If there’s one central theme of Book 7 of the Analects, it’s the importance Confucius places on the power of self-cultivation. He is so focused on what he saw as his heaven-given mission of restoring the former greatness of Zhou dynasty that he doesn’t have the time or inclination to pursue the power, wealth, fame, honors, and other trappings of success craved by his contemporaries.
Confucius doesn’t claim to have any particular talent for undertaking this mission. In 7.19, he candidly admits “I wasn’t born with innate knowledge. I simply love the past and am assiduous in seeking it there.”
He hasn’t created a unique methodology or ideology to accelerate the fulfillment of his mission either. As he points out in 7.1, he merely “transmits” the lessons of the past by teaching the wisdom of the ancients and setting the right example in his conduct, speech, and demeanor for others to follow. He is very frank about his approach, even though some people suspect he has some magic formula up his sleeve. “My friends, do you think I’m hiding something from you?” he asks in 7.23. “I’m hiding nothing at all. There’s nothing I do without sharing it with you. That’s my way.”
Confucius doesn’t expect any material rewards for his dedication to his path. He is driven by love and passion for it alone. “Even if you have only coarse grain to eat, water to drink, and your bent elbow to use as a pillow, you can still find joy in these things,” he chides others who doubt him in 7.15. “But wealth and honors obtained by improper means are like passing clouds to me.”
Perhaps most paradoxically, he understands that no matter how hard he strives there is no guarantee of success. Although he proclaims that heaven has “bestowed him with virtue” in 7.23, this only means that it has given him the tools he needs to proceed along his path. The ultimate outcome is in the hands of fate.
Confucius failed to accomplish his mission during his lifetime, but he left an indelible mark on the subsequent development of Chinese culture and civilization. His enduring influence bears vivid testament to the power of self-cultivation.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.