Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a fine line

Confucius said: “Zilu, have you heard of the six virtues and their six attendant vices?” “No, I have not.” “Sit down, and I will tell you. Loving consummate conduct without loving learning leads to ignorance. Loving knowledge without loving learning leads to foolishness. Loving trustworthiness without loving learning leads to criminality. Loving frankness without loving learning leads to offensiveness. Loving boldness without loving learning leads to violence. Loving steadfastness without loving learning leads to recklessness.”
子曰:「由也,女聞六言六蔽矣乎?」對曰:「未也。」「居!吾語女。好仁不好學,其蔽也愚;好知不好學,其蔽也蕩;好信不好學,其蔽也賊;好直不好學,其蔽也絞;好勇不好學,其蔽也亂;好剛不好學,其蔽也狂。」

When does a virtue become a vice? This is the question you need to think about before your knees give out from too much jogging or your relationship falls apart because you are spending all your time building your unicorn. Without careful cultivation and reflection, even the most benign intentions can turn into an ugly obsession.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 8 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.

(1) The character言 (yán) in the first sentence literally means “words”, but the point that Confucius makes to Zilu is clear: even the most positive personal qualities need to be carefully cultivated in order make sure they do not turn into negatives. Just as there is a fine line between being frank and offensive, boldness can spill over into violence if you are not careful. The answer is to maintain the right balance and not to go to extremes.

(2) This passage is similar in style and meaning to 8.2. Like ritual, learning is a vehicle for regulating people’s emotions so that they do not become excessive.

“Reverence unregulated by ritual descends into indifference; cautiousness unregulated by ritual descends into timidity; boldness unregulated by ritual descends into disorder; frankness unregulated by ritual descends into hurtfulness.”

(3) Even though Confucius does not use the specific term in this passage, he is reiterating the importance of striking the right balance or golden mean in your thoughts and conduct. See 6.29: “Applying the golden mean is the highest level of virtue.”

I took this image near the top of Jiuwufeng in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.