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.
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.”
6 thoughts on “大 學 — The Great Learning”
A Malaysian pastor who thinks deeply in both English and Chinese. I’m impressed! Hope to meet you in person one day. Send me an email, and I’ll share with you how I’ve already met you, twice!
-jb (friend of wilfulsunflower)
jb, thanks for dropping by … I’m also dropping an email to you as invited 🙂 I’m still not sure how deeply I can think in both languages. Let’s say I have never been totally at home at either one or I’m also quite at home in both (depending when). What is important for me nowadays is to admit how “colonized” I’ve been by what is foreign to my roots (I do appreciate the best of the west of course), and not spent sufficient energy reengaging my past. Especially since I have been blessed with the jumpstart in the language. I’m starting here, later Bahasa Malaysia is next.
Brings back memories of when I heard Sivin preach at a seminary chapel service. He was preaching in English with an interepreter for the Mandarin congregation. Then there was a inaccurate interepretation of a difficult quotation … Pause … and a polite moment of assistance from Sivin who clarified to the interepreter the theological terminology he wanted to express … It was a hilarious moment to see the look of astonishment on the faces of many of the Mandarin speaking seminary students who were kind of half listening … and some eyes grew even wider when Sivin later had to help by translating the quotation into Mandarin.
LOL that was fun to watch even though for the life of me I do not know Mandarin.
Paul, thanks for bringing that fond memory back. I still need to brush up my Mandarin vocab. It’s getting rusty!
sivin, I am curious.What brings on this back to your roots thingy 🙂
Alex, I’ve always was curious especially since I took one semester on Chinese culture and religion in seminary. But the impetus is even great after being frustrated when I feel we in Asia seem to be locked in inherited foreign patterns of thinking and behavior uncritically.
A strong existential push came on Monday when I sat down and read a review by one western scholar on another western scholar’s work and was thoroughly appalled by the arrogance the former displayed in the review. While I tried to be sensitive to the academic context he came from, but something in me cried out this is plain wrong and out of character for me. And there’s nothing to justify what I saw there. My question is what does it mean for one to have “great learning”? So, I thought perhaps it’s good to return back to my roots.