learning, in which the author explores the influence of the Warring States period Confucian philosopher Xunzi on the work.

Hall, D. L., and Roger Ames. Thinking Through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York, 1987. A general study of Confucian philosophy that focuses on the differences between Chinese and Western ideologies.

Hughes, E. R. "The Great Learning" and the Mean-In-Action. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943. Includes an urbane and highly readable English translation with a detailed introductory essay on the authorship and date of The Great Learning. Among Hughes's many interesting theories regarding the text is his hypothesis that it may have been a reaction to the materialist philosophy of Shang Yang.

Legge, James. The Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean. Hong Kong: J. Legge, 1861. Reprint. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893. Contains a good, if dated, translation of The Great Learning based on the Zhu Xi edition. Although his Christian missionary bias often colors his work, Legge's detailed introduction provides a good overview of the critical controversies regarding the text.

Lin Yutang. The Wisdom of Confucius. New York: Illustrated Modern Library, 1943. A good general introduction to Confucianism, this amply annotated text includes a highly accessible translation of The Great Learning.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. This intellectual history of pre-Han China discusses The Great Learning both as a political document preoccupied with the reunification of China during the Warring States period and as a philosophical text best understood within the context of Mencian Confucianism.

Tu Wei-ming. Humanity and Self-Cultivation. Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Studies Press, 1979. An excellent analysis that uses The Great Learning's concept of self-examination as one of the fundamental principles of Confucianism.