大 學 — The Great Learning

Slowing down and glancing through the opening pages of The Great Learning opens up new horizons. There’s a little bit of a time warp experience too … where suddenly I’m reinterpreting my primary school learning in a new light. This is refreshing. A lot resonates with what I intuitively feel about learning, study, knowledge, various relations, and personal excellence. I read James Legge introductory remarks with much interest.

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子 程 子 曰 : 『 大 學 孔 氏 之 遺 書 。 而 初 學 入 德 之 門 也 。 於 今 可 見 古 人 為 學 次 第 者 , 獨 賴 此 篇 之 存 , 而 論 孟 次 之 。 學 者 必 由 是 而 學 焉 , 則 庶 乎 其 不 差 矣 。 』

子程子曰:『大學孔氏之遺書。而初學入德之門也。於今可見古人為學次第者,獨賴此篇之存,而論孟次之。學者必由是而學焉,則庶乎其不差矣。』

My master, the philosopher Ch’ang, says: “The Great Learning is a Book transmitted by the Confucian School, and forms the gate by which the first learners enter into virtue. That we can now perceive the order in which the ancients pursued their learning is solely owing to the preservation of this work, the Analects and Mencius coming after it. Learners must commence their course with this, and then it may be hoped they will be kept from error.”

“The Great Learning is a short text generally attributed to Confucius, for the first chapter, and his disciple Zengzi for the ten following commentaries. It is the first of the Four books which were selected by Zhu Xi in the Song Dynasty as a foundational introduction to Confucianism. It was originally one chapter in Li Ji (the Classic of Rites). A part of Legge’s introduction to his translation of the book is quoted below.

This Treatise has undoubtedly great merits, but they are not to be sought in the severity of its logical processes, or the large-minded prosecution of any course of thought. We shall find them in the announcement of certain seminal principles, which, if recognised in government and the regulation of conduct, would conduce greatly to the happiness and virtue of mankind. I will conclude these observations by specifying four such principles.

First. The writer conceives nobly of the object of government, that it is to make its subjects happy and good. This may not be a sufficient account of that object, but it is much to have it so clearly laid down to ‘all kings and governors,’ that they are to love the people, ruling not for their own gratification but for the good of those over whom they are exalted by Heaven. Very important also is the statement that rulers have no divine right but what springs from the discharge of their duty. ‘The decree does not always rest on them. Goodness obtains it, and the want of goodness loses it.’

Second. The insisting on personal excellence in all who have authority in the family, the state, and the kingdom, is a great moral and social principle. The influence of such personal excellence may be overstated, but by the requirement of its cultivation the writer deserved well of his country.

Third. Still more important than the requirement of such excellence, is the principle that it must be rooted in the state of the heart, and be the natural outgrowth of internal sincerity. ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’ This is the teaching alike of Solomon and the author of the Great Learning.

Fourth. I mention last the striking exhibition which we have of the golden rule, though only in its negative form:– ‘What a man dislikes in his superiors, let him not display in the treatment of his inferiors; what he dislikes in inferiors, let him not display in his service of his superiors; what he dislikes in those who are before him, let him not therewith precede those who are behind him; what he dislikes in those who are behind him, let him not therewith follow those who are before him; what he dislikes to receive on the right, let him not bestow on the left; what he dislikes to receive on the left, let him not bestow on the right. This is what is called the principle with which, as with a measuring square, to regulate one’s conduct.’ The Work which contains those principles cannot be thought meanly of. They are ‘commonplace,’ as the writer in the Chinese Repository calls them, but they are at the same time eternal verities.”

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