Confucius and the Great Learning

The Great Learning: 大学; was one of the “Four Books” in Confucianism. The Great Learning had come from a chapter in the Classic of Rites which formed one of the Five Classics. It consists of a short main text attributed to the teachings of Confucius and then ten commentary chapters accredited to one of Confucius’ disciples, Zeng Zi who lived from 505-436 BC. The ideals of the book were supposedly by Confucius; however the text was written after his death. The “Four Books” were selected by the neo-Confucian Zhu Xi during the Song Dynasty as a foundational introduction to Confucianism and examinations for the state civil service in China. Confucius, who incorporated ideas from Ji Dan, the Duke of Zhou and others, compiled and edited the Book of Rites, Book of Documents, Classics of Poetry, the I Ching, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. Confucius’ student, Zeng Zi wrote the introduction and exposition of The Great Learning. Confucius taught 3000 pupils; of which 72 mastered the six arts as follows:

1) The Rites — The cult of the ancestors and the ceremonies mark the passing of the seasons and the different stages of a man’s life. The rites are the backbone of society and are indispensable to the proper functioning of the world.

2) Music — The Rites are always associated with music, as the principle regulating the relations between men, and between men and the universe. Music and dance are considered to afford access to supreme beauty and to wisdom.

3) Writing— Like dance, writing reproduces the dynamic and the movement of the world. It is practiced in an atmosphere of contemplative withdrawal, using objects imbued with symbolism.

4) Mathematics — The science of numbers is the origin of exact measurement and of wealth and prosperity.

5) Chariot driving — The chariot has an important place in war, in hunting and in the parades that express the power of the nobles. (This was the period of the Zhou and Warring States Period of China).

6) Archery — Archery forms part of a man’s physical training and, as in the case of chariot driving, allows talent to be tested through competition.

The Great Learning developed from many authors adapting to the needs and beliefs of the community at the time. The Cheng brothers, Yi (1033–1107) and Hao (1032–1085) both utilized the Great Learning’s philosophies. Their ideas met with strong official opposition, but were reconstituted by Zhu Xi. Cheng’s idea of yi was that it was identical with nature, which he believed was essentially good. Cheng’s yi emphasized the necessity of acquiring knowledge. During the Southern Song Dynasty, Zhu Xi rearranged the Great Learning and included it in the Four Books, along with the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects of Confucius and the Mencius. Zhu Xi developed the Chengs’ Confucian ideas and drew from Chan Buddhism and Taoism. He adapted some ideas from these competing religions into his form of Confucianism.  Li Ao, a scholar, poet, and official, used and brought attention to the Great Learning. After the Song and Yuan Dynasties, The Great Learning became a required textbook in schools and a required reading for imperial examinations. The Dais divided the book into five sections. This included the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Evolution of Rites, the Yili, and the “Etiquette and Rites” .

There is a popular commentary by Han Yu and Li Ao who both used The Great Learning. Li Ao incorporated a lot of Buddhist and Taoist ideas into his work. Zi Si – Confucius’s grandson – is said to have taught Mencius and written the Doctrine of the Mean. He may also have written the beginning of the Great Learning. Ma Yung edited the Great Learning in the Han dynasty, giving his views of the general meaning.

Principal teachings of the Great Learning

  • Achieving a state of balance and refining one’s moral self such that it is a reflection of the Way (Tao).
  • Ample rest and reflection such that one achieves peace of mind. When one is calm and reflected, the Way will be revealed to them.
  • Setting priorities and knowing what is important is essential in one’s quest for moral refinement, for it allows one to focus on that which is of the greatest importance and that which is in line with the Way as outlined in Confucian teachings.
  • One must bring his affairs and relationships into order and harmony. If one hopes to attain order in the state, he must first bring his own family and personal life into order through self-cultivation and the expansion of one’s knowledge and the “investigation of things.”
  • Each and every man is capable of learning and self-cultivation regardless of social, economic or political status. This, in turn, means that success in learning is the result of the effort of the individual as opposed to an inability to learn.
  • One must treat education as an intricate and interrelated system where one must strive for balance. No one aspect of learning is isolated from the other and failure to cultivate a single aspect of one’s learning will lead to the failure of learning as a whole.

Meaning of “Investigation of Things”

The text sets up a number of controversies that have underlain Chinese philosophy and political thinking. For example, one major controversy has been to define exactly the investigation of things. What things are to be investigated and how has been one of the crucial issues of Chinese philosophy. One of the first steps to understanding The Great Learning is to understand how to “investigate things”. This did not consist of scientific inquiry and experimentation, but introspection, building on what is already “known” of “principle”. True introspection was to allow the mind to become all knowing with regards to morality, relationships, civic duty and nature.

The main text

What the Great Learning teaches is: to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.       大學之道在明明德,在親民,在止於至善

The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained.  知止而后有定;定而后能靜

To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end. 靜而后能安;安而后能慮;慮而后能得

Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in The Great Learning. 物有本末,事有終始,知所先後,則近道矣。

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the world, first ordered well their own States.  古之欲明明德於天下者,先治其國

Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. 欲治其國者,先齊其家

Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. 欲齊其家者,先修其身

Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.  欲修其身者,先正其心

Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. 欲正其心者,先誠其意

Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge.  欲誠其意者,先致其知

Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.  致知在格物

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.  物格而後知至

Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere.  知至而後意誠

Their thoughts bg sincere, their hearts were then rectified. 意誠而後心正

Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. 心正而後身修

Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. 身修而後家齊

Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed. 家齊而後國治

Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace. 國治而後天下平

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.  自天子以至於庶人,壹是皆以修身為本

It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.    其本亂而末治者,否矣

It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for, and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for. 其所厚者薄,而其所薄者厚,未之有也

The Great Learning is significant because it expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking, and has therefore been extremely influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought. Government, self-cultivation and investigation of things are linked. It links together individual action in the form of self-cultivation with higher goals such as ultimate world peace as well as linking together the spiritual and the material. Basing its authority on the presumed practices of ancient kings rather than nature or deities, the Great Learning both links the spiritual with the practical, and creates a vision of the Way that is radically different from that presented by Taoism per sea. However, the incorporation of the I Ching and both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were moderating influences over time.

Sources: Wikipedia plus my own input


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