Leadership Lessons from Confucius: the will of heaven

Confucius said: “There are three things that exemplary people stand in awe of. They are in awe of the will of heaven. They are in awe of the greats. They are in awe of the words of the sages. Since petty people are ignorant of the will of heaven, they do not stand in awe of it. They have no respect for the greats and treat the words of the sages with disdain.”
孔子曰:「君子有三畏:畏天命,畏大人,畏聖人之言。小人不知天命而不畏也,狎大人,侮聖人之言。」

Never forget that you are part of a greater whole. No matter how strongly you fight to seize control of every aspect of your life, you are still subject to the vagaries of fate and the actions of people you share the earth with.

That does not mean you should simply lie down and accept whatever is coming to you. Rather, you should learn how to lead a meaningful life from the examples of the greats from the past and show the utmost respect for the ineffable power of the natural world.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 8 of Book 16 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 16 here.

(1) In 2.4, Confucius says that he did not understand the will of heaven (天命/tiānmìng) until he was fifty. His point in 16.8 is that if you do not respect the will of heaven and the greats of the past, you are more likely to act irresponsibly like a petty person because you have no constraints on your behavior.

(2) The translation of 大人/dàrén, literally big people, is tricky. Confucius is probably referring to people from the past who displayed great moral worth.

I took this image at Alishan in central Taiwan. The views of the surrounding mountains are spectacular.

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

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Richard Brown

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.

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