Book 7 of the Analects paints a vivid portrait of Confucius striving to put the lofty principles and values he teaches his followers and students into practice in his daily life. This is a never-ending quest that causes him to constantly reflect on his inability to live up to the standards he has set for himself.
“Although my commitment is as strong as anyone’s when it comes to cultural knowledge and refinement,” he laments in 7.32, “I haven’t yet hit the target of becoming a true leader in how I conduct myself.” “How could I possibly dare to claim that I’m a man of great wisdom and goodness?” he adds in the next chapter. “All that can be said of me is that I never grow weary of learning and never get tired of teaching others.”
Of course it’s possible that Confucius was guilty of Uriah-Heep-style modesty with his self-criticisms, but this is unlikely given the zealousness with which he pursued his self-appointed mission of restoring the Zhou dynasty to its former glory. “Why didn’t you say,” he asks Zilu in 7.18 after learning that his follower had refused to tell the Duke of She about him, that “he’s the kind of man who gets so lost in his passions that he forgets to eat and so caught up in his happiness that he forgets his worries and doesn’t even notice he’s growing old?’”
Not too surprisingly, perhaps, third-party descriptions of Confucius in Book 7 are much more positive in tone than his self-criticisms. These are best exemplified in the final chapter, where he is portrayed as “gracious but serious; commanding but not severe; respectful but at ease.”
Confucius is seen as a man who walks his talk, in other words. As one of those rare people who has accomplished the demanding balancing act known as the golden mean, he provides a worthy example for everyone else to follow.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.