Confucius said: “The ancients had three failings, but people today are not even capable of having these. Whereas the rashness of the ancients was innocent, the rashness of people today is depraved; whereas the pride of the ancients was noble, the pride of people today is brutish; whereas the foolishness of the ancients was genuine, the foolishness of people today is devious.”
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Rather than idealize or condemn those who came before us, we should strive to learn from their experiences so that we do not repeat the same mistakes they made and identify the principles and values that can bring humanity closer together to create a fairer and more prosperous society.
This article features a translation of Chapter 16 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.
(1) The quote comes from the opening line of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley.
(2) In his teachings, Confucius called for the restoration of a Golden Age that he claimed existed just after the founding of the Zhou dynasty in 1050 BCE when his great hero the Duke of Zhou instituted reforms that ushered in a period of great social, cultural, and economic prosperity. In this chapter, the sage is probably harking back even further to an age of innocence when even people’s failings were underpinned by the purest of motives and had not yet mutated into the depraved, brutish, and sinister viruses that threatened to destroy the very foundations of this civilization. Of course, by looking solely to the past for inspiration, Confucius failed to spot new trends such as the replacement of bronze with iron for military, agricultural, and industrial purposes that made a return to simpler more bucolic times impossible.
I took this image in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.