Whenever Zilu learned something new but hadn’t had the chance to put it into practice, he was afraid that he might learn something else before he did so.
How to stay focused when the next shiny pearl of wisdom is just a click of a mouse or swipe of a finger away? How to truly master a new topic or skill when you can easily delude yourself into believing that you already understand it after watching a few videos on YouTube or skimming a few articles furnished with attractive graphs and alarmist statistics based on dubious models?
Forget fake news. It’s fake knowledge that’s the real problem. The kind of knowledge that is gleaned by superficial reading rather than deep study and reflection. The kind that is served up by self-proclaimed experts in pretty packages to promote an agenda rather than stimulate reasoned debate and thinking. All stamped with the brand of some prestigious education institution or publishing house that, if you have enough cash or the right family and social connections, might somehow find a way of admitting your talented child into the rowing or summer internship program.
Even though he wasn’t always able to control his impetuousness, Confucius’s loyal follower Zilu was at least aware of the problem and tried hard to rein it in. Are we able to say the same about ourselves in a world that fills our heads with so much so-called knowledge that we don’t even have time to determine whether it’s fake before our eyes and brains are drawn to the next big thing?
This article features a translation of Chapter 14 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.
(1) Although Confucius greatly admired Zilu for his courage and blunt honesty, he often chided his follower for his rashness and impetuousness. Zilu ended up paying with his life for this weakness, when he attempted to rescue his employer Kong Kui (孔悝), one of the most powerful figures in the state of Wei, during a coup d’état after ignoring advice from others not to intervene.
I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.